By Kristen Baldwin
March 04, 2019 at 03:36 PM EST

Luke Perry was used to requests like this. The year was 2016, and the 50-year-old actor was making the rounds at San Diego Comic-Con with the cast of his upcoming show Riverdale. After shooting his umpteenth on-camera interview of the day, Perry was making his way out of the studio when a woman in her 40s — the prime age bracket for peak Beverly Hills, 90210 fandom — approached him with a smartphone and a shaky-voiced request for a picture. “Absolutely,” he replied. “Let’s do this.” Without another word, Perry stepped behind his fan — that would be me, if you haven’t already guessed — and wrapped his arms around me, resting his bearded chin on my shoulder. Click.

Kristen Baldwin

Luke Perry, making this fan’s dream come true in 2016

It isn’t easy being a “former teen heartthrob,” but Perry didn’t run from his past — he embraced it. Though the 52-year-old actor — who died Monday after suffering a massive stroke on Feb. 27 — never reclaimed the level of fame he enjoyed while starring as 90210’s squinty heartthrob Dylan McKay, Perry was a man who clearly loved his life, and that love permeated everything he did on screen.

From the moment Perry first swaggered into Beverly Hills as resident bad boy Dylan — defending dorky Scott Scanlon from some bullies in computer class! — he epitomized everything we wanted in a 1990’s dreamboat: Retro-cool pompadour, a hoop earring (!), that sexy rasp, and a tough-guy swagger that belied the soft heart underneath. The character of Dylan was a pastiche — some James Dean here, a little Marlon Brando there — but in Perry’s hands he was a perfect teen soap anti-hero, a Byron-reading loner broody enough to make your parents nervous but kindhearted enough to take your virginity at the spring dance. Jason Priestley’s Brandon Walsh may have been 90210’s leading man, but Perry’s Dylan McKay was its raison d’etre: He was an aspirational dream boyfriend for millions of viewers just starting to explore their own sexuality.

FOX

Even when Perry’s rocketing stardom brought him opportunities outside of 90210, the actor remained both loyal to Aaron Spelling, the legendary producer who cast him as Dylan, and determined to keep doing the best job he could. “It would be easy to pack it in and let the show taper off,” Perry told EW in 1994. “But that’s not the commitment I made to Aaron Spelling.” Though the Hills had some creative ups and downs over its 10-year run, the final two seasons were bolstered by Perry’s presence. After a two-year absence, he returned as a “special guest star,” and in the series finale, we finally got the Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Dylan happily-ever-after we hoped for since they first revealed their betrayal to Brenda (Shannen Doherty) in 1993.

Perry’s post-90210 career was bumpy but always interesting: A corrupt TV evangelist on Oz; a cuckolded lottery winner on the short-lived but underrated NBC drama Windfall; a cult leader on Criminal Minds (!). It wasn’t until 2017, though, that TV truly experienced the Perryaissance with Riverdale. As Archie’s hard-working, morally upstanding dad Fred Andrews, Perry used everything that made him so sexy as Dylan — the expressive brows, the raspy murmur — and channeled it into creating the platonic ideal of a TV dad. Those of us who once got lost in Dylan’s dreamy brown eyes now found ourselves being moved to tears by Archie (KJ Apa) asking his pop to help him restore an old jalopy.

When news of Perry’s stroke first broke, the Twitterverse was flooded with good wishes and prayers from his fans — many women of a certain age, like myself, who fell in love with Perry back in the ‘90s. But there were also countless messages from younger viewers who only knew Perry as Riverdale’s warm, loving Fred Andrews. “I’m devastated because of the 90210 connection,” tweeted one fan. “My 15-year-old is devastated because of Riverdale.” As of this writing, “Luke Perry,” “Dylan,” and “Fred Andrews” are all trending on Twitter. What a testament to the actor’s longevity, and his truly ageless appeal. Rest in peace, Luke.

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