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The Guardian (14/Sep/1992) - Obituary: Anthony Perkins

(c) The Guardian (14/Sep/1992)

The supreme psychotic -- Obituary: Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins will be remembered as Norman Bates, the motel-keeper in Psycho who wore his mother's dress and butchered Janet Leigh in the shower. Changing into male clothes, he tidied up the mess like a dutiful son and disposed of the corpse which, for an alarming moment, refused to sink into the swamp.

Within five minutes, Perkins, who has died at the age of 60, had turned from a homicidal maniac into a sympathetic hero and the rollercoaster of our emotional response owed as much to his performance as to Alfred Hitchcock's direction.

Perkins said his role in Psycho was "one of the greatest gambles I've taken". His gamble paid off in a strange way: while the film was a huge success, Norman Bates was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Bates was a character part, one of the finest ever written, and the character of Norman seemed to consume Perkins the actor. Casting him was a kind of shorthand for a nutcase.

I met him in 1984 when he gave one of the best and weirdest Guardian Lectures at the National Film Theatre. He was on the last leg of a world tour to promote Psycho II. He was jittery and confident, withdrawn and effusive all at the same time, claiming not to know whether he was in London or Tokyo. Charitably, we all put his bizarre temperament down to a serious case of jet-lag.

One recent reference book on the cinema claims Perkins was ordained as a minister of the Universal Life Church of America, the implication being that he was a religious freak. And it is true that Perkins played more than his fair share of demented clerics, the most extreme being Reverend Shayne in Ken Russell's Crimes Of Passion (1984) in which he pursues a prostitute with a portable pulpit and a bagful of sex aids including a razor-sharp dildo. Russell found Perkins the most dedicated actor he had met - he slept rough in his costume and personally decorated the little pulpit with saints, angels and cut-outs from girlie mags.

The bizarre truth of how and why Perkins became ordained is revealed in Russell's autobiography. Russell was about to marry and Perkins sent $10 to the Universal Life Church Inc and received a certificate proclaiming his ordination as a bona fide minister. "So, to words eloquently intoned by Tony Perkins, in shining white, we plighted our troth," recalled Russell.

Perkins was the son of character actor Osgood Perkins who died when Anthony was only five. He started in summer stock and made his screen debut as Jean Simmons's callow boyfriend in The Actress (1953). He was next a troubled quaker in Friendly Persuasion (1956), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and then, in Fear Strikes Out (1957), a father-fixated baseball player who suffers a breakdown. Reviewing this film, François Truffaut observed, "Perkins combines the simplicity of the young Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper with the physical modernity of Brando and James Dean without ever resorting to trickiness or exhibitionism."

Perkins was a contemporary of Dean - he lost out to him in the auditions for East Of Eden - and he embodied similar frustrations. But whereas Dean's alienation and fatalism exploded on screen, Perkins simmered internally. Dean was someone whom audiences could identify with, even want to be, but Perkins, the smothered mummy's boy-next-door, was never anyone's role-model. His neurotics were gawky and clean-cut, qualities which Hitchcock exploited in Psycho.

Hitchcock wanted to make the film as cheaply as possible and, since Perkins owed Paramount one movie, the actor came cheap. If the concept was entirely Hitchcock's the detail was certainly Perkins's, whose delivery of dialogue (one remembers especially the cold-supper scene before the murder when he falters over key words like "falsehoody") is one of the film's greatest assets. Though it won him no prizes, it remains one of the most brilliant screen performances ever.

Instead of being embraced by Hollywood, Perkins left for Europe where he acted in a depressing rag-bag of pictures in which he was incongruously cast beside such seductive beauties as Melina Mercouri, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Ingrid Bergman. The best film of this period was Orson Welles's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial (1963). Welles's choice of Perkins as Josef Killian was much criticised since admirers of the novel imagined the paranoid K to be a meak little man, like Woody Allen. Welles saw him as an executive on the way up and cast Perkins for "his aggressiveness".

Claude Chabrol cast him in two flops - The Champagne Murders (1967) and Ten Days Wonder (1971) - purely because of his association with Hitchock. By this time, Perkins had moved back to Hollywood where he was Major-Major in Catch-22 (1970), a bogus priest in The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1973) and one of the suspects in Murder On The Orient Express (1974). At the same time he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim a campy cult thriller called The Last Of Sheila (1973).

Perkins was always playing madmen of one kind or another and tended to favour off-beat projects such as Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name (1978), William Richert's Winter Kills (1979) and Russell's Crimes Of Passion which enabled him to be creepy and funny at the same time. The two sequels to Psycho, the second of which Perkins himself directed in 1986, were affectionate pastiches.

The critic David Thomson wrote: "Perkins's career has not matched up to Psycho; perhaps it could not, for some films leave no room for development." In fact, Psycho ensured that Perkins would never become a major star. It sometimes seemed as if Perkins and Norman Bates were Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde - a role that Perkins was doomed to play, and did in a 1989 turkey called Age Of Sanity. Privately, he was married to Berry Berenson, the sister of Marissa, had two sons and a seemingly happy family life. Publicly, however, he was "not your standard guy" as Perkins said of Norman Bates. He was, though, a major character actor and one of the most distinctive screen personalities of post-war cinema.

Anthony Perkins, born April 4, 1932; died September 12, 1992.