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

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

Obituary: Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins, American screen and stage actor, who will always be identified with Norman Bates, motel owner extraordinary and killer in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho, died of an Aids related illness on September 12 aged 60. He was born on April 4, 1932, in New York City.

Anthony Perkins never shook off the mantle of Norman Bates, the homicidal schizophrenic in Psycho (1960). He was cast in the film partly because he needed to complete his studio contract and could be signed for a reasonable fee: Hitchcock planned the entire project as an exercise in low-cost film-making. But Hitchcock also knew that Perkins's nervous persona ideally matched the Bates character as developed by Joseph Stefano from Robert Bloch's novel a diffident young man, interested in birds and taxidermy, who lived with his mother's skeleton in a Gothic mansion looming behind a rundown motel.

Any guests the Bates Motel might attract tended to be stabbed to death with a knife by Norman dressed in his mother's clothes. In the film's most celebrated scene, which has become one of world cinema's best known sequences, Janet Leigh met her sudden end while showering in cabin number one. Those stopping over in isolated American motels have been in the habit of looking behind the shower curtain ever since.

When Hitchcock came to shoot the scene, Perkins was in New York preparing for a Broadway opening, so Bates's shadow outside the shower curtain was suggested by a stand-in. In all other respects that shadow clung to Perkins for the rest of his life.

Distaste for the psychotic roles he was constantly being offered drove him to Europe for much of the 1960s, though by the early 1980s he had reached a rapprochement with Norman Bates, reprising the role in Psycho II (1983), a lively account of Bates's adventures on release from a mental hospital.

Three years later Perkins made his cinema directing debut in Psycho III, gearing the film less towards Hitchcock aficionados than the booming teenage market for "slasher" films. "I imagined to myself that Norman Bates was directing the movie thereby simplifying my task."

From birth Perkins had been earmarked for stardom: his father, the stage actor Osgood Perkins, deliberately gave him a seven-letter first name so that it would balance his last name on a theatre marquee. Osgood was not able to give him a great deal more. He died when Anthony was five and the boy was brought up by his mother, who was a dominating influence in his life. Anthony Perkins admitted this in direct fashion, describing her as a strong woman and saying that "we were more like lovers than mother and son."

Possibly as an escape route Perkins followed his father and took up acting. In 1947, aged 15, he was already touring in summer stock productions. Five years later, while a student at Columbia University, he won a small Hollywood part in The Actress after hitch-hiking to Los Angeles during one vacation. Broadway followed in 1954 when Elia Kazan invited him to replace John Kerr as the sensitive teenage hero of Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy. "The kid's all right," Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn was supposed to have said on catching his performance, "but he's seen too many Jimmy Stewart movies."

Goldwyn was only half right. Perkins soon carved out his distinctive terrain: his thin, sensitive features, quivering with uncertainties, gave him a little-boy-lost quality, which appealed to a large female fan club plus a number of males as well. Elia Kazan might have turned him down for being insufficiently macho for the James Dean part in East of Eden, but on his return to Hollywood he won a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Gary Cooper's son, a troubled Quaker in William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion (1956). He played a jittery sheriff in The Tin Star (1957) and the troubled baseball player Jim Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957). He stamped such characters with an intense, quivering passion perfectly suited to his wiry physique; one film critic wrote, accurately, that he resembled "a shy, highly-strung greyhound". But it was Hitchcock's Psycho that established him among Hollywood's most accomplished and off-beat young leading men.

There was more to Perkins's talent, however, than the ability to portray neurotics. In the year of Psycho he took the leading role on Broadway in Frank Loesser's Greenwillow, a musical idyll of America's rural past; in the 1970s he frequently lent his voice to Ben Bagley's series of recordings spotlighting neglected Broadway songs. He also collaborated with the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim on the script for a chic film thriller, The Last of Sheila (1973).

Before then Anthony Perkins had spent some years living in Paris, trying his luck, none too successfully, in the European cinema. Almost inevitably he found himself playing the innocent opposite a major female star: Ingrid Bergman in Aimez-vous Brahms? and Melina Mercouri in Phaedra. Among the more interesting of these generally misguided European ventures was The Trial, directed by Orson Welles, in which he played Joseph K. The two clashed over motivation Welles thought Kafka's hero guilty of the nameless crime, Perkins considered him innocent but the actor still made a strong impression. Perkins said of himself that he was good at "the boxed-in, the narrow, the limited".

Yet his career overall remained stuck in a rut, dogged by the audience's reluctance to forget Norman Bates. His own youthful appearance did not help. ("There's nothing I can do about it," he complained in 1966. "Make-up runs off my face like spaghetti"). Back in America, he maintained his theatre connections, directing numerous shows, appearing in Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl (1966) and, following in distinguished footsteps, acting the psychiatrist in Peter Shaffer's Equus (1975). He also created bizarre character parts in scattered films until the Psycho sequels brought him back in the limelight in the 1980s. Perkins received unwanted publicity in 1984 and 1989 when he was fined for importing small amounts of cannabis into Britain; then, in 1990, it was disclosed that he had contracted the AIDS virus.

After long years as a reclusive bachelor, Perkins married the fashion photographer Berinthia "Berry" Berenson, sister of the actress Marisa, in 1973. There was a fifteen year age gap between them but the marriage appeared highly successful. They had two sons.