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Boston Globe (29/Jun/1986) - He's Norman again and always will be



He's Norman again and always will be

Twenty-six years ago, Alfred Hitchcock saw Anthony Perkins play Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall in "Fear Strikes Out" and signed the 28-year-old actor to portray Norman Bates, a boy with a motel just off life's main highway, in "Psycho." Norman, the thin, gawky bird-stuffer, went on to become one of American filmdom's major mythological characters.

"Everyone identifies with Norman because everyone's had mother problems," said Perkins one day recently, as he relaxed on a sofa at the Four Seasons Hotel the day after a Boston screening of "Psycho III." "Norman had such a bum time with his mother."

And Perkins has had an equally difficult problem with Norman. Perkins has starred in William Wyler's "Friendly Persuasion," Orson Welles' "The Trial," Josh Logan's "Tall Story," John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" and Jules Dassin's "Phaedra" as well as the film versions of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" and Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." Yet, when he was signing autographs the previous evening in the crowded lobby of the USA Cheri, he was greeted by shouts of "Norman."

"If I hadn't done anything else, then the identification with Norman might be tough," he said, his voice quivering slightly. "But I was on Broadway for a year with Mia Farrow in "Romantic Comedy" and I've done a lot of other things."

Indeed he has. Perkins won the 1957-58 Best Actor Tony Award for his portrayal of Eugene Gant in the dramatic version of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel" and was nominated for a 1956 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Josh Birdwell, the young man forced to choose between defending his home and pacifism in "Friendly Persuasion." He played an Australian naval officer in "On the Beach"; a young man who falls in love with Tuesday Weld in "Pretty Poison"; a right-wing disc jockey in "WUSA"; an obsessive preacher in "Crimes of Passion"; and a variety of other roles. But Norman stuck.

"I just came back to Norman because he's a very fascinating character," said Perkins, who makes his directorial debut in "Psycho III," "and no one understands him better than I do."

Perkins, still sporting boyish good looks at 54, pulled at the top of one of his orange socks.

"He didn't do it, you know," he said, referring to the multiple murders that have occurred during the three "Psycho" movies. It's as if he's actually charged with defending a client.

"He is a true split personality," he said. "Mother did it. Unquestionably."

To emphasize the difference between Norman Bates and his mother, Perkins has always insisted that another person play the mother character.

"Mother is always someone else," he said. "She's played by someone else, and it all started with Hitchcock. On the day we were scheduled to shoot the shower scene, I had to go to New York. Hitch hired someone else to be there with the knife. That was the inadvertent beginning of the two, separate characters. The little old woman who killed Martin Balsam on the stairs was a tiny, little woman, who looked very much like Mammy Yokum. It's very important to keep them separate."

It's also important to keep the "Psycho" movies separate. The originial is, by anyone's standard, a masterpiece. Alfred Hitchcock's greatest black comedy overflows with subtle innuendo and anticipatory terror. Hitchcock builds each scene on its predecessor with the precision of a master architect.

"Hitchcock was the master," said Perkins. "There's no doubt about that. But the times have changed. Today's audience is looking for something different."

That's exactly what Anthony Perkins, the director, gives them. In one particular sequence, a victim is decapitated.

"I'm not interested in special effects," said Perkins, carefully backing into the implied charge that "Psycho III" replaces tension and suspense with graphic violence. "You need to follow the tragedy of Norman Bates. He's a tragic figure who needs to live tragically. You can't cop out on the tragedy. If you don't follow the tragedy, you're copping out on the 'Psycho' myth. You can't be too homogenized. You risk turning the audience off, but you can't be too goody-goody about him. He's not a goody-goody guy."

Perkins is sensitive about possible charges that "Psycho III" is tooviolent.

"I have flung down the gauntlet, and those charges are fair game," he said. "But the thing is that we've been very clear about what kind of picture it is. If you don't want to see that, then you can go see something else. I'm more concerned with pictures that pretend to be comedies and pretend to be adventures and turn out to be bloodlettingly inappropriate to the genre. I've been dismayed by taking my family to films with unintegrated violence — scenes that are inappropriate."

In fact, the previous evening when Perkins was signing autographs, a middle-aged gentleman smilingly told the star about how happy he was to meet him. Perkins smiled back.

"I like 'Psycho' so much that I brought my daughter to meet you," he said, beaming, and pointing to a little girl who couldn't have been more than 6.

"She shouldn't be here," replied Perkins, sternly. "This isn't for kids."

The man laughed.

"I'm serious," said Perkins. "This picture was not made for her. It's for adults who appreciate the genre. Not kids."

Perkins says he is dead set against films that disguise their intentions.

"Why do parents bring their kids to a film that they know is going to beviolent?" he asked. "It's absurd to blame the film maker when the advertising lets everyone know what they are in for."

Perkins sighed.

"I've been in the business too long to worry too much," he said. "It's funny. When I started in the theater, I would go through soul-searching agony and nervousness before the curtain. There was a blousy character actress who told me that no one cares about how I feel. They paid their few bucks, and they want to be entertained. For years, I thought this business was about me, but it's not. It's about the audience."

Perkins finished his coffee as the bell to his suite rang. He was leaving for Washington for another screening and another round of interviews. As he picked up his garment bag and handed it to the bellman, he opened his eyes wide and with mock seriousness said: "We all go a little mad sometimes."