Retro Actor Spotlight
Giving Classical Hollywood Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight
Now Featuring: Anthony Perkins
Like most people, I was first introduced to Tony Perkins playing undoubtedly his most famous role, that of Norman Bates. Since I spent a large part of my childhood in the 1980s, I was more familiar with the older, more stern-looking Tony rather than the baby-faced boyish one from his earlier years. There is no doubt that he frightened me in Psycho II because he was so mysterious and unpredictable yet there was a small part of me that found him oddly appealing. As I grew older and my cinematic tastes began to evolve, I started discovering some of Tony’s early work from the 1950s as well as random films from the 1960s. Interestingly enough, I found that the initial impression I had had of him as a young girl was well-preserved. (Perhaps even slightly better than Mrs. Bates herself!) Tony was a very handsome young man with a great deal of talent. When I see his performances, most of the time I find myself rooting for his character although there are other moments when I am uneasy and not convinced because I feel that there is more than meets the eye. All in all, I think my observations quite accurately sum up the real Tony Perkins. He was an amazing, intelligent person who had the right look but who harboured much inner pain leading him to have great difficulty in figuring out who he was and actually being that person. For that, I find him to be an incredibly humane person.
Anthony “Tony” Perkins was born on 4 April 1932 in New York City to Osgood Perkins, a stage actor, and Janet (Jane) Rane, an actress who later gave up her career to manage her husband. Though brought up in a home with financial means and with seemingly stable parentage, Tony’s parents were both emotionally distant from him although he managed to grow close to his mother due to his father’s frequent and lengthy absences. When Tony was 5-years-old, his father passed away unexpectedly and seven years later in 1944, he was sent to boarding school away from his mother. Both events marked him for the rest of his life, contributing to him becoming introverted and hardening his personality. Tony did find comfort in acting, an interest that grew gradually over time. At the age of 15, he starred in his first stage production while doing summer theatre in Vermont and would continue doing theatre work all the way into his university years at Rollins College. In 1952, during a summer break from Rollins, he headed to Hollywood to work as a messenger boy at MGM after a friend of his secured him the job. While at MGM, he managed to get a screen test and eventually won his first film role, that of Fred Whitmarsh in the 1953 feature The Actress opposite Jean Simmons. Despite getting good notices for his role, his film career did not take off and he returned to college, transferring to Columbia University where he would be in closer proximity to Broadway. His big break came when he won the lead role in the stage production of Tea and Sympathy, reigniting his brief Hollywood career by sending him once against Westbound, this time permanently. Tony’s second picture was 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, directed by William Wyler and also starring Gary Cooper. Incredibly, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in only his second film role. After that, he worked steadily throughout the 1950s appearing alongside some of Hollywood’s most iconic names. The most important encounter of his career would come in 1959 when director Alfred Hitchcock decided to cast him in his psychological horror film Psycho.
Becoming & Being Norman Bates
In his roles before being cast in Psycho, Tony was normally cast as a romantic leading man. Hitchcock’s decision to give him the role of Norman was deliberately meant to shock audiences who would not be expecting the quintessential “boy-next-door” to be a ruthless killer. (The director had the same instinct when casting Janet Leigh in the role of Marion.) In fact, Hitchcock’s idea was rather revolutionary, particularly in regard to the Classic Universal Monster series in that a cold-blooded killer did not have to look like a mutant; it could look like the most unsuspecting ordinary person.
Tony, with his All-American qualities and unique quirks was perfect as Norman. Perhaps a little too perfect. “…He became in many ways so identified with the character of Norman Bates that people had trouble seeing him any other way.”1 Strangers on the street would systematically call him “Norman” even in the years leading up to his death. In reality, the role of Norman was only slightly customised to fit Tony. In the original novel Psycho written by Robert Bloch, the character of Norman is middle-aged and overweight though the aspects of his personality largely remain the same. Hitchcock was strikingly permissive with Tony, allowing him to improvise and even incorporate some of his own ideas in the scenes.
It just so happens that Tony’s own emotional alienation and personal relationship with his mother seems to be an instance of life imitating art and vice versa. As he told good friend and director Peter Bogdanovich: “I became abnormally close to my mother … and whenever my father came home I was jealous. It was the Oedipal thing in a pronounced form. I loved him, but I also wanted him to be dead so I could have her all to myself” An uncannily similar sentiment is echoed in the scripted emotions of Norman Bates (“a boy’s best friend is his mother”)… 2
Whatever the reasoning behind Tony’s performance, the result of his work is hypnotic and will forever be etched in cinematic history.
1 Who The Hell’s In It by Peter Bogdanovich, page 396
2 Anthony Perkins: Split Image by Charles Winecoff, page 11
Here’s looking at you, Tony
- Married Berry Berenson in 1973 and had two sons, Oz and Elvis. Oz is an actor/director and Elvis is a musician.
- Had relationships with men until 1972 when he started also seeing women. His most notable homosexual relationship was with Tab Hunter, which is largely documented in Tab’s autobiography.
- Spoke near fluent French. His Francophilia was largely inherited from his father.
- Was known to be a walking encyclopaedia of movie trivia.
- Recorded 3 albums between 1957-1958 featuring songs in both English and French: From My Heart, The Prettiest Girl in School & On a Rainy Afternoon
- Completed a TV-pilot in 1990 that was not picked up for a dark-humoured sitcom called “The Ghost Writer” where he played a horror genre author living in an Addams family like home.