Anthony Perkins (April 4, 1932 – September 12, 1992) was an Academy Award-nominated, Golden Globe-winning American stage and screen actor, best known for his role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and its three sequels. In addition Perkins tried his hand at pop singer, director, screenwriter and songwriter.
He appeared in more than 40 films and earned a 1956 Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in Friendly Persuasion. He also received Tony Award nominations in 1958 and 1960.
Perkins was featured on the cover of the March 3, 1958 Newsweek magazine and heralded as the heir apparent to Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and James Stewart. The same year the Hollywood Mirror called him the fastest rising star in Hollywood.
While he was very successful as an actor his personal life was a struggle with sexual identity. He claimed to have been exclusively homosexual until his late thirties, when he underwent gay to straight therapy and then married in 1973 at the age of 40 to 25 year old Berry Berenson and had two children.
Tragedy struck in 1990 when he discovered he had AIDS. He died in 1992 of complications from AIDS. One day before the ninth anniversary of his death, his widow, Berry Berenson, died on American Airlines Flight 11, the flight that was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001 attacks by terrorists.
Perkins was born in New York City, the son of Janet Esselstyn and stage and film actor James Ripley Osgood Perkins. He attended The Brooks School, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Columbia University and Rollins College, having moved to Boston, Massachusetts after his father’s death in 1942. Although Perkins’ father passed away when he was only five, Perkins’ interest in the film industry can be credited to his father’s film career. “Tony worked in summer stock and college productions at Rollins college in Florida into his early twenties, in such shows as My Sister Eileen (he was one of the six future admirals), The Madwoman of Chaillot, Goodbye My Fancy, and The Importance Of Being Ernest. In 1953, Perkins forged his path to Hollywood after delivering a strong performance in a supporting role in his film debut, The Actress. He played alongside Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in the George Cukor film.
Although Perkins was primarily interested in film, he pursued a variety of avenues in the entertainment industry. Perkins’ debut film was in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1956 that he was signed to another film. In fact, it was the 1956 William Wyler film, Friendly Persuasion that earned him the Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year and an Academy Award nomination, effectively launching his acting career to the next level.
In Friendly Persuasion Perkins played a member of an Indiana Quaker family trying to cope with both its pacifist principles and the problems of defending the homestead during the American Civil War. Gary Cooper played his father. He followed that with another critically acclaimed film in 1957, Fear Strikes Out. Based on the autobiography by James A. Piersall, he played the former outfielder and shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.
Nearly becoming a teen idol after crooning “A Little Love Goes a Long, Long Way” in the Goodyear TV Playhouse production Joey, Perkins was signed to Epic Records and later RCA Victor shortly before earning his Oscar nomination. Between 1957 and 1958 he released three pop albums. His single Moon-Light Swim was a hit in the U.S., peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1957.
Psycho: The Cursed Blessing
Perkins acted in numerous acclaimed performances thereafter, but his legacy as an actor was cemented in the 1960 action-thriller, Psycho. He played the character of Norman Bates, a murderous man with a split personality suffering from Dissociative identity disorder. The legend of Norman Bates would again surface in Psycho II, ‘Psycho III (which he directed), and Psycho IV: The Beginning. Although Perkins received national acclaim for the film, many people viewed him as unstable and strange. In fact, after Psycho, Perkins found it nearly impossible to earn a role in another genre. There were no more romantic, comedic or heroic films for him with the exception of Goodbye Again in 1961, Phaedra in 1962 and The Ravishing Idiot in 1964.
Following the success of Psycho, Perkins had an illustrious career in Europe. He created a portrayal of Joseph K. in Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), a cinematic adaptation of the novel by Franz Kafka. Upon returning to America, he took the role of a disturbed young murderer in Pretty Poison (1968). He also played Chaplain Tappman in Catch-22 (1970). Perkins also co-wrote, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the screenplay for the (1973) film The Last of Sheila, for which the writers received a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
Among his Broadway credits are the Frank Loesser musical Greenwillow (1960) and Bernard Slade’s 1979 play Romantic Comedy opposite Mia Farrow.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s Perkins kept his homosexual tendencies a closely guarded secret, and the movie studios helped to deflect suspicion by arranging dates with pretty young actresses, thereby providing cover for actors they knew had no interest in women.
At the same time that he was engaging in homosexual relationships, however, Perkins was also in psychoanalysis, attempting to eradicate his homosexual desire.
In 1973 Perkins married Berry Berenson, a photographer and actress 16 years his junior, whom he met at a cast party. Berenson, the sister of actress Marisa Berenson, had fallen in love with Perkins as a pre-teen watching his early films. She actively pursued a relationship with him once they met as adults.
Although the marriage was greeted with considerable skepticism by many of Perkins’ friends it was seen by others as the happy culmination of the actor’s long and torturous quest to “cure” his homosexuality.
In 1990 a headline in the National Enquirer proclaimed, “Psycho Star Has AIDS Virus.” Stunned, he quickly had himself tested and discovered that he was indeed HIV-positive. (Earlier in 1990, Perkins had given a blood sample as part of a treatment for a palsy on the side of his face. The National Enquirer illegally obtained the sample and had it tested for the AIDS virus.)
On September 12, 1992, Perkins succumbed to severe complications of AIDS at the age of 60. Before his death, however, he made a public statement stating, “There are many who believe this disease is God’s vengeance. But I believe it was sent to teach people how to love and understand and have compassion for each other. I have learned more about love, selflessness and human understanding from people I have met in this great adventure in the world of AIDS, than I ever did in the cutthroat, competitive world in which I spent my life.”
Perkins’ was survived by his wife and his two sons, Osgood and Elvis.
Further tragedy struck their family when Berenson was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, and died in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Their sons Osgood “Oz” Perkins (b. 1974), also an actor, made his film debut as the young Norman Bates in the 1986 film Psycho III and has since appeared in several films; Elvis (b. 1976) is a musician.
In 1955, he won a Theatre World Award for his performance in the famous stage drama Tea & Sympathy.
In 1957 received a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar, for his touching portrayal of Quaker Josh Birdwell in Friendly Persuasion. Also in 1957 he won the Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer in the Male category.
In 1958 he was nominated for the Tony Award for Outstanding Dramatic Actor in Look Homeward, Angel. In 1960 he won a Tony for his performance in the musical Greenwillow.
Although Perkins was overlooked for the Oscar in Psycho the United Kingdom praised his efforts and presented him with their equivalent to the Oscar — a BAFTA (British Academy for the Film and Television Arts) award for Best Actor as Norman Bates in 1960.
In 1961 he won the award for Best Actor as Philip Van Der Besh in Goodbye Again. This film also won him several foreign awards too, including Italy’s David of Donatello Trophy, Belgium’s Grand Prix International Award, France’s Victoire de Cinema and Germany’s Gross Otto Award. All for best actor!
In 1974 he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Written Motion Picture for The Last of Sheila, which he co-wrote, with Stephen Sondheim.
In 1987 the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (USA) presented Tony with the Saturn Award for Best Actor, for the reprise of his most famous role in Psycho III, which he also directed.
At the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 1991 he won the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the Film and Television Entertainment Industries.
Perkins has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California.