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- September 28, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 13
One Final Mystery
Surrounded by Family, Friends and a Wall of Silence, Tony Perkins Succumbs to AIDS
—Anthony Perkins, 1983
SADLY, THERE WAS A GOOD DEAL LEFT for death to steal when it claimed Tony Perkins at age 60 last week. The brave emblems of the life he had built on the ruins of his tormented childhood—Berry Berenson, his wife of 19 years, and their two sons, Osgood, 18, and Elvis, 16—were at his bedside when he succumbed to complications of AIDS. In Perkins's dying days, old friends summoned by Berry to the family's Hollywood Hills home shared favorite memories with Tony and said their sad farewells. Among them were director Mike Nichols and actors Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss and Roddy McDowall. In a sense their outpourings of love illuminated the tragedy of the death of the very actor who, in the 1960 horror classic Psycho, made Norman Bates the deadly cinematic symbol of modern sexual confusion.
Apparently no one outside Perkins's immediate family knew of his illness. "He figured if anyone knew," Berenson told The New York Times, "they'd never give him work again." Speaking for the family, she added, "We don't really know" how Perkins contracted the disease—though both Berry and the boys were tested and found to be HIV negative. Shortly after his death, Perkins's spokeswoman, Leslee Dart, issued the actor's parting statement: "I chose not to go public about [having AIDS] because, to misquote Casablanca, I'm not much good at being noble, but it doesn't lake much to see that the problems of one old actor don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The statement continued, "I have learned more about love, selflessness and human understanding from the 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."
The "adventure" referred to was Perkins's work over the last two years with Project Angel Food, an organization (founded by Marianne Williamson, Perkins's spiritual adviser) that feeds homebound people with AIDS. His wife joined him in ferrying baskets of food to the needy and was elected to the board of the organization just three days before her husband died. It was, of course, a bittersweet sort of recompense for her husband's death. According to Perkins's longtime friend, fashion photographer Paul Jasmin (a footnote in film demonology: He served as the voice of Norman Bates's mother in Psycho), Berry turned to him soon after Tony died and said, "Will it ever be the same without him?"
Jasmin was a melancholy witness to the final moments at Tony's bedside. "Those last few days we tried to go up and show him all that love he gave us," he recalls. "Berry was with him every moment. She slept in a little bed she set up by Tony's sickbed, and she'd go lay her head on his shoulders and just lie next to him. When he got his strength up, his friends came in and they shared experiences. The boys called their friends and told them that their father was dying of HIV, and they came to be with him also.
"I've read these stories about the disturbing psychological problems Tony had as a child," Jasmin adds pointedly, "but you never saw them in that family. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Year's, we'd all go to Tony and Berry's. There was such love and such warmth, always. The Perkins home was where you came for family love. They're probably the happiest family I've known out here."
Few in Hollywood ever expected such a family to exist, much less endure. "We're very different," Berry once explained. "And that's why our life together is so successful. He's precise and intense. I'm much calmer—things don't bother me. There's a balance that keeps us together."
It had to be an extraordinary balancing act, given that Perkins was trying so desperately to escape from the miseries of his childhood—not to mention the shadow of Norman Bates, the role that haunted him all his professional life. Born in New York City in 1932, the only son of actor Osgood Perkins and Janet Rane, young Tony saw little of his father, who was generally on tour or in Hollywood making movies (including, in 1932, the original Scarface). "I became abnormally close to my mother," Perkins told PEOPLE in 1983, "and when my father came home, I was jealous. It was the oedipal thing in pronounced form. I loved him, but I also wanted him to be dead so I could have her all to myself."
That darkest of Freudian wishes came true; Osgood Perkins died without warning of a heart attack when Tony was 5. "I was horrified," Perkins remembered. "I assumed that my wanting him to be dead had actually killed him." Guilt settled like a shroud around the youngster. "I prayed and prayed for my father to come back. I remember long nights of crying in bed. For years I nursed the hope that he wasn't really dead. Because I'd see him on film, it was as if he were still alive. He became a mythic being to me, to be dreaded and appeased."
As if that weren't burden enough, Tony's mother turned a suffocating love upon her son that veered dangerously toward sexuality—"She was constantly touching and caressing me," he said—causing the boy simultaneously to yearn for and dread his mother's touch.
Lonely and repressed, Perkins saw his father's profession as a way of escape and expiation. "All my life," he said, "I'd heard glory stories about my father. What a wonderful actor he was, how everybody loved him, how he went everywhere and did everything he wanted. I longed for that glory, that adoration, that freedom."
He seemed destined to achieve all those things. First onstage and then onscreen, his boyish intensity and neurasthenic tics served him well. At 16, he was touring with Kay Francis in W. Somerset Maugham's Theatre. Within 10 years he had starred on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy and Look Homeward, Angel and been nominated for an Academy Award for his affecting portrayal of Gary Cooper's son-gone-to-battle in the Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion. Then in 1960 came the role of motel-keeper Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, with Perkins terrifying the country as the deadly dual personality who stuffs birds and his mother—and hacks Janet Leigh to death in that memorable shower.
Perkins made a score of films thereafter (including Murder on the Orient Express, Pretty Poison and The Last of Sheila, which he co-wrote with longtime pal Stephen Sondheim). But Psycho seemed to define his acting destiny, and Perkins made three sequels over the years. "He had such mixed feelings about Norman Bates," Berry said. "On the one hand he began thinking that others in the industry saw him as that character, strange and weird. And on the other hand it was a burden. It was very limiting to his career."
If his career was limited, his romantic life was even more so until he was well into his 30s. He nervously rejected overtures from such enticing leading ladies as Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot even as he tried—and claimed to have found "unsatisfying"—several homosexual experiences.
But in 1970 he saw a picture in Vogue of photographer Berry Berenson, granddaughter of couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli and sister of actress and model Marisa Berenson. Soon thereafter he met her by accident at a party in Manhattan. By then, according to Perkins, he had discovered heterosexual romance (sources say with Victoria Principal on the set of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) and was primed for a serious relationship. He and Berenson became lovers, she became pregnant, and they married in 1973 on Cape Cod.
While undergoing extensive psychotherapy with Dr. Mildred Newman of New York City, Perkins labored assiduously to deal with his problems and settle down to the kind of family life that had so long eluded him. If he indulged in a secret sex life—and if that life indeed killed him—no one close to him seems willing to say anything about it. Perkins actually found out he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS two years ago—from the Enquirer. Berry believes that when Perkins was being treated in a hospital for a facial palsy, someone took the liberty of testing his blood for HIV and leaked the results to the tabloid. Perkins then had himself retested, and the bad news was confirmed. His wife, naturally, was devastated. "I immediately thought, 'What about me she told the Times. " 'What about my children?' I got tested. I got tested four times in the last two years. And I'm fine. And I don't understand any of this. I don't understand this disease at all."
Few in Hollywood believed the tabloid story—until Berry began summoning friends for a final visit. By all accounts, Perkins had worked hard at raising his sons (Osgood attends the University of Southern California and studies film, Elvis is a junior in a private high school) as well as on a number of film and theater projects and had devoted himself to being a good husband. In short, he seemed remarkably content. "What's wrong," he asked a few years back, "with having it all, right here, right now?" Nothing whatever—and for the better part of his extraordinary life, Osgood and Janet Perkins's boy did seem to have it all. Even at the end, doomed by AIDS but surrounded by friends and family, he had more than most. Said Janet Leigh: "I've not only lost a great friend, but Berry and the children have lost so much. It's just awful."
DAVID HUTCHINGS in New York City and DORIS BACON in Los Angeles
- David Hutchings,
- Doris Bacon.
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