His was a slow death. Rumors of Anthony Perkins’ illness had spread through showbiz circles since the late ’80s, circulating faster as his gaunt frame wasted away. Two years after The National Enquirer graced newsstands with the headline PSYCHO STAR ANTHONY PERKINS HAS AIDS VIRUS, the actor died at his L.A. home on Sept. 12, 1992, at 60.
Though he had been married to photographer Berry Berenson for 19 years when he died, Perkins had had a number of homosexual encounters, according to his biographer Charles Winecoff. In Hollywood tradition, Perkins had kept his gay life secret.
Like his contemporary Rock Hudson (whose 1985 death marked Hollywood’s first major, acknowledged AIDS casualty), the only son of character actor Osgood Perkins originally gained fame as a ’50s pretty boy, first on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy, then in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance as a Quaker adolescent. But, legendarily, it was Alfred Hitchcock who deployed Perkins’ aura of moodiness and neurosis to best effect in 1960’s Psycho. (A shot-for-shot remake by director Gus Van Sant comes to theaters on Dec. 4.)
In the role of Norman Bates, a deranged hotel clerk whose best friend was his mother, Perkins simultaneously shot into the pantheon of movie monsters and doomed himself to play (mostly) abnormal characters ever after. That one of Perkins’ most appealing on-screen qualities — sexual ambiguity — signaled the homosexuality he necessarily hid to remain a star is an irony only trumped by the fact that his Psycho turn largely set the tone for Hollywood’s demonization of gays in future films. (The line from Hitchcock’s knife-wielding transvestite to The Silence of the Lambs’ cross-dressed-to-kill sicko runs fairly straight.)
Thirty-two years later, after starring in three Psycho sequels and directing one, after acting for Orson Welles and Mike Nichols and cowriting The Last of Sheila with Stephen Sondheim, Perkins first acknowledged his AIDS case — posthumously, in a statement dictated to his sons, Osgood and Elvis, and rendered with macho stoicism: ”I chose not to go public about this because, to misquote Casablanca, ‘I’m not too much at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one old actor don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy old world.”’