Cover Story

Luke Before He Leaps

Luke Perry grows up -- After his star turn as a real man in ''8 Seconds,'' the ''90210'' hunk riffs on shedding his teen-idol shackles

There was a time not long ago when 10,000 shrieking fans mobbed Luke Perry at a shopping mall and he had to be rescued by police, hidden in a laundry hamper, and carted away. So one might understandably fear for the furniture at a faux-'50s diner near his home in suburban Los Angeles when the skinny 28-year-old actor who plays the cool, rich, romantic rebel Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210 shows up for breakfast on a recent weekday morning.

What happens is...nothing. Perry saunters in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a plaid jacket, and a baseball cap. He greets the waitresses, who appear to know him and who appear to exhibit signs of normal respiration. He smiles the sweet, friendly smile that cameras and those same shrieking fans love. He swings into a booth. No one stares, no one whispers, no one seems particularly impressed that the chief heartthrob of one of TV's biggest pop-cultural phenomena in recent years is eating scrambled eggs. And no one, he insists, could be any happier about the dimming spotlight than Luke Perry.

''The teenage days are gone!'' he says, not unlike a grown man with good skin who has been released from a lucrative but limiting career hawking pimple cream. ''Coming-of-age movies are gone for me. I mean, come on, the hairline just won't have it!''

Perry runs a hand through his short, mussed, but plentiful hair, momentarily freed from the styling gel that usually sculpts Dylan's pompadour into a retro peak. At the height of Beverly Hills, 90210's remarkable popularity two years ago, when the show became a gigantic hit for Fox and made pinup stars of its late-teens-to-late-20s ensemble cast, Perry spoke on camera and off with a smoky Dylanish delivery; he also frequently serviced probing journalists with pronouncements uttered while he lounged coolly bare-chested. He was charming — and as stylized as his hairdo. Now he speaks more freely and more directly, like a practical actor who must make plans: 90210 completes its fourth season later this spring; many industry observers believe that the series will fold when the actors' five-year contracts run out in 1995. And Perry, a onetime asphalt paver from Fredericktown, Ohio, and a former soap actor on Loving and Another World, must position himself for life after Dylan.

''The best-case scenario for me is to get back to ground zero as an actor,'' he says with none of Dylan's cool-guy drawl, ''where people aren't completely married to this concept of the television show, yet they haven't seen me do anything terribly horrendous on celluloid yet, either.'' Much, therefore, is riding on the response to his starring role in 8 Seconds, the real-life story of the late rodeo star Lane Frost, who died in 1989 at age 25 after being gored in the ring. (The movie opened Feb. 25 to mixed reviews and, up against Olympics coverage, took in a passable first-weekend gross of $3.4 million.)

Why a cowboy bio?
''The second it was brought to my attention, it was like Excalibur. It was the sword that was stuck in the stone. I couldn't believe they were just letting it sit there.''
And?
''Not to be vulgar, but I felt it in my nuts.''
Woooo. From the time he read the script two years ago, Perry hung on to the film project, straddling it as tenaciously as a rider aboard a bucking bull. He knew his negligible performance in 1992's failed camp movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not an auspicious demonstration of his versatility. When 8 Seconds, originally promised to Fox, was rejected by the studio, Perry started shopping the script elsewhere.

Luke's Lane is a sweet young man who flosses regularly, strives to impress his demanding rodeo-champ of a father, and rides out a sometimes rocky marriage to his sweetheart, Kellie Kyle, played by Northern Exposure's Cynthia Geary. On the set, Perry felt pressure from the studio as well as from the constant presence of Frost's parents and his competition buddy, Tuff Hedeman, to preserve (and sometimes to protect) Lane's image. In reality, Frost was no longer pretty by the time of his final competitions, with big black eyes and a mouth full of metal.

But — not to be vulgar — protecting his nuts was an important part of Perry's job too, since the actor insisted (over the objections of New Line and its insurance company) on doing his own riding for key scenes. (Stephen Baldwin, who plays Tuff, learned just enough about riding to offer this lesson to would-be cowboys: ''Keep your jewels clear.'') To qualify, Perry studied for months with bull-riding pros. ''I thought it was a crazy idea, and we shouldn't have our actor doing it,'' says director John Avildsen, who knew as little about bull riding before he made 8 Seconds as he did about boxing before he made Rocky. ''But Luke was very insistent. At the end there he got very badly hurt. He got kicked.''

''Aww, I got thrown on my shoulder. But it was the very last shot, so the timing couldn't have been better,'' says Perry, with effective cowboy demurral.

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