Luke Perry was well into his 20s when he was cast as Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210, turning into America’s premier teen heartthrob even though he was not actually a teen. That didn’t matter, because those of us who watched the original 90210 every week with our high-school BFFs or the buddies in our dorm simply compartmentalized the fact that Perry seemed way too cool and mature to actually be a student at West Beverly. We stopped thinking about his age because it was easier, because Perry made us buy into the character, and because Dylan McKay, frankly, transcended space and time.
Dylan McKay was simultaneously forever young and divorced from a mundane concept like age. He was angsty and sexy in a decade when being angsty and sexy were the key component of the male ideal. He was an obvious descendant of James Dean, with a tower of moussed-up hair that defied the laws of gravity and a forehead that conveyed an entire set of feelings separate from what was happening on the rest of his beautiful face. He was the Fonzie of the ’90s, except he was too authentic to have a catchphrase. He was a pre–Jordan Catalano Jordan Catalano, except much smarter and even more tortured. Dylan wasn’t just hot and dangerous, he also was intelligent and sensitive and spoke to his girlfriend Brenda Walsh with a warmth that could take all of the chill out of your ice-cold Snapple.
Luke Perry obviously wasn’t Dylan McKay. But he became so intertwined with the character that the two became synonymous, which is why it’s so hard to process the news that Perry died Monday at age 52 after having a massive stroke from which he did not recover. This doesn’t make any sense. Dylan McKay can’t die. In our minds and hearts, he’s still at West Beverly, still seducing Brenda on prom night when she wore the same black-and-white dress as Kelly, still (later) struggling to choose between Brenda and Kelly, still contending with his demons and his drinking and his shifty dad, still saying cheesy things like “I know that cloud” to comfort his best friend Brandon while making those cheesy things sound meaningful and true. (Note: Dylan really did say “I know that cloud” to Brandon once. I still say it, often, when I want someone to know that I know what they’re going through in a truly earnest-’90s sort of way.)
Obviously, Perry played many other roles in his career. He was Pike, the love interest for the first Buffy, played by Kristy Swanson, in the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was a bull rider in the movie 8 Seconds, and a reverend on HBO’s Oz, and even, in an episode of The Simpsons, he played “Luke Perry,” handsome actor and long-lost brother of Krusty the Clown. (He also makes an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring two other heartthrobs that first proved they were swoon-worthy in the 1990s, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.)
Most notably in recent years, though, Perry starred on Riverdale as Fred Andrews, father of Archie, introducing himself to a whole new generation of tween and teen viewers. More than two decades after 90210’s debut, Perry had a major role in another TV youth phenom, but this time as a dad, which served as a reminder that there is a circle of life. Eventually, even Dylan McKay gets old.
Riverdale reminded us of that, but it also didn’t. Because as soon as the news about Perry’s death started to spread on social media, the first thing I thought, and you thought, and every Gen-Xer or older millennial thought was: Oh God, we lost Dylan.
A Hollywood Reporter obit noted that Perry once said this of his career-defining role on 90210: “I’m going to be linked with him until I die, but that’s actually just fine. I created Dylan McKay. He’s mine.”
Dylan was Perry’s. But he was also ours. To everyone whose heart is breaking today after hearing that Perry has passed away, all I can say is: I know that cloud.