Best known for his role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Anthony Perkins was an Academy Award nominated actor, director, and father. Today would have been Perkin’s 86th birthday, and in celebration of his storied career we take look back on the life of Horror’s most iconic psycho.
Anthony Perkins was born on April 4, 1932, in New York City. He had a strained relationship with his parents, Janet Rane and Osgood Perkins. Osgood was frequently away while Perkins was a child, touring in stage productions and starring in films. Young Anthony grew to resent his father so much that he often wished for his death—so when his father did die, the 5 year-old Perkins suffered under the weight of a crushing guilt.
“I assumed that my wanting (my father) to be dead had actually killed him,” Perkins said. “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. He became a mythic being to me, to be dreaded and appeased.” His mother, on the other hand, paid entirely too much attention to Perkins. She not only touched him in seemingly erotic ways, but also renewed his sense of guilt over the death of his father. This dysfunctional mother-son relationship would lead to further problems with women later in Perkins’s life.
Early Acting Career
Despite enduring such personal hardship at a young age, Perkins flourished as a child. He got an early start in singing and acting, joining the Actor’s Equity labour union at age fifteen. Later, he went on to study theatre at Rollins College and Columbia University.
Perkins’s acting career took off in 1953, when he made his feature film debut in The Actress, alongside Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons. From there, he nabbed roles on stage and television. In 1954, he made his Broadway debut (and garnered critical acclaim) in Tea and Sympathy. Perkins went on to do a great deal more work in plays and film, earning an Oscar nomination for his work in Friendly Persuasion (1956). Other notable films for Perkins include Tin Star, Lonely Man, and Fear Strikes Out in 1957. Coincidentally, in Fear Strikes Out, his character suffers a devastating emotional breakdown—perhaps laying the groundwork for Hitchcock’s decision to cast him as Norman Bates in Psycho.
A Match Made in Hollywood
Of course, you can’t write an article about Perkins without mentioning his iconic performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho. In 1960, Perkins had attained some degree of success, but he’d yet to land the role that would make him a household name. He found that role in Norman Bates, the seemingly mild-mannered innkeeper with a strong attachment to his mother. Perkins’ agent told him, “Hitchcock wants you in his new picture,” And according to Perkins, “In those days, that’s all Hitchcock had to say.”
Co-starring with Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, this role skyrocketed Perkins to the height of his fame. It also led to typecasting that prevailed throughout the rest of his career.
On the set of Psycho, director Alfred Hitchcock always referred to Perkins as “Master Bates.” He was Hitchcock’s first and only choice for Norman Bates, and credited a great deal of the film’s success to Perkins’s portrayal of the handsome psychopath. Screenwriter Joseph Stephano agreed that Perkins was perfect for the role:
“In the book, Norman Bates is actually a middle-aged man, a reprobate, drinks, overweight, wears big, thick glasses, peeps through holes. I thought he was incredibly unsympathetic. I didn’t like him. So when Marion gets killed, I am then expected to switch my empathy toward this man. I couldn’t do it with the character as he was written. I perceived a young man, vulnerable, good looking, kind of sad, makes you feel sorry for him. Hitchcock said, ‘What would you think of Tony Perkins?’ Of course, that was practically what I had described.”
From 1983 to 1990, Perkins also starred in three Psycho sequels, one of which—1986’s Psycho III—he even directed. However, none of the follow-up films were able to match the success of their predecessor. Psycho’s iconic status led to spin-offs like the 2012 film Hitchcock, featuring James D’Arcy as a young Anthony Perkins, and 2013’s television prequel Bates Motel.
After Psycho, Perkins found it difficult to escape typecasting in his American film work. After receiving Cannes recognition for his role in Goodbye Again (1961), he relocated to Europe in hopes of finding more diverse material. Abroad, he most notably starred in Orson Welles’s The Trial (1963) before returning to American cinema.
In the 1970s, Perkins also starred in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Mahogany (1975), and The Black Hole (1979). Alongside Stephen Sondheim, he also co-wrote the film The Last of Sheila (1973). In 1973, he also married Berry Berenson. Later, the couple would star together in Remember My Name (1978) and Winter Kills (1979). They had two sons, Osgood and Elvis. Though Anthony Perkins’s friends predicted the marriage wouldn’t last long, it became the single steadying feature in Perkins’s life.
Despite Berry’s positive influence and sustaining presence, the 1980s marked the beginning of the end for Anthony Perkins. Yet another victim of the HIV epidemic, he received his diagnosis in the later part of the decade. After receiving this diagnosis, Perkins worked alongside his wife for Project Angel Food, an organization that provides meal for homebound HIV patients. Although he attempted to keep his health status quiet, Perkins died of AIDS-related pneumonia on September 12, 1992. He was sixty years old.
Perkins was survived by his wife and two sons, Elvis and Osgood Perkins. Were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his eighty-sixth birthday this year.
For more coverage on Psycho and the works of Alfred Hitchcock, check out this trailer for the Psycho shower scene documentary 78/52, and our look back on The Birds. What’s your favorite Hitchcock film? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group.