Luke Perry’s ‘90210’ bad boy Dylan McKay was king of cool: Here’s why

Luke Perry didn’t have the gift of old age. But the 52-year-old actor, who died Monday after suffering a “massive stroke” last week, did achieve something very few actors do. He became an icon of his time.

In the early 1990s, there didn’t seem to be anyone more popular than the young man who played Dylan McKay on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” In his day, he could fill a mall with screaming fans faster than any star from 2019’s TV listings.

Dylan was awesome. Dylan was special. Dylan was … in a word … cool.

Here are some of the things that made Perry’s portrait of a high school student as a young rebel so memorable. It was a role that he owned. And Dylan is ours forever now, thanks to streaming sites.

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Dylan had style.

The T-shirts. The motorcycle.Those ironic eyebrows. That rebellious flip of hair. The smoldering looks delivered with that impossible mix of desire, regret and yearning. The first time Perry appeared as Dylan – it was after the pilot episode, FYI –  his charisma instantly raised the level of the ‘90210’ game. “Perry was so instantly cool and magnetic in the role that he transformed what had seemed an earnest culture clash comedy into something more addictively melodramatic and soapy,” wrote Alan Sepinwall in a Rolling Stone on Monday. 

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Dylan had problems.

Much like the characters played by James Dean, the 1950s god of tormented cool, Perry’s Dylan had secrets on top of enigmas locked inside a scarred psyche. Remember the first few seasons, which uncovered his issues with alcohol and his absentee crooked business mogul dad? Or the whole Brenda/Dylan/Kelly traumatic triangle? And the car bomb that…OMG, no wonder he was brooding! Like Tolstoy would have written if he worked for “90210” creator Darren Star, happy teen idols are all alike; every unhappy heartthrob is charismatic in his own way.

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Dylan was our first adult relationship.

Perry was actually 24 when viewers were introduced to the 16-year-old Dylan, an age gap that helped him seem older – and much, much wiser – than the other boys in West Beverly Hills High School (not to mention the ones your own school, if you were a Gen Xer or  younger when you started watching). For some ’90s tweens, he was the first major crush in a non-bubblegum category. For older teens, he was a sign that they soon would be entering the complicated world of grownups. And in case viewers didn’t get the message about major life turning points ahead, Brenda lost her virginity to Dylan in the “Spring Dance” episode.

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Dylan was smart.

When Brandon (played by Jason Priestley) – and the rest of us – spotted Dylan sitting on the stairs at school and reading a book, it was, well, swoon city for anyone who found his intellectual side as appealing as his Porsche. As Linda Holmes wrote for NPR in appreciation of Perry, “Out of nowhere, he would quote one of the romantic poets, or Jack Kerouac. He declared himself “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” – something once said about Lord Byron.” 

Dylan cared.

In a Moviefone story from 2015 titled “13 Reasons No Man Will Ever Live Up to Dylan McKay of ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ ” the essentials are all there, illustrated with GIFs from the show that will break your heart today. He wasn’t scared of being emotional or of public displays of affection. He liked to cuddle. In these ways, Dylan was a trendsetter. He exhibited the more open, affectionate style of millennial men, while simultaneously rocking the whole masculine loner vibe of the “Mad Men” ’50s and the Steve McQueen ’60s.  Rest in talent, Mr. Perry, and thanks for always wearing your coolness so graciously.

 

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