Anthony Perkin’s longtime friend, artist Don Bachardy once wrote:
“Of course we’d heard he’d married. I thought that was just awfully odd behavior for him. Did he honestly think that marriage to Berry Berenson could make him a heterosexual?“
Perkins had affairs with a few famous men in the 1950s and 1960s: Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Leonard Bernstein, James Dean, Rudolf Nureyev, Stephen Sondheim, plus dancer/choreographer Grover Dale, with whom Perkins had a six-year relationship before his marriage to Berry Berenson (sister of actor Marisa Berenson). Perkins was 41 years old at the time of his wedding and he said he had sex with a woman for the first time just a year earlier with his co-star Victoria Principal during filming of The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1972).
Perkins was an actor of considerable skill, working on stage, and in film and television. He received an Academy Award nomination for Friendly Persuasion (1956), director William Wyler‘s sensitive story of a pacifist Quaker family whose faith is tested during the American Civil War. He held his own against co-stars Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire. Perkins even has a shirtless fight scene that is rather boner-inducing. Cooper arranged a date with Perkins and his daughter during filming; apparently not realizing the young actor was gay.
Perkins lived in utter fear that Confidential magazine would open his closet door, as it had done with Tab Hunter.
For over a decade, Perkins lived in a platonic relationship with Helen Merrell, a noted photographer. She was a strong, controlling woman 14 years his senior. Merrell later became an influential theatrical agent. Merrell had approval over the men Perkins chose to have sex with.
Perkin’s era was an especially stifling time for gay actors. Hunter wrote that it was “The excruciating dance of the 1950s“. Perkins frequented Times Square gay porno theaters where he would passively watch other guys having sex. The studios arranged dates for him with starlets for the benefit of Modern Screen magazine. It was the 1950s, a public person could never be openly gay, even if they wanted to, and Perkins didn’t want to.
Yet, Perkins’ puzzling marriage to photographer Berry Berenson in 1973 seems something more than just a marriage of convenience. Berenson, who had a schoolgirl crush on Perkins, pursued him relentlessly. She managed to land him, and the couple eventually had two sons, Osgood and Elvis Perkins. Perkins was devoted to Berenson and to his boys, though his gay friends privately doubted his claims that he was faithful to her. Perkins, in trying to convince Hollywood he was straight by marrying a woman, may have brought himself a little bit of real happiness. Writer Dominick Dunne (god rest his gay soul) wrote:
“It was a real sense of marriage between them. Whatever they had, it was wonderful. I mean, it was a real and loving family.“
Perkins had an acting career that was filled with roles that brought out the darker sides of human nature. In Psycho (1960) and its three sequels, Perkins was convincing as a tense, repressed man of few words. In his private life, Perkins’ emotional troubles continued to plague him. In an interview, he described how fame brought him the attentions of numerous leading women, whose advances left him “shook up and scared“.
In 1989, The National Enquirer ran a story that he had full-blown AIDS. Berenson claimed that her husband had not been tested for HIV but had been given a series of blood tests for a palsy on the side of his face. Berenson explained that someone had tested Perkins’ blood for the virus and leaked the results to the tabloid. After the story appeared, he was tested and received the diagnosis that he was HIV Positive.
Because Perkins was by nature such a private person, and because he had grown deeply depressed, he wanted to tell as few people as possible about the illness.
Perkins acknowledged he had HIV/AIDS posthumously, in a statement dictated to his sons:
“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.
There are many who believe that this disease is God’s vengeance, but I believe it was sent to teach people how to love and understand and have compassion for each other. I have learned more about love, selflessness and human understanding from the people I have met in this great adventure in the world of AIDS than I ever did in the cutthroat, competitive world in which I spent my life.“
Perkins left this world in the autumn of 1992. He was just 60 years old. Berenson was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, during the September 11 attacks in 2001, the day before the ninth anniversary of Perkins’ death.