Most Anthony Perkins films aren't just dark. They're inky black. His characters have more twists than a contortionist convention. To know them is to loathe them.
In the last decade, Perkins reprised his famous role as the tortured Norman Bates in two "Psycho" sequels, he played a murderous priest in the steamy "Crimes of Passion" and he melted down into a repugnant Mr. Hyde in "Edge of Sanity."
In "Psycho IV: The Beginning," premiering Saturday on Showtime, Perkins becomes the ticking man Bates once again. The film was written by Joe Stefano, who wrote the original "Psycho," which will air on Showtime right after "Psycho IV."
Yet today, more than anything else, Perkins wants to make people scream...with laughter. Preferably as the star of his own sitcom. A few months ago Perkins shot an unsold sitcom pilot for Fox Television called "Ghost Writer."
"I started out on the stage as a light, sophisticated comedy actor," Perkins, 58, said.
Strangely enough, he said, one of the funniest films he ever did was "Psycho," the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock masterwork that typecast Perkins.
"When 'Psycho' opened...people just laughed themselves silly," Perkins said. "They couldn't stop laughing. Hitchcock said he didn't realize that 'Psycho' was a comedy until he saw it with an audience."
The wiry actor sat in his Spanish villa Hollywood home. His face, still remarkably young, dredged up eerie images of Bates himself. But the sight of Perkins' wife, Berry, unpacking groceries in the kitchen and the couple's two teen-age boys arriving home from school revealed the actor as a husband and father, and nothing more.
Perkins continued about "Psycho" the comedy: "People in theaters screamed so loud they just had to laugh. And then they kept on laughing. It got to the point where Hitchcock petitioned Paramount to remix some of the dialogue scenes and boost the levels because they weren't being heard. People were laughing so hard."
Perkins' first experiences with comedy were as a 14-year-old in summer stock, and he said he misses the laughs.
"Any time you can get an audience to laugh I think it's great," Perkins said. "I remember going backstage to see Laurence Olivier one evening after he had just performed in (August) Strindberg's 'Dance of Death.' I found myself saying, 'Listen, in the second act there were a few snickers and light laughs. Is that OK?' He said calmly, 'There is no such thing as a bad laugh.' "
Raised in Manhattan by his mother, Perkins found freedom on the stage. At 20, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles and landed his first film role in "The Actress." At 23, he was on Broadway and a year later emerged a star as Gary Cooper's son in "Friendly Persuasion."
Then, in 1960, Perkins received a fateful call from his agent. "He said, 'Hitchcock wants you in his new picture.' In those days, that's all Hitchcock had to say...Whether it was fear or aversion or mischievousness, he didn't like to interview, audition, read or test actors. When you got your call from him, you had the role."
In a way, "Psycho" forever cast Perkins as Norman Bates. When "Psycho II" was released in 1983, Perkins became the subject of sordid celebrity profiles trying to link his own past with the obsessive and sexually repressed upbringing of Bates.
"Ever since I got married (in 1973) and had kids, my life became much more structured and ordinary," Perkins said. "Much more calm. Not nearly so grasping and ambitious. Not so paranoid. Not so--fearful.
"Before my marriage it would have been easier to draw similarities between me and Norman. Since then, the similarities, however deep they may have been, have probably disappeared."
In fact, Perkins wanted to do the first "Psycho" sequel to exonerate Bates, although the third one once again cast Bates as a killer. "I'll never forgive myself for that," Perkins said. The new "Psycho IV" is a psychological prequel and sequel built into one.
"It was thrilling to be on the set, with the icon of the 'Psycho' movies," director Mick Garris said, Rand suddenly see this dramatic explosion from him. Everything would quiet down and you'd shiver seeing what Norman is still capable of."
Even though there are three more "Psycho" sequel scripts floating around, one co-written by Perkins, the actor is still keeping his eyes sharp for a good comedy. He has come to accept what people see as his duality in Norman Bates, and says he would do it all over again if given the chance.
"I think 'Psycho' is one of the things that's given me longevity in this business. But of course it's also kept me from roles. You know I would have hated to disappear like so many actors in the '50s did. In a way, it's a challenge to overcome something like that. I'm still here. That's all I know."
"Psycho IV: The Beginning" premieres on Showtime Saturday 9-10:35 p.m. followed by an uncut version of the original "Psycho" 10:36 p.m.-midnight.
MEETING MRS. BATES
In "Psycho IV: The Beginning," Perkins exhumes the sordid past of Norman Bates--now rehabilitated and married--who threatens to return to his murderous ways.
Flashback sequences of early life at the Bates Motel star Henry Thomas, the boy in "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," as the young, tight-lipped Norman and Ryan Finnigan, briefly as an even younger Norman. Olivia Hussey creates the raving Mrs. Bates, Norman's much maligned mother.