Interview: Psycho Star Anthony Perkins

Thanks to the enduring popularity and critical respect afforded to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), the character of Norman Bates has emerged as one of the premier icons of the horror genre. Norman is memorable because he appears, at first, to be shy and sympathetic – a lonely boy-man under his mother’s thumb. Even when he turns out to be a murderer, we still feel sorry for him, because he is the victim of a mental illness (split personality) that he cannot control; in fact, the murderous portion of his personality is so distinct that he seems almost to be possessed by the spirit of his dead mother – leaving the “normal” part of his Norman self untainted.

That is the concept created by screenwriter Joseph Stefano, based on the character in Robert Block’s novel PSYCHO (which in turn was loosely inspired by the real-life case of serial killer Ed Gein). However, much of the credit for the character’s success belongs to actor Anthony Perkins; in fact, the screen version of the character was written with him in mind. Initially, Stefano was not sure he could make the book’s character (a somewhat sinister reprobate) sympathetic, but director Alfred Hitchcock told him to forget about the novel’s presentation and imagine Perkins in the role.

Perkins brought his own contributions to the character (such as the nervous stutter). Much of his success in the role was due to confounded expectations: he seemed so likable and harmless that it was a genuine shock to learn the truth about Norman.

Unfortunately, those very qualities that initially made the revelation about Norman a surprise, soon became clichéd markers identifying on-screen psychos, and to a large extent Perkins’ later career was dominated by his identification with Norman. Not only did he reprise the role in three sequels; he also played variations on the character in films like PRETTY POISON and CRIMES OF PASSION (which ends with the Perkins character in drag, just like Norman).

Yet Perkins was never resentful of the character; if anything, he seemed pleased by the recognition it afforded, and he had the sense of humor to spoof his image. While hosting a televised performance at the Comedy Club, he drew laughs simply by lapsing into the familiar Bates mannerisms, pretending to mistake a blond woman in the audience for Janet Leigh, and his Saturday Night Live sketch “The Bates School of Motel Management” is a classic piece of comedy. Posing for a magazine cover to promote PSYCHO 3 (which he also directed), Perkins went so far as to wear pink trousers, as if deliberately mocking the dark image of his on-screen alter ego.

“I do have affection for Norman as a person,” Perkins said. “He does the best he can out of the diminished circumstances with which his personality stranded him, and […] Norman’s childhood was difficult and traumatic. Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul, with a dark side, but Norman’s conscious mind is always on the positive things in life.” Perkins did not feel constricted by the recognition and fame he earned as Norman: “I think it’s identified me. I think that people who see me and think of me in terms of this role usually, as they’re talking to me, will also say, ‘Oh but I also liked you in this or that.’ So I think it’s better to be identified with one role and then jog someone’s memory into remember another role, than it is to see a celebrity or an actor coming at you down the street and saying, ‘Oh, there’s um…he was in…” [There’s that] empty feeling that the actor has about not really being remembered for anything except for being a face on the screen somewhere, so I prefer this.”

Perkins claimed that Norman was not only his most famous role: “I think it’s my favorite role as well. So many thousands of people have come up to me on the street and in hotel lobbies and in department stores and have shared their experiences of seeing the films with me. It’s always been with the greatest amount of pleasure that they’ve done so. They’ve told me stories about the dates they had with their future wives, and they’ve told me stories about sneaking out of the bathroom window and seeing it against their parents orders — and many stories like that, which have imprinted it into their minds. Always with a feeling of having been entertained and having been taken in by the story and having a good time. Of course, I enjoy that.”

Of reprising Norman Bates in three sequels, Perkins was upbeat, stating that the character was interesting enough to warrant revisiting: “I don’t want to use the quote again, but it’s never failed me, so I will: it is the Hamlet of horror roles, and you can never quite get enough of playing Norman Bates. It’s always interesting. And pursuant to that, when you read a script, when you read a PSYCHO script, a sequel, and you see dialogue that’s been written for Norman to say, if it’s right, it pops right of the page, and if it’s wrong, there’s something off about it. So he’s a character who has really emerged in a dimensional way. And of how many characters, how many screen characters can that be said? You know it’s a great compliment to the original concept by Hitchcock.”

Because of the classic status of the original film, the subsequent sequels tended to be held in somewhat low regard by critics, even though PSYCHO 2 proved to a commercial success. Some critics, including screenwriter Joseph Stefano, even suggested that PSYCHO 2 and PSCYHO 3 had taken a serious tragic figure and turned him into a campy character. Perkins, of course, disagreed:

“I think that Norman shows a progression in his personality. In the second PSYCHO picture we saw a Norman that was far more aware of his potential for violence than in the first film. In the third film, we saw a more saddened Norman who found himself revisiting not only the scenes but the temperatures of the first two films, so I think the development of the character keeps it from being a carbon copy of the original.”

Anthony Perkins with Janet Leigh in PSYCHOAs for the alleged camp, Perkins said, “I don’t think you can look at either of [those] two sequels […] and point to and correctly identify any elbows in the ribs or any camp humor in them.” As for any black humor, Perkins insisted that it had existed all the way back in the original. He recalled that, during the initial release of PSYCHO, audiences “laughed so hard that Hitchcock was so dismayed and wanted to take the film back and remix some of the dialogue scenes so that they would be heard. […] they laughed almost throughout the picture. Hitchcock claimed that it was the first time that an audience had gotten the jump on him – the first time he hadn’t been able to read his audience. Finally, he gave into it and used to call PSYCHO a comedy. Whether or not he originally thought of it as a comedy, I don’t’ now. But I was with him in Chicago and New York when it opened, and you could hear the words [because] they laughed so hard.”

Still, whatever humor and/or sympathy the character engendered, Perkins acknowledged that Norman would always retain his menacing quality: “That will always be the basis for any PSYCHO film. Norman hasn’t changed that much – he still has a bad side.”

The actor concluded, “Of course, Norman’s problems couldn’t be solved – that wouldn’t be fair. Norman’s case is a tragic one, and the pictures are tragedies. Therefore, the only way that you could really resolve Norman’s problems would be to kill him off.”

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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