Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates, and The AIDS Crisis

Anthony Perkins is well-known for portraying Mama’s Boy Norman Bates in Alfred Hithcock’s Psycho, based on the Robert Bloch novel of the same name. Bloch based the character on real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Perkins reprised the role of Norman in three Psycho sequels through 1990, and even directed Psycho III in 1986. Sadly, the life of the actor resembled the closeted life of Norman Bates a little too much.  

Anthony Perkins was born on April 4, 1932 to Janet Esselstyn and stage and screen actor Osgood Perkins. His father passed away of a heart attack when Perkins was five years old, leaving him with his mother.  In a 1983 interview, Perkins recalled his mother as, “She wasn’t ill-tempered or mean, just strong-willed, dominant… She controlled everything about my life, including my thoughts and feelings.” He also recalled her smothering and sometimes inappropriate physical contact. 

Following in his late-father’s footsteps, Perkins began acting on stage at age 15 and made his on-screen debut in 1953 in The Actress. In 1960, he got a call about a role in the latest Alfred Hitchcock film. 

“‘Hitchcock wants you in his new picture. One of his last.’ In those days that’s all Hitchcock had to say.”

Anthony Perkins

The famous role was a blessing and a curse- people recognized him and knew his name but he was only seen as the dark, tragic character. So, to escape, he began acting in Europe through the rest of the 1960s. 

According to his biography as written by Charles Winecoff, Perkins had only had same-sex relationships until he was in his 30s. It’s known that he had had relationships with actors Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter and he had a relationship spanning six years with choreographer Grover Dale. Rock Hudson would later become one of the first famous names to die from complications of AIDS in 1985. 

Movie studios during the 1950s and 1960s were swift to distract from rumors that an actor was gay by publically setting them up with beautiful, young actresses. Tab Hunter remembered during his time with Perkins 

“Warner Brothers never said a word about my sexuality, and that’s just the way I wanted it. However, Paramount did have something to say about my relationship with Tony, and they told him they didn’t want him to see me anymore. Every studio was run by an executive who had their own policies and their own ways of doing things. And Paramount ran a really tight ship.” 

Tab Hunter

While looking back on a certain sexual encounter, Perkins referred to gay sex as “unsatisfying” and then he remembers a beautiful actress making advances at him and his thoughts were, “Sooner than get close to her, I would have crashed through the window and fallen to the pavement 10 stories below.” Through these times, Perkins was participating in psychoanalysis to try and curb his homosexual urges, trying to find the “gay cure”, if you will . 

Perkins did not have a serious relationship with a woman until he was almost 40 years old. In 1973, at age 41, he married his wife, Berry, and they had two sons together. 

As Winecoff was putting together his biography on Perkins, he uncovered the “double life” he led as a married man. Author Felice Picano says he had a sexual encounter with Perkins after he got married to Berry. Winecoff found employees of sex shops and hotel bell boys who remember having encounters with Perkins, as well. 

In 1990, Perkins went in to get blood tests done on a palsy that had developed on his cheek. In a trashy move, someone working in the medical building went to The National Enquirer with news that “ ‘Psycho’ Star Anthony Perkins Has AIDS Virus”. Perkins saw the cover and that was news to him. He went and immediately got tested for HIV and it came back positive. Once the rumor was confirmed, he stayed quiet and private about it, fearing it would keep him from acting ever again. It was 1990- this was still on the fringes of it all being “the gay plague”. While I cannot speak for him, I feel if he had any negative feelings about his past relationships or sexual experiences then he would not have worked with charities in support of others with AIDS. 

In a personal statement written shortly before his death, Perkins admits as to why he stayed quiet about his diagnosis and discusses his personal emotions as he lived with it, taking a jab at Hollywood life while he was at it- 

“I chose not to go public about (having AIDS) because, to misquote Casablanca, ‘I’m not 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 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.” 

Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins passed away in his home from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 60 on September 12, 1992. 

Upon his death, in lieu of flowers, the family asked for donations to be made to Project Angel Food, an outreach program providing food delivery services to people living with HIV/AIDS and other critical illnesses. In 1990, Anthony and his wife chaired the “Angel Art” fundraiser, which raised over $540,000 for the organization. Project Angel Food is still an active organization in the Los Angeles area.

After the book on Hunter’s life story and the subsequent Netflix documentary, a movie was in development that would tell the story of the relationship between him and Perkins, Tab & Tony, produced by Zachary Quinto and J.J. Abrams, but there hasn’t been any news on that beyond 2019 (unfortunately).

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