Inscribed on Anthony Perkins’ urn in the Hollywood Hills are the words: “Don’t Fence Me In.”
It’s a poignant choice for someone trapped by the blessing (and curse) of being Norman Bates. His performance in Psycho is ranked at #2 in AFI’s list of greatest villains of all time, behind Hannibal Lecter and ahead of Darth Vader. His celebrated work as a genre actor overshadowed his sophisticated comedic and dramatic roles, including George Cukor’s The Actress, The Matchmaker (alongside Shirley MacLaine), Tall Story (Jane Fonda’s first film) and Fear Strikes Out. He even declined Jack Lemmon’s role in Some Like it Hot and was considered for Lawrence of Arabia.
While the versatility of his filmography often goes underappreciated, there’s another side of his talents that flies even more under the radar: his career as a singer under “Tony Perkins.”
Perkins’ voice sparked attention in 1956, when he sang “A Little Love Can Go A Long Long Way” in a TV program, Joey, and “Thee I Love” for the film, Friendly Persuasion. Since Paramount was grooming Perkins’ image as a teen idol (one article knighted him as “The Last of the [James] Deans”), he signed a contract with Epic to record doo-wops like “The Prettiest Girl In School” and “When School Starts Again.” He released a jazz album, the self-titled Tony Perkins, and went on to release two more under RCA (From My Heart…, On A Rainy Afternoon). His biggest hit was “Moonlight Swim,” which reached #24 on the pop charts in 1957.
When record producer Ben Bagley summoned him to act as moral support for Montgomery Clift’s first time cutting vocals, he wound up collaborating with Perkins multiple times, the first being for George Gershwin Revisited with “Changing My Tune” (with Barbara Cook) and “Under A One-Man Top.” In the late 60’s and 70’s they recorded many songs under Bagley’s label, Painted Smiles. Perkins was also fluent in French, which resulted in multiple French-language singles.
Despite a fruitful collection of songs, he harbored insecurities: “My voice is terrible.” In 1960, he confessed:
“I made some records a few years ago of a very low soft singing that I was ultimately, if not immediately, dissatisfied with. I wanted to prove — to myself at any rate — that I could sing better than I sounded on those things you can pick up for $3.49 at the corner store.”
His untrained vocals don’t have the glossy controlled manner à la Sinatra and Martin, and perhaps his disappointment was connected to the inability to compete with the popular baritones of the time. Indeed, at times you hear him uncomfortable with the range, but a sincere tenderness came with the imperfections. In “C’est Choutte, Paris” you can’t help but hear him smiling, and his version of “How About You” is a delightful valley of ups and downs with lyrics like: “I’m mad about good books, can’t get my fill / Sophia Loren’s looks give me a thrill!”
Occasionally his singing blended with acting. He sang the theme song to Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions, a shortened rendition of “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” in Tall Story, and in Crimes of Passion, sang a manic-style “Get Happy.” He was cast in Broadway musicals such as Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose and Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow. Both were hidden gems, with Primrose receiving a release on DVD in 2010, along with the Greenwillow soundtrack in 1995.
His sons Osgood “Oz” and Elvis Perkins continue the family name’s legacy through their respective endeavors. Film director Osgood dedicated his second horror film, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House to his father, which included a clip from Friendly Persuasion (for which Anthony was nominated for an Oscar) and his track “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song.” In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Oz explained the movie’s intent:
“I wanted to sort of give that film to my father as a continued exploration of our relationship. Just because someone isn’t alive anymore doesn’t mean your exploration of the relationship you have with that person doesn’t continue.”
The themes of grief and hope continue in the melodies of his younger brother, folk rock musician Elvis. The song “123 Goodbye” begins with “1, 2, 3 goodbye / I loved you more in death than I ever could in life.” His 2007 album’s title, Ash Wednesday, refers to:
“Being left on Wednesday with nothing but ash, because [my mother, Berry Berenson] died on a Tuesday – being left with ash on September 12. That was also the day my father died, September 12. It first occurred to me on Ash Wednesday itself – my consciousness was largely ruled by having lost my mother six months previously.”
As one absorbs the work of the Perkins brothers, it rings true to the old adage of crafting pain into poetry. Their art emerges as cathartic, haunting, and beautiful in its own right.
Today we honor the late Anthony Perkins’ 88th birthday by remembering his contributions to the horror community and his musical catalogue. If you don’t know where to begin, below is a curated playlist.
In 1972 he called his discography “a second rate art.” What we can take from his harsh self-criticism is a bit of inspiration. He didn’t see himself as a talented vocalist, but he didn’t stop just because he thought he wasn’t good enough. Perkins was a true devotee to self-expression — despite his insecurities — and that is worth celebrating.
Photo Credits: Getty Images, Discogs, ABC