Untold truth of Beverly Hills, 90210
AS A self-described "skinny kid from Ohio", Luke Perry couldn't have been less prepared for the trappings of Hollywood life. Luckily, he couldn't have been less interested either.
At the height of his fame, he lived in a low-rent two-bedroom house with a pot belly pig named Jerry Lee. He regularly escaped the claustrophobic lifestyle of a TV star by taking road trips into the desert and camping under the stars, or by going fishing. His biggest splurge was on a "brand new" pick-up truck.
Perry shot to fame as brooding rich kid Dylan McKay - an alcoholic teenager who drives a Porsche, reads feminist essays by Virginia Woolf and compares himself to Lord Byron. He was a teen pin-up in the model of James Dean: dark, disturbed, damaged, a man of few words.
During an August 1991 appearance in Washington, upwards of 5000 teenage girls rushed the stage to get to Perry, crushing everything - and everyone - in sight. Twelve unlucky fans were rushed to hospital.
He told a reporter: "I know it's not me they're coming to see, it's Dylan," and promptly cancelled any further promotional appearances. "They can't be made secure," he explained to Rolling Stone in a 1992 cover story, downplaying the weight of such a declaration.
After all, a few years earlier, Perry was working in a factory that manufactured doorknobs.
Such was the meteoric rise that the stars of Beverly Hills, 90210 enjoyed in the early 1990s, as the fledgling Fox drama climbed from a cancellation risk to a bona fide teen phenomenon in under a calendar year.
Along with The Simpsons and Married With Children, Beverly Hills 90210 built the Fox network into a dynasty, and invented the teen drama along the way. Plus it spawned one of the finest lines in television - in literary - history, when a drunk Dylan McKay drawled "may the bridges I burn light the way".
None of this was part of the plan.
After a tonally confused pilot episode, screenwriter and producer Charles Rosin was brought on as executive producer and head writer, to help soften and make sympathetic what had been a hard sell: Rich kids living in luxury.
The storylines started to focus on issues that impacted all teenagers, regardless of financial and social status, and the cast shared a natural chemistry that added an extra dimension to the high octane drama unfolding on screen.
The scripts, mostly written by Rosin and his wife Karen, were warm and devoid of sarcasm while dealing with hard-core issues.
Jennie Garth's character Kelly Taylor gracefully slid from a one-dimensional b**ch to a damaged sweetheart, Brandon Walsh's strident do-gooder streak was tempered by Jason Priestley's inherent likability, and Luke Perry's role was expanded from a six-week guest contract to a main part, then as the pendulum in one of TV's first major love triangles.
And Brian Austin Green danced on screen in Hammer pants. A lot.
Charles Rosin tells news.com.au he believes the show's tone and themes are the reason it still resonates with millennials and those who missed the initial run. "We dealt with the human condition, weren't snarky, touted tolerance and diversity, and had a big heart."
Ratings were steady but underwhelming during the first season. Then Fox made a pivotal decision - instead of breaking for summer, they instead continued production and rolled straight into the second season. They moved the action to the beach, with the first half of the season set at the geographically-dubious Beverly Hills Beach Club, and amped up the sex - and the volleyball.
Summer is the non-ratings period for television, a dumping ground for re-runs, made-for-TV films, sporting recaps, and niche productions.
Beverly Hills stood out among the dross, and given its target demographic were currently bored at home on school holidays, watching TV and doing little else, 90210 quickly became the hottest zip code in the country.
FAME, FATAL FAME
Fame affected the cast members in different ways.
Shannen Doherty and Tori Spelling hit the Los Angeles club scene with gusto, and became tabloid fodder along the way. Perry leaned into his midwestern ways, while Ian Ziering became fiercely interested in the business side of Hollywood, making deals during downtime on set.
Jennie Garth shunned public places like the mall and the movie theatre, bought a bulletproof black SUV, and began to suffer panic attacks. She clocked 14-hour days on set, and did her grocery shopping at a 24-hour store in the early hours of the morning.
"I wouldn't say that I ever stepped over the line into full-blown agoraphobia," she later wrote of this time, "but I would say I definitely came close and I've been battling the anxiety that early stardom brought on ever since."
Brian Austin Green started a club night with David Faustino aka Bud from Married With Children, recorded a hip hop album, and started hanging with Leonardo DiCaprio, and future Black Eyed Peas star Will.i.am. He also started dating Saved By The Bell's Tiffani Amber Thiessen, who would soon join the 90210 cast.
As the oldest member of the cast when fame hit, 30-year-old Gabrielle Carteris avoided the noise. She bought a two-bedroom apartment in San Fernando, and spent her time hosting dinner parties, biking, and bowling.
Jason Priestley began racing cars, and would conduct interviews with teen magazines in bars, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking spirits to prove the gulf between himself and his sanctimonious on screen character.
On a whim he bought a house with his new girlfriend Christine Elise, who played the troubled Emily Valentine on the show. The pair met on set, and began dating in 1991.
"Social media did not exist yet so there was not the same pressure on us that is on folks today", Elise tells news.com.au. "We were almost never bothered by paparazzi. One time, I heard a knock on the door and found Tim Curry standing at my door with his dog. He informed me that there were cameras across the canyon pointed at our house."
Elise closed the curtains, called security, and thought little more of it. A few days later she found out that tabloid news show Hard Copy had run a piece claiming she hid like a prisoner, due to threats from Priestley's fans.
"They used the footage from the house to illustrate my seclusion and talking to security, but it was Hard Copy I had been hiding from - not angry Jason fangirls."
The cast members' lives had changed over the course of one summer. The "adults" became worried.
"Mr Spelling, everyone at Fox, line producer Paul Waigner, and I spent much of our waking hours worrying about and dealing with the overnight sensation our 'kids' became," Charles Rosin tells news.com.au
One stroke of luck for Rosin was that studio scenes were shot on a sound stage in northern Van Nuys, well away from distractions. A gruelling shooting schedule - with a whopping 80 one-hour episodes airing in under two-and-a-half years - meant that cast didn't have much time to get into trouble.
"The cast would mostly stick around the stages on days they were working," explains Rosin, "which enabled them to build a cohesiveness between them that lasts today."
"We were teenagers in a strange grown-up world", writes Jennie Garth in her 2014 memoir, "our hormones raging and our social lives so restricted that we were, at all times, either best friends or enemies or both."
Elsewhere in the same chapter, she is more blunt. "When we were interacting as a group, there was just always way too much f***ing teenage drama."
Much of that drama emanated from Shannen Doherty.
SHANNEN DOHERTY: THE BAD GIRL
A long-held belief is that Shannen Doherty was unceremoniously fired from 90210. She often claims she quit. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
The situation had simply become untenable. She was turning up to set late, delaying production for hours some days, and was becoming less interested in the mechanics of the show.
She cut her hair mid-season, messing with the show's continuity, and bickered with her co-stars and crew. She resented the hectic workload, believing it was costing her opportunities in film. She had been a full-time actor since she was 11, and was burned out.
"She had opinions about a lot of things," Garth writes, "including the writing, the wardrobe, you name it. And she wasn't afraid to share them, even if it meant sounding like a complete and utter b**ch. She didn't care about that; she just wanted to be heard."
Rosin has fonder memories. "Despite her antics, we all loved writing for (Doherty's character) Brenda because Shannen wouldn't try to change our lines, would find the nuances in the moment, and could get swept away with her emotions that could make for interesting stand-alone episodes," he explains.
Shannen's reputation spilt over into the perception of Brenda. An eight-page "fan" newsletter named "I Hate Brenda", filled with attacks on both the character and Doherty herself, hammered home her dwindling popularity.
She almost came to blows with Jennie Garth after Doherty attempted to get a rise from her by pulling up her skirt during a scene. They both stormed off set and into the parking lot.
"We were on fire," Garth recalls in her memoir. "We were both throwing F-bombs and insults at each other like it was World War III. It was crazy! I mean really absurd.
"Before we could kill each other, Luke and Jason dived into the middle of it and pulled us apart, Luke backing away holding me tight, while I clawed and punched at the air in front of me, while Jason pushed Shannen to the other side of the parking lot."
One day she was four hours late to set, causing the usual affable Ian Ziering to call her a "c**t."
SOMETHING HAD TO GIVE
The cast members made a plan to approach Rosin to tell him they wanted Doherty gone. Given that Tori's father, producer Aaron Spelling, was the one to make the final call, the six other cast members approached Tori first, looking for a consensus.
"They wanted me to come with them," she writes in her 2008 memoir, the delightfully-titled Stori Telling. "It was a hard moment. She'd been my friend, and I didn't want to betray her. And I definitely didn't want anyone to ever say that it had happened because I was part of the group phoning my father."
Tori gave her blessing, but refused to go into the office with the others. Aaron Spelling was called. A meeting was had. Doherty was no longer part of the cast.
"After Shannon's contract was not picked up, which was mutually agreed upon, her work as an actress seemed to go to a higher level," Rosin says.
"I attribute that to the pressure being off. She could just kick back and act; do what she loved doing. I will always respect her for not phoning in her performances - which is always an option for a disgruntled actor."
Jason Priestley was the cast member Doherty was closest to, and in his 2014 memoir, he is measured in his appraisal of her behaviour.
"All issues aside, Shannen could deliver, and I always believed much of her success could be credited to her innate ability to live in the moment. Although this trait got her into trouble in real life, it served her well as an actress. However, it did not serve the needs of the show and Fox; and at the end of the day we were not just 'hot young stars'.
"We were employees, just like everybody else."
Tori Spelling was more blunt. "As soon as she was gone, we could all hang out comfortably, without anyone feeling left out or talking about each other behind our backs," she wrote.
"High school was over."
A NEW ANTAGONIST, AND ON SET ROMANCE
Despite the relief felt, the truth was that Doherty's departure left a huge gap in the show.
Aside from her being the best pure actor in the main cast, and the character the creators most liked to write for, Brenda's smouldering interactions with Luke Perry's brooding Dylan McKay, her oddly incestuous relationship with brother Brandon (Jason Priestley) and the push and pull of her dealings with frenemy Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) were central to many of the show's storylines.
With 90210's main love triangle dissolved, and the Walsh family splintered, the creators needed a fox in the henhouse.
Enter Tiffani Amber Thiessen.
At first glance, 20-year-old Thiessen seemed about as far as you could get from Valerie Malone: The scheming, sexually-manipulative character she was brought into play.
As the effervescent Kelly Kapowski in squeaky-clean kids comedy Saved By The Bell, she became a teen idol, while managing to graduate high school as valedictorian. Although Thiessen was on Rosin's radar at the time due to her relationship with Brian Austin Green, he had no idea of her popularity.
"But Mr Spelling did, and she was clearly the person everyone wanted," Rosin remembered.
"Everyone but her then-boyfriend Brian," he adds, "who did not like her kissing male cast members on screen, and also probably didn't like having his domain encroached."
Despite Green's misgivings, Thiessen became the first actor added to the main cast since Perry joined in episode two, back in 1990.
Green and Thiessen split up a year into her run on the show, and things became even more complicated for Green.
"Then I dated her on the show," he told Bill Simmons on a 2012 podcast. "It sucked."
It didn't take long for Thiessen's Valerie Malone to become an irreplaceable resident of the zip code: the perfect antagonist for the females, and a roaming love interest for the males.
"I liked Tiffani and her work as Valerie right from the start," Rosin recalls, "but by the time she filmed the third and fourth episodes of Season 5 where she cavorts with Dylan, I knew we could not have made a better choice."
Part of Green's reticence to bring his off-screen girlfriend into the cast may stem from an odd conversation he had with the show's producer Aaron Spelling regarding his dating life.
"This was a real life conversation where he literally sat down with me one day and said, 'Listen, I just want you to know that if you don't want to date my daughter, then I won't fire you for it'," he told Simmons.
"I was worried," Green admits, explaining how early on, the cast were afraid of Tori's unique position.
"To be around her at that point, everybody thought, 'Man, that's the boss's daughter', you kinda gotta go along with what she wants to do, or thinks, because it's Tori Spelling. She later proved that wasn't case, but early on, that would be a natural concern for people."
Despite his high standing, Aaron Spelling was heavily involved in the creation of the show. He was frequently on set, watched the dailies and made notes, and was concerned about storylines, especially any that were sure to alarm the highly-sensitive censors of the days. Not surprisingly, he controlled the stories surrounding Tori's character, Donna Martin, and demanded she stay a virgin until he finally relented, seven seasons in.
"He also did not want Donna to be part of an interracial romance", Rosin tells news.com.au.
Larry Mollin, a writer on the show, told Vulture, "Tori was really out there. She was just enjoying herself. So even though the old man couldn't control her, he could control Donna Martin. It was an odd situation, like he was getting his fatherly satisfaction out of controlling a character when he couldn't really control his daughter."
Spelling also quashed what would have been a memorable meta moment in which the cast would cover the Hollywood sign with "90210" to celebrate the end of their high school years - as well as the show's undeniable standing as the current toast of Hollywood.
"Mr Spelling did not want to break the fourth wall," Rosin recalls. "He was petrified our audience would think the show was over."
Being the man behind hit shows such as Charlie's Angels, Dynasty and Love Boat meant that Spelling did know when an idea was worth pursuing, regardless of possible controversy.
The tenth episode of the show, "Isn't It Romantic?" was the first to feature Luke Perry as resident love interest, and involved discussions of condoms, AIDS, and virginity.
Penned by Rosin's wife Karen, it took a nuanced view on teenage sexuality, and found Brenda questioning her father's double standards when it came to his children's sex lives. "Why is it with Brandon you just wanna make sure he knew about birth control but my whole value system is on the line?" she asked.
It was a sterling script, and a formidable Doherty performance, but Fox were aghast.
"The network did not like the subject area," Karen Rosin tells news.com.au. "The only reason we were able to go forward with the episode is because Mr Spelling stood up for what he knew would be a groundbreaking episode."
The show soon moved on to tackle a litany of "issues": drug addiction, alcoholism, rape, racism, anti-Semitism, domestic violence and more.
Although Spelling was more than a little precious regarding the Hollywood sign debacle, his reservations regarding the shift from high school to college had weight.
Spelling and Fox had wanted the show's characters to remain in high school indefinitely, cast in amber like their ageless network peers The Simpsons. When their characters graduated high school, Luke Perry was 26, Ian Ziering was 29, and Gabrielle Carteris was 32. It clearly wouldn't have worked, despite the ratings risk in moving the characters to college. The show's high school phenom status was beginning to work against it.
"Ratings are a double-edged sword," explains Charles Rosin. "When they are bad you get cancelled. When you hit a good number there is pressure to sustain that number."
As predicted, the ratings did take a dip during the first few post high school episodes; many thought the season three finale, basically a clip show, was the series end. Soon the audiences returned.
"By the time Brenda ran off to Vegas to elope at the start of November we were the top dog again," says Rosin. "But during our dip, the head of Fox, Lucy Salhany, tried to put a lot of pressure on me, with Mr Spelling's tacit support, which I mostly ignored, knowing it wouldn't be long until our audience would settle into the college years - which is, in fact, what happened."
THE END OF THE GLORY YEARS
Charles Rosin left the show at the end of season five. Although the show ran for a further five seasons, a lot of the magic was gone and the cast slowly dripped away.
After Doherty's departure at the end of season 4, Gabrielle Carteris, who played the studious Andrea Zuckerman left with Rosin after five seasons, while Perry left after season six, although he returned for the final two seasons.
Jason Priestley and Tiffani Amber Thiessen both bowed out before the final year, and even the Walsh parents, Jim and Cindy, were gone by the start of season six.
"In season six, I was contractually obligated to give story and script notes, so I knew the direction the series was moving and was singularly unimpressed," Rosin recalls, adding he only watched one episode because San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young guest starred.
The show spawned four spin offs: Melrose Place, which took the formula and amped it up to 11, Model Inc. which stalled after one season, and sequels to both 90210 and Melrose.
Now a fifth spin-off - also named 90210 - will air mid-year on FOX, but it takes a meta twist, with the original stars playing heightened versions of themselves attempting to launch a 90210 reboot. The only stars from the original cast who haven't signed on are Luke Perry, who died this week, and Shannen Doherty.
Rosin won't be involved either, although he admits the concept sounds fun. And then, there are the knock-on effects.
"Hopefully, it will encourage new viewers to sample the original."
Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly