He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his second film, Friendly Persuasion, but is best known for playing Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and its three sequels.
Perkins was born in New York City, son of stage and film actor Osgood Perkins and his wife, Janet Esselstyn (née Rane). His paternal great-grandfather was wood engraver Andrew Varick Stout Anthony. He was five when his father died.
Perkins was a descendant of a Mayflower passenger, John Howland. He attended Brooks School, Browne & Nichols School, Columbia University and Rollins College, having moved to Boston in 1942.
Perkins made his film debut in The Actress (1953). The film was a commercial disappointment.
Perkins was first really noticed when he replaced John Kerr on Broadway in the lead of Tea and Sympathy in 1954. This renewed Hollywood interest in him.
Perkins received a lot of attention for his second film, Friendly Persuasion (1956), playing the son of Gary Cooper under the direction of William Wyler. The film was very successful and Perkins received the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor and an Academy Award nomination.
He followed it as the troubled former Boston Red Sox baseball player Jimmy Piersall in the 1957 biopic Fear Strikes Out (1957).
Perkins then made two Westerns: The Lonely Man (1957) with Jack Palance and The Tin Star (1957) with Henry Fonda.
He released three pop music albums in 1957 and 1958 on Epic and RCA Victor as "Tony Perkins". His single "Moon-Light Swim" was a hit in the United States, peaking at number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1957. He showcased his musical talents in The Matchmaker (1958) with Shirley Booth and Shirley MacLaine.
A life member of the Actors Studio, Perkins also acted in theater. In 1958, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance in Look Homeward, Angel (1957-59) on Broadway. He played the role of Eugene Gant.
On film he appeared in This Angry Age (1958) for Columbia and Desire Under the Elms (1958) for Paramount, lusting after Sophia Loren. He was more happily cast in The Matchmaker (1958).
Perkins was Audrey Hepburn's love interest in Green Mansions (1959), one of Hepburn's few flops.He was a doomed lover in On the Beach (1959) and played a college basketball champion in Tall Story (1960), best remembered for being Jane Fonda's film debut.
On Broadway he starred the Frank Loesser musical Greenwillow (1960), for which he was nominated for another Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Perkins in youth had a boyish, earnest quality, reminiscent of the young James Stewart, which Alfred Hitchcock exploited and subverted when the actor starred as Norman Bates in the 1960 film Psycho. The film was a critical and commercial success, and gained Perkins international fame for his performance as the homicidal owner of the Bates Motel. Perkins' performance gained him the Best Actor Award from the International Board of Motion Picture Reviewers. The role and its multiple sequels affected the remainder of his career.
In 1961, Perkins received considerable critical acclaim for his performance in the film Goodbye Again, shot in Paris opposite Ingrid Bergman, a performance which won him the Best Actor Award at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. The film was a notable success in France but not the US.
He appeared in a short-lived Broadway play Harold (1962) then made a series of films in Europe: Phaedra (1962), shot in Greece with Melina Mercouri and directed by Jules Dassin; Five Miles to Midnight (1962) with Sophia Loren; Orson Welles' 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial (1962), shot in Yugoslavia; Le glaive et la balance (1963), shot in France; Une ravissante idiote (1964) with Brigitte Bardot.
He made a film in Mexico, The Fool Killer (1965) then returned to France to make a cameo in Is Paris Burning? (1966).
For American TV he appeared in Evening Primrose (1966). He then went to Broadway to appear in a play by Neil Simon, The Star Spangled Girl (1966-67).
Perkins starred in another French film, The Champagne Murders (1967) for Claude Chabrol, then made his first Hollywood movie since Psycho, Pretty Poison (1968) with Tuesday Weld. The film was not a box office success but has become a notable cult favorite.
Perkins moved into supporting roles in Hollywood feature films playing Chaplain Tappman in Catch-22 (1970) and appearing in WUSA (1970). Off Broadway he appeared in and directed Steambath (1970).
He had the lead in a TV movie, How Awful About Allan (1970) and supported Charles Bronson in the French movie, Someone Behind the Door (1971). He starred in Chabrol's Ten Days' Wonder (1971).
Perkins was reunited with Weld when he supported her in Play It as It Lays (1972). He was also in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).
Perkins co-wrote, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the screenplay for the 1973 film The Last of Sheila, for which they received a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
Perkins was one of the many stars featured in the 1974 hit Murder on the Orient Express. He co-starred with Beau Bridges in Lovin' Molly (1974). He enjoyed success on Broadway in Peter Shaffer's 1974 play Equus (where he was a replacement in the leading role originally played by Anthony Hopkins). Off Broadway he directed The Wager (1974).
Perkins supported Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975) and hosted television's Saturday Night Live in 1976.
He co-starred with Geraldine Chaplin in Remember My Name (1978) and had some good roles on TV, playing Mary Tyler Moore's husband in First, You Cry (1978) and as Javert in Les Misérables (1978). He was featured in Walt Disney's The Black Hole, in 1979. He had another Broadway success with Bernard Slade's 1979 play Romantic Comedy, which ran for 396 performances.
Perkins was a villain in North Sea Hijack (1980) and one of many names in Winter Kills (1980). He starred in a Canadian film Deadly Companion (1980).
Perkins reprised the role of Norman Bates in three sequels to Psycho. The first, Psycho II (1983), was a box office success 23 years after the original film. He went to Australia to appear in For the Term of His Natural Life (1983).
After The Glory Boys (1984) for British TV Perkins made Crimes of Passion (1984) for Ken Russell.
He then starred in and directed Psycho III (for which he was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actor) in 1986, but refused to reprise his role as Bates in a 1987 failed television pilot Bates Motel, famously boycotting that project in a very ardent, and well-received, oppositional public campaign.
Perkins had support roles in Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story (1987), and Destroyer (1988). He directed but did not appear in Lucky Stiff (1988).
Perkins starred in some horror films, Edge of Sanity (1989), Daughter of Darkness (1990), and I'm Dangerous Tonight (1990). He played Norman Bates again in the made-for-cable film Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1990, over which he had much creative control, although he was turned down for director.
Perkins has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor he received for his influential and exceptional contributions to the motion picture industry. It is located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
In 1991, Perkins was honored with the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.
Although he was fighting AIDS, he appeared in eight television productions between 1990 and 1992, including Daughter of Darkness (1990) and The Naked Target (1992). He made his final appearance in In the Deep Woods (1992) with Rosanna Arquette. He had agreed to provide the voice for the role of the dentist, Dr. Wolfe, in The Simpsons episode "Last Exit to Springfield" but died before the part could be recorded. In the end, the character was voiced by Simpsons regular Hank Azaria.
Perkins was portrayed by British actor James D'Arcy in the 2012 biographical drama Hitchcock, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville.
Perkins was an extremely shy person, especially in the company of women. According to the posthumous biography Split Image by Charles Winecoff, he had exclusively same-sex relationships until his late 30s, including with actors Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter; artist Christopher Makos; dancer Rudolf Nureyev; composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim; and dancer-choreographer Grover Dale. Perkins has been described as one of the two great men in the life of French songwriter Patrick Loiseau.
Perkins reportedly had his first heterosexual experience at age 39 with actress Victoria Principal on location filming The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1971. He met photographer Berinthia "Berry" Berenson, the younger sister of actress and model Marisa Berenson, at a party in New York City in 1972. They married when he was age 41, on August 9, 1973 and had two sons: actor Oz Perkins (b. February 2, 1974), and musician Elvis Perkins (b. February 9, 1976).
Diagnosed with HIV during the filming of Psycho IV, Perkins died at his Los Angeles home on September 12, 1992, from AIDS-related pneumonia at age 60. His urn, inscribed "Don’t Fence Me In," is in an altar by a bench on the terrace of his former home in the Hollywood Hills. His wife died nine years later, in the September 11 attacks.