A Son of Cigars
Ron Perlman, a self-confessed big dreamer, is basking in the glow of his hit show “Sons of Anarchy” and looking for the next big thing
Forty years into his career as an actor, Ron Perlman figures things are just starting to get good.
“I’m working on my impending retirement—within the next 40 years,” Perlman says with a rumbling laugh. He settles into a window table at a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, not far from the apartment he’s kept since the 1970s and orders a margarita (“No salt,” he requests). It’s a warm day in early November, with the long shadows of late afternoon already darkening the street outside.
Perlman, 63, seems relaxed and particularly happy—perhaps because he’s just finished filming his episodes for the sixth season of his TV series, “Sons of Anarchy.” He’s untethered, unencumbered, his time his own for the first time in five months—and six seasons of the show. And he’s got plenty on his plate to fill the days.
For starters, there’s the memoir he just sold to Da Capo Press, which he’s calling, Easy Street—The Hard Way: A Memoir, and which he’s about to dig into with collaborator Michael Largo. Then there’s Wing and a Prayer Productions, the production company he’s created to develop and produce movies. One of those will mark Perlman’s debut as a director, with production tentatively set to start in 2014.
“I don’t bother to go on vacation,” Perlman says. “I’ve worked on six continents as an actor. So I’ve gotten a view of the universe I couldn’t have had even if I had a trust fund and became an itinerant traveler.
“I’m always happiest when I’m working. Because of the lean years I’ve had, I’m well aware that this little period of momentum is transient. Nothing is guaranteed to last forever. So I want to take advantage of it with every ounce of my being. I just want to enjoy the hell out of life.” His ride with “Sons of Anarchy” has been lengthy and satisfying: “I’ve never had anything that resonated as much with an audience,” he says. “And I’ve never been on a show this long. I’m grateful at this late stage to be drinking from that well.”
“Sons of Anarchy” focuses on a motorcycle gang, in the fictional small town of Charming, California, outside the San Francisco Bay Area. When the show debuted in 2008, Perlman’s character, Clarence “Clay” Morrow, was the president of the club, which used an auto repair garage as the business front for its other activities, including gunrunning and pornography production. But his stepson, Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), Clay’s No. 2 in the club, eventually took the reins as club president, with the idea of taking the club into more legitimate business. Oh—and since Season 4, Jax knew that Clay, best friend to Jax’s late father John, had John killed before marrying Jax’s mother Gemma (Katey Sagal).
If that plot sounds familiar, well, it’s because show creator Kurt Sutter originally pitched the show as “Hamlet on Harleys”—with Jax as the prince who eventually discovers the truth about his own family history. “It is Shakespearean in concept and execution,” Perlman says.
Clay, it seemed, always had a cigar in the corner of his mouth. That was a reflection of Perlman’s longer-running romance with cigars. Perlman has been a lover of fine tobacco since the early 1970s, starting out with cigars from the revived Arturo Fuente company—even though he couldn’t really afford them as a struggling actor in New York. “The first cigar I remember smoking was an Arturo Fuente Corona,” he says. “It was of a shape and size that were very manageable. It was not too big, not too small, not intimidating. I became obsessed with Fuente cigars. I discovered many different sizes through Fuente: the Hemingway, the Corona, the Churchill. That’s where I developed my taste for certain sizes and styles.
“Then I branched out and became a serious fan of cigar smoking. It felt right; it did so much for me spiritually. Smoking a cigar, you have to take your act down a notch. It’s such an esoteric thing; it demands that you give it your attention. Some people meditate; I smoke cigars.”
He was introduced to cigars by a friend “who insisted on only going to the best restaurants, only drinking the best Scotch—12-year-old or older—and only smoking the best cigars. I never smoked candy-store cigars. We went out of our way to find what was good which, at that point, was Fuentes, when they first became a force in the market.
“Not that I could afford all this. But this friend and I went through this hedonist period in the mid-1970s. My friend became obsessed with eating at Il Mulino—he wanted to eat there once a week, so that we had our own table. I was having trouble paying the rent but his philosophy was that living well was the only revenge. It gives you a reason to keep going. Then we added cigars and Scotch to this obsession to live well.”
Perlman has had what he terms “a serious cigar habit” ever since. He smokes daily, sometimes more than one cigar a day, and keeps a half-dozen humidors scattered around his Los Angeles home.
“Some of them are exclusively for Cubans, some are just for Dominicans and some are a hodgepodge of things,” he says. “To this day, I like to experiment, to find things I wasn’t aware of. Rolling is an artform, and blending is every bit as esoteric as creating a cabernet or pinot noir. With a great cigar, you can let it go out and relight it later and it will still taste great. I don’t often have the time to smoke one in a sitting, unless I’m with the boys and have the time and patience to sit through it. But a really great cigar can go out and be relit almost to the end.”
It’s hard for Perlman to pinpoint a favorite, but he mentions the Joya de Nicaragua Gran Consul: “It’s got a phenomenal design,” he says. “It’s the perfect size with incredible flavor—and a great price. It may be the best value on the market. It’s what Clay smokes on the show. Although the Churchill is delicious: You want to be able to take your time and smoke it and just let life happen.
“I like the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona, too—although that’s probably too much for one sitting. Plus they’re hard to get; I remember when Bill Cosby was on the cover of Cigar Aficionado and said he smoked those. Suddenly you couldn’t get them.”
Perlman is serious enough about cigars that, at one point, he considered creating his own label. He’d been a regular at a small New York shop, where the owner rolled his own cigars from leftover tobacco from other cigar makers—and the blends he came up with inspired Perlman to try to match it with a cigar of his own.
“He’d get this cheap tobacco—really shitty stuff—and it was like turning water into wine, it tasted that good,” he says. “They were the shittiest rolled cigars you’ve ever seen—practically like an exploding cigar, because they’d fall apart while you smoked them. But he was a magician when it came to flavor.
“So I went down to the Dominican Republic and spent a week tasting tobaccos. They’d do these different blends; I was trying to match those cigars I’d have in New York. At the end of the week, it still wasn’t what I was looking for. Then my career kicked in; I got distracted and never did end up developing it. But my love for cigars was such that I wanted to present the world with my version of the cigar you could smoke every day.”
His earliest days of cigar smoking—when he was a young actor, footloose in New York, trying to break into the business—will get an airing in Perlman’s memoir. He wrote part of the book to pitch it to publishers, selling it to Da Capo Press. Now that he’s finished with “Sons of Anarchy,” he’s focused on finishing it.
“It’s a heavy lift,” he admits. “It’s great when someone shows that kind of faith in you. But my first thought was, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ But you just hope you’ll put something down that will be of interest to people. That’s what I’m trying to do.
“I mean, I’m not that big of a celebrity. You’re not going to find me on the cover of People or US. There’s nothing sensational about what I do. So when the idea was presented to me to write something personal, I thought, ‘What about my time on this planet would be of interest to a greater group of people than my immediate family?’ ”
In fact, Perlman does have a following, but it’s one he’s built up over the course of four decades as a working actor. It began in Washington Heights, New York, where he grew up. He was, by his own account, an obese teen—6-foot-2 and 300 pounds—when he was accepted at Lehman College in the Bronx, part of the City University of New York. His weight—and health—nearly kept him out of the school.
“I’d been accepted but you had to take a physical—and I failed it,” he says. “I had high blood pressure and salt in my urine, the byproduct of being profoundly obese. They told me they’d accept me, on the condition that I ameliorate those two compromising factors. So I went on a salt-free diet the summer after high-school graduation and lost 95 pounds. And I’ve stayed that way until the present day.”
Perlman’s late father encouraged him to pursue acting, after seeing his son in a college production. Perlman wound up in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Minnesota—a stretch for someone who’d spent his whole life in New York.
“I was living in the Bronx, going to college—and I had, like, $7,600 in parking tickets,” he recalls. “At that point, for all the money I had, it might as well have been $7.6 million. So I went to Minneapolis, because I didn’t want to become a permanent scofflaw in New York. I thought the New York Parking Bureau would never look for me there. Under the guise of being on the lam, I wound up with a Master’s degree, which has been incredibly useful—it’s covering a hole in my bathroom wall.”
He came back to New York with the degree and spent the rest of the 1970s in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater, working at the Classic Stage Company and elsewhere. Then he saw an ad for an open casting call for a film.
“They were looking for ‘Neanderthal-looking people’ for a film,” he says. “The director saw something about my deep-set eyes and prominent forehead and cast me.” The director was Jean-Jacques Annaud and the film was Quest for Fire (1981), about primitive men searching for a new source of fire in order to survive. It got him enough attention to land more work—but not a lot. Annaud came back to him to play a hunchback in The Name of the Rose (1986), which led to his first big success: “Beauty and the Beast,” a romantic-drama TV series whose fans still stop Perlman to express their fondness for the show. The series ran for three seasons and earned him a Golden Globe award. Then it was canceled and—nothing.
“My phone didn’t ring for three years,” Perlman says. “The show was canceled in 1990—at the same time I turned 40. I was directionless, in the most classic form of midlife crisis. The definition of a midlife crisis is that whatever fire has fueled you and set your course has gone out. You have to find a new focus, a new resolve.
“There were a lot of moments that were hard to live through. But I came out of them, in the Nietzschean sense, harder and stronger. You’re going to get knocked around; it’s almost impossible not to. But if you can make friends with failure, you’ll do most of your growing.”
“Ron was forged through his difficult climb to where he is,” says Michael Largo, Perlman’s collaborator on his memoir. “He hasn’t forgotten each of the painful events that made him who he is. You’ve got to dig down pretty deep to keep on a straight line. You need passion and persistence—and that’s what he has.”
The break in Perlman’s dry spell came in the form of a letter from a young would-be filmmaker from Mexico, who sent him a script with a new take on the vampire film and an offer of work: Guillermo del Toro.
“There are two guys who are responsible for my career: Jean-Jacques Annaud and Guillermo,” Perlman says. “They both showed up at the lowest times, when I began to consider that I had reached the end of my run but didn’t know where I was going. I thought I was going to have to consider doing something outside of acting for a living.”
Del Toro, then a 26-year-old special-effects makeup specialist, chose Perlman for Cronos, based on having seen his earlier work. It’s a collaboration and friendship that continues to this day, with del Toro casting Perlman for his massive 2013 sci-fi action-thriller, Pacific Rim.
“I was a huge fan of his because he’d done some remarkable characters,” del Toro says. “He was this hunchback in The Name of the Rose, and the primitive man in Quest for Fire. And then he was this very refined, sort of lion-faced guy in Beauty and the Beast. Here was a guy who was using his body and voice and face like an instrument. He could be seductive and beautiful or powerful and brutish or simple and primitive. He showed this huge range in just a few movies.”