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.”
“Guillermo caused a chain of events that mapped the course I’ve been on ever since that moment,” Perlman says of the 1993 film. “It has to do with independent cinema and working on movies outside the mainstream, off the grid, done for pure reasons beyond commerciality.”
Still, Perlman followed that revival with another extended period of unemployment in the late 1990s: “And that time, it was getting real, like ‘Oh, shit,’” Perlman says. “I wasn’t even sure I had time to segue into something else. You don’t plan for obscurity; you don’t even realize you’re there until you’re already in it. I thought that, at that moment, the world had forgotten me.”
Annaud came to his rescue, calling Perlman to tell him he’d written a role specifically for Perlman in Enemy at the Gates, about the battle of Stalingrad. “It was so random—and it came at my lowest point,” Perlman says. “I broke down in tears. That started a period of work that lasted until this moment.”
That late-career revival included del Toro in a significant way. A long-time fantasy and comic-book lover, del Toro fell in love with the Hellboy comic-book series, about a baby demon brought out of Hell by the Nazis as a secret weapon. But the demon was captured and cared for by the Allies, who turned him to the side of good. The adult Hellboy battles all sorts of evil, while chewing on a cigar and trying to live a normal life, despite being large, horned and fire-engine red. Having scored commercial successes with his other films, del Toro began pushing to make a Hellboy movie. But it took him eight years to convince the studios that Perlman was the right actor for the role.
“I always thought Ron would be great,” del Toro says. “I stuck to my guns. Ron had been so incredibly loyal on Cronos, even when we didn’t pay him on time. I couldn’t turn my back on him.” Del Toro cast Perlman in Blade II—and when that film debuted to huge business in 2002, del Toro used the box-office clout from its opening weekend to get Hellboy on track, with Perlman as the title character.
“He thought, ‘If I don’t get this made with Ron this week, I’m hanging it up,’ ” Perlman says. “Without that one little window—after Blade II’s opening weekend—he never would have got it made. But he took all those years of ‘no’ and then got the ‘yes.’ How many guys would stick by an actor like that? Del Toro—the bull: He’s aptly named.” It was del Toro again—with Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)—that led to “Sons of Anarchy”: “I don’t think I’d be in ‘Sons of Anarchy’ if it weren’t for Hellboy II,” Perlman says. “Hellboy II was No. 1 at the box office on its opening weekend and so I was the flavor of the week. I got on a short list of people they were looking at for ‘Sons.’
“Really, Guillermo has been involved in the entire trajectory of my career for the last 21 years, particularly the last 12 years, which have been the most satisfying of my life. I’ve had real momentum, with no breaks. There are these wonderful little lily pads and I keep jumping from one to another.”
“Ron’s range is so broad that, to this day, he continues to surprise me,” del Toro says. “He’s funny in comedy and he’s moving in dramas. Everybody thinks of him as a character actor but I’ve always thought of him as a leading man.
“And, other than my immediate family, if the world ended and I had to choose someone to spend it with, it would be Ron. He makes me laugh the most of anyone in the entire world. There was a moment on the set of Pacific Rim when he had me laughing so hard, hysterical laughter, that I had a dizzy spell.”
On “Sons of Anarchy,” Clay spent much of the show’s sixth season in prison, framed for a murder he didn’t commit (though he was guilty of much worse), trying to stay alive while surrounded by enemies who want him dead. Perlman was, as actors say, “light” in the show all season, which gave him time to focus on his other projects. While there will be a seventh season of “Sons,” Perlman won’t be part of it. His character killed off near the end of the sixth season. “Frankly, if I’m Claudius to his Hamlet, I’ve been on borrowed time. The fact that Clay made it to the end of season six was a surprise.
“Kurt gave me the gift of time this past season,” Perlman says. “It enabled me to be on the show and work on a lot of other things I’ve been working up to, like the book and launching the movie company.”
The show has been a hit, controversial for its depiction of violence, guns, drugs, race and a variety of topics. But it has been a particular hit with a key demographic: the world that it depicts.
“It was important to Kurt that we get it right in the eyes of the biker community, that we didn’t incur their wrath,” Perlman says. “And we’ve been embraced by the bikers, which is the best review we could have gotten.” The show, in turn, embraced Perlman, using who he was as a person to add layers to the character of Clay, says Chris Collins, “Sons of Anarchy” executive producer.
“I remember Ron coming in during the show’s second or third season and saying, ‘As I’m getting older, with my kids growing, I’m at a point in my life where, as I look toward the end of life, I’m wondering whether I have everything in place that I need,’ ” Collins says. “He tapped into his personal station in life and applied it to the character. One of the things he said was that Clay had gotten the club and his life in Charming exactly the way he wanted them. When we heard him say that, we thought, ‘Now how can we fuck that up?’ ”
“Sons of Anarchy” has been an unexpected career gift for Perlman, a meaty, challenging and, most importantly, steady role in a popular cable series: “I love how he commands the screen,” del Toro says. “That’s not easy to do, when you’re sharing it with Charlie Hunnam.”
Perlman has played a wide variety of characters over a long career—many of them under heavy prosthetic makeup—but none of them have taken him as far from himself as Clay.
“This is the first character I’ve played whose way of thinking does not intersect with my own in any way,” he says. “It’s a bold, incredibly original and compelling character. I’ve been exploring his ruthlessness and his capacity for unpredictability. He’s got an obsession to keep his family autonomy at any cost, which means the lines are blurred between right and wrong. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? That ambiguity is incredibly attractive.
“Most of my characters have a duality, with this gallows humor and cynical way of looking at the world—but they can see both sides of the equation. Clay only sees things one way: His way. And Clay has no sense of humor about himself. This guy is as serious as a heart attack. It’s been a challenge to play him.
“Kurt takes him 180 degrees in a different direction than I approach the world. So I’m in a constant state of being uncomfortable—and that’s a great thing to be asked to do. I can never take anything for granted about this guy. I’m never in my comfort zone. I’m as surprised as the audience at the things I’m asked to do. It challenges me to my core.”
Perlman admits that, prior to playing this hard-charging biker boss, he had never ridden a motorcycle—nor had he ever had the desire to.
“I had to learn for the show,” he says with a smile. “I found myself intimidated by how exposed you are. I never really found my comfort zone on a bike. I gave it my all and I think I did a good job. But I never crossed that threshold where you learn something and then find a passion for it. That never quite happened for me.” Similarly, though Clay Morrow sports a variety of tattoos, Perlman has no ink, and no desire to get any.
“I was never that guy,” he shrugs. “My kids are another story. (He has a daughter, 28, and a son, 23.) I share my opinion freely with them: that, while an impulse is strong at the moment, it will turn into something completely different by tomorrow. You can end up with a compendium of artwork on your body that might have been a good idea at the time, but which is no longer relevant. I mean, I love my mom, but if I want to remember her, I think about her—I don’t have ‘MOM’ applied to my body.”
The ideas that Perlman is considering for his memoir dovetail with his plans for his own production company. He wants to make “movies without special effects,” the kind of smaller independent dramas and comedies that he enjoys himself. That kind of film is struggling, he believes, because of the increasing corporatization of the movie industry and American society in general.
“Every aspect of our culture has been affected by this notion of big fish swallowing littler fish,” he says. “We used to be a sole-proprietor society. Sure, there was General Electric and U.S. Steel, but the mom-and-pop businesses took care of the rest of the needs of the community. Now there is this voracious, insatiable need for corporations to outdo themselves in terms of the numbers they put up. So medium-sized companies buy smaller companies and become bigger companies. Eventually, there are going to be about eight corporations that own everything in the entire universe.
“Since I’m not an economist or a politician—but a lowly actor—I want to tell that story through the lens of my ability to make a living. If you spend 40 or 50 years dwelling in a particular milieu, what good is it unless you can pass on some of the things you’ve learned, to make things easier for the generation that follows? My kids are entering the arts—and I’m obsessed with leaving them something of value.”
But Perlman will also include his uniquely self-deprecating wit. “He’s a really funny guy with that dry, New York sense of humor,” Largo says. “He’s also a super-intelligent guy. He comes out with a New Yorker’s ‘motherfucker’—but he can also quote Shakespeare at length. You look at him physically and he’s not a matinee idol. But he has this incredible passion for the arts and he’s extremely well-read. When you talk to him, he has very clear ideas about many things.”
With the book, he wants to make people understand that, even with the fallow periods he lived through, his career has been a constant source of surprise for him.
“The things that have happened to me as an actor have so far exceeded my expectations,” he says. “If it all ended now, I could say I had as satiating a career as I wanted, in terms of the opportunities I was given. Things continue to come in, almost in spite of myself.
“I stopped dreaming because my real life exceeded what I could have dreamed of. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve lived a life that’s exceeded my dreams—and I’m a big dreamer.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.