If you’re casting a television series about a judge who suffers a breakdown and thinks he’s receiving messages from God that put him on a path of vigilante justice, you need a guy with both gravitas and imposing menace — and fortunately Amazon’s new Hand of God series, debuting this week, found a leading man with both of those qualities in Ron Perlman, occasional Hellboy and character actor supreme. Whether he’s appeared au naturel or under makeup, worked live action or voiced animated characters, Perlman’s distinctive talent has been entertaining audiences for 30 years, and he’s assembled an eclectic filmography along the way. It’s about time we honored Mr. Perlman with the Total Recall treatment, wouldn’t you say?
A latex-covered Perlman got his big break in this award-winning adaptation of the 1911 novel, about a Neanderthal war for fire — and the dangerous quest undertaken by a small band of tribesmen who are forced to find another source after their clan’s fire is stolen by a rival tribe. An hour and 40 minutes of grunted dialogue and dirty caveman sex obviously isn’t what most filmgoers have in mind when they head out for a night at the cineplex, but Quest for Fire managed to perform relatively well at the box office, and became something of an early ‘80s cult favorite — as well as a hit with critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who said it was “more than just a hugely enterprising science lesson, although it certainly is that. It’s also a touching, funny and suspenseful drama about prehumans.”
Going under heavy makeup for Quest for Fire helped Perlman launch his career, so perhaps it’s fitting that things didn’t truly take off for him until he put on prosthetics again — this time for Beauty and the Beast, an unlikely-seeming hit drama that aired for three seasons on CBS between 1987-’90. A modern retelling of the oft-adapted fable, this Beauty posited our hero as a member of a secret community below New York City whose disfigurement masks a noble warrior’s heart — as evidenced when he rescues a lawyer (Linda Hamilton) from a brutal attack, saving her life and starting one of the era’s most swoonworthy TV love affairs. The show burned bright but fast — ratings started fading in the second season, and Hamilton’s departure the following year cemented its fate in the third and final batch of episodes — but it earned Perlman a Golden Globe and a whole new lease on his professional life.
Perlman started his continuing association with Guillermo del Toro in this 1993 horror movie, about the gruesome series of events that unfolds after an old man (Federico Luppi) discovers an ancient scarab that injects him with a mysterious substance — one which restores his youthful vitality, but leaves him with a thirst for blood. Perlman stars in a supporting role as the ironically named Angel de la Guardia, a hoodlum sent on a quest by his elderly uncle, who craves the scarab’s restorative powers; the path of violence he carves in pursuit of his goal sets in motion some of Cronos’ most memorably horrific sequences. It barely registered a blip on the U.S. box office, but Cronos was an instant hit with critics; as an appreciative Ken Hanke wrote for the Asheville Mountain Xpress, it is “one of the most intelligent — and strangely moving — horror films ever made.”
Perlman’s work with Guillermo del Toro has placed him within some pretty remarkable cinematic worlds, but his sojourn into Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s City of Lost Children might be the most visually striking of them all: a dense, whirring dystopia where an evil scientist (Daniel Emilfork) steals the dreams of kidnapped children. Their only hope is One (Perlman), a circus strongman whose younger brother is among the lost — and for whom he’ll set out on an arduous journey to rescue. Rife with sights that will haunt the viewer long after the credits roll, City won praise from critics like Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle, who recommended it as “a dark phantasmagoria so visually amazing and provocative — yet dense and confusing — that viewers may need to see it more than once to take it all in.”
Witty equal-opportunity political humor has become something of a lost art on the big screen over the last decade or so, but thing’s weren’t always this way. For proof, simply look to 1995’s The Last Supper, an ensemble indie comedy about a group of young liberals (including Cameron Diaz, Ron Eldard, and Annabeth Gish) who begin poisoning conservative dinner guests as part of a misguided campaign to save the world. While the murder victims aren’t terribly sympathetic, their murderers aren’t especially likable either — so by the time they cross paths with a Limbaugh-esque conservative pundit (played by Perlman), loyalties to either ideological extreme have been tested. “In today’s divisive political climate, where compromise is a dirty word,” observed Leslie Rigoulot of Film Scouts, “The Last Supper raises not only timely questions but moral dilemmas as well.”
A goofy Steve Zahn comedy with a minuscule budget and a box office tally that wasn’t much bigger, Happy, Texas gave Perlman the opportunity to steal scenes in another supporting role: Marshal Nalhober, a straight-shooting cop in hot pursuit of three escaped prisoners (Zahn, Jeremy Northam, and M.C. Gainey) posing as the organizers of a local beauty pageant. Eminently quotable and buoyed by a smart, rootsy soundtrack, Happy provoked appreciative guffaws from critics like Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times, who called it “a hoot, a hilarious comedy that’s smart and caring, yet sexy and ingenious enough that it just might stir up some of that elusive Full Monty-style box-office appeal.”
Perlman went back under the makeup — and reunited with his Cronos and Blade II director, Guillermo del Toro — for 2004’s Hellboy, an adaptation of the popular Dark Horse Comics title. Grossing under $60 million in the U.S., it was something of a disappointment at the box office, but Perlman and Del Toro were a natural fit for the franchise; four years after the first Hellboy, Perlman teamed up again with Guillermo del Toro for another round of supernatural fun — and while the original Hellboy earned mostly positive reviews, the sequel was an even bigger critical winner. A gleeful blend of popcorn thrills and uniquely del Toro visual splendor, Hellboy II: The Golden Army reunited the original cast for an epic battle between the forces of good and an irate elven king (Luke Goss) who wants to reignite the long-dormant war between elves and humans. While it was overshadowed at the box office by The Dark Knight and Iron Man, it still earned over $160 million — and earned the admiration of critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who called it “the biggest, richest, most imaginative superhero movie of the summer.”
A sort of cross between An Inconvenient Truth and The Thing, this wintry thriller found writer/director Larry Fessenden returning to the themes of isolation he explored in Wendigo, while adding an ecologically conscious twist: at a remote ANWR drilling base, a team of workers (led by Perlman) starts dying off, casualties of “sour gas” released as a side effect of global warming — or are they under attack from vengeful spirits of the Earth? Though it screened in extremely limited release, The Last Winter received more than a few positive reviews from critics, including Aaron Hillis of Premiere Magazine, who called it “A richly drawn, ambitious character piece both socially relevant and genuinely suspenseful” before concluding, “This is filmmaking both gorgeous and deeply unsettling.”
Perlman and his Last Winter director, Larry Fessenden, re-teamed for this 2008 black comedy — only this time, they were both on the same side of the camera. Helmed by Glenn McQuaid (who also worked behind the scenes on The Last Winter), I Sell the Dead recounts the story of a pair of Irish grave robbers (played by Fessenden and Dominic Monaghan), as told to a jailhouse priest (Perlman). A bizarre mashup of 19th-century period thriller and zombie/alien comic gore, Dead had a blink-and-you-missed it theatrical run, playing on only two screens, but even some of the critics who couldn’t recommend it found the film impossible to dislike — such as Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, who mused, “If it’s not actually a good movie, on some level you have to admire the chutzpah of a film set in 1850s Ireland but shot on Staten Island.”
Perlman stayed busy on television in the years after Beauty and the Beast, consistently booking voice work and episodic guest spots on shows even as his film roles continued to pile up — and putting him in a uniquely enviable position as the small screen’s new golden age made the prospect of snagging a regular series gig increasingly appealing to a widening circle of Hollywood vets. It paid fresh dividends with Sons of Anarchy, the 2008-’14 FX hit that spun circles of tightly woven (and increasingly dark) drama out of the inner lives of a California motorcycle gang whose second-generation vice-president (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself increasingly at odds with the gang’s morally ambiguous leader (Perlman). Consistently critically acclaimed, Sons set ratings records for the network — and offered Perlman an opportunity to prove he could help anchor a series without a lion-shaped prosthetic covering his face.
Finally, here’s one of Mr. Perlman’s first television appearances — the role of Dr. Bernie Marx on a 1979 episode of the daytime serial Ryan’s Hope: