Like many character actors, Ron Perlman (who marked his 70th birthday in April!) has a lengthy resumé filled with roles that span a huge range—he’s done comedies, crime dramas, comic book movies, many TV shows, and many more animated voices. For the purposes of this list, we’ve narrowed it to our 14 favorite live-action genre roles to date.
Perlman made his feature-film debut playing a caveman (alongside Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill) in this historical fantasy from Jean-Jacques Annaud. The title Quest for Fire pretty much describes the plot; it’s about a trio of hirsute early humans who set out to replenish their tribe’s most precious resource when it’s accidentally extinguished. Along the way: adventures, majestic animals, non-consensual sexual encounters, humor both intentional and unintentional, some surprisingly nuanced grunting, and a display of Oscar-nominated make-up that foreshadows Perlman’s career-spanning talent for emoting even while wearing major prosthetics.
Perlman’s ability to make an impression even in smaller supporting roles is apparent in this notorious 1996 turkey, a movie so overstuffed with lurid visuals—a very extra Marlon Brando stars as H.G. Wells’ mad scientist who’s obsessed with creating animal-human hybrids—that it’s hard to know where to direct your attention at times. Perlman pops up as Sayer of the Law, an eloquent man-goat who initially preaches the importance of acting as civilized as possible to his fellow humanimals, but eventually realizes he and his ilk are better off just being themselves. It’s probably the least embarrassing role in the entire movie, which is saying a lot, actually.
Perlman’s entry into the Harry Potter realm was voicing Gnarlack, a pretty stereotypical cigar-chomping, double-crossing, gangster nightclub-owner type, except that he’s a goblin. (Though Fantastic Beasts is ostensibly a live-action movie, Gnarlack is a CG animated character, created via Perlman’s motion-capture performance—so yes, we’re cheating a little by counting this as a live-action role.) Gnarlack only has one big scene, but Perlman’s appearance here adds another spoke to his ever-growing wheel of genre franchise appearances, not to mention further proof that if a casting director is thinking “he’s a tough guy, but also a fantasy monster,” their thoughts pretty much begin and end with Perlman.
No legend is born in a vacuum—so when the 2011 Conan reboot needed someone exceptionally fierce to play Jason Momoa’s warrior father, Perlman was the perfect choice. First, he delivers his son on the battlefield as the child’s mother draws her last breath. You may ask yourself: Is there a shot of Perlman holding the infant aloft and bellowing to the heavens? By Crom, there is! Then the movie fast-forwards a little and we see him schooling the boy in combat and sword-making while offering some solid advice about patience and the importance of not having a shitty attitude. Finally, he sacrifices himself (under a cauldron of molten steel!) to save his son’s life, setting young Conan on a lifelong quest for revenge. Look, the movie overall is not great, but Perlman’s 20-ish minutes of screentime could not be any more badass.
This 2011 release pairs Nicolas Cage and Perlman as wisecracking 14th-century Teutonic knights who dip out of the Crusades after they grow weary of the endless slaughter, only to find the Black Plague has gruesomely swept their homeland when they return. As punishment for their desertion, they’re made (by Christopher Lee!) to transport an accused witch (Claire Foy!) to a monastery, where she’ll be put “on trial” because the Church assumes the disease outbreak is her doing. Perlman’s mainly on sidekick duty here, but he also seems to be having the most fun out of anyone, in a silly movie that doesn’t really mean to be anything other than B-grade schlock.
Did you remember Perlman being in this one? You wouldn’t be alone in trying to wipe all of this 2002 misfire from your brain. But he’s there indeed, under scads of make-up, playing the telepathic Reman Viceroy who’s loyal to Tom Hardy’s sinister Romulan-created Picard clone, Shinzon. In 2010, Perlman spoke to StarTrek.com about the awesomely nerdy reason why he took such an incognito role: “I think my manager said, ‘There’s interest in you for a Star Trek movie’ [and] I went, ‘Yeah, man, just tell me the time and the place and I’ll be there.’ Then they said it’d be a heavy prosthetic makeup job and I said, ‘No problem. It’s still Star Trek.’”
Larry Fessenden’s 2006 eco-horror film casts Perlman as gruff company man Ed Pollack, head of an oil-drilling expedition in remote Alaska who’d just as soon not have to deal with the dorky environmentalists who’ve been tasked with supervising his operation. As it turns out, the “greenies” are the least of Ed’s worries, as the land itself begins to rebel against the intrusion of those who would pillage its resources—manifesting its revenge in the form of sabotage, mind-fuckery, and furious ghosts. It doesn’t end well for Ed, but Perlman’s calibrated performance lays the foundation for the character’s explosive bluster. He’s not a villain, really, he’s just a guy who’s used to getting his way, and when his employees are threatened by the wilderness he risks his own skin to save them. That said, he does remain a climate-change denier until the very end.
Perlman began his long partnership with Guillermo del Toro in 1993, playing a bilingual bad guy in the future Oscar-winning filmmaker’s first feature. His character, the sharp-dressed Angel de la Guardia, becomes obsessed with tracking down a mysterious “Cronos device” to please his demanding, but terminally-ill-with-no-other-heirs uncle—and he’s not afraid to wield horrific violence to get his hands on it. Of course, he doesn’t realize at first that the device turns people into immortal vampires, which complicates his plan to demolish the device’s grimly bloodthirsty and terribly hard-to-kill current owner, though it doesn’t stop him from trying multiple times.
Perlman’s most recent del Toro outing (at least until Nightmare Alley is released) was this 2013 chunk of monster mayhem that imagines giant Kaiju have waged war on the human race. For most of the movie’s characters, this situation gives them reason to band together, climb inside giant robots, and try to be heroes. For Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, who peddles Kaiju organs on the black market, it’s a business opportunity.
The scenery-gobbling character, resplendent in a brocade velvet jacket and gold grill, supplies comic relief in a movie that’s mostly focused on wild action, and the mid-credits scene—in which Chau, presumed dead after being gulped down by a baby monster 30 minutes earlier, slices his way out of its giant carcass—must go on any highlight reel of Perlman greatness.
It’s sorta easy to forget that Joss Whedon penned this fourth Alien installment, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (co-director of The City of Lost Children, which is also on this list), but Perlman’s involvement is burnished on the brain of anyone who watches it. His character, Johner, is one of several mercenaries who encounter a clone of Ripley (and several other xenomorph-adjacent experiments) aboard a science vessel in deep space. He’s cruel and crude, and fancies himself “not the man with whom to fuck,” at least until he gets his ass handed to him after attempting to flirt with a superpowered copy of the galaxy’s toughest survivor. Though Johner is definitely a dick, he has more than his share of quotable lines (“Earth, man...what a shithole”), and Perlman’s sheer force of personality actually makes you glad the guy survives to the end of the movie.
In this 1987 TV series that boasted George R.R. Martin as one of its writers and producers, Perlman played a dashing beast-man named Vincent who lurks in a secret world beneath New York City, watching over Linda Hamilton’s determined DA and making audiences swoon in the process. Fairy-tale hero Vincent was one of Perlman’s first high-profile gigs, and even though he hasn’t been cast in too many “romantic leading man”-type roles since, you can catch glimpses of that same soulfulness coming through in other, more unexpected places—including Hellboy (which we’ll get to real soon, don’t worry).
In 1995, two years before Alien Resurrection, Perlman teamed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro for this dark and moody (yet occasionally whimsical) fantasy tale. As in Beauty and the Beast, he gets to play a good guy; this time, he’s a circus strongman who sets out to save his kidnapped little brother from a twisted man who steals dreams from children, hoping to restore his own youth. The surreal visuals often outshine the story here, but Perlman—who apparently learned all his lines in French despite not speaking the language prior to the production—is at least one solid component amid all the dreamy nightmares.
Yep, it’s another del Toro joint involving vampires. Perlman plays the swaggering Reinhardt, one among a group of vampires called the “Bloodpack” who grudgingly team up with their former target, the daywalker Blade (Wesley Snipes), to fight the mutant “Reaper” vampires that are running around and inconveniencing everyone. The truce doesn’t last—and opinions may vary over how good a movie Blade II actually is—but there’s plenty of delightful tension built up along the way, even as Reinhardt spends most of the movie with an explosive controlled by Blade attached to the back of his shiny bald head.
Hellboy may forever be the ultimate Perlman role. It combines so many of his strengths (his burly charisma, his superhuman way of making special effects make-up feel totally natural, his sense of humor, his offbeat action-hero chops) and brings them to their highest level under the watchful eye of Perlman’s favorite director, whose visual flair and love of the macabre similarly prove to be the perfect match for Mike Mignola’s iconic comic book character. Let’s just hope Hollywood never tries to make a Hellboy movie without Perlman and del Toro. Oh wait.
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