Authors: Ron Perlman
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Perlman
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ISBN 978-0-306-82345-9 (e-book)
Editorial production byMarrathon Production Services.www.marrathon.net
DESIGN BY JANE RAESE
Set in 12-point Dante
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
This book is dedicated to the believers, quintessential of whom are my beautiful wife and best friend, Opal Stone, my kids, Blake and Brandon Perlman, who always direct me to true north, and my dear, dear Mom, Dorothy Rosen Perlman Kestenbaum. And equally important, to the unbelievers, who have shaped me as surely as the waters shape the mountains.
Foreword by Guillermo del Toro
1 A Coupla Cannibals Are Eating a Clown . . .
2 A Coupla Drunks Walk Out of a Bar . . .
3 Out of the Drink
4 Grinding Machine
7 Just Good Enough to Not Get Paid
8 My Cave or Yours?
9 Wanna Set the Night on Fire . . .
10 Get a Real Job
11 Stage or Scream
12 Name of the Rose
13 Birth of the Beast
14 Beauty in the Beast
15 How You Doin’?
16 Not So Good . . . Until
17 They Call Them Shrinks for a Reason
18 Enfants Perdus
19 Como Day Peliculas . . .
20 The Doctor Will See You Now
21 Piled Higher and Deeper
22 Meanwhile . . .
25 The Power and the Glory
Memory is, by definition, imperfect.
In reading Ron’s memoirs, I am delighted to discover nuances and details I had long forgotten. This proves to me that it is not enough to have lived one’s life if you have no one to share it with. The Perl and I have been friends now for well over two decades. He is my brother, my blood, and my confidant. I love him because he is, as you are about to discover, one of the most imperfect, most charming human beings on the planet. Agent Myers in the firstHellboyfilm expresses one of the few maxims I have been able to verbalize and one that I live by day to day: “We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” In writing this line I meant to say that we must not simply “accept” imperfection when it is revealed to us—we must celebrate it. This, I assure you, is the true sign of friendship.
Ron and I hide nothing from each other, and we are, therefore, able to be at ease when we hang out. Ron wears his imperfection with great pride, but he went through a long and painful process to be able to achieve such a state of grace. This process is detailed in several chapters of the book you are about to read. The Perl has embellished every anecdote in which I am involved, that much I know.
I am glad he recalls—or has fabricated—so many details. It makes no difference whether I agree with them because I would much rather hear Ron tell the story than pursue accuracy. You see, Ron happens to be the best raconteur I have ever met. All the stories he tells have a setup and a punch line and are always entertaining.
You can and will spend hours with the Perl and learn more about yourself, what it means to be human, by hearing him tell you tales in which he fumes, cringes, or grovels at the feet of life. His triumphs and struggles are instructive and entertaining in equal measure. He is not gossipy, but he stays compelling. He gives you a map of his flaws but is kind enough to be mum about the many flaws of others. He is Virgil to his own Dante and takes us all on a travelogue of self-discovery and acceptance.
Ron’s journey as an actor is woven tightly with my own growth as a director. I was a fan of his early enough that we caught each other in the infancy of our careers. He neglects to tell the story, but he stood by me onCronoswhen his team advised him to leave the production. We were entirely broke and unable to pay him his due weekly salary, but he trusted me. I gave him my word that he would get paid every cent if he stayed and finished the production. I never forgot this, and I, in turn, stood by him as my choice for Hellboy. Back then it didn’t make the financing of the movie any easier.
I didn’t really care. I stuck to my belief that Ron was Hellboy. It was a simple fact because, naturally, I had written the part for him. All those lines in both movies, the ones that seem improvised and spontaneous, seem so because I know the man as well as I do and have such kinship with him. Ron is Hellboy, yes, but I will always look upon Ron wishing I could be him when I grow up. That has proven to be out of the question as I turn fifty and my only growth is now lateral. But one can hope . . .
Ron and I are not afraid of a good fight or a verbal dustup when we get too big for our britches. We knock each other around from time to time, but we always end up standing on a burnt-out battlefield when everyone else has toppled. We have gone through day shoots, night shoots, all nighters, seventy-two-hour days, lack of funds, mutiny or bliss, explosions, slime, blood, freezing rain, six-hour makeup jobs, and each other’s tempers, and we’ve got each other’s back every time.
Our friendship is stronger than ever. I love Ron. I love his defects and love the fact that he has chosen to ignore mine. We are fallible ashumans and very exacting as artists, and that is a combination you can only reveal to your closest companions and accomplices. I have seen Ron grow into the most unlikely of leading men, and he has remained my constant partner in crime. Some of our adventures together are chronicled in this book, but most of them are not. Each movie we’ve made would give enough chill and thrill to fill a book this size, but Ron is chronicling his most important endeavor: his truce with himself and the long journey to being able to live at peace in one’s skin.
I read speedily and hungrily through every page and discovered details and episodes in Ron’s life that I knew nothing about. This book is bound to surprise you too, even if you are already a fan, and it will turn you into one if you are not. May we all love Ron for those precious defects he has made all his own, and may we all live long enough to witness and share his earnest, pratfall-laden journey into full realization.
Love the Perl. You will too.
Guillermo del Toro
Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim
A Coupla Cannibals Are Eating a Clown . . .
The year 1969 was a culturally packed dividing line, or a closing of many circles that changed scores of things, not only for me but also for history. Nixon was sworn in as president, and the death toll in Vietnam reached 320,000. A man had actually walked on the moon. The Jets, quarterbacked by “Broadway Joe” Namath, had won the Super Bowl, and the underdog Mets would win their first World Series. There were student protests and the Chicago Eight, and madman Charles Manson would go on his Helter Skelter senseless killing spree. The Academy Award for Best Picture would go toMidnight Cowboy, John Wayne would win a long-awaited Best Actor Oscar for his performance inTrue Grit, and the young and dashing Newman-and- Redford duo would bust the box offices and hearts of American women inButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And on the radio that year the counterculture had gone commercial: the big hits blaring from every transistor and car tuner were the songs “The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In,” “Come Together,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “In the Year 2525.”
Theater was also at an apex—culturally well regarded and important and probably never to return to the status in which it was held then. The thing we now call Off-Off Broadway was invented in thebasements and factory lofts of the Lower East Side. And during that very week when my girlfriend and cousin tracked me down, there were over one hundred thousand people converging on Max Yeager’s farm in Woodstock.
This is how the script was written for me that day: a guy walks out of a restaurant in late summer of 1969. He’s about to get the big kind of news that happens only a few times in life, a notice of the caliber that packs aFor Whom the Bell Tolls–type of emotional gut punch, which he surely didn’t want to hear just then, not when for the first time in his life he was actually feeling sort of good about himself.
He’s in the quaint little New England town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains. It’s a beautiful sunny day, the kind with blue-eyed skies and air as fresh as a fucking dinner mint. He’s laughing, joking around with his buddies, as he steps out onto the sidewalk, though he has absolutely no warning and no clue of what’s going to happen in the next few minutes. He’d just finished lunch in a cheap eatery, a hole-in-the-wall joint named Alice’s Restaurant, the same one made famous by folksinger Arlo Guthrie, the one where “you can get anything you want.” Although when he spotted these two people who were very special to him—up here in the green mountains, a three-hour drive from the city—showing up unannounced and walking toward him, he knew he was about to get something he surely didn’t want or need.
This guy—whose future would have him being a Neanderthal; a lion-faced man; a red-tailed, red-bodied, wiseass devil; a Romulan; a hunchback; a cross-dresser; a cop; a lawyer; a biker; and a hundred other personas—was just a nineteen-year-old kid then. He was six foot two with piercing blue eyes and curly blondish hair. He was thick boned, as they used to call it, though not noticeably overweight as he had been the majority of his childhood. He did, however, have a unique face, a distinctive kisser, as he’d been told a thousand times, with a pronounced jaw and high forehead. It was the kind of face that was not ugly but surely one of its kind, and he’d gotten accustomed to people sometimes taking a double look. He had learned tocounter this seemingly endless barrage of negativity with a tough-guy, good-humored bravado, which he had learned as a necessity to survive when growing up on the streets of Washington Heights, NYC.
But that day in Stockbridge he was working as an intern for a theater troupe and was thrilled, pumped up to be finally hanging around with real, working actors. He had just finished his first year in college studying drama and had had the luck of getting an internship as an assistant stage manager, or a PA, which was really a glorified coffee getter in the hierarchy of theater, but it was still an opportunity this kid was just ecstatic to have. He’d spent the previous weeks with the troupe as it rehearsed toward bringing a play, a Leonard Melfi experimental piece titledThe Jones Man, to the stage. He had been aboard since early June as the play was rehearsed in East Village Off-Off Broadway playhouses and then went to the Provincetown Theater Festival on Cape Cod. And now he was on the second leg of this magical summer, having moved to the Berkshire Theater Festival to assist in still another out-of-town tryout of a brand-new American play, this one starring Ed Setrakian and Richard Lynch, two up-and-coming and highly regarded downtown New York actors.
It all changed and came to a halt when these two people came toward him. It took a second of focusing to recognize his girlfriend, Linda, and cousin, Kenny. He immediately got a warm smile at such a surprise, but within less than a second a sense of dread filled him with the speed of those internal light switches we have that change our emotional reactions from lights-on to lights-out like the snap of a finger. It was the simple fact these two people, who were so dear to him, just being together that didn’t compute. They had never been in each other’s company in their lives. It was this incongruity that made him know that something cataclysmic had happened. He could see this incredible sadness and dread on his girlfriend’s face. Her usual beautiful, big brown eyes were red and puffy as if she had just forced herself to stop crying.
They seemed so afraid of the news they had to give and what it might engender that he already almost knew what it was he was aboutto learn. Linda looked so sad, and even though his first reaction was, “Holy shit, here’s my girl,” and a surprise that brought a big smile to his face, his stomach knotted up a moment later as her usual warmth was oddly not reciprocated—that was the giveaway. Then he looked at his cousin’s face, one that had mastered the street look of neutrality, and he too seemed uncharacteristically forlorn.
To an observer it might’ve appeared like some heartbreaking romantic turn was about to tear apart the young man. Maybe his girlfriend and cousin were here to personally reveal their affair. But in reality, on that day that type of idea never crossed his mind, nor could he imagine either to be disloyal. Instinctively he knew it was something else, a betrayal of a much grander kind.
He turned to Kenny, because his girl was in too much pain to mouth the words, to intone this news he was about to get . . .
“It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Kenny took a deep breath, and the young man waited for a response that seemed like a million years in coming until his cousin finally spoke: “Yeah. It’s your dad . . . he died.”
It was impossible, he first thought. His pop was only forty-nine years old and had seemed healthier than an ox the last time the kid saw him, only a few weeks earlier. He was the rock, the inspiration, the steadfast example of fortitude. What would happen to his family now, himself, his older brother with his special needs, and his mother, who by temperament was not built to handle even the smallest changes and challenges—and now this?
That kid was me, of course, or how I remember myself, now at age sixty-three, looking back on that day. I didn’t have my shit together at that age, not by any means, although I took the news stoically—or at least I appeared to. I knew I needed to get home, take charge. I told my girlfriend and cousin to stand by and give me a half hour to gather my things and tell the bosses in the company that I needed to leave and that I was unlikely to return to finish the summer internship. Death is a thief, the grandest perpetrator of larceny of all. It robs the potential of all the things left undone and reimburses the living with bits ofmemories that, with each day, pass through the fingers like a handful of sand.
It would take more than two hours to drive back home to find out exactly how my father died, which would be the most moving and poetic way a man’s life could end. He had taught me to have big dreams and convinced me that I would one day grab the world by the balls—or at least try to with all I had by dedicating my life to acting. He had told me that I could silence the naysayers by showing them what I had. When I got this news I went into action because that’s what always worked to subdue the overwhelming bouts of self-doubt and self-loathing that plagued me.
I was sorry I had to leave, because that summer, finally, I was feeling good, like a million bucks, even if I only actually had twenty-five in my pocket and was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a shack of a cottage the theater company provided for our class of peons, or PAs. I had been doing it—actually being in theater, mingling among people who were real performers who had dedicated their lives to the art, as I planned to do too. During that summer it had become absolutely clear that I not onlywantedto pursue acting but alsoneededto. Before, my exposure to performing arts had been fundamental, sophomoric, but the last six weeks had been eye-opening and an epiphany.
In life it seems like events go from point A to point B, but that’s not the way it really is. These are all only segments that end up making circles, some that never get closed and some that intersect with only another circle, until one’s whole time on earth is a chain of these seminal rings. That’s how life is, or at least how it seems to me now after enough water has passed under the bridge to have given the illusion of some grand plan.
After giving notice I raced back to my cousin’s car and asked him to let me drive. They had been through enough—with the effort it must’ve taken to find out where I was and truck all the way up here—and besides, I needed to be doing something. I needed an activity to keep me from disintegrating. He handed over the keys to his big, wide Buick and sat in the backseat. My girl squeezed next to me, in thedays before seatbelts were required, and pressed her shoulder against mine and put her hand on my leg. Me, I was gripping ten-and-two on the wheel, the windows were down, the radio was off, and I beelined down toward the city. Gunning along the two-lane, tree-lined parkways with the speed of the gushing wind and the whoosh of passing cars created a welcomed sound to fill the car’s deadly silence.
Everyone in the theater company—the director, producers, the other PAs, and even the actors—had been exceptionally sympathetic and understanding, which was a surprise considering how low I was on the totem pole. Most of what I’d been assigned to do had been basically busywork and hardly of value. I especially remembered the heartfelt reaction of the principal actor, Richard Lynch. He was then and continued to be throughout my life a genuinely stand-up guy, despite the demons he battled. In the last few weeks my job had been to get Richard onstage sober each night and keep him away from the vodka. Sometimes I was successful, and other times, not so much. I went from being a protector to an enabler in about five seconds flat on occasion because Richard could charm the keys right off of the warden.
That was the first time I was drawn into the wilds of the performing arts and exposed to the internal torments so many actors dealt with in trying to get through the day’s performance. It comes to that thin line between creativity and self-destruction. I stopped at the liquor store whenever he pleaded, as he promised to have only a quick guzzle and no more. The director would scold me when I brought Richard to the stage in a cloud of booze breath: “I told you he was going to charm you into a fucking bottle.”
Richard was an incredibly handsome guy, so much so that it was hard to stop yourself from staring at him even though it might be construed as a bit gay. Richard was one of the next generation of young actors around whom there was buzz that he was about to break into the big time. On top of his amazing good looks, he had the acting chops of Brando. Yet already he also had this very toxic combinationof forces working on him. He was very ambivalent about success, and he was very pro-substance abuse.
His claim to fame was that two years before I met him he had dropped acid and lit himself on fire in Central Park. So the Richard Lynch I knew, even though you could actually still see how naturally good looking he was, had suffered third-degree burns that nearly destroyed his face. He had to be completely surgically reconstructed. I remained active friends with him after our time in Stockbridge, and over the years there was this wonderful, real simpatico between us every time we met.
When he found out my dad had died, he stepped up and made sure I knew he was sending his love and support. He was a really talented and kind-hearted man who, unfortunately, would go on to battle a lifelong drinking problem. But watching him that summer, as he transformed into the actor’s persona, was absolutely thrilling to me, and he inspired and taught me so much. Richard died at age seventy-two in 2012 after playing a wide array of heinous villains in film and television. He made his feature acting debut in 1973’sScarecrowalongside Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Like myself to a degree, Richard became very popular on the sci-fi and horror circuit later in his career.
Somewhere on the Taconic Parkway I looked in the rearview and caught my cousin’s eyes looking at me.
“My brother,” I asked, “is he around?” I was hoping, for my mother’s sake, he wasn’t having one of his episodes, as we called them long before the mental health disorder from which my brother suffered even had a name.
“Yeah,” Kenny said. “He’s at your place. He’s cool.” And then he named my uncles and aunts who were staying with Mom in the apartment. The last time I had called home, from a pay phone, my mom told me they were heading out on their annual vacation. Even though we didn’t have much money, my folks always took a two-week trip to the Catskills or the Poconos, to the resorts that Jews went to in the fifties and sixties. That year they had been gone only a week to theTamiment Resort in the Poconos, so I knew something must’ve happened to my dad while they were there.
There is always a selfish side to death. There’s often an emotional response of feeling betrayed, as crazy as this may seem, that we sometimes get when the person we love goes and fucking dies on us when we need them most. As I drove I wondered to whom I could tell my stories now, as my dad, having been in the music business during the Swing Era, was the only one who understood. I would’ve told him how that summer I spent time with a local New York kid from the Bronx who would go on to have one of the most heralded movie careers of our time. I spent days with him after our troupe caravanned up to Provincetown.
I had met this Italian guy, then in his mid-twenties, six weeks earlier when I was assigned to drop off a script to his walk-up cold-water flat on Fourteenth Street, between Second and Third Avenues. He had just gotten out of the shower and answered my knock on his door wearing only a towel. He was very friendly to me: “Hey man, I appreciate that a lot. Who are you? Great. Cool, man, thanks.” That guy was Al Pacino.
Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, was a saltwater taffy, boardwalked seaside resort that in those days had turned into a tie-dyed, acid-dropping hippie hangout. It was where a lot of the New York out-of-work actors went to escape the city and chill with friends who were acting in the Festival. Pacino was up there basically on the lam, hiding out from his agent and managers, who were getting movie offers coming out the wazoo. There was a huge buzz about him, and the world was suddenly after him. He was going to be anointed as the next big thing in movies, though at the time he wanted no part of it and was undecided about making the leap from being a serious theater actor to getting swallowed up into the Hollywood machine.
In Provincetown I spent a lot of time with Al, playing pick-up baseball games. Baseball was my thing, so he and I got along great, spending four or five hours a day shagging flies or hitting grounders with a Fungo bat and smoking doobies. I look back at those days and wonderabout the whole stardom thing. Then, Pacino’s dues card was paid up and he’d been chosen, a process that is both baffling and magical. When I knew him he was just a regular kid who grew up in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue. Yet even then he was an extraordinary person with incredible charisma. I’ll always remember my time hanging with Pacino that summer when he was on the verge of launching his amazing career.
I never worked with Al, but I’d see him around town. We seemed to have the same tastes in real Italian food. Out of respect for his privacy, I never went over to his table. But recently I thought,Why the fuck not?and crossed the restaurant to shake his hand. “Yeah, man, I know you. What’s up? Pull up a chair.” We then kibitzed about our summer. He got more and more into it when he recalled the details I described. “Yeah, man, we did that. I remember. Kids, man, we were fucking kids. How cool, I had forgotten that. Age fucking sucks.” Al Pacino went on from that summer in 1969 to amass a two-page list of major awards that he was either nominated for or won, including an Oscar forScent of a Womanin 1993. He is an inerasably talented man and a deserved living cinema icon.
The long and silent car ride back to the city came to an end, and I was apprehensive as we finally found a parking spot. Holding my girlfriend’s hand, I made my way to the family’s apartment building, which by then was still in the Heights but a bit further uptown. Our apartment was on the first floor, a remnant of the doctor’s instruction to remove the three-flight walk-up my dad should avoid, having suffered what I thought was a mild heart attack a couple of years earlier. Little did I know . . . I guess my folks thought it best to protect me from the true gravity of that first episode, how devastatingly damaging it had been.
The apartment smelled different when I entered, maybe from me coming from the fresh mountain air or maybe from the smell that tears make, as if sorrow has its own aroma. When I got my momto calm down, which she did after a few moments of knowing I was there, she told me how it had happened. My dad was the most easygoing, likable person you could ever wanna meet. He played drums in the forties, during the era of the big bands like Bennie Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and the likes, but he had put his sticks away twenty-five years earlier when we kids came along. Making the kind of living it takes to support a family was an honor that distinguished the very few when it came to music. But wherever he found a band, he always managed to charm his way onto the stage to sit in for a few numbers.
My mom told me it was no different at the Tamiment, with Dad getting up on stage each night and doing these crowd-awing drum solos. On that final night he had the house on its feet as he moved the drumsticks like magic wands in his hands until the ultimate note. Near the finale his stick hit the cymbal in the sweetest of tones, and then . . . suddenly he was on the ground. According to my mom and the coroner’s report, he was dead before he hit the floor, victim of a massive coronary.
When I opened up this chapter about my childhood, referring to the tolling bell, a phrase used by poet John Donne and the title of Hemingway’s masterpiece novel, I was thinking of the sound that Dad’s final slam on the cymbal must’ve made. I can still hear it. Although I wasn’t there, I imagine this echo of his very last reverberation rippling out like a widening circle, the kind made by a stone thrown in a pond, until the very essence of his last harmonic act is still rippling endlessly across the galaxy.
It was the saddest story I ever heard my mother tell, yet, even at age nineteen, I was struck by how his death was the most poetically perfect thing that could ever have happened to him. Poetic because if you could name the thing that you wanted to do when you died and your death occurred when you were doing the thing you loved most, then my father went out big! There was no pain, no lingering, but instead he died in that last moment of glory with the sound of the drumbeats and cymbals ringing in his ears.
Jews bury their dead quickly, and within an hour of arriving home I went to the viewing where my dad was laid out. It was an open coffin and the first time I had actually seen anybody dead. My father looked so at peace and still so young, as if I could shout, “Cut!” and the scene would be over and he’d step out of the box as if nothing had happened. But it wasn’t a movie; it was real. And my dad was gone. For good.
Neither Dad nor I, then or now, had ever been too enamored with many of the Jewish traditions or dogma, but what we did find useful were gestures that were truly humane and helped move people through tough times in ways that were helpful, instructive, cathartic. Such was the traditional weeklong Shiva that Jews “sit” after a death. For one week the family stays home, the doors remain open for all to come pay respects, the food and booze are flowing, and a life is celebrated. All the people my dad knew—relatives, neighbors, coworkers—came to the apartment. You go through scrapbooks, you reminisce about what had been happening behind the scenes of old photos and snapshots, you tell stories and anecdotes, you hear things you never might have heard before. Because death provides a kind of perspective that life can never offer: it’s a way to make sense of a person’s life.
For me, I was seeing clearly the cloth from which I’d been cut. Performers must use even the cruelest and saddest emotional experiences as their source of inspiration. That’s what brings authenticity and raises the level of a performance from being “staged,” or fake, into one that transcends and becomes real. Sitting next to my aunt, I looked at a photo of me in my dad’s arms when I was born. Then in another black-and-white snapshot, there I was riding my first bike, Dad steadying the back fender.
I wish I could’ve told that kid as he sat there in this deep grief and loss, even if he appeared pleasant, polite, and strong for his mom in front of the visitors, that understanding and coming to peace with his youth would be so important. He would have to come to own it all. By owning I mean that each of the memories from our childhood must be appreciated, or at least come to terms with, because this foundation is what made us who we are, is what gave us our values and ways to cope.
For some, the weirdness and dysfunction and pain of their early years may have been great, but all of it, good and bad, has to be owned. No matter what line of work you do, success cannot truly be achieved until you own who you are. The most offensive liability then becomes an asset. It makes you perform your best, regardless of the challenges you might face.
When you’re acting and must get into character on command, these emotional experiences you have lived through and learned, every one of them, are each essential tools. Once tapped into, they make for the best performances and create the most believable presentations. When I go into character I use all the feelings—from loss, my perception of my physical and mental awkwardness, and my joys—to transform into character and make it real. I must, no matter the role, find the internal connection that makes me understand how the character I’m playing ticks and attempt to understand and emotionally connect to each role’s particular mindset, as written in the script. No matter the walk of life pursued, even if not in performing arts, owning and knowing the cloth from which you were cut makes you better, makes you succeed at anything you dare to dream, and helps you achieve it.
At that age I felt so much self-loathing at times. With my father gone, who would center me, encourage me, and boost me? No one from the outside world could give criticism with that kind of no-strings-attached, fatherly advice meant from the heart to help the way he did. Later, much later, all of these memories would become paramount in my effort to get better and persevere in the profession I love. But then, when my dad had just died, I looked at those handsome photos of my father and laughed—how did I miss that arrangement of good-looking bones? Sigmund Freud, quoting Napoleon Bonaparte, said, “Anatomy is destiny.”
Look what that little general did to quell the naysayers. Damn, he nearly conquered the world. Through his persistence to show howbighe was, Napoleon is still remembered to this day, and he is not merely lost atoms, ashes of a person’s life scattered into obscurity. That day in August 1969, there in that apartment of grief, I would tell my past selfto listen to me, this guy you would become. Your face is perfect, exactly as it was meant to be. That’s how you accomplished every dream you ever wanted and achieved goals bigger than even imagined—because of that anatomy you once cursed. I wanted to tell him that someday he would look in the mirror and say, “Yes, fuck them all. I may not be as financially well off as I’d like—whoever is?—but I have what’s better than gold. I have self-satisfaction and, simply, I like myself . . .”
A coupla cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other, “Does HE taste funny to you?”
—Bert Perlman, 1919–1969
A Coupla Drunks Walk Out of a Bar . . .
My first address was 633 West 171st Street. My apartment was on the third floor in a building with no elevator, or what we haltingly called awalk-up. The neighborhood was called Washington Heights, so named because it was the highest point in Manhattan. It was the place that allowed General George Washington to have the vantage point he needed to attack and defeat the British as they made their march for New York. It made for a decisive turning point in the war for America’s freedom—no small accomplishment. That was the second-most important fact regarding Washington Heights, with the first, of course, being that it was the eventual birthplace of yours truly.
My building was located between Broadway to the north and Fort Washington Avenue to the south. The neighborhood mirrored New York in general insomuch as it was a melting pot: some Chinese, some Italians, some Irish, and a burgeoning population of Puerto Rican, a trend that led to the imagining of the greatest musical of all time,West Side Story. But what Washington Heights had in most abundance were European Jewish émigrés, some arriving before the insanity of the onslaught of the Third Reich and some actual survivors of the Holocaust. My family was the former, my mom beingfirst-generation American, and my dad, third or fourth generation. (Every time I go toancestry.comto get the answer to that, all I get is chopped liver!)
My apartment was the old-fashioned railroad flat, quite popular in a city where living space was at a premium. Let me describe the set, so to say, of this apartment, which had been the “stage” where my childhood years were played out.
Our place had one long hallway. You opened the door, and just to your left was the first bedroom, the one my brother and I shared. It had twin beds on opposite sides of the room, with his, as the older brother, of course, in the better spot next to the window. Our room was completely unadorned. Maybe there was a picture that he cut out ofDownbeatmagazine, of Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, or some jazz player he was into at the time, tacked to his side of the room. I had a chest at the bottom of my bed for my baseball bats and gloves and maybe some roller skates. That’s it. There were no pictures or posters on my side. Neither of us had bikes; we couldn’t afford them. Then you go down the hallway another four feet and you were in a cramped bathroom with one of those bathtubs on four legs taking up most of the space. Then you go down that same hallway another four feet and you were in the kitchen that had a Formica table and four chrome frame chairs with vinyl checkerboard-patterned seat covers. And the cheapest fuckin’ stove no money could buy. As for the dishwasher—her name was Dotty Perlman.
Go down the hallway again and you were in the living room, which had a sofa and two chairs. There was a big cabinet of a furniture box that housed the TV with its small screen, which we used throughout the fifties and early sixties. There was an upright piano against one wall, and catty corner to that was a Victrola in a cabinet with all of our records. There was no small amount of LPs and 45s inside the cabinet, with more stacked on either side, because my dad had tons of music; there was always something playing on the turntable, mostly Sinatra. Then the last room of the hallway, which was a straight line from beginning to end, was my parents’ bedroom. Hence, railroad flat. It’s afloor plan meant to imitate coaches on a train—what poor guy and his family wouldn’t want to live their entire fuckin’ lives on a train?!
My earliest memory was my dad teaching me how to turn on a baseball. I was around two and a half. Of course he taught me that skill, one for which I became quite prodigious, from the right side of the plate, never stopping to realize that I was wiping my ass with my left hand, thus setting off a lifetime of dyslexia and all the joys that engenders. To this day I can only read one word at a time, which translates into my reading time for Tolstoy’sWar and Peacetaking four and a half years. On this count, however, I must give the old man a pass, ’cuz at two and a half years old I don’t think I was wiping my own ass yet anyway!
At home it was a sanctuary, because mostly everywhere else I was always feeling like the odd man out, at least during the elementary and middle school years. It was like I was always wearing two left shoes. I went to PS 173, followed by junior high school at PS 115. I wasn’t a problematic kid, neither excelling in studies nor getting in trouble. I remember, without exaggeration, that all the way from my first day in kindergarten and throughout middle school I never failed to be the biggest kid in every class. There was simply nowhere for me to hide, and no matter where I went, it was impossible for me to be anonymous. The only life I had before school was completely surrounded by family. I thought everything was cool. Then when I got to school I was one of thirty students in a classroom every year, and for the first eight years, known as the fat kid. There are always two or three of us fat kids, and I was one of ’em. That was my identity: “Oh that’s Ron. He’s the fat kid.” Put my head down so they wouldn’t call on me; put my head down so I don’t get in any fights with anybody; put my head down so nobody has to know how shitty I feel about myself. Just keep my head down except to pick it up to make a quick joke about myself. Before somebody else could.
I remember, even as a kid, thinking there’s something wrong with this reality. It was okay with my mom and most of my family for me to be this big kid, but in truth, it was costing me a lot to be this guyout in the world. Thankfully I found baseball in my younger years, and that provided moments of salvation. I hung with a very small group of neighborhood kids who accepted me for who I was. Of course, these guys, who I still love, were all losers and outcasts in other ways. I didn’t have to be anything more or less with them, and at least I was the king of our little oddball group because of my skills at playing ball. For as long as I was on the field or playing at the school lot or park, I had a new identity, with a reputation as a kid who could hit the ball farther than anybody else. When choosing up teams I was always the first picked and batted fourth. That’s why I played ball every chance I could as a kid. It was a way to take my mind off the fact that I was basically a misfit everywhere else.
My second-oldest memory, a tradition that started almost as early as I was able, was walking from our apartment on 171st Street down to 155th Street, crossing the bridge over the East River to the Bronx, then walking up to 161st Street and River Avenue, buying general admission tickets (around six bucks and change), and taking our seats in the upper deck of the right field stands at . . . you guessed it, the house that Ruth built, the old Yankee Stadium. The seats may have been cheap and the view to the field was close to “rumor-like” insofar as you could barely see the field (we were so far from the field we had to keep asking our neighbors whether the game started yet!), but for some reason when the old man and I watched a game I felt like Rockefeller.
Once you were able to focus on the field, what you saw was pure magic: left field, Enos “Country” Slaughter; right field, Héctor López and, eventually, Roger Maris; center field, Mickey Mantle, my—and every other New Yorker’s—very first larger-than-life, straight-out-of-central-casting, mythological, dyed-in-the-wool hero; third base, Cletis Boyer and, eventually, Greg Nettles; shortstop, Tony Kubek; second base, Billy Martin, then Gil McDougle, and, eventually, Bobby Richardson, the fifties version of Derek Jeter; first base, Moose Skowron; on the mound, either Whitey Ford, Don Larsen (only World Series perfect game!), “Bullitt” Bob Turley, and the renowned, heat-throwing Rhyne Duren. In fact, here’s a little-known side note about oldRhyne: he was a relief pitcher—never came in before late in the eighth or the ninth inning. I think he was the first one I knew of to throw a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. And he wore coke-bottle glasses—blind as a fucking bat! And wild to boot. Now back in the early fifties there was no net behind home plate, nuthin’ to protect the fan from the screaming foul tip. So you sat there at your own risk; there were even signs posted to that effect. Well, old Rhyne Duren would come in in the ninth inning, and his first warm-up pitch usually soared into the sixteenth row. He managed to get his second and third into about the third row. Now not only would this terrify the guy in the on-deck circle he was about to face, but he was also giving poor, unsuspecting fans who were in the middle of a cracker-jack transaction concussions routinely. I mean who’da thought ya had to pay attention during warm-up tosses! So if ya wanna know why there’s a net behind every home plate in the majors . . . it’s because of old blind-as-a-bat Rhyne Duren, the most explosively exciting relief pitcher to ever wear the pinstripes.
Wait, I ain’t done! Catching, Yogi (yes, that Yogi) Berra. Or Elston Howard. That team was the one I watched throughout my childhood all through the fifties. That team was second only to the ’27 Yankees. That team went to the World Series almost every year. And I’m not sure if you heard me, but that team had “The Mick” in center. And oh, by the way, all those guys I mentioned stayed Yankees their entire careers. ’Cuz therewereno sports agents, therewereno lawyers, therewasno such thing as “free agency”—there was only loyalty. And grit. And if you were a Yankee fan, magic! I mean jeez, how can a Rockefeller feel any better’n that? All that andhot dogstoo. All that seeping into me courtesy of the biggest Yankee fan of all, my dad. His love for the game, its purity, its meritocracy, its nuances of strategy, its fairness—all seeping their way into me. If that ain’t as American as Horatio Alger and apple pie, I don’t know what is!
If you walked out of my building and went to the right, you’d be on Fort Washington Avenue. There was kind of nothing down there except other apartment buildings—very residential. But if you walkedout and went left, you were on Broadway, the longest street in America. But on my little patch of Broadway there was just one business after another business, after another business, after a restaurant, after a deli, after a meat shop, after a candy store, after a movie theater, and so on and so forth and so on. Broadway had everything. If you went south on Broadway from 171st Street to 170th, you’d find an optometrist, a luncheonette, hair dressers, barbers, and you’d eventually hit Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and then Audubon Ballroom, made famous as the site of Malcolm X’s assassination, and the Museum of the American Indian—hadn’t reached the status of “Native” yet; after all, it was only the fifties!—and a whole bunch of shit.
But the main reason I went south on Broadway was to hit the deli on the corner of 170th; I mean a real, bona fide deli, which even now makes my stomach growl just thinking about it. In the fifties and early sixties there were delis on every street in New York—gooddelis. There were also Chinese restaurants on every street. And they were all good, all authentic. Delis and Chinese, everywhere ya looked—a Jewish kid’s dream!! There was also a pizza shop on every block. So on the next block down from my apartment, between 170th and 169th Streets, there was this place called Como’s. It was where I had the first slice of pizza in my life, where I learned how to fold it so the oil could run down your elbow. Pizza. To this day my number-one favorite and the one reason I will never, ever be svelte! And heroes: chicken parm, meatball, eggplant! If I was hooked on Italian food—and trust me when I tell ya I am—it’s ’cuz of Como’s Pizzeria on 169th and Broadway.
Then if you went left on Broadway, heading further uptown, halfway up the block you’d come to Epstein’s drugstore. This drugstore is where you went for everything from filling prescriptions or, if you got something in your eye, the druggist would take it out with a Q-tip or clean out a scraped knee and put a bandage on it. The druggists knew everybody on a first-name basis, and they were very protective of the neighborhood kids. You went to Epstein’s if you couldn’t find your parents or if you got locked out of your apartment. I felt safe with those guys. They knew me; they knew my family. Next door to Epstein’swas a candy store. And I’m talking about penny candies, every kind of penny candy you could possibly want. It had a fountain with seltzer and had been there probably exactly as it was since the 1930s. The place had a small counter with a few stools where they made, before your eyes, homemade egg creams, floats, chocolate sodas, sundaes—you name it. Everything you could do with a soda fountain was in there. Plus, every newspaper, magazine, or comic book that you would ever want to buy as well as pink rubber balls called Spaldings, stickball bats, balsawood airplanes, crossword puzzle books, and dime novels.
When I went two blocks up to 173rd Street I was at my elementary school, PS 173. The school yard was great for baseball. They had one major diamond and a couple of minor diamonds, but they also had handball courts where we played stickball. We rarely went east, toward the East River, because the neighborhoods got more dangerous, what with the dramatic influx from Puerto Rico, thus making the ’hood way more territorial than it had been.
There was a park on 174th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, called Jay Hood Wright Park. That was famous because it had a low wall around it, which was a popular hangout. The wall had been a meeting spot when my parents were growing up, both of whom were born in Washington Heights. They met on that wall. And then I met my first girlfriend on that wall. I don’t think anybody’s hanging out on that wall anymore, but boy, back in the day the Heights was some ’hood.
My father even scrimped and saved to pay for me to take piano lessons for five years on that upright that sat in the living room. I sat through every hour dutifully, but it was plainly clear to my piano teacher and eventually my parents that the only time I hit that piano was during the hour a week the teacher showed up; I never practiced. Thus, the pattern that informed my entire life was set out then and there: in order for me to find things I could excel in, it would have to be things that came to me as naturally as hitting a baseball.
All the things I ended up loving to do were things my dad loved to do. It was me and him through most of my early years. Going toYankee Stadium nearly once a week during season, going bowling—it was me and him. When I first started learning how to shoot pool—me and him. We used to go shoot pool at least once a week. It was me and him when we went to the movies, it was me and him watching TV shows, and I developed this insatiable love for all those things . . . well, except for bowling; I never could stand bowling. I’m sure the fact that I sucked at it had nothing to do with it. But all the rest of that stuff . . . still favorite things to do.
When you think about it, especially as I see it now from my vantage point, the memories of our childhood years get cut up into editorial pieces. Like in making movies, a scene is filmed from a variety of angles, in a number of different sizes. The director later figures out how he wants it interpreted, deciding what’s needed and more potent when telling his vision of the story. What you see on TV or in cinema is often not actually as it happened but rather the result of editorial decisions made during the slicing-and-dicing process after all the scenes are in the can. It’s more or less the same sort of method applied to our childhood memories in terms of the “scenes” we wish to recall. The majority of what we experienced gets left on the cutting-room floor. In other words, what we wish to hold onto as memories can be very revealing.
There’s a longstanding squabble in psycho-therapeutic circles concerning “nature versus nurture” (we’ll tackle that way more when we get up toHellboy), as to which is more formative and important in determining the ideals we come to hold as true, what we believe in, and who we become. Or, more simply, is how and by whom we were raised more vital than the fixed set of genetic traits we were dealt when we landed on this planet? Obviously, you can’t pick the family you were born to or the era in which you came of age, but there’s a palpable argument that we wouldn’t be who we are—and what we ultimately make of our lives—without looking at the forces that formed our core values during our earliest years. If I ask the question, “Who are you?” you might say I’m a student at a university, studying whatever, or a mom, a banker, a taxi driver, an actor, a writer, a sister, a father. Andyes, that’s what you’re doing, but who are you? What do you believe in, and what is the purpose of you being here?
I could not even begin to answer that question in complete honesty until I was well into my forties. Even after big studio film credits, a Golden Globe win and Emmy nominations, and having a cover ofUSmagazine as the year’s sexiest man (although it was in my Vincent mask fromBeauty and the Beast), I still felt like I was this undeserving fraud. Yes, I was a fuckin’ beast on screen, but I was also still one in my perceptions of myself. No praise seemed to change my self-inflicted slow death by this false perception of myself. When the pain got to be too much I was forced to get my ass to a place where I got to look at all these perceptions for what they were: bullshit! I had it all wrong, backward.
Who I was depended on others’ accolades, how much money I made, the gigs I had, what I owned, what my TVQ was, whether my phone was ringing (meaning my manager was calling with work). It took a long, dark decade and a good dosage of therapy to finally turn inward before this change happened. But the amazing thing is that despite of, or perhaps because of, my career’s twists and struggles, which were anything but facile, I did, in fact, find relief. Andthensome!
Anyway, another abiding and burnished memory from back in the day were our summer vacations, which during the early, early years were all spent at this little Catskill dive called the Heiden Hotel. It didn’t of course compare to the crème de la crème places in the Catskills, like Grosingers or the Concord or one of those places you see in movies likeDirty Dancing. This was a resort for poor people, people who didn’t have a whole lotta discretionary income, but the place had all the bells and whistles to make you feel like you had escaped the ordinary, if only for a brief bit. It had a day camp for the kids and a swimming pool. It had a little restaurant where you went every night and ate dinner and where you had your breakfast in the morning, and that was our summer vacation. We did this for the first fourteen years of my life. Then when my brother, who was four years older than me, segued into being a professional musician, he starteddoing gigs up in the Catskills at the ritzier places. My mom, dad, and I would then go to wherever he was playing. My dad eventually found a way to play at these places too. While my bro played in bands that might be doing anything from jazz to the Beatles, there was usually another house band that played for the Perry Como and Sinatra generation. Dad always fandangled his way onto the stage.
I remember feeling so good to see my brother’s fucking genius and marveled at his instinctual talent on the drums. It was also great to see my dad become a totally different man when he had the sticks in his hands. I mean, the focus was incredible. He had this crazy and furious zeal when he played. He had this heat coming off his back and a sizzle about him because he was so fuckin’ happy. Really, his connection to whatever true passion he had in life was playing those drums. When he wasn’t on the drums he was just this ordinary, schlepping lower-middle-class dude trying to make a living and be the best dad he could be. But when he was behind the drums . . . well, it was something else. Something mythical touched him.
Back in the neighborhood the other thing my dad and I did was go to the movies. There was a Lowe’s on 175th, which eventually turned into Reverend Ike’s tabernacle, with gilded ceilings and gorgeous murals, built when movie houses were Victorian classic beauties, decorated in full detail like stages that had once only been meant for kings and crowned heads. Dad and I would go at least once a week for the admission of a handful of coins; we could feel like royalty for two hours in the dark theater, just for two bits and a ten-cent bar of candy. If I was on Easter break or summer vacation or Christmas vacation, we went to the movies two or three times in a week. We also went to the RKO Coliseum on 181st and Broadway. So between those theaters, which had had different distribution deals with 20th Century Fox, Paramount, or Warner Bros., for example, Dad and I watched pretty much every movie that came out all through my childhood.
As I write this it makes me remember how important my father’s total absorption and near-fanaticism for watching movies was to me. It’s a big part of the “who” I became. It was also one of those magicalmoments I still see vividly. It was so enthusiastically contagious to watch my dad’s reaction to a film. It was like I was the dad and he was the kid. That’s how much movies floated his boat. Whenever there was a cheaper ticket for a film revival going on at one of the movie houses we might go every day to see one classic masterpiece after another. I went with him to see the 1939 version ofRobin Hoodat least ten times. That one was made for the big screen and in color. It was one of the very first experimentations in Technicolor in Hollywood history. For my dad, it was his number-one movie of all time, and Errol Flynn was his number-one guy.
Flynn was an overnight sensation from the moment he hit Hollywood in 1935 with the release ofCaptain Blood.He was instantly typecast as a swashbuckling romantic. In the early days of filmtypecastwas a big part of the contracted actor agreements the studio made with talent. You were a cop type, villain thug, happy brainless guy, sexy, or whatever box you could fill. It still happens to this day, and getting typecast can be a blessing or a curse. But Flynn rode that golden crest of fame with the full pedal to the metal. He also made some of the biggest box office–grossing movies for the next ten years. In life he was as suave and debonair during his heyday as he was on film, although he was a heavy drinker from the start. Unfortunately Flynn possessed a dark side. A dashing heroic golden boy in the eyes of the world, his genius ultimately was no match for his penchant for self-destruction. He would eventually squander all the majesty his magical side had accumulated. He became destitute in the fifties and spiraled down to an early death. Indeed, the curse of creativity versus self-destruction that so many in the arts struggle with had beaten Flynn in the end. He died at age fifty of heart disease, degeneration, and cirrhosis of the liver.
I was ten years old when Kennedy got elected. With Kennedy, it was toes all the way up: this guy appealed to you and broke through all this American hard-held tradition. You think the Presbyterians wantedto give up power to some Catholic upstart? No way, man. All they had going for them was power. Well, that’s not all they had going for them, but the ruling class had always been WASPishly dominant in positions of higher power. I remember all of these discussions in our house between my father and his friends: “Oh, a Catholic guy will never get to be president.” That’s when I began to realize that there are forces at work in America that are bigger than anything I ever could discriminate.
One time I asked my dad and his buddies a question: “You mean a Catholic or a Jew has never been president?”
“All been Presbyterian,” one guy answered, which, of course, is not totally accurate. But I began to wonder what the fuckisa Presbyterian anyway? If you were a kid growing up like me in the neighborhood and someone says Presbyterian, he could’ve been saying Hindu. I knew a lot of Catholics and I knew a lot of Jews, but I didn’t know any Presbyterians—those were people who lived in a different neighborhood from mine. In fact, it didn’t seem like they were even on the same planet as I was.
Yeah, we all grew up with the air-raid shelters and the Red menace. On the radio the House of Un-American Activities was playing out in the news and was the background noise I heard while doing my homework. But when I was a kid the first time I could recall a connection to anything other than sports figures and movie stars was JFK. From 1959, when he started running for office, you could sense this was going to be a game-changer. It was so palpable that you couldn’t avoid it, even if you were a kid like me who didn’t give a shit about any of that. It happened because Kennedy was this guy who looked like he stepped off a wedding cake and had this twinkle in his eye. He seduced men and women alike as good as any movie star on the planet.
Before Kennedy there was the fifties, with Eisenhower, who was just plain vanilla. I mean, there was nothing distinctive about him. He was more like a banker—completely unsexy, completely unspectacular, and completely unremarkable. In the 1960 election it was either Kennedy or Nixon. Nixon was politics as usual, and you knew what you’d get. He was another boring empty suit, with no personality, buthe was supposed to be the next president of the United States because he’d been the vice president. Then this upstart kid comes along, this young guy with this stunning wife and brothers galore, and this father who pushed around kings, and there was just all this legend surrounding him. He starts giving press conferences, and every fourth question he has the floor laughing because his wit is so unbelievably sophisticated. He was always on point and was a truly witty guy who dared to take the ordinary events of the day and make them into something extraordinary.
It was a thrilling time, even as a kid, during those three years when he was president. We got a place in the world; we were the envy of the world because we had JFK and Jackie Kennedy in the White House. It was not like Camelot; itwasCamelot. I actually was deeply invested in being alive during the Kennedy years and very deeply invested when the assassination took place, because that was a kind of end of innocence. I cried, just as I had done at my own father’s funeral.
But in the early sixties Kennedy, in only three years, gave us a symbol that was worth living and dying for. He was as much of a prince as anything you’ve seen in this country in the last 150 years. He was charismatic, gorgeous, brilliant, and strong. He stared down the Russians and created the Peace Corps. Imagine giving seventeen-year-olds, who had all of this energy and idealism but didn’t know what to do with it, an opportunity to put their energy and ideals to incredibly good use helping those less resourceful, all while seeing the world. He created the space program, thus opening the door to a new age of technology. He was a man who did not like to lose and took on any competition. He was going to make America the first to put a man on the moon. This sudden frenzied attention to science and technology was the initial catalyst that transformed our world into the techno age in which we currently exist, in full digitization, right now. He also ushered in an agenda to fix the broken promise of the American Constitution that said all men are created equal—it said nothing about color. He had the balls to finally say enough is enough, bringing the civil rights conversation to national attention.
Then all of the promise and all of the innocence and all of the purity, whatever it is that inspires somebody deep down into the bowels of their emotion, was removed in a couple of bullets. His death gave way to the entire cultural shift in the sixties. Once you took our innocence away, you created an environment for rebellion. How did they rebel? Rock ’n’ roll, baby. Bob Dylan, man. The Beatles, the Stones. Bell-bottoms, long hair. Fuck you. Fuck me? Fuck you. That’s when I was coming of age, right when JFK jumpstarted the modern era and lit the fuse that became the sixties.
I was thirteen and in middle school when the civil rights movement came to its head. I don’t remember a lot of discussion about race in my family or among my friends. New York was already a melting pot, and I knew and liked all kinds of kids. It did play out on the TV news, though, with images of students being barred from entering college because they were black. Then you started seeing the news flooded with Cronkite reporting on the images of people having fire hoses turned on them because they were marching for something and Rosa Parks making a stink by not giving up her seat on the bus, such that you began to see this pattern of discontent, so you couldn’t help but feel the sand shifting under your feet. There was no avoiding it, whether you had discussed it with your parents or not. If the news was on at your house always between six and seven at night, which it was, as it was in every house that owned a TV in America, this was what you were seeing.
When I think about how core values are formed, this one was forced upon me because of the era in which I lived. I guess I felt I needed to make kind of a call, thinking,Holy shit, there’s a big world out there. It’s so big that you need to know about it because you need to figure out where you stand in all of it. I agreed with everything the civil rights movement tried to achieve—it was common sense. I empathized with the spirit that was at the heart of this ostracized segment of the population: “We’ve eaten the crumbs for long enough, and we’ve gotten kicked in the face for long enough, and we’ve been hung from trees for long enough, and we’ve been led to believe that we’re second-class citizens for long enough.”
It was those feelings I got as a kid watching police-held German Shepherds biting people who were protesting when I began to see the blacks’ real struggle. I had an automatic default of sympathy for this cause that was not superficial, was not passing—it was deep. I remember talking with one of my black friends from school: “Of course you guys should be fucking mad, of course you guys should be fighting for your rights. This is insane, and it’s insane that anybody could be judged by the color of their skin.”
My friend said he just hoped it’d play out without warfare.
If not for Kennedy and then LBJ taking up the mantle, there might’ve been just that, or at least a lot more bloodshed. So yeah, I was not just witnessing; I was also forming my own opinions about what it all meant to me and my own values. It altered me in such a way that runs deep and is deeply personal to me: the family I have created is with a woman of color from Jamaica, and my two kids have the blood of many cultures streaming through them. We have a family who was at one time against the law—can you imagine that? We don’t think about color but rather about love and devotion and loyalty and admiration. I learned this watching the civil rights movement. If you think that what your kids are seeing and hearing from the age of five to thirteen is unimportant, you are seriously mistaken. A kid who plays hours of violent video games every day for all those years, for example, is going to have issues to deal with as an adult, of that you can be certain, and I bet it won’t be pretty. What core values are being formed?
Two months before Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King gave his epic “I Have a Dream” speech, I was going to temple to get trained for bar mitzvah. My gang of neighborhood buddies who I had been hanging with since kindergarten went too. I got through it, and we had the ceremony. My entire family came from all over, even an aunt who flew in from California. It’s a big deal when a kid gets bar mitzvahed in the Jewish religion. Everybody shows up, everybody wears their spruced-up best at the temple. There’s a ritual in which the kid gets up and sings a portion of the Torah. That’s what your barmitzvah is, and then you’re part of the whole congregation. You participate in it, and when you get through the ordeal you are, so to speak, a man, and there’s coffee and cake by the temple. Then you throw a party afterward at some reception hall. Depending on how much money you have, some people go on fuckin’ safaris. My family had hotdogs. But we had a party, and people came with presents: fountain pens, US war bonds, and all the other shit people gave back then. I still have bonds from my bar mitzvah that I haven’t cashed.
What I remember as the most formative aspect from this experience was a chance to see the guys in the group who were really committed, the guys in the group whose families had real skin in the game, and which guys in the group were going through the motions because their parents wanted them to. I concluded I was one of the guys doing it because my grandmother wanted it, but it wasn’t anything I knew my dad could give a flying fuck about. He listened when I told him about what I learned at temple, about ritual and the tradition of it all, what it means to go through this rite of passage. He didn’t relate to it on any level, but he said nothing to negate it. He dropped me off at Hebrew school. That was the extent of it. And he picked me up. He helped me buy the suits we both wore on the day of the ceremony. That was it.
When it was over, one day we were driving somewhere and had passed the temple. I asked him, “What is your view?”
He started to talk about a book he was reading by a guy named Robert Ingersoll, who had taken agnosticism to a philosophical level. Ingersoll was the Sigmund Freud of agnosticism. And he wrote a lot of books about his position and was a famous orator in the late 1800s during the “Golden Age of Free Thought.”
I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous—if they aver that doubt is a crime—then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.
—Robert Green Ingersoll
My dad found sense in these books and gave me some quotes as we drove. “I just like the guy,” my father said. “The guy says shit like this: ‘Let us put theology out of religion. Theology has always sent the worst to heaven, the best to hell.’ Or how about this: ‘Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.’”
I don’t remember any of his opinions being forced down my throat, and I said nothing after he told me what he believed in. In hindsight, my takeaway from all that is that it made me start to look around. I did see a lot of people who went to temple and synagogue and church who were the most racist muthafuckas I’ve ever seen, who were always throwing really bad words around. They had this attitude about anyone who wasn’t like them. Whether you were black, Puerto Rican, Asian, or whatever—there was this blatant hypocrisy. On one hand, they were church-going, religion-keeping people, but on the other hand, they were as far from what religion was intended to embody as you could possibly imagine. Whereas my dad was the only completely nonreligious committed person I ever met, and he had the type of ethics I wanted. He was never racist, he was really kind, and he would go out of his way to help anybody who was down and out. By his actions he embodied the Golden Rule, and I realized you don’t need to belong to any fuckin’ edifice or ascribe to any dogma to have a relationship with God, to be a good person. You just have to be a good person.
What’s the point in having a hero in name only? What good is it to admire someone and not be willing to emulate them and to try to live up to the qualities that made them inspirational to you in the first place? They stood for things that were noble, spoke about the human condition. What good is it to complain about cowardice or the lack of backbone or resolve that you see in others if you’re going to do the same things? Whenever I catch myself being hypocritical I chastise myself, have trouble sleeping at night. Over the years I developed a reputation in the industry as a guy who doesn’t keep his mouth shut when I see some injustice or disrespect happening around me. Evenwhen I didn’t have the self-respect I have now or was loathing who I was, I still didn’t sit back and take it. In making movies there’s egotistical, greed-driven fuckers at every turn. If I saw crews or actors being mistreated or taken advantage of, I got into people’s faces.
Many looked at me sideways: “This Perlman doesn’t mind his own business. We hired him for a job, and he’s like some fuckin’ unionizer.”
I like being this guy who says we’re all in this together. I’ve gone right up to the top and said, “You might be the producer, the guy with all the money, but treat people with respect goddammit, because if you don’t, you’re going to hear from me. We’re all equal here, from the lowliest guy to the filmmaker. We are all trying to bring our A-game here, so don’t fuck with people.”
Sometimes this instinct that I learned when I was a kid was to the detriment of my own career and reputation. But this was core stuff, which I eventually learned how to grow into, to find the proper balance and regulate it to be most effective and do more good than harm. All of it came from what I learned as a young man, from people I admired.
But of all the gifts I borrowed out of my old man’s passions and then went on to make my own, the most enduring sprung from the aesthetic. To this day the artists he taught me to love are the artists I revere the most—in fact, way more intensely these days than when I was first discovering them. Because—and to my enduring regret—those artists who exploded off the screen, out of the Victrola, through the TV box remain unsurpassable: Gable, Tracy, Bogie, Cagney, the Coop, Eddie G, Erroll, Fred and Gene, the Marx Boys, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Crawford, Jimmie, Cary and Kate, Garbo and Harlowe, Capra and Curtiz, Irene Dunne, Fonda, the Duke, Kirk and Burt, Monty and Brando, Malden and Freddie March, Steiger and George C, the “kings of cool,” Lee Marvin and Bob Mitchum and “Wild Bill” Wildman, F and Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd, Ford, Wilder, Hawkes, Chaplin, Keaton, George Stevens, William Wyler—I could go on and on. And Gleason,Sid Ceasar, Red Skelton, Uncle Milty, Hope and Crosby, Dino and Sam, Lucy and Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges, and Martin and Lewis. Need I say more? And Frankie and Ella and Mel Torme and Donald O’Connor and, and, and . . . these were his heroes.
And why not?! No disrespect for the current crop but . . . well, you know what I mean. All these artists were walking the earth when I was figuring out what was good, some at the peak of their powers. These beauties who my dad passed down to me, they were the stuff that dreams truly were made on. Shit, they were the ones who started me dreaming. Dreaming bigger than the biggest $200 million tent pole can buy. Those are the shoulders we have stepped down from to assume the mantle of progress in modern-day cinema. That step has yielded . . . well, let’s put it this way: we’ve replaced humanity with technology. We went from an obsession with figuring out the glory of being human to the desensitization of the very same. And so I don’t write this book, this letter to my kids and my kid’s friends, and every fuckin’ kid who dreams big and aspires to a life in the arts with anything less than the fiercest sense of urgency. ’Cuz although the progress we’ve made has taken us to lots of unimaginable places, the price we paid is vast. And the chasm is widening with every passing day. So for me, this shit is personal!
A couple of drunks walk out of a bar. One sez to the other, “I betcha a hundred bucks if I shine this flashlight up to the sky, you can’t climb up the beam of light.” The other one sez, “Ah, I know you. When I’m halfway up you’ll shut the fuckin thing off!”
—Bert Perlman, 1953
Out of the Drink
George Washington High School was built in 1925 and took up an entire city block. It had architecture like you’d see in Philly, with a doom cornice on top and looking very historical from the onset. Inside, the drab hallways had been livened up to help motivate our class of neighborhood kids who went there. Some halls had been painted by famous artists from the Works Progress Administration era; that’s when President Roosevelt had the brains and guts to put unemployed artists, writers, and actors to work. I remembered one mural,The Evolution of Music, painted by Lucienne Bloch in 1938. Kids didn’t graffiti the murals much, maybe just a scribbled signature or something small, because if any of those murals were ruined, the kids who had done it would be hunted down by the rule of the pack. Screwing with the murals would be like somebody who killed the mockingbird when all it was trying to do was sing—even us city kids could see the talent that went into those paintings. In this case, the school’s administration hoped the murals would instill, by osmosis, some culture into our uncouth asses.
These were also important core forming years. I learned how to cut classes, how to roll doobies, how to sing doo-wop in the subway (fantastic reverb)—shit was happening. I was fourteen when I went tohigh school, having skipped eighth grade and taking my first year of high school (ninth grade) in junior high, which is a New York tradition.
On my first day of high school there was a pit in my stomach that’s normal when you’re starting something new. It was no surprise what school I’d go to; each neighborhood had its preordained scholastic path or schools you’d attend unless you were wealthy and could go to private schools. My mom and dad had gone to George Washington, as did my brother, so there was history there. My brother had graduated some four years prior, and he had made a name for himself in the school band and was recognized for his virtuosity playing drums. So my first move was to try to endear myself to the orchestra/band teacher. The man not only ran the official school orchestra that played at assemblies and sporting events but also had an elective band for kids who were serious about music and were good at it.
When I introduced myself he said, “Okay, you’re going to be the new school drummer because your brother was a drummer, and he was phenomenal.” I was able to buy myself a couple of weeks with the band by playing so softly I practically couldn’t be heard. Eventually, however, the teacher caught on; it didn’t take him very long to figure out there was a vast space between the apple and the tree!
He said, “How about trumpets?”
I said, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Anything? Piano?” I told him I took five years of piano lessons but couldn’t even play chopsticks. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Practice—could never do it.” That was it, I thought, blowing my last chance to be a musician as my family expected me to be. I was clueless, though, on how this balloon-bursting letdown would introduce me to another art that was then so entirely outside my radar. I remember how this place gave me one of those life-changing opportunities we don’t get too often.
Once I got the message that family connections wouldn’t let me fake my way into the band, I knew it was time to stand and deliver. I began a mad dash to find a way to contribute, to distinguish myself from the pack. I knew I was not going to win any points with“talkmanship” because I was always a wreck when it came to talking to girls; the low self-esteem just basically exacerbated whatever shot I had at turning on the charm. I was a man in search of a place to fit in. Some said that with my size, I could be a human blockade or a lineman for the football team. But a year earlier a star football player died on the field from what we now know as “sudden death” or heart failure, causing the school to scrap the entire football program the year I entered high school. I hated football anyway. The school had a baseball team, but back then it was kind of ragtag and nothing worth aspiring to. So I gave the swimming team a shot, and with the modest skills I had acquired during summers at the family urban country club, I actually made it. I was happy to become an undervalued member of the swimming team because at least I was on a varsity team. I was second string, or maybe third string, if all the great kids showed up on the same day. But I practiced really hard, got into really good shape, and dug being a part of something.
That’s another thing I thank my dad for—that is, making sure we were passably athletic at all sports. He joined and paid for a membership to a new place called the Fieldstone Baths and Tennis Club in the Bronx. It was built under a cross-section of elevated subway trains near Van Cortland Park that was noisy as all shit. Yet we spent family times there from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and I would go on my own a lot to swim in the Olympic-size pool. I became a fairly decent swimmer, at least good enough to make a team.
When I was in my second year of high school, then a junior, I made the tryouts and was again on the swim team. However, it wasn’t long after the swim season started when one day during practice the coach blew his whistle. All of us guys in the water with our swim caps and goggles stopped and treaded water or held on to the side a minute to see what the coach wanted. Who could have guessed that the very tall, very skinny man standing next to the swimming coach would redirect my flight path to the very one I find myself on to this day?
This mysterious man standing there was a very well-dressed gentleman, like a Brooks Brothers window manikin (or today we’d sayhe was right out ofGQ). He was a striking contrast to our swimming coach, a hard-core jock, with his classic cardigan sweater with the holes in it. Just then my coach pointed in my direction. I looked back, hoping to see that there were guys behind me. But no. The coach blew the whistle again, then shouted, “Perlman, out of the pool.”
“What’d I do?”
“Just get out of the pool.”
When I went over to him, still dripping wet, I asked again what I did.
“Nothing. You’re going with this guy.”
“Who is he?” I didn’t even look at the man next to the coach, as if he wasn’t there.
“He’s the drama coach, and you’re going to audition for the school play.”
“What if I don’t want to go?”
“You don’t have any choice—you’re going. They had thirty-five girls show up for the school play to audition and no boys, so they’re looking for boys.”
“’Cuz maybe you could do the drama department a little more good than you’re doing the swimming team.”
“What if I don’t get a part?”
“You’ll come back and be a red-shirt swimmer for the rest of your life.”
I knew that meant I’d never get into the water during a tournament.
When I finally turned to look and acknowledge the drama teacher, he gave me a half-ass polite smile. “Get dressed. I’ll be waiting with other students who are also trying out for the play. Go to classroom number [so and so], in the corridor near the theater. You’ll be doing a reading.”
I had no idea what a reading was, but I showered, packed my gym bag, strung it over my shoulder, and went with my curly hair still half-wet. I liked the camaraderie of being part of the swimming team and thought I was coming back. I remember saying to some of the guysthat I’d see them in an hour or so. I never felt that anything was going to come of this “reading.” I just thought I was going to audition like the guy asked me to and then maybe even have time that same day to show up and catch the end of swim practice.
But fucking circles—they come at you when you least expect it. Life has this giant Jules Vernesque smoke machine, run by some great magical forces in the universe that blows rings at you. When I smoked cigars, if alone and sitting back, it was cool and meditative sometimes to watch the exhaled smoke rings I could make. Some were nearly perfect circles before wobbling into misshaped Os and then dissipating. Opportunity is like that. See that perfect ring and take the leap and jump through it. Head first, hands pointed above your head to make yourself like an arrow, as if plunging into the pool at the clang of the start bell. Seize that next opportunity that comes your way. Give it an honest try and your best shot. That’s how the idea of being an actor even entered my consciousness as something I could do.
The audition was in a classroom. The drama teacher sat at a desk a few rows back from the front. There were two or three of us at the head of the classroom, holding sheets of paper we were just handed. At first I wasn’t really enthusiastic about it, but I also didn’t want to stink up the joint; I came all this way, so I decided to do the best I could. I wasn’t trying to get the part; I was just thinking about rising to the challenge of taking this text and reading it well. In theater I later learned this is called a “cold read,” though, glancing through the pages, I could see that this piece was entertaining and written to be spoken with feeling.
So I gave it a shot and noticed the acting teacher apparently liking what he was hearing. He then asked me to read the lines of another character. As I did I noticed he got a glint in his eye and a sort of a self-satisfied smirk on his face. It seemed whatever I was doing in regard to reading the text and trying to make something out of it was hitting its mark.
I didn’t go back to the swim team practice that afternoon. We were told to check a bulletin board outside the classroom where theaudition took place the following day. The results were there first thing the next morning, and to my utter amazement my name was listed there as the lead actor. It was kind of like,whoa—not only was I not expecting to be in the play, but I certainly didn’t think I was star material. For that moment I was feeling pretty good, fantasizing that I was the lead, like in the movies my dad and I watched. I was Gary Cooper, or the fuckin’ Duke, first time out of the gate. But I didn’t want to make too much of it because, I said to myself,This has got to be a mistake. I’m not primed for this; I’m not trained for this. I wasn’t even aware of what I was reading when I was reading it. But by the same token it was a small boost in self-esteem and a little bit of an internal “Fucking A—Yes!”
I went back to the swim coach and told him that it turned out that I got a part in this play and asked him what he wanted me to do. “I don’t wanna leave the team,” I said.
“Let’s just say that you’re leaving temporarily so when this play is done, if you want to come back, I’ll take you back.”
As I sit here now I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the swim coach, but he’s surely one of those people we all meet in life who you can’t help wanting to thank. Years later I realized I didn’t get the part in the play because of my brother’s artistic reputation; instead, I think the drama teacher probably went around asking other teachers if they knew kids with a certain disposition that might make them good for theater. My MO was being a cut-up, a class clown, and, as I mentioned, making people laugh was my main defense mechanism against a world that always stood ready to ostracize me, or so I thought. When that whistle blew, my name was the only one called. The coach obviously saw something in me, some sort of spark that may have been something that could be used outside the pool. So he threw out his own Hail Mary and a from-the-gut guess, but he hit the mark, because it worked out and changed my life. I wish I could thank that muthafucka because he’s responsible for everything. That was an amazing call on his part. I never went back to the swim team.
I was cast as Peterbono in a play calledThieves’ Carnivalby French playwright Jean Anouilh. It was a very stylized comedy full of French farce about a bunch of conmen and salesmen who hoodwinked and scammed customers. Peterbono clearly was the guy in charge, the grand poobah running this merry band of scam artists. It was over-the-top theatrics, meant to be humorous, but in reality it was quite a stylistically ambitious play for a high school drama teacher to pull off, given the bunch of amateurs he had to work with.
Rehearsals started right away. I didn’t know any of the other kids. There were a few who had been long aspiring to be actors or actresses, but most were like me—first timers. So we were all on equal footing, but I was immediately comfortable in this new subculture, a mini-society, a society within a society. Theater was a haven for a lot of people who felt very much like me internally. We were a bunch who couldn’t get shit right in life. But in the darkness of the stage, where you couldn’t see into the first row because the footlights are blinding you, you get into this private little world where you are able to create order from chaos. It made us misfits feel as if we were finally in some sort of strange control, finally getting something right.
Within the first week I was welcomed into a community of people who were exactly like me: freaks, outcasts, low self-esteem, kids who didn’t really fit in and were wearing the same two left shoes I had been wearing my entire life. I had finally found the group of people I was most safe with. This is a very specific, strange world of like-minded people. When the group rehearses diligently for weeks you develop an intimacy and a unique bond. It was like going home. It was like after trying on fifty jackets, you finally found one that fit. I had found my own level of community. I no longer felt like a loser. In fact, I felt like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. I felt like the fucking Hunchback of Notre Dame when they made him king of the freaks because he’s the ugliest—even though I was the ugliest, I was still okay. The beginnings of peace replaced that awkward restlessness. Therewere enough peaceful moments that were strung together from being in that community of people and knowing that I could fail, that I could be loved and appreciated, that I could fall on my face and everybody would say, “Oh, yeah, but look at that effort, man.” All this out of the unexpected happenstance of getting yanked off the swimming team and showing up for a reading. I felt this way from the moment it happened. Later I realized that I’m one of the lucky ones who actually found his niche in the world, doing what I was meant to be doing, with the people I was meant to be doing it with.
The rehearsal process took about four or five weeks prior to opening night. It consisted of this string of epiphanies. It was like some state of grace in which I was forever in a state of discovery. I would learn ten new things about acting in a day and ten more the next day. I was a big sponge. I developed a much deeper connection to my fellow actors than I ever had on the swim team. I had to count on the other members in a troupe for timing, as there are no cuts or retakes in live theater. I learned from that first experience that the better the ensemble is, with dedicated people around you, the better the chance that you will do good. If you say your line and the other guy’s not responding, you’re fucked. The whole play starts stinking and then you die.
As my career progressed I worked with a lot of actors who thought just the opposite. There are a lot of really big-name stars who I’ve worked with who prefer to work with people who are mediocre, believing it will make them look better. Not only could they be any more wrong, but it’s also a corrupt and narcissistic way of calling attention to yourself. My experience is that in acting, whether it is in a movie or theater—though far more important in theater because it’s a spontaneous art form—the acting process is very interdependent on a lot of people. The higher the level of the ensemble, the higher the level each of the players are going to work or be called upon to give and dig out of themselves—it will only make all look better. Surrounding yourself with enthused people makes executing the project easier, and everybody’s work is going to be better.
In retrospect it was also a boon and another one of those positive serendipitous circumstances that I happened to have a teacher by the name of Kenneth Goldsberry as the school’s theater director during high school. He was the first homosexual I ever met, and in no way do I mean that derogatorily. In those days being openly gay was perilous to your career and even physically dangerous. He had the guts to attempt to train us to pull off a very difficult kind of theater. He was a tall, thin man, always dressed impeccably. When he was young he had his crack at working in professional theater. From what I understood, he never acted but did a lot of jobs in theater in costume departments and scenic design.
Nevertheless, theater was his life. He was encouraging as opposed to criticizing, which was really an excellent foundation for setting the groundwork for a positive experience. Now if he had been a prick who was yelling at everybody, I could’ve easily gotten turned off and quit acting. He also had a phenomenal temperament. He never raised his voice, never became angry or frustrated with people. Mr. Goldsberry had a lot of patience, and he had a huge amount of appreciation every time you brought in something that was fresh and really worked. He gave us this kind of a laboratory to expand our dreams. It was like this creative prayer in which he engaged us, a prayer that if we all worked hard to get this right and put more and more time into it until we were the best possible, then he assured us that our chances of performing a good play were pretty good.
By about November of that year, after weeks of rehearsals and costume dry runs, we were finally ready for opening night. We had four shows scheduled: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I remember standing behind the curtain opening night, with the rumor that the audience was packed with a thousand people or more. What I experienced moments before my entry was the same I still experience today. There’s a measurable amount of what’s known as stage fright or nervousness. No matter how much I rehearse, no matter how good I know I am, I’m terrified that something is going to go wrong. I’mterrified that I’m going to stink; I’m scared that I’m going to forget something I was supposed to do. But those fears, generally, at least 85 percent of them, leave the moment I walk out on stage. Yet during those moments leading up to the performance, I am simply terrified. To this day I am.
Once I walk on stage, I go into “Go Mode.” I tell myself,We rehearsed this, we all know what to do, so let’s just do it. The minute I get the fear out of my head and get into the action of the moment, a lot of the anxiety melts away. Then I start to feel the exchange take place between me, the other actors, and the audience. I wait a minute and hear the audience really quiet down out there. I realize they’re really listening to me; they’re actually waiting to hear the next thing I’ll say or see the next thing I do. Even though I can’t see the audience due to the brightness of the stage lights, I can feel them listening. And an exchange begins to take place. And suddenly I’m having a conversation with a thousand people that I am in total control over. It’s trippy. It’s cool. It’s like an aphrodisiac. For I have entered into the realm of collective consciousness, the highest and most sophisticated of all human interactions—I get hooked. As if I’ve taken a substance. It’s like sex, like hitting a baseball with the fat part of the bat and watching it sail four hundred–plus feet.
Even though I was still a virgin both in theater and in bed at that point, I now compare that feeling I experienced in the first play to sex. I couldn’t get enough of it. It was like a hot knife through butter. And when I do that with a troupe of other players, I’ve just created a bond between the cast and the ensemble that is palpable, quantifiable, indescribable, and definitely something I want more of. Acting, for me, instantly became habit forming.
After our four-night run I absolutely couldn’t wait to experience those moments on the stage again, and again, and again. The minute that play was over I said, “Okay, Mr. Goldsberry, what’s the next play?”
The performances went better than any expected. Everybody genuinely liked it and had a good time. It was all positive comments from kids I met in the hallways, even some of my old swimmates, whichwas like getting rave reviews. Our production even got written up in the school paper with great things to say about it. It was all good; it was win, win, win.
I became a member of the Goldsberry troupe. Whatever play he was doing, I was in it. I ended up doingCarouselandThe Cruciblefor him. There was also another theater director that did other plays, which I was also in. It can’t remember all of them, but I went from one play to another. This became my afterschool and in-school obsession, so much so it became my distinctiveness—Ron and the drama department were synonymous.
Goldsberry thought I had talent and handpicked me and another dude named Arthur Mulford to be his protégés. For the next two and a half years, Artie and I alternated playing leads in every play done at GW. It became a given; we were like the Hope and Crosby of George Washington High School. Because of this strange but meaningful anointing, Artie Mulford became my first best friend from outside the circle of kids growing up. Artie was an OG (outstanding gangster), a tough Irish kid from the Heights with a no-bullshit demeanor and rugged good looks. As a leading man, he was a natural. And as a best bud, he had everything it took to gain my ultimate respect and trust. Plus, he was drop-dead funny, not to mention the fact that he was the other straight kid invited into this exotic world of Goldsberry’s to absorb, for the first time in our respective lives, a glimpse into the real inner workings of the New York Theater. On more than one occasion Ken invited us to his very elegant brownstone in Chelsea, where he lived with his partner who worked at Brooks-Van Horn, the most prestigious costume house to all Broadway Theater. He was a very legit guy and also piss elegant—I mean fuckin’ piss elegant—but both were theater people to the core. They would have us to their house and give us Heights bums a real look at the finer things in life. We were taught what forks and spoons to use in a formal dining setting. We were used to a spoon that you just rinsed off in the sink; now we were seeing an army of silverware on either side of the plate. I remember first thinking,Why the fuck would anyone need so many utensils for one meal?But welearned how to use them in order. Goldsberry and his partner served this food we couldn’t pronounce, but it was incredible. Not bad at all for a couple of Oscar Mayer frank aficionados. All of a sudden I’m eating Paella Valenciana and getting a glimpse of this whole subculture theatrical New York universe. I might as well have been on another planet!
Another buddy of mine, named Spencer Schwartz, and I even went off on our own to try a stand-up comic routine, mimicking the comic deities we worshipped. We called ourselves “Stewart and Perry” because we thought Schwartz and Perlman were a little too ethnic for the times. Back then gays kept to themselves and a lot of Jews and Italians changed their names. We rehearsed by getting up at a school dance, for example, and doing a ten- to fifteen-minute routine. Most of our material was stolen from everybody, from Henny Youngman to George Carlin. Stewart was the straight man à la Dean Martin; I was the clown, like Jerry. We tried that for a while and actually started getting some gigs in local discotheques. Some of the joints were a bit dubious, though. One night we were performing in a club off Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. It was a pretty rough part of town, with a lot of gangbangers and a lot of unequivocal types. Somebody in the audience heckled us after I made a comment that was taken as disrespectful. The entire back row got up en masse and started for the stage. Stewart and I saw this and freaked, knowing these guys would have us for fucking dinner and hang our huevos out to dry. We quickly exited, literally stage left, and found a backdoor. We hightailed it north for a few blocks and got a taxi. That was the last stand-up we ever did.
But I didn’t give up comedy. Believe me, there is no small amount of energy expended into developing one’s identity as a clown, as somebody who basically did anything for a laugh. My dad used to say, “You’d break your fuckin’ leg to get a laugh.” He was serious. He couldn’t believe it, the lengths I would go. But the comedy thing could have its drawbacks. I remember there was this one sweet, adorable, beautiful girl. She had a smile that lit up the whole goddamn world. I had a major, major crush on her. But I was a mess when it came to knowingwhat to say to her and how to go about it. My best pickup line was, “Are you gonna eat that?”
So one time we were sitting in the cafeteria, and this beauty is at our table. It’s Monday, and I’ve just kind of set the high school on its ass with this play I was in. The performance I gave particularly was all the buzz. There was all this “Perlman’s cool” around school. I felt like I was in the zone. So I figure now was the time to make the move.
I said to her, “How would you like to go out on a date?”
Immediately she starts busting into a wild laughter. “You almost had me,” she said.
It only took me a second to read the tea leaves: she thought I was doing my clown routine. I turned to my pal sitting to my left and said, “That’s it, man. I’m fuckin’ moving to Detroit. No one knows me there. I’m changing my name, and I’m starting over, because this whole clown thing—I ain’t ever getting laid.”
My family went to that opening night of my first play and a few other times over the years. My dad and mom were very receptive, and they were really tickled that I was actually decent. They were both very encouraging from that moment forward. But my brother wasn’t so down with the whole theatrical thing I was doing. He was this young jazz musician, too cool for school. I asked him if he liked my performance.
“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad. But I personally wouldn’t be caught dead doing that shit. In costumes, the makeup, and shit like that. But go ahead, man . . . do your thing! Whatever.”
While all this good stuff was going on for me in high school our home was becoming like a volcano starting to shoot out plumes. Until it abruptly blew. That year my brother turned eighteen and finally got his cabaret card, which meant he was a professional musician, allowed to play at better-paying venues where alcohol was served. He was in huge demand in the city because he had so much talent, but getting that card was the beginning and end of everything for him.
My brother hit a brick wall during the summer before my senior year. He was working in the Catskills at one of the better hotels upthere. He’d come down to the city or go really anywhere a band hired him to play at a club or a big gig. That’s how musicians made a living, and many still do. Then I see there’s this sudden major drama going down in the background at my house. No one wanted to tell me exactly what happened, but I knew it had to be something bad. I finally found out my brother had what was being called a “behavioral incident.” It was serious enough to have him picked up immediately from the Concord Hotel and brought home to figure out what the fuck was wrong with him. My father went up there to pick him up and brings him home.
Once back at our place—I remember like a scene out of a movie—my brother is standing in the kitchen, looking really weird and rambling. He’s just saying whatever, free associating, making no sense. My mother is in the far corner with her hands to her mouth in disbelief. My dad’s trying to reason with him. He grabs my brother by the shoulders and makes my brother look at his face. But my brother has a kind of angry, hostile tone to his rambling. He pulls away from my father’s hold and nearly squares off, with his clinched fists at his side. My brother’s tone escalates to confrontational. This was freaking my father out because he thought Les was being disrespectful. My father raised his hand to slap his face, but he held it there aloft. Dad then turned, deeply exhaled, and sat down in a kitchen chair, his hands laid out flat on the table, though I could see them slightly trembling. My father stared out the window as my brother rambled on. Although we had no idea what was wrong, as it was not easy to diagnose back then, what actually happened was that my brother started to have what are now known as manic depressive episodes. This was the very first one.
No one could understand how he got it. There was no mental illness in the family line, as my father would say. He couldn’t understand what was wrong or how to fix my brother. Years later my brother told me he had taken some acid while up in the Catskills. One of the other musicians and Les dropped some home-brewed LSD, and both had nightmarish trips that lasted for twelve or more hours. Once you’re tripping, you can’t untrip at will. So if you’re having a bad trip, you arefucked. I’m not certain this is the thing that truly kicked off my brother’s manic depression. He had been a candidate for it, with or without the acid trip, but whatever happened on that acid trip triggered some sort of a chemical imbalance in him that he never recovered from.
The next day my mother convinced my father to have my brother hospitalized. I don’t know whether they even had a term for manic depression in the late sixties, but they anesthetized him with Thorazine, which is a horse tranquilizer. They prescribed huge amounts of the drug to calm him into a state until he was zombietized. After two days of being in the hospital he looked like Jack Nicholson at the end ofOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He had no fuckin’ life in his eyes. It was a very sad thing to watch.
They then put him on lithium as well and told my folks he needed therapy. He was released after about two months of lockdown. When he came home he was tranquil, to say the least, because he was so sedated. Yet he lost his edge, his creativity, the thing that made him the genius musician he was. To this day I think of Les as a pure talent and myself as the charlatan. I really think I got by on a very thin set of skills, whereas with Les, he was really touched by some major muses. The heartbreaking part was that he had these demons that overwhelmed his phenomenal talents, such that we never got a chance to see the genius shine through. That’s the real tragedy.
It’s a double-edged sword, this artistic genius, as is the disease he had. He knew he needed the meds, but he eventually refused to take them. He said he couldn’t play drums when he was on the drugs. Like most who suffer from the disease, my brother just said, “Fuck this.” He felt so good in the upside of manic depression that he simply believed other people just didn’t understand. All that free associating to the manic is empowering, and they feel phenomenally brilliant. When my dad or anybody said, “You’re outta control. You need to take the damn medication,” my brother would laugh and say, “What are you talking about? This is the best I’ve felt in my whole fuckin’ life.” That’s the trouble with the manic side of manic depression—you feel fuckin’ fantastic!
The family was rocked considerably. My brother had numerous outbreaks, with at least another eight serious enough to require further hospitalization. All of it took a horrible, horrible toll on my dad. First of all, my dad kept saying there was no such thing as mental illness in our ancestry, so it couldn’t have been that. There was always this kind of tension between him and my brother. Maybe because my brother was the first and a trailblazer; they’d been butting heads since Les was a kid. There’s often a dynamic like that between the first-born son and a father. The tension grew until one of the ugliest things I witnessed between my father and brother happened. My brother was rambling about some semicoherent nonsense that also had phases in it in which he put my dad down and mocked him. My father lost it and starting swinging at Les. He yelled with each punch, “You can’t fuckin’ talk to me like that!”
My brother just looked at him like, “Fuck you.” He didn’t seem to even feel it. It was ugly. I didn’t get in the middle of it, but I remember thinking Dad was wrong. Les needed hugs, fucking real help. But neither my dad nor I knew how to reach the old Les. Where was the person who was his son? Where did my big brother I knew go? My father believed he could find the solution to anything by putting hard work and effort into it. But this?
My mother tried her best, but she didn’t have the resources. None of them had the resources. None of them understood anything. My mom was worried for my dad then because clearly she’d never seen him like this. We had never seen him get into a situation in which he didn’t know what to do. He was a very capable guy. He’d been in the Army; he’d seen it all. He served during wartime. He came up on the streets of New York. This was a guy who always prided himself on knowing what to do. And then he gets into a situation in which he’s completely fucking helpless. And everything he’s trying backfires on him. He didn’t know how to deal with Les. It killed him that he didn’t know how to save his own blood, his son. The stress of it could have had something to do with what eventually caused his fatal heart attack two years later. I’ll never know.
I suddenly realized how the stress at home that last year had made me immerse myself into theater and the drama department even more. It was such a relief to become absorbed into a character, making believe I was someone else, someone with a different life. Yet there was no discernible cause and effect that I brought to school or performances. My love of theater didn’t need anything to enhance it or any external torment and suffering to expand it, but obviously I welcomed having theater to get a reprieve from the discontent and sadness that filled our apartment.
As I mentioned, the emotional stuff in life surely can be used in a performance to help give a character an authenticity. As for me, there’s no magical Zen thing; there’s no switch you can flick on. The transformative process of becoming the character is a result of the performance. Even if I am escaping reality, I try to tap into emotions that have to do with the human condition, those things we all go through, the sufferings and the joys. That’s what the theater is. That’s what movies are. That’s what all of the arts are, that, if done right, are reflections of the human condition. Even painting: the great painters are capturing truth. Was it Jean-Luc Godard who said, “Cinema is truth twenty-four frames a second”? That’s what it is, and it’s hard to know it when you see it in real life because the continuum of time doesn’t allow for that. You’re too busy living. But when you’re creating art, you’re basing the whole exercise on some exploration of facets of the human condition. And in getting the performance to the point at which it’s sublime, you’re coming closer to perfection than you could ever come in real life.
I became addicted to creating, trying to figure out how to present that human condition either in a play or in a movie. You get a script, and when you decide you’re going to do it and you have a role to play, then you need to figure out the execution of it. It’s a riddle. You have to absorb the character’s traits and motivations into your own psyche and make sense of them and personalize them. Then you come back with your own version of a seamless telling of that. That’s the performance. So it is a very technical thing because it begins when you readsomething and acquire an intellectual understanding of it. Then, little by little, you hope it seeps its way down through your fucking dick, your balls, your calves, and your toes, and then you can physicalize it.
It’s the human condition that the playwright or the screenwriter is trying to shed light on. The great plays are the ones that have the most to say about who we are and who we aren’t, what our limitations are, what our weaknesses and our strengths are, and what heroism looks like. It shows us what self-sacrifice looks like, what devotion looks like, what loyalty looks like. These are all things that started out with the Greeks and the plays they wrote. And nobody got it better, by the way. Nobody. To this day. Nobody got it fucking better than the Greeks. From Socrates, Euripides, Aristotle—none ever wrote more insightfully about the human condition than they did. Everything that we do, in all of our performing arts, are variations on shit that they came up with nearly four thousand years ago.
I remember understanding this in a new way the very first time I went to a Broadway play. Even though the theater district was 130 blocks south of where we lived, it might as well have been on the moon, ’cuz my old man just couldn’t afford it. After a rich aunt and uncle from Long Island came to see one of my high school performances, they invited me to join them to seeFiddler on the Roof. It was thrilling. I remember every fuckin’ move, every line, and every song.
Fiddler on the Roofis a perfect example of how great art can tap into that human condition I’m referring to. Who would think a story about a Jewish man with five daughters would be a sellable tale? But we love it. Why? We share his desires to keep his family together; we identify with his struggles and joys. These are ancient feelings we shared from the first time we banded together as humans and buried them in what Carl Jung called our shared consciousness. This is what the Greek dramatists understood. We relate to the play’s depictions of how outside forces sweep into our lives and how we cope. Because the writer, choreographer, lyricist, directors, cast, set designers, and many more all came together to tap into the human condition, theplay turned into a legacy. For ten years it was the longest-running play on Broadway, untilGreaseknocked it from its throne. It still remains the sixteenth-longest in Broadway history. The play is still being produced, and I’d bet that some high school or college troupe is rehearsing it somewhere right now. That’s how powerful and noble the arts can be: oftentimes many of us don’t know why we think a certain movie is great, but it is because it manages to capture and speak to the very things that make us human.
Even though the home life was going south, my parents still insisted I go to college. They didn’t care what I studied. For that generation, just going to college was the goal. They believed it would give us a chance to break the poverty cycle we were stuck in. Yet getting into college wasn’t as easy as I thought. It wasn’t for lack of schools or being accepted. I made it into two, in fact, but, again, I nearly blew it. Unchecked, I can make myself my own worst enemy. Shit, who of us can say otherwise? But when it came to either letting my flaws keep me from college and drama or doing something about it, my decision was rapid and decisive. No school, no more theater? It wasn’t going to go that way for me.
During my senior year of high school, in between the trips to the hospital to see my brother, my parents were very much on top of me about applying to college. They harped about application deadlines. Both grew up during the Depression, and neither had college educations. To that generation it was imperative that a child go to college, almost as if that was the guaranteed magic carpet ride to a life of happiness, kinda like on theDonna Reed ShoworFather Knows Best. So I had to go, no matter what. It didn’t matter what the fuck I studied; I just needed to get the fuckin’ degree. But because we didn’t have any money, the notion of applying to a college that specialized in theater—by that time the die was fully cast—seemed a waste of time unless I was going to get a full ride. My parents couldn’t afford to send me. Full stop!
I tried to apply for scholarships at some Ivy League schools, but nothing promising panned out. Let’s not forget I was working off a 2.7 high school grade point average, a reality that completely ruled out any possibility for the Einstein Scholarship. I started focusing on schools within New York’s city-university system. Every borough had one, and back then they were free, so if the numbers added up, you were eligible to go to whatever one was in your borough: there was CCNY in Manhattan, Hunter College in the Bronx, Hunter College campus inManhattan, Brooklyn College, Queens College, and Staten Island College, all making up CUNY, the City University of New York. These schools required a $150 registration fee, and that was it—now it can be six grand per year for New York residents. The schools were for lower-to middle-class families like mine. So my little 2.7 GPA was just enough to get me in—not to CCNY, but I got into York College in Queens.
After a little uncustomary tap dance on the part of my old man, I managed to get my acceptance switched over to another campus of Hunter College that was renamed Lehman College in the Bronx on 204th Street. It did have a theater department, but there was no word on whether it was any good. I figured, “Hey, I’ll be in college, it’s liberal arts. Whatever little education I can get from the place would be better than nothing. I’ll find a way to join the drama club.” That’s where, for a second time and shrouded in circumstances mysteriously absurd, life was about to take another profound turn, once again sending me on the trajectory I remain on to this day. For it was there, at this dinky little last-chance saloon of a college in the Bronx, that I met a man who I can only describe as the Carl Jung of theater literature. This man was about to shape my place in theater in a way completely separate from my earlier encounter. Talk about the unplanned miracle—this man would awaken and solidify my entire aesthetic. But I digress . . .
To get into a CUNY college, it was required to take a physical at the end of your senior year of high school. I flunked mine. I was 310 pounds. I had high blood pressure and salt in my urine, all of which might not have been so bad were I an eighty-seven-year-old Jew. But I was seventeen. Not good. In short, I was admitted to Lehman College, but the caveat was that I had to remediate these two health issues, or no entry. The salt in the urine was something that demanded attention because it was off the beaten path for a kid my age, and it was something that required a very special treatment. I was put on a sodium-free diet. It wasn’t just putting down the salt shaker but also included a list of nearly everything I normally ate. You don’t realize how many foods naturally have salt in them until you have to go on this fuckin’ diet. Virtually everything has salt in it. At least everythingthat provided me with a reason to live! I had to eat stuff that was either processed without salt or naturally contained no sodium content. The only condiment that had any zip to it I was allowed to use was mustard. Oh yeah, onions, curiously enough, also contained no salt. To this day I eat mustard and onions on everything, from my fucking cereal in the morning to my muthafuckin’ hot fudge sundae at night! It’s the only thing that made the food I was allowed not to taste like cardboard. My Jewish mom who encouraged me through my childhood to eat “healthy-size” portions now realized that I needed to do this to get into college. She did everything in her power not to fuck that up. She threw aside her selfish need to watch me eat and be happy in order to see me pass this physical. Dear old Mom!
It became an exercise in discipline on everybody’s part, because it really required all of us to start eating differently. I stuck to it to the decimal point and never once cheated. I only had two months, from the last weeks of June to the end of August, to affect this thing. The final result was that I lost ninety-five pounds in nine weeks. A lot of interesting things take place when, for the first time in your life, you have a goal. You have to sacrifice a lot of the things you love in order to achieve it. You have to exert, for the first time, some real willpower. And you find out a little about yourself. You ask yourself,Am I made to do this? Do I have what it takes to do this?That was the first time I ever had any real demands put on me in which I had to rise to an occasion that was seriously outside my comfort zone.
By the time September rolled around and I retook the physical to start Lehman, my health was dandy. What I found most odd was that it was not only a physical change but was also a change in persona. I saw myself differently in the mirror and was looked at differently by the world at large. That marked the beginnings of the turning away from that kid with the low self-esteem. From that moment forth anybody who met me, especially in college who didn’t know me before, would have looked at me really askance and gone, “Fuck you talking about? Fat kid?” There was no way for the outside world to understand what I was feeling on the inside because, well, once you’re fat—I don’tgive a shit if you now weigh forty-five fucking pounds—you always think of yourself as fat. Weird, I know.
To demonstrate, during my senior year of high school, when I was 310 pounds, we did a production ofCarouselby Rogers and Hammerstein, which is one of their iconic musicals. I played Enoch Snow, this fat, jolly character whom everybody loves. When I became a freshman at Lehman College around nine months later and had lost the ninety-five pounds, we did the same play, except I played Jigger Craigin, who is the bad guy, the lean, nasty, mean motherfucker. That was a transformation that sparked a palpable change in self-perception.
It’s an interesting thing that to this day I’ve never come close to being that heavy again. The most I’ve ever allowed myself to get to was about 255 pounds, but I’ll get back quickly to around 205 to 210, which is what I call my fighting weight. I still have a thing with food; it’s my number-one vice. I still eat at least one piece of chocolate every day. I remember forCity of Lost ChildrenI opened the movie shirtless as a street performer who broke chains with his chest. I had to get into the shape of my life! It was nothing but egg whites, chicken breasts, and broccoli for, like, five months. Then I got to Paris to start filming, and they had gotten me a flat above the best chocolatier in Europe. So now I start obsessing over how much chicken breast I gotta give up so I can have my pound of the good shit every fuckin’ day. At any rate, it’s a very fucking fundamental part of me, being fat. It’s just one of those conditions you resign yourself to.
Many years later during therapy, in my obsession to change this perception, I was introduced to what, in Jungian terms, was called the “Shadow.” It’s powerful when you identify the Shadow in yourself. Everybody has one. Most people spend their lives running from it. What you really want to do is the opposite. To be truly happy and at peace, you need to embrace that kid who you once were. He’s still there, so take care of him as if he were your own child, as if you’re his parent. You’d love that kid and nurture him, wouldn’t you?
That was probably one of the most game-changing things I did, to come to terms with that fat kid who had been the source of so much discomfort and unease. All you need to really do is just fucking love him. And know that that’s your fingerprint—that’s what separates you from the crowd. And there’s gold in them there hills if you just know how to make peace with it. This once self-destructive image, with all its flaws, can instead become something you see as a bright, shining asset. If you start beating up on yourself, with internal talk like, “You’re a loser, it will never work out, you don’t deserve this . . . ,” stop your fucking brain in its tracks. You can’t help the thought that crosses your mind, but you do have the power to change it with a new and more positive one. When I think of myself as that kid everybody made fun of, I know his pain better than anyone and, instead, I treat that boy right. As sure as I am of this being the fastest route to find true self-acceptance, that lesson took another twenty years for me to learn.
But during college I was ready and had that swagger that only eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds can have. You know when you thought you had it all figured out and knew how the world worked? It’s a sort of nice, naïve moment to live through. The very first thing I did in college was to find the drama department.
Actually, the drama department sort of found me, because I was leaning toward doing musicals. As I already mentioned, and in my frenzy to greet my college experience by finding the very first stage on which to do my thing that I possibly could, at the beginning of my freshman year I didCarouselwith the school’s Musical Theater Society. So, fresh off that little experiment, I was walking down one of the corridors at Lehman in the speech and theater building. Now, the classrooms at Lehman have two entrances, one in the front and one in the back. So as I was passing the back of one of these classrooms I heard someone shout from inside, “Hey Goldberg!” For obvious reasons, I kept walking. As I passed the front entrance to the very same classroom I heard, once again, only much louder, “HEY! GOLDBERG!” Well, it didn’t take me long to realize I was the only person in said hallway, so I peeked into the room where this shouting is coming from.And there was this rather dubious-looking teacher in front of this quite full classroom filled with eager participants.
“Excuse me, were you referring to me?” I asked.
“I think you might be making a mistake,” I said. “My name’s Perlman.”
To which he said, “Goldberg, Perlman, who gives a fuck—you act, right?” And before I could respond, he came back, “You did that musical with those musical types, right? Why don’tcha come do somerealtheater with some real serious theater types?!” And then he said—again I was given no shot at responding—“Auditions are today at three. Be there, Goldberg!”
Who could say no?
I started being in productions from the beginning. The theater department was under a professor named Ralph Arzoomanian. (His real name is Raffi, and we remain friends to this day.) The son of Armenian immigrants, having grown up in Rhode Island, he was the most colorful guy I ever met. Period. But not only was he vibrant; he was a fucking genius and an amazing teacher. I took every fucking class he taught in college. He had this incredible way of taking us from discussions of the Greeks all the way to Sam Beckett. The way Ralph taught the class, there was no fat on the bone. Every single playwright he chose to explore exemplified a movement, an epoch, an era. I diligently studied the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and some of the Roman playwrights, followed by Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, and then Ibsen, Chekhov, and Bertolt Brecht—so by the time I was finished, I had really absorbed the entire history of the genius of theatrical literature. I knew the Aristotelian definition of tragedy and comedy and why Shakespeare got the joke better than any of ’em. I walked away knowing the effect all these geniuses had on the pages of theatrical literature and why theater offered such a profound understanding of the human condition, equally important as the philosophy of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Freud, Jung—you name it. Fuck, Sam Beckett alone encapsulated to poetry the useless, tragic,funny, mysterious morass we call life as much as fifteen Einsteins did for physics.
All this genius was wrapped up into four years and presented by what can only be described as the Damon Runyon of Ivy League. Ralph came from the seedier streets of Providence, Rhode Island, one of the toughest towns on the eastern seaboard. His folks had nothing but pride and a great work ethic to pass down. Once he discovered his love for the theater, he managed to get himself a first-class education, ending up in the famed writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa along with Vonnegut, Edward Albee, and a couple of other guys you might not have heard of. Anyway, to say the least, he knew his shit. His teaching style, however . . .
Every other word out of Ralph’s mouth was fuck. Or motherfuck. Or cocksucker. Fuck you, you cocksuckin’ muthafucka, what the fuck . . . well, you get the idea. Whereas every other professor was wearing the herringbone jacket with the leather patches on the sleeve, Ralph’s uniform consisted of Levi’s, white converse sneakers, a white T-shirt in spring (a long-sleeve sports shirt in the colder months), and a set of binoculars that hung around his neck. The binoculars were there ’cuz every day, the minute his teaching duties were done, he bolted to either Aqueduct or Belmont racetracks to catch as much of the afternoon card as he could. Ralph was an itinerant, degenerate horseplayer, and a damn fine handicapper at that, a rather complex skill, which he tried to pass on to me. But alas, anything requiring even the slightest of math skills, and I was hopeless. I did enjoy accompanying him to the track, though. He always sat in the most expensive part of the clubhouse and only bet long shots, which made for as much excitement as one could bear. “Fuck it,” he’d say. “I like to play the fuckin’ horses!” Hey, who was I to fuckin’ argue?!
I really wanted to get into his head because this fucking guy was brilliant, a bona fide iconoclast. He was completely different from anybody. He rubbed the whole staff the wrong way. He made everyone uneasy, ’cuz in a world where people were trying to curry favor to furthertheir careers, Ralph thumbed his nose at all pretense, thus symbolizing the hypocrisy of it all—fearlessly, to make things worse.
I’m at the point now at which my position as an actor is very, very different. My enthusiasm to be an actor and the motivation behind it is more in line with my devotion to the literature of it and the nature of storytelling, as opposed to what started it all: the high of performing it. Storytelling started from the time we could speak. The earliest of humankind gathered in damp caves to tell stories of their lives. It’s apparently a genetic need we have as a species to tell and hear stories. That’s what it’s about for me now. It’s as much about why we need it, why we make films and tell stories, as it is an essential means of reasserting our humanity. That’s what it’s evolved into for me, and it all started with this guy who I met in college, this Arzoomanian, this chance meeting that turned into something profoundly divine!
I had a great first year of school. As a freshman in college, though, I remember thinking,Damn, girls are actually looking at me in a different way. Who knows, maybe this was my Detroit, my new beginning, in my new skinny jeans. I soon met Linda, my first steady girlfriend. We went the whole sixties route together: we shacked up, lived together, set up house, and had a dog and three cats in a little apartment in the Bronx. I met her because she was designing costumes for the school plays, so when, one day—it mighta been around the same time she was measuring my inseam—we suddenly clicked. And that was that.
That first year I acted in two plays during the first semester and another two in the second. Ralph always directed one of the four because there were three or four other theater professors, each doing one. But what I quickly learned from Ralph was that acting was not just about getting my jollies off and digging audience applause. I developed a different perspective, one of “Holy shit! I get to act out the character created by these genius playwrights.” The great ones created a reality that moved us, instructed us. They hit the bull’s eye that allgreat art achieves. If something appeals to our collective consciousness—the things we have in common as humans, the same thing that joined us going back to the cavemen sitting around the fires telling tales—then it’s a hit, a marvel, a work of art appreciated by all. What nobler thing could you do on this planet than participate in anything that tries to perform so realistically that it touches the nerve of all who witness it? If high school was the awakening to the magical element of the theater, then college and, in particular, Ralph gave it depth, gravitas, universality.
That year I was cast as the lead, Sky Masterson, in a production ofGuys and Dolls. I remember it was on a Thursday, the opening night, when my whole family came to see it. Afterward they gave me the typical family “atta boy” kudos, which I was pleased to get. But the next night, as I’m leaving the theater, I see my dad standing in the alley near the backstage door.
I said, “Pops, what are you doing here? I’m really sorry but I was planning on going out tonight with a bunch of the cast.”
“No,” he said, “I’m not here for that. You go out with your friends. I just came by to check something out. Go have some fun, I’ll see ya back at the house.” And then he split. I didn’t know what he meant “check something out” until the next day, when we were in the car together, and he lowered the radio.
“You know, kid, you gotta do this.”
“I gotta do what?”
“This acting thing. You got no choice. You gotta do this! You got this thing that only some get. It ain’t like youshoulddo this—yougotta! So don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise!”
He then turned the radio back up. But in that moment it was like a wax seal on a document. My father gave me permission—permission to follow my goal, to perform. And don’t think for a minute there weren’t times when the universe was more than giving me signals to chuck the shit. Don’t think I wouldn’t get tested down to the very core. Don’t think when the bank account was on empty and the phone hadn’t rung in two years I didn’t think to say, “Fuck this, old man, andyour fucking advice! This is nuts!” But I never did. ’Cuz when my dad said those words he had a look about him. That order was sacrosanct. In fact, it wasn’t an order at all . . . it was a blessing. And within a few months, just like that, he was gone. As if it was some holy, sacred deathbed wish. Give the shit up? Sheeeeeeit!
During the first year Ralph found that he happened to get a good bunch of us kids in the troupe who wanted more than what the school was willing to give. He started to bring in some of his downtown friends, some of his ex-real theater-type people. He brought in a guy named Arlen Digitale, a hopeful downtown director who was always on the cusp of big things but needed to subsidize his income with a little light teaching. Arlen saw without looking too hard that my passion for the stage was more than a passing college tryst. So he hooked me up the following summer with a PA gig working with some real players on some new plays they were trying out of town. As soon as classes were over in June I started hanging with this theater troupe as they rehearsed in the Village before taking it to the Provincetown Playhouse.
I’d never really hung out in the village. I was a Washington Heights and Bronx kid. But suddenly I’m downtown for the first time, hanging out on Bleecker Street, right in the middle of where the whole Beat generation was converging. I started meeting all these people who are like Actor’s Studio people, who were really poor but really starry eyed and totally into what they were doing. I started to get exposed to this horrific life—these people had nothing but holes in their shirts and sweaters and were struggling to put spare change together to pay the rent, but they were doing it—and suddenly I wanted to be a part of this special breed more than anything else. We ultimately went up to the Provincetown playhouse and then down to Stockbridge to mount these two brand-new plays by up-and-coming writers.
It was the biggest, best party I ever went to and a summer that could never be duplicated. Here I am in Provincetown, Massachusetts, right on the fuckin’ beach. I mean suckers saved up all fuckin’ year to spend two measly weeks vacationing on that beach we’ve taken over for free. And I got every fuckin’ Actors Studio muthafucka who’s righton the cusp of greatness comin’ up from NYC for a few free days on the beach to get out of the hot, smelly city—and whatever free weed they could inhale. We even rented fishing boats when nobody had a dime to his name. (How we pulled that one off remains a mystery to this day.) I went tuna fishing with no rods or reels with actors Lane Smith and Jamie Sanchez, with Lane, the country boy, leaning over the rail of the bow, calling out, “Tuuuuunaaaaaa,” coaxing the fish to jump in the boat the way he’d call pigs into a barn. It was crazy. It was simply the best time. Then we moved down to Stockbridge, rubbing elbows with Eugene Ionesco, who was there for the world premiere of his newest masterwork. I’m chillin’ with William Penn because it was his hometown and he was . . . well, we were all just totally chillin’. And then, sure enough, one day I’m walkin’ out of the famed Alice’s Restaurant having had lunch, and what do I see—my girlfriend, Linda, and my cousin Kenny, together. And I go, “What the fuck? . . .”
Didja hear about the optometrist who fell into the lens-grinding machine and made a spectacle of himself?!
—Bert Perlman, 1919–1969
The week of my dad’s funeral, or the traditional weeklong Shiva that Jews “sit” after a death, as I mentioned earlier, is when you bring out all the photos of family life. It was a week of intense polarities, part of me wanted to crawl into a dark cave and just listen as my inner voices struggled to find direction; but the part of me that knew better knew my Mom needed me. And with my brother also having moved out years earlier, I wanted to make sure she was okay. It was the kind of challenge I had never experienced before, with no one there but myself to orchestrate how each moment of the day would go. And all the while the struggle with the eeriness of it provided me with just enough activity so as to prevent me from dwelling on the obvious; the apartment was silent, no music, no dad. The smell of dad’s old clothes mixed with the souring fragrances of all the flowers that had been sent during the Shiva. It was just on the verge of being too much.
That week you bring out all the photos of family life. My childhood was wedged into these plastic album pages and in shoeboxes filled with Kodak three-by-fives or older black-and-whites, the ancient-looking, sepia-colored kind with those wavy corrugated edges. But like all photos, there’s a long list of events and unbelievable coincidental situations that led up to the moment when you stood still and said, “cheese!”That’s what I was looking at—the unseen area and space that no photo can ever really capture. For me, it seemed like I was prematurely urged to start to piece together everything. I had to—my old man had just died, and I knew it was my duty to take the reins, like the heroes in the Westerns my dad and I loved to watch. I was gonna need every bit of the strength and manliness I saw in those movies we watched together, especially now that we lost our lead actor. I was gonna be the one who leapt onto the team of runaway horses towhoathem down in order to bring some stability to this rocking stagecoach of our family life.
We didn’t have hundreds of people show up that week. To the world, it wasn’t like losing a head of state, even if to me it was more paramount than that. It was a very small, intimate group, as I mentioned: family members, neighbors, my mom’s coworkers from the county clerk’s office, and my dad’s peers, who were then mostly TV repair guys and fellow teachers. By that time my dad had long hung up the dream of being a professional musician, and I had never met the people from that era. He had been a TV repairman ever since my brother and I were young kids. In the last days he taught television electronics in a vocational high school, the kind of school where they sent kids unable to make it anywhere else, already deemed longshots and marginalized, pigeonholed to either learning a trade or becoming career criminals. In those days those schools were one step away from being sent to a locked-down reform school. He used to tell his class straight up, “This is like the last-chance saloon, you know what I mean? You don’t make it here, you ain’t going to make it anywhere.”
The night before my old man’s first day as a substitute teacher at Chelsea Vocational he came to my bedroom when I was just about to sleep and asked to borrow my baseball bat—I had a prized Louisville Slugger that he had managed to get a couple of Yankees to sign.
I heard him opening the chest at the foot of my bed. “Can I take your bat with me to school?”
I said, “Sure, I guess. Why not?” I thought he was teaching electronics, but I knew my dad well enough that he must’ve had something up his sleeve.
When he came back that night we were having our regular family supper, which was always at six o’clock on the dot, when he talked about his first day as a teacher.
“I walked into class and said my name’s Mr. Perlman. Anybody comes within thirty feet of me I start swinging this fuckin’ thing. The whole class looks at me in shock, like I’m an escapee from the loony bin. But I’m keeping a straight face until they realize, ‘Holy shit, this dude’s fuckin’ with us.’”
From that point on my dad won those kids over, and he eventually became the most popular teacher at the school. I only wish he had found this calling earlier in life, because this was clearly what he was born to do—be a big brother, to be somebody who, through love, understanding, and patience, was able to redirect misguided energies. I’m pretty sure there’s no higher calling than that!
Irving, Dad’s older brother, like everybody from my father’s side, had all tried to be musicians. He had worked hard to be a professional violinist; my dad’s sister, Aunt Mildred, a professional singer, and another uncle played the accordion, until the hard knocks of the creative life made all eventually throw in their towels. Nevertheless, at every dinner party at my house or at another relative’s place, after we ate, boom: all these fucking instruments would come out of the woodwork, and the whole night would be a fantastic escape from the ordinary. I loved those times. People were singing; people were playing. People were telling jokes; people were getting drunk. The booze was flowing, and I began to become addicted to ways of removing myself from the mundane, which I found to be really deadly. I dreaded routine, the sameness of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day was deadening to me, and there was nothing to aspire to; nothing about it had any kind of color to it—it was just drab, drab gray.
“The Perlman curse,” I said. Those were words my father used. My father was citing the fact that very few in the male Perlman line ever lived past fifty—Uncle Irving and I are the only exceptions. Everybody on my father’s side tended to die young. My dad’s dad didn’t make it past fifty. My dad didn’t make it past fifty. It was kind of a curse on allthe Perlman men. Hell, my brother didn’t even make thirty-nine. I mean, fuck, this shit was so palpable, I remember when I was in my forty-ninth year I got so nuts that every month I was buying another quarter-million dollars’ worth of life insurance. Even my wife started lookin’ at me like maybe I was worth more dead than alive. But Irving’s story inspired me deeply about how life sometimes makes you throw the dice, whether you want to or not, and in the most dramatic way. He was supposed to be dead when he was twenty-one because he had an inoperable tumor where his spine met his brain, and nobody wanted to touch it. The last doctor he went to said, “So what’s everybody telling you?”
“Everybody is telling me I got three to six months to live.”
The doc said, “If you do nothing, that’s right. So then, why don’t I try to take it off, and if you die on the operating table, well, then, you lost three to six months of your life. This is the only chance you got, and by the way, I’m not guaranteeing you anything, but who knows.” So Irving got the operation and lived until his eighties, thus being the first to break the deadly Perlman curse.
During Shiva I talked with my uncle about when Dad got sick a couple of years ago. I remember it was a scene right out of Spencer Tracey inBoy’s Town. Dad was in this big ward in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and I went to visit him at around 5:45 in the afternoon. So you know how the light is at that time of the day. (In cinema I later learned that little sliver of time was called “magic hour” and one every cameraman wants to capture because . . . well, it’s magical!) So he’s in this huge ward, the size of a half a football field, and his bed was all the way on the other end, right by the window. There’s this streaming sunlight, late afternoon sunlight, coming in, and it’s backlighting this sort of tableau, and I know I’m kind of walking toward the bed, but all I see are shapes. I see about thirty figures all sitting around someone propped up in a bed. As I get closer and closer to this beautiful image I notice that this crowd is all young Puerto Rican and tough Irish kids sitting around my dad. His class had come to visit him, you know, in the hospital, and that was the moment when I realized I wasn’t theonly one who thought of my dad as angelic. The look on every one of those kid’s faces—and these were tough kids, man—I mean, these kids really, really loved Dad.
The only grandmother I knew was on my mom’s side, my dad’s parents having died long before I could remember. My father’s family was third- or fourth-generation Jewish Americans, originally from Hungary, but my mom’s mother barely escaped Poland just as all the Nazi shit started to hit the fan. She fled with three daughters, leaving her husband to come meet them later. Two of the girls died before she made it safely to New York City. That’s where she had my mother and my mother’s baby sister, Natalie. And although my grandmother wasn’t a particularly religious person when she was in Poland, because of the whole debacle of being ethnically threatened and shot at and her children dying simply because they were Jewish, she found religion when she got to the United States. Imagine losing your flesh and blood, your little daughters, to some insane global hatred? She became more and more religious as she got older. She was the reason why my parents insisted I get bar mitzvahed and all that stuff. My mom was not particularly religious, and my dad, although a true humanist, was a self-declared agnostic; he had a palpable disdain for anything religious. But out of respect for my grandmother, everybody kind of wanted me to go through the motions, which is what I did. And that’s all because she was such a great lady and commanded true respect.
I hung around with Mom for the few weeks before school started, but soon after I returned I suddenly felt like I existed in a surreal world, partially because one of the strangest things I ever experienced occurred. And it happened every night while I slept. Prior to this I never really had an ability to remember my dreams, but that suddenly changed dramatically. It happened for one full year after my father died, for 365 days exactly. Then it stopped, and I haven’t been able to remember dreams more than in snippets ever since. But that year, every night when I went to sleep, from the first moment until I woke up, I experienced these vivid, Technicolor dreams. They were as if presented by Cecile B. DeMille; they were Cinemascope, Cinerama, flamboyant,and bizarre. There were also some Hitchcockian moments to them. There was a lot of flying and soaring and falling off rooftops.
The only constant in all these varied dreams was my dad. He was the star and overbearing presence during each of these nights. In all the dream scenes it was me and my dad going through sometimes very surreal, sometimes very mundane situations, though all of it can only be described as truly cinematic and epic. The longer this happened and the longer I realized these dreams were going to keep occurring, the more I knew this must be important and that I must pay attention. Because it was lasting for so long and it was such a departure from anything I ever experienced before, I didn’t know if it would ever stop happening. These visitations, which are how I began to view these dreams, seemed to be coming out of some very primal need on my part. It felt good after a while, and I saw it as a way to steal back a little of the time with my dad that had been stolen from me.
I sensed there was a sort of mysticism, for lack of a better word, to the exchanges my dad and I had in these dreams. I was not a bystander in these dreams, and a lot was asked of me and being shown to me. Some of the dreams were explicitly instructional, whereas others were violent and unsettling. Some had some really horrific things happen; some were very languid and pastoral. There was this incredible cornucopia of experience that felt so real and more vivid than anything that was happening to me in my waking hours. I began to understand something intensely special was transpiring. I was getting this glimpse of some other space outside the materialist world of time and the brick-and-mortar world we know. There were happenings that were unexplainable, as if coming from another unseeable level. They were meant to be funky and weird, but they were way bigger than I was fully able to comprehend. It seemed clear that there were other forces in the universe that were more than the pragmatism view that my dad raised me to believe. These forces I saw in these dreams were unexplainable, ever-present and omniscient, and larger than the universe.
In a strange way, when that year ended, I had my first personal relationship with a higher being. And even though the person who was thestar of these dreams was a proclaimed agnostic and maybe an atheist, he was my guide to these mysterious forces, forces that man called God to begin with. I was able to regard Dad’s passing as a gift and a loss. He gave me the gift of knowing that he was going to maintain a place right next to me forever. He showed there were other powers that allowed his spirit to live on. And although I retained a disdain for all things religious, I began to create my own version of a deity.
I never talked to anyone about these dreams or my beliefs before. So let me admit here that I do pray, every day, anywhere from two to eight times a day. I have this deity that I purposefully allow to remain undefined and ethereal. And yet I know He sees all and knows all. Punto. Period. It came as a result of my dad’s loss. This was not a drug-induced experience that gave me a gate to another door of perception–type of horseshit, with all that astral plane stuff; instead, I got an uncomplicated and simplified understanding of a being that was grander than I could imagine. Later I realized something like this doesn’t happen often or to too many people. It must’ve been akin to what inspired writers of texts such as the Bible and other religious dogma to attempt to explain. But the experience is such that words can’t describe it and in fact only screw it up and regurgitate it into dogma. I also knew my higher power didn’t need to be worshipped or given lip service or proselytizing for, that I did not need to convert anyone. It’s a personal relationship and needed no church to validate it. The more I realized this, the more I saw how the chance people who came into my path were not so coincidental, Ralph Arzoomanian being one of them.
I finished college after doing numerous productions, though my maturity level changed after the death of my father, his dream world visitations, and from Ralph’s enthusiasm for art. Eventually I understood a performance was a means to express a playwright’s point of view. I tried to understand what it is he’s writing about and why, his modality, and what he’s capturing. When I took the focus off of me and put it onto the character itself, then I was really cooking. I mentioned Hemingway before: guys like him, the iconic legendary writers in literature, every single thing they wrote got me to say, “Were youtripping on acid when you wrote this? This is fucking awesome. Where did this come from, and how did you pull it off?” You know, you could spend a year just analyzingWaiting for Godotas an existential sort of document. Forget about the fact that it’s entertaining and funny.
In the last years of college, in addition to the school productions, a bunch of us in the troupe formed a little ensemble to write and perform sketch comedy. It’s called blackout sketch comedy, like what you see onSaturday Night Live. Our impromptu production was fairly good as far as the mad-cap, funny kind of quasi-barbillion genre of comedy goes. We went around and performed at old age homes, underprivileged high schools, and hole-in-the-wall clubs—we had a ball. I was just experimenting, trying to find where I could fit in the performing arts and who I was as a performer. Mostly what came natural to me was comedy.
I lost touch with the girls of our blackout troupe, but one of the guys, Joel Brooks, is still here, like me, banging it out as an actor in Hollywood. He’s one of the most talented guys I ever met. Joel made a career as an actor, and if you check out his IMDb entry, you’ll see he’s got a very long string of credits. But why Joel and I decided to go to graduate school together at the University of Minnesota was for another reason, something other than theater. By the end of my senior year I had turned into a wanted man. I needed to get out of Dodge because the law enforcement department of the City of New York was looking for my ass. I needed to go on the lam, and in a hurry.
It started after my dad gave me that first car of mine toward the end of freshman year. I was doing plays and getting home between 11:30 to a quarter to midnight every night. I was living in the Bronx, where there was absolutely no parking at all, ever, so I pretty much double-parked for the entire last three years of college. In turn, I accumulated $7,536 in parking tickets. It might as well been $750,000, because when you don’t have a dollar, $7,500 is a fortune. What happened in NYC back then is that if you didn’t pay the $35 ticket, it became a $65 ticket, which became a $90 ticket, which capped off at $130. At a certain point you are deemed a “scoff-law.” Then they treatyou as if you are running a drug cartel, and they can put one of these things on your tire, the boot, so your car is immobilized. (Now I think they just tow the car and you can’t get it back until you pay.) But they can stop you at a red light and put you upside a wall and make you spread your fuckin’ legs like ya just killed Grandma!
Initially I simply ignored the accumulating tickets, but I then began to see the seriousness of the results of my double-parking ways. In my mind, I was basically a fugitive from the law because of fucking parking tickets. There was not a moving violation among the lot. No speeding tickets, no plowing through red lights, nothing as sexy as that—just double parking. I felt like Al Capone when they got him for tax evasion. At the end of senior year I started to wonder how I was going to address this snag. Everybody in my troupe was figuring out what their next move was going to be once June came around and our college days of having that safety net was about to be pulled out from under us. You graduate from college; it’s time to make the move. Being a scofflaw in the biggest city in the world—and with me smoking copious amounts of weed—I got a little paranoid. I saw myself being carted off to county jail, and I never took myself for a guy who’d do well in prison. I always liked tossing my own salads.
The decision to go to graduate school was sealed by the parking ticket dilemma and was fueled by me wondering if I was indeed ready to jump off the cliff. In truth, I didn’t relish the thought of segueing into the starving life of a beginning actor. I saw a glimpse of their lives, as I mentioned, while I was a PA in Provincetown and Stockbridge. I saw what a shitty quality of life they had (except for the occasionally crazy parties). It was a heavy price to make a living as a working actor in New York, but that’s what it took. Although I wore bell bottoms and had a semi-Afro, I wasn’t ready to be that bohemian. Don’t get me wrong: I was no bourgeois either, but I did like the idea of having shit in my refrigerator at two in the morning when I was stoned and had the munchies. Primal needs. Need I say more?
Joel and I noticed this flyer on a bulletin board in the drama department locker room that the University of Minnesota was offeringa full ride to get a master’s degree in fine arts, with an apprenticeship to Guthrie Theatre, which was, at that time, the premiere reparatory company in North America. It was called the Bush Fellowship. My best buddy, Joel Brooks, and I applied and were called. Neither Joel nor I was awarded the fellowship. I was, however, invited to attend the university on a partial scholarship because of my financial situation—my dad having just passed away and my mom having limited resources. I decided to take the offer because I figured, hey, no self-respecting New York cop would look for me over a couple of parking tickets in fucking Minnesota! Joel agreed with my nonlogic, and the plan began to take shape.
My girlfriend, Linda, who had also graduated college but wasn’t ready for grad school, encouraged me to go. But she wanted to come along. I told her that I didn’t know if that was a good idea.
“It’s cheaper to stay in the dorm. And I might not even stay there that long . . . it all depends,” I said.
She put her arms around my waist and hugged me. “Come on,” she said, “let’s commit to this.”
So we did. We loaded our crap up into an eighteen-foot rental truck and drove out there with our dog and three cats. We rented a beautiful house in the country. It was very scenic, very peaceful, and very muchnotlike New York. Within a month of setting up house together, I told Linda I had to leave. We had been emotionally separating slowly since the latter part of college. She was from Upstate New York originally, and she mentioned she’d like to go back to live there one day. I think she had had enough of the New York City experience for this lifetime. I wanted to sow my wild oats and thought it would be much better to tell her up front that I wanted out rather than sneaking around and cheating on her. We didn’t argue. I moved into a cold-water flat, a rat-hole efficiency, in an area called “Dinky Town” near the downtown campus.
Although we both knew it was best for the both of us, it was tough and not pleasant. It was the first time I ever had to separate from someone I was very close to. I had not yet experienced the pain or the spoils of a relationship when it ends or transitions into something else. Linda stayed in the house and did fine for herself. She still lives probablywithin a mile of that house we first rented in 1971. Who knows? Maybe our paths crossed for that reason, because she always seemed so comfortable there.
I looked upon my adventure to the Midwest with curiosity. When you grow up in New York or in Los Angeles you can develop a stilted view that everywhere else in the country is uncool. I wanted to learn what folks, real American Midwest folks, felt and thought—what their process was and how they moved through life. I wanted to use this opportunity to look at being an American through a different lens.
The University of Minnesota is a top-ten school. It’s filled with resources and has huge operating budgets, an amazing sports program, and a highly regarded drama department. Minneapolis was as culturally vibrant a city as any city I’ve ever been in. There was also lots of money in the Twin Cities. The rich, with time on their hands, donated substantially to make the city have the best galleries, the best art museums. The Guthrie Theatre had a modernist style and an interior with circular seating, rising concentrically from the stage, for an audience of more than eleven hundred. I had some really cool professors there, but there were no Ralphs. There weren’t even guys who were a fraction as dynamic and unique and interesting as Ralph. I tried them all because part of the reason why I decided to extend the educational direction in theater wasn’t solely because of parking tickets. Ralph had lit a fire under me; I wanted to find out if there were other people who were going to blow my mind and turn me on to unbelievable ways of thinking about the dramatic arts.
I had a very tough time finding anybody who liked or accepted me in my first six months on campus. I didn’t think I was particularly hard to get along with or that big of an asshole, but I saw there was this miniresentment about having a bona fide New Yorker in their midst. It seemed the Twin Cities wanted to emulate New York culturally and was determined to show me that being from the Apple wasn’t “all that”!
But as much as I loved the place and the people in it, I never thought I would stay there once finished. Joel only lasted a year and went backto New York City to begin his acting career. I thought about going with him, but I stayed and wanted to finish what I started. I remember one dinner, when the lead actors in the production were invited to a dinner held for the sponsors of the Guthrie. I was among the glitterati of Minnesota, as well as professors—guys who were brilliant educators, sophisticated, well-read, well-traveled PhDs—when a discussion about Watergate came to the floor. This was an incredibly dramatic event in the political history of the United States: a president got caught blatantly putting his middle finger up to law and order. I listened to the conversation in utter amazement.
They were saying, “There’s no way in the world Nixon could’ve done that.” “He’s our president, right or wrong.” “Presidents are completely above this kind of suspicion. Why don’t they just leave him alone?”
I was thinking as a New Yorker, saying to myself, “What a schmuck Nixon was for getting caught. He was running the greatest country in the world, surrounded by the brightest and the best, and he goes and gets involved with a bunch of fucking losers.”
I had to bite my tongue that entire dinner, because I almost shouted, “Of course, he’s guilty, every fucking politician is fucking guilty . . . it’s just that the smart ones never get caught!” When you grow up in New York, where I came from, you just understood that nearly everybody is shady, meaning everybody’s got an angle, especially the guys who run for office. Everybody’s doing something for a whole set of reasons that’s different from the set of reasons they said they’re doing them for.
In the summer of ’72, between my first and second year at the University of Minnesota, before Joel split back East, we decided to drive to San Francisco. We wanted to get a glimpse of the very hip, very celebrated Haight-Ashbury. We’d never been out West, and it was our Jack KerouacOn the Roadmoment. We drove through Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah. The moment we hit the Rockies . . . well, it was like I was tripping. My whole life’s experiences never provided me with anything that could compare to the majesty of what I was seeing with my own eyes. I was taken aback by the grandly insane beauty of America.Standing below those mountains and looking up as they soar to the clouds in this black massiveness and are crowned with brilliantly white snow crowns—it is incredibly humbling, tremendously moving.
When we finally hit San Francisco we fell into the whole hippie world, sleeping on people’s floors and couches and wearing tie-dyed clothes. We worked as day laborers to get enough money to eat and get high at night. We did some rehearsals and got to see the inside view of the kind of experimental theater that was happening out there before we drove back to Minnesota. Joel left right off for New York that same night we arrived back. Overall, it was a cool trip, one you could only do when you’re young.
Even though I was kind of a fish out of water in the Midwest, in truth the people there were super-nice. I had a great time and made a lot of really good friends who I still have to this day. Although no Ralphs, I got to meet some phenomenal people and encouraging and nurturing teachers. And although I learned next to nothing, I did get a master’s in fine fucking arts—whatever the fuck that means. (I have that diploma covering up a hole that I punched into the wall in my bathroom, so it wasn’t completely useless.) As soon as I graduated I headed back to New York City. I showed up with this rather large dog I had adopted from a shelter in Minneapolis, and this didn’t exactly make my re-entry to New York all that smooth.
After I bald-tired my way back to New York City, I had no place to stay. Lots of friends offered a-few-days places to crash, but I wore out my welcome everywhere. Once, I slept on a friend’s couch, and when I came home at the end of the day, my dog had eaten the guy’s couch and a few chairs. So my return to New York was an inch short of triumphant.
And now a guest appearance from the professor . . .
As often happens in life, my first encounter with Ron Perlman was accidental and, in the wash of time, serendipitous. I was teaching a class in theater at Hunter College in the Bronx (now Herbert LehmanCollege) when I saw him walk by in the adjacent hall. I didn’t know him well, but I had heard that he participated in some of the campus musicals. As he strolled by I left the classroom and called out, “Goldberg!” He continued walking away, and I made another attempt, “Yeah, you! Goldberg!” He turned, looked at me, pointed to himself, and mimed, “You mean me?” I said, “Yeah you, Goldberg. I need to speak with you.” It was as necessary as it was an inelegant introduction for both of us. The theater division was having trouble casting forA Midsummer Night’s Dream,and I used that occasion to urge him to try out for the play and help out a colleague of mine. Somewhere in there I got Ron’s name straight and held on to it for dear life for the next fifty-plus years.
Well, he did try out for the play, was cast as the lead “mechanical,” and was outstanding. In the ensuing months he took academic classes with me in Play Analysis, History of the Theater, and so on, and about a year later I cast him as the lead character, Max, in Harold Pinter’sHomecoming.I have to add that I also cast Joel Brooks as his son Teddy, and I never had a better tandem of actors in all the years I directed at that college. Ron was a revelation in that part. First of all, the character of Max is not only a colorful and complex character; he is also the generator within the play. He’s similar to a basketball star who improves the play of everyone around him. Ron proved to me with that production that he could drive a play from the center out and keep it moving. And I’ve seen him execute that dynamic in all his professional work. It is a singular ability that is generous as well as rare.
I was never nuts about encouraging my student actors to make it a profession. While an active playwright I saw too many instances of actors in and out of my New York productions having an extremely tough go of it. Case in point: I was directing a play of my own Off Broadway, The Moths,and I made it a point to have Ron and Joel attend to the open calls and early rehearsals. But the open calls were my imperative because the actors came “out of the cold” as it were, uninvited and usually miscast for the roles for which theywere auditioning, not to mention here and there physically worse for wear. But Ron was determined to stay the course, so when the next semester came around he was off to the U. of Minnesota for graduate study in theater. I recall him telling me after he graduated that he was well prepared for the academic requirements at Minnesota as a result of his studies at Hunter. Although I was thrilled with his acting as a young man, I was more than thrilled with his development as a student in the subject matter dealing with literature, history, theory, and the like. He was a straight-A student with me in all those areas, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the intelligence that informed all his acting roles was one of his stronger attributes. I also take great satisfaction in having introduced him to horse racing and good cigars. There were times after his studies were over when he would secure a box of Punch cigars for me from a store in Greenwich Village. He and his sidekick, Burton Levy, who I loved dearly, would get me the cigars when I so prompted. I believe Burton is mentioned in this book, and I’ll leave it to Ron to describe the essence of that relationship, but I will say this: for years and years Burton would call me and speak of nothing but Ron, and I mean on and on. I loved it.
When a young guy is going to college, everything he takes in gets magnified. Ron has told me more than once that I taught him a lot that he eventually used in his career. But he has to know that I basically put things out there and it was his intelligence and innate talent that pulled it together and made use of it on a practical level. But if I can be given credit for the cigars he uses as a prop, I’m more than content. It was one of the best things inHellboy. Every puff he took gave me a definite charge.
There is an area in which he excels that few are aware of: his ability to direct plays. Years ago he took it upon himself to direct a couple of readings of my plays in NYC. Neither of the two plays is chip-shot, and one of them is unproduced for two reasons. One, not many venues have wanted to produce it, and two, I’m not confident that there are a lot of directors out there who could handle it. The reading Rondirected was sensible, extremely competent, and a revelation to me. I would trust him with any play I’ve written, case closed. Again, there’s no substitute for intelligence and talent, and when you throw in a quart of sensibility you’ve got the whole bag. And Ron has that versatility. I once watched him act the role of an Amish father whose child was murdered by a bunch of vandals throwing stones. As a Jewish kid from the Bronx, he couldn’t be more unlike the character he played, and yet he gave a brilliant, understated, yet piercing performance. I kept waiting for the cigar, but unfortunately the Amish don’t smoke, so I was out of luck. Cigar or no cigar, I was thrilled. There’s not much in the repertory he can’t do. I used to tell my students that if you can act in a Restoration play, you can pretty much do any style that exists. I’ve never seen Ron do Restoration, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind he can’t pull it off.
At this point he’s done a lot of films and television, and most of it has been readily available to the public. There’s no need for me to go over all that. I was there at the beginning, loved witnessing the middle, and am curious to see how his career takes shape and evolves. And yes, it will evolve. Oh, and I love him.
After sleeping on people’s couches, with my dog fucking up all over the place, throwing up, chewing up everything from sneakers to couch legs, I rapidly pissed away whatever goodwill I had left. I was losing friends. They didn’t answer my calls or want to speak to me again. I was having second thoughts about whether leaving Minnesota had been a good idea. I mean, I was at least getting laid in Minnesota. Yes, you heard me right! And withwomen! I know this sounds irrelevant, but to a young man at that age, only breathing was more important.
In Minnesota, however, I knew, as culturally vibrant as the Twin Cities were, I could only go so far in theater. In New York the sky was the limit. There was no ceiling. In fact, there was no place you couldn’t go. Shit, if your imagination was big enough and the chips fell where you wanted them to fall. . . . Despite the difficult settling process, I needed to be in New York to begin my quest to become a professional actor. I was finally ready to no longer be running from it; I was finally ready to run toward something.
The people of the real heartland of America were, for the most part, upfront, solid folk, yet I needed to be back in my hometown, the land of corruption and cynicism. I don’t mean this to come across as a condemnation, but it’s true and part of what makes NYC the most unhypocritical place on earth. You know the code, you know the rules.In the Midwest I once gave the ticket guy at a ballgame $20, and he started to hand back change. I said, “No, that’s for you.”
“Sir, the ticket is fifteen-fifty.”
“No, no, I’m asking you to give me a better ticket.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that.” I realized at that moment I was in the wrong fuckin’ town, because if you do that shit at Yankee Stadium, you’re going to be sitting right behind the dugout. It may not be $20 anymore, but that’s what it was when I was a kid—now it’s $100 or whatever—but people know what grass looks like and it’s fucking the way fucking business is done in New York.
As for the parking tickets that awaited me, the bureaucratic side of New York City was dead serious. While I was at the University of Minnesota the Parking Violations Bureau was better than the Canadian fucking Mounted Police or Scotland fucking Yard, and it must’ve operated under the same slogan: “We always get our man.” They didn’t know I was in Minnesota, so instead they found my next of kin, which happened to be my poor mom in Washington Heights. They kept sending her harassing letters. They wanted to know where this Ron Perlman was so he could write them a nearly $8,000 check. They sent more and more letters and even called her and said they were going to put me in jail. I didn’t know about this while it was happening, but it was sad. My mom pleaded, “Please, don’t hurt my boy.” And she wrote them a check for $7,500 and change. (I expect to be all paid up with her a week from next Tuesday. I’m kidding. That’s a joke. And thank you, Mom, for letting me be a free man upon my homecoming.)
What saved me from my first few weeks in NYC living the life of an unwelcomed squatter was the return to the city of my best friend, Burton Levy. He had visited me a few times in Minnesota, but of late he had been in Upstate New York trying to put together one of his many business deals. This guy became my Medici, my “sponsor of the arts” during the next five years while I pursued acting. I met Burton in college. I noticed him hanging around the theater. He had this kind of fascination with theater and saw it as a way to make money if you were able to produce a hit or make a film. His curiosity turnedinto something of a friendship between us, which burgeoned into something that will never be replaced again, an incredible bond we developed. Burton was the first guy I ever met who taught me what a stand-up guy is supposed to look like. He’s the first guy I ever met who taught me what it means to have someone’s back. It’s more than just the phrase, “I got your back.” He taught me what that was supposed to actually look like and that it was something people mean when they say it. I’ll tell you something, at sixty-three years old, that’s pretty fucking rare. Because I’ve heard a lot of people say it but have seen very few people mean it. Burton meant it, and it was the other way around as well.
Burton had been a real character in Lehman College. Whereas most kids made ends meet by bussing tables, driving cabs, or working as camp counselors, Burton got a job as a concrete inspector. This was a fairly important position in the New York construction scene. No building got green lit in New York if it didn’t have concrete samples that passed certain standards. Burton was one of a handful of guys who were certified at either putting the kibosh on or giving the go-ahead to huge jobs. There might be ten concrete trucks waiting in line to pour a foundation, and all were on hold until Burton gave the thumbs up or down. Talk about sleeping with the fishes—there were an awful lot of people with an awful lot at stake riding on his decisions. It wasn’t the safest job, but Burton knew how to walk that tightrope.
Subsequently he was the only guy I knew on campus who had his own money from a good-paying job. It wasn’t family money or inheritance money; he had money that he was pulling in on his own. There was a kind of exoticness to him that made me think, “Maybe this is a guy I need to get to know better.” It turned out—and I say this without exaggeration—that Burton Levy was the toughest Jew I have ever come across in my whole fuckin’ life. He grew up in Yonkers, in one place not mentioned too often in the bookWhere Famous Jews Came From. Burton got to be tough the hard way—on the mean streets of one of the toughest little suburbs of New York City.
I remember one night when Burton, another friend of ours, and I went out to have a drink at this bar in Yonkers. Burton was kind of a controversial figure up there because he was one of these guys who told you how it was and didn’t make any bones about it. He had a lot of friends, but he also had a lot of enemies. So we walk into this one bar, and as we walk in a guy on his left and a guy on his right both punch him on the chin at the same time. It was like it was choreographed. It was like Busby Berkeley. Because Burton was blindsided and didn’t see it coming, it was the one and only time I ever saw him go down to one knee. As he was going down to the ground after being cold-cocked, somebody came up from behind and hit him over the back of the head with a bar stool.
My other friend and I started to jump in, but Burton put his hand up and said, “No.” That crack on the head with the barstool seriously pissed him off and only woke him up more. Burton was built like a bull, with calves the size of Montana and a neck the size of New Jersey. I watched Burton single-handedly beat the piss out of probably eighteen guys at once. He was a little disheveled when done, but he insisted we stay nonetheless. We sat at the bar and had a drink. He just wanted to let them know there was no question of who was the toughest muthafucka in that place. After he gave a fuckin’ sizeable tip, held down by our empty scotch glasses on the bar, he stood and casually straightened out his clothes’ creases and brushed off his clothes—and then we left.
That was my best friend, Burton Levy, and eventually the godfather to my children. While in college Burton and I often went with Professor Ralph to the track. Burton also had a little taste for horseplay, and like me, he liked Ralph’s point of view about culture and the world. Burton and I started smoking good cigars and drinking the finest scotch. We went to Madison Square Garden and watched Muhammad Ali fight, and then Jerry Quarry fight, with Burton somehow always managing to get ringside tickets. All of a sudden Burton showed me how you could actually demand stuff out of life rather than have abackseat and just take whatever shit fell off the back of the truck. It was an empowering period for me: I didn’t have to accept borderline poverty as my family had been resigned to for generations. Burton and I dreamed together, me wanting to be an actor, with Burton thinking he might become a theater impresario and raise enough capital to make a difference in the theater scene.
Burton Levy, who was my very first and always will be my one and only lifelong best friend. And when I say best friend, he’s been gone since the year 2000, so for fourteen years now, I’ve been without him. He’s still my best friend—he’ll never be replaced. I really don’t float the word around very much; I actually think there can be only one best. Burton never married, even if he had short-term things with a lot of different women. Although not the marrying kind, he loved kids. As the godfather to my children, he showered them with every single thing a godfather is supposed to shower a kid with. From gifts to ideas to “You can come to me if your father or your mom does something really fucking stupid—I’m your haven.” He became this shining symbol of safety for them, for both of my kids. Even though we lost him when my daughter was sixteen and my son, ten, to this day they’ve never had a figure in their lives who’s come close to the space that Burton occupied. He had a horrific time toward the end, and he died horribly and very young at fifty-two years old. He was an example of somebody who was too big for his own limitations. He was one of those stars that burn out the brightest and the fastest.
Burton became my “sponsor of the arts” within a month of my return to the city. He had gone to Woodstock, an Upstate New York hippie town, and struck a deal to become partners with an older guy who owned an exotic jewelry/handmade handbag store on the corner of Eighth Street and McDougal, right in the middle of the hippest street in the hippest part of NYC. The guy was getting older and had nobody to leave the store to, so he took Burton’s offer so he couldphase himself out. And because I needed a little income and wasn’t exactly knockin’ ’em dead in my quest to take the New York theater by storm, Burton enlisted me as a part timer.
The store did great from the beginning, and I made enough to rent my first broom closet–size apartment in the Village. It was so small—are you ready for some small jokes? “It was so small, you had to go outside to change your mind.” “It was so small, you couldn’t laugh ‘Ha-ha’—you had to laugh ‘ho-ho.’” “It was so small, you put your key in the lock, turn the key, and you rearranged the furniture.” That’s how fucking small this fucking place was. But hey, the store paid handsomely for Burton to keep indulging in his expensive habits and paid for me to keep my lights on while I pursued theater.
I had been a professional student for the last eighteen years. Suddenly I found myself in the cold, hard world, needing to figure out quickly how to get work as an actor, and I began to plant some flags in the ground. I had no agents. I had no credits other than academic, which meant nothing. I basically started flat-footed and inert. I relied on two publications; one was calledShow Businessand the other,Backstage. I thinkShow Businessfolded, butBackstageis still around. These publications listed auditions a little bit for Broadway, a little bit for Off Broadway, but mostly for free shit, which was Off-Off Broadway. These publications would come out once a week, and I would circle every audition I could possibly go to. And that’s what I did. I did a lot of auditioning for Off-Off Broadway plays. Every once in awhile I would see an open call for a Broadway play, and I’d go to those as well. That marked the beginnings of me auditioning for musicals with a particularly mediocre voice and getting three bars into the audition and hearing somebody in the middle of this darkened theater go, “Thank you! Next.” That same thing, or the equivalent, happened for at least three hundred plays I auditioned for. It’s 99 percent rejection, and 1 percent of the time someone would say, “Yeah, come do this play,” but it was always for free. I was just good enough to not get paid. It seemed as if I was running in place as fast as I could while getting absolutely nowhere.
Here’s the dynamics of what actors have to do to break in. If it’s an open call, they post what time to be at the theater. Because they are seeing people who are unrepresented, without appointments, you need to get there really, really early. It’s first come, first serve. You might need to be there at ten in the morning, and you don’t get your chance to be seen until 4:30 in the afternoon. At least one hundred, maybe two or three hundred show up. Most of the time you stand outside the theater in a line that snakes along the sidewalk and around the block. If it was the middle of winter, they might put you in a big room or cram the hopefuls into the lobby—it’s called “a cattle call” for a reason. But you went and took a chance because you have to run out every single ground ball and go after every long shot. I did auditions forEvita,Hair, and whatever was playing in the seventies. Most of the open cattle calls were for musicals. Rarely were open calls for a straight play. For that, you had to be sent to the audition by somebody who had vetted you and signed you as a client. You needed a bona fide agent, but I didn’t have an agent the first three years I was in New York. The plan was to throw shit against the wall and hope that something would stick. I always stayed busy with Off-Off Broadway plays. They paid nothing unless the piece was being played out of town, and then at least you’d get a fuckin’ dump of a room and food money.
You could not have a straight job with set hours if you wanted to become an actor. Auditions could be anytime and for however long it took. Same for rehearsals. That’s why many aspiring thespians wait tables, bartend, or have jobs with somewhat flexible hours. And that’s why Burton and his store became my “sponsor of the arts.” I might go on these out-of-town runs for a week or for three months, but when I came back Burton always welcomed me with open arms. He gave me enough of a salary to get groceries and keep my lights on in my apartment. My place was a ten-minute walk to work, close to the subway entrance, and the best setup I could’ve wanted. Burton was encouraging, and on top of it, we still talked about how we’d break into theater or cinema in big ways as we did in school. I didn’t have to drive a taxi or bus tables, thanks to Burton.
At this time Joe Papp became a big star in New York and in all of theater. He went from doing this neighborhood shit, going from doingHamletin underprivileged neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, the Lower East Side, or Alphabet City, to Elizabethan plays in the summertime in Central Park. Suddenly the mayor of New York gave him this amazing fucking building on Layette Street for a $1 a year. It was the former Astor Library converted by the city into a theater. He called it the Public Theater, and it is, to this daythemost important laboratory for new plays and playwrights in all the country. That was Papp’s rent—a buck. So Joe Papp becomes the impresario who Burton and I had been talking about becoming ourselves. We saw it was possible for someone to culturally capture the imagination of the most important city in the world and then become somebody who physically changes the landscape of and how theater is talked about in that city. This only stoked our dream to a greater degree. It became like, “Here it is. This is the guy doing exactly what we’re talking about doing.” I am, in fact, still kindling this dream, as you’ll see when I talk about Wing and a Prayer.
The rebellion of the sixties transformed into the golden era of the seventies when incredible stuff was happening in theater and cinema. In 1972The Godfather Part Iwas released, and that, for my money, is the greatest movie ever made, for a variety of reasons. But the main reason is that, unlike the twoGodfathermovies that followed, which are perfectly great, this one had a historic, high-water-mark performance by one of the most significant figures in film history, Marlon Brando. He was always good, but there were three times when he was exceptional, when serious students of the art of acting like myself couldn’t begin to dissect and deconstruct how he did what he did because there was just too much magic involved. One of those three performances was Vito Corleone, inThe Godfather.
The other films this magic came through was inOn the WaterfrontandStreetcar.Those are the three times when he really let loose. Having worked with Marlon and been up close and personal in thelittle bit of time I had with him on the set ofThe Island of Doctor Moreau, I got a rare chance to really observe him. Like so many actors of my generation, I had such an obsession with the guy and such an incredible unquenchable thirst to get a glimmer of where that kind of genius comes from. But Marlon never wanted to talk about the craft. He talked about politics, about religion, about child rearing, but the unwritten law was that the minute you ever asked him a question about acting, you were excommunicated. And if you knew that unwritten law, you knew not to ever go there. And because that’s the only thing I ever gave a shit about, I just didn’t have much to interact with him about. So most of my time spent with him was in observance. And the one thing I was able to observe about him—and this is not just true of him but also of a couple of other geniuses—was the inexplicable need to never be pinned down.
If you ask any actor who lived after 1950, there’s Marlon, and then there’s everybody else. No one—no one—will disagree with that. A couple of the old-time guys might make fun of him because he mumbled and he scratched himself and he was self-indulgent. If they had studied him like I did, even they would have marveled at the depth he was able and willing to plumb. He bottled that magic inThe Godfather, when Francis Ford Coppola made a perfect film from beginning to end, not just in terms of storytelling but also in cinematography, music, production design, and performances. Every single actor in that movie—most of whom were obscure, including Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda (the guy who played “Fish” on the television showBarney Miller)—all became movie stars as a result of appearing in that one movie. That’s how much of a game-changer that film was. John Cazale, Lenny Montana, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire—every single actor who appeared in that movie did a different kind of work from what they had ever done before or would ever do again. So there was something; it was a promontory. It was like Mount Olympus in terms of what it achieved as a movie and the visceral way that it affects you from beginning to end. Youcan never really put it into words because when you try to explain the story, the dynamic, and understand it intellectually, what is missing is the feeling that you get (or don’t get) when you watch it.
Human condition. That’s what made this movie one of the greatest events in cinematic history, because the movie got that on film. It comes from Brando’s unbelievable performance and his transformation into Vito Corleone. He captured, as the patriarch of his mob family, a range of emotions—vulnerability, ruthlessness, and intense loyalty, sense of family, of being responsible for the greater good, of moral compass. All these things wrapped up in one character that was also so Italian that you could believe he landed on Ellis Island and pulled himself up by his bootstraps from nothing with only a kind of sense of direction.
The seventies were an extremely exciting period for movies because the work of Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, to name a few, came as close as we had in decades to producing a new golden era in cinema. It was if they had absorbed what was magical about the first forty years of movies, starting in the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. These guys were spewing back in a lens what was paved for them by the John Fords, the George Stevenses, the George Cukors, the Preston Sturgesses, the Frank Capras, the Alfred Hitchcocks. What Brando and Elia Kazan did inOn the Waterfrontcan be marked as a departure point in the entire way storytelling is done on film. Yes, there’s plot; yes, there’s story; yes, there’s a lot of the other things that all movies had. But there’s one thing that no other movie had prior to that: this kind of neighborhood behavioral, very primal feel that you get as a result of what the actors were trying to do. Brando, Clift, and Dean were America’s answer to Constantin Stanislavski’s famed “method acting.” Kazan showed you in living black and white and, every once in a while, in living color how much deeper storytelling can go.
As good as the seventies were—my absolute favorite era in movie history—truly the golden age of cinema was the thirties and forties. Then it was simple storytelling and big personalities. Those filmmakerssurrounded themselves with authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, Odets, and Earnest Lehman—the greatest writers in film history were doing their thing in the thirties and forties. That was an exploration of the human condition in all of its grandeur. In spades. And it was looked at from every angle and in such a way that, even as they were incredibly entertaining, they were also so much more. Those movies were instructive: every single thing I learned about what kind of man I wanted to be didn’t come from going to school or from hanging out in the neighborhood; a lot of it came from watching the way Bogie handled the situation, the way Duke walked through some trouble, the look that overcame Gary Cooper as he made a decision, how Tyrone Power figured his way out of a situation, what kind of crap Clark Gable had on his heels when he wanted to charm his way in and out of stuff. Watching those movies taught me that kind of character-building shit.
But as much grandeur as that era engendered—and I could go on and on—the personalities were truly fucking stellar. We had Gable, Tracy, Cagney, Cary, Eddie G., Bogey, the Coop, Jimmy Stewart, and the Duke . . . and the women: Myrna Loy, Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Hepburn, Crawford, and, of course, Bette Davis, who, in my opinion, was probably the greatest actress of all time, pound-for-pound. The personalities were vast and magnetic and compelling and so much larger than life that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of them. So when you meld amazing writing with these kinds of personalities, told through the lens of these incredible auteurs, you have a study of the human condition as important a chronicle as any other.
The seventies was when all these guys were coming up, such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford, George Roy Hill, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Pacino, and De Niro. All of these guys were born of the seventies, and it’s as important a period in cinema as there ever was. But the jewel in the crown was and always will beThe Godfather Part I. The other thing about theGodfatherwas an identity awareness I got from being a New Yorker that I didn’t find in Minneapolis. I saw theGodfatherwhile still out there, and it became another reason why Ihad to come home. I went on to pay to see that movie about twenty times—I just couldn’t get enough of it. It captured that unhypocritical aspect I discussed. Here was a New York crime family who was doing, in reality, bad shit, and yet we cheered for them. I always identified with Italians. I actually went on record before, in some interview, describing myself as an Italian mistakenly born as a Jew. While I was growing up most of the kids I didn’t know thought I was an Italian from the way I carried myself. That’s why I begged for the role inDrive, in which I played a Jew who is parading as an Italian gangster. That was fuckin’ fun. I want to live in Italy some day. I want to die there and be buried there. I want to spend my final years there because that place is the embodiment of the fact that everything is corrupt. But with the Italians, they’re not trying to hide anything—it’s blatant; it’s just part of a deal. Even marriage is built in with a mistress. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to marry you because you’re beautiful, and I love you and I will take care of and provide for you fuckin’ forever, but there’s gonna be a deal on the side.Kapeesh?” That kind of antithesis of hypocrisy—even if I don’t agree with it or if I do—resonates with me. I’d rather get that kind of muthafuckin’ truth than the typical two-faced, agenda-driven bullshit-type of people you mostly gotta deal with.
But that was New York, with all this great stuff happening in theater and cinema. It kept me on the long lines at cattle calls, stomping my feet to keep warm and eating a candy bar as my fuckin’ lunch. It got me to show up for audition after audition, acting in whatever play that would have me, never stopping, because I wanted to be in. I wanted to contribute to this great art that was being made right in front of me. It finally happened though, three years later, when I got my first lucky break.
Just Good Enough to Not Get Paid
After nearly three years of acting for free in Off-Off Broadway shows, toward the end of 1975 and in the beginning 1976 two events occurred that pretty much changed everything. The first happened at Burton’s store. One day in late autumn two girls walk into the store—both attractive, but one killer attractive. Like hamina, hamina attractive. “Need any help?” I went right into my best Gable-kind of charm. But it was probably more like Pepé Le Pew, with my over-the-top eagerness.
“No, we’re just browsing,” she said, but even that standard answer—to me anyway—seemed to have an irresistible coquettishness to it. Well, after about five minutes of scintillatingly awkward small talk, the killa chick zeroed in on one of my favorite pair of earrings. I gave her the price, she said she’d take them, and we finalized the sale. Then, just as they were walking out the door, that same hottie turned and asked, as if an afterthought, “By the way, are you hiring right now?”
“Are you asking for yourself?” I shot back.
“Yeah, maybe just something part time.”
I didn’t wait a second, forgetting I had no authority to hire anyone. “How soon can you start?”
“Oh, anytime really.” She had the warmest, most delicious half-smile I’d ever laid eyes on.
“How ’bout tomorrow? Can you come in the morning, say eleven o’clock?”
“That’s fine. See you tomorrow.” And off she went. A moment of sheer and unabashed reverie was suddenly and decidedly replaced by the sobering realization of,Holy shit, I just hired someone, when I was the lowliest employee in the joint. I immediately turned to Burton, who was looking at me like I just escaped from some nuthouse.
“I just fucked up, right?”
“Yeah, you did, but . . . it’s cool. I’ll fire her tomorrow night. Meaning ya got one day to close the fuckin’ deal.”
I couldn’t wait for eleven o’clock the next morning to come. This was, far and away,themost beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes on. The next morning came, as did my fantasy paramour. We spent the next seven hours replacing attempts at nonchalantness with quibbling and jabbing. Yes, love was definitely in the air. At quittin’ time I looked up at Burton with my saddest puppy dog eyes, silently begging himnotto fire her. He complied; the governor had granted a stay.
This little courting dance went on for about four months—quibbling, jabbing, getting her time in my life miraculously extended, all much to Burton’s chagrin but with the tacit resignation that only a best friend could muster. Four months—that’s how long it took me to man up and ask this chick on a proper date. With February 14 fast approaching, I realized if I let one more holiday go by I’m DOA. So I screw up my courage, throw back some Binaca, and blurt out, “Whuddya doin’ Valentine’s Day?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, again with the coquette routine.
To which I said, “Yes you are. You’re goin’ out with me. Like on a date ’n shit!”
Our first date went pretty good, if ya know what I mean. Her name was Opal Stone, and she’s now been by my side for thirty-eight years.Gave me two of the coolest kids in the universe. Opal Stone from Montego Bay, Jamaica. The most beautiful girl I ever saw. Still is!
More or less around the same time my courtship was going on I got my other break when I went to an open call at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, one of the true groundbreaking avant-garde symbols of the times that were a-changin’. The guy directing the play was Tom O’Horgan, who was already a legend in New York, having directedHair,Lenny, andJesus Christ, Superstar, so this was definitely a cut above the average bill of fare that had been my steady diet. Plus, this was to be the North American premiere of a play by Fernando Arrabal, a renegade Spanish expressionist writer of note known for his anarchistic ravings.
Tom O’Horgan was the force behind one of the most experimental and controversial theatrical experiences of the day, emblematic of the tearing down of all the old traditional edifices. He did this play on the Lower East Side that had people getting naked, glorifying the drug culture, the hippie movement, and free love and singing about the Age of Aquarius. That play wasHair, which eventually made its way to Broadway, setting box office records. So now Tom was stepping back to his roots, coming back to the East Village, the original scene of the crime, to mount this insane work of theater of the absurd. The play wasThe Architect and the Emperor of Assyria.
It just finished a run at the National Theater in England that starred Anthony Hopkins as the emperor and Jim Dale as the architect. It got checkered reviews and was deemed a bit too experimental, but a lot of eyes were on O’Horgan to see whether he could put this one in his magical bottle and shake out another hit. There were probably a few hundred people there auditioning for two parts, as it was a two-character play. After I did my audition in the morning I was pulled aside and asked to come back in the afternoon. In the afternoon there were fifty of us auditioning. After that, I was asked to wait around for a final callback to take place that evening—it was down to about twenty of us.
The next day I got a call that I got cast as the emperor, the same role Hopkins had played. There were actually four actors hired due tothe fact that the play was simply too arduous for one cast to carry, so responsibilities would be split into two rotating casts. Now it was simply a matter of seeing what chemistry led to which pairing. And even though we’re supposed to be alternating with one another and nobody’s really any better than anybody else, as we get closer and closer to the opening I realize that the other guy is the A guy and I’m B. He was slated to do the first performances, the first preview, and the first opening night, whereas I was going to do the second preview and the second night after opening.
It was a very long, really overly written, very verbose play that took about three and a half hours to perform with only two characters. No matter how fucking interesting it is, it’s a play that was fucking difficult to keep an audience engaged in and was really begging for them to lose their train of thought. And sure enough, the A cast goes on for the first preview. My partner, Lazaro Perez, who was the B architect, and I were in the audience, and we’re watching this thing, and it’s a fucking disaster. It runs like four hours and twenty minutes, and you could tell that there are the rumblings of an all-out rebellion happening in the theater—nobody wants to be there, nobody can believe their eyes; it’s just bad taste and horribly executed.
Apparently shortly after that there was a big pow-wow, and the powers decided to hold off this North American premier for a few more days. That opening night can make or break a play because it’s reviewed by theNew York Timesand every other important periodical, and, as I said, everyone was expecting magic from O’Horgan. So the heat was most definitely on. Finally we get word that Laz and I are now slated to do another preview before the official world premiere. I was aware that Laz didn’t have a whole lotta faith in me, ’cuz all the while he thought he should be on the A team, with the winners. And frankly, who could blame him? But after the debacle of the first preview nobody knew what the fuck to think.
As coincidence would have it, one night while I’m out walkin’ my dog in the Village, I happen to run into Laz. I could see he was really uneasy about doing a play that had already proved to be problematic and,worse, with the wild-card partner that was me. I said, “You don’t know me really good, and I don’t know you really good, but fuck it . . . let me go buy a bottle of wine and we go over to my place and hang out?”
So we go over to my apartment, and after we chill for awhile I tell him I know how to make this play work.
“Nobody can make this fuckin’ thing work,” he said.
“I know how to make the play work, but you got to stay with me, you got to trust me, and you’ve got to stick with me.”
“Why would I do that? What the fuck are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go so fast, nobody’s gonna know what hit ’em! The problem with this play—it’s verbal diarrhea. But if we do it fast enough, the audience will never have a chance to catch up, and we’ll have them. It’s the only fuckin’ way.”
“I guess, man. What else is there? I’ll follow you. I’ll do whatever you want. What choice do I have?”
With Laz following my lead and keeping up with me, we turned what took four hours and twenty minutes a few nights ago into a running time of about two hours and thirty minutes, and doing so by following the same script, not cutting one word. We went like fuckin’ crazy men! We got a standing ovation at the end because we never gave the audience a minute to realize what a piece of overblown shit they were watching.
Afterward Ellen Stuart, the head of La MaMa, comes to the dressing room and makes the announcement that now Ron and Laz are going to be the A team and are going to do the opening night—critics’ night. The world premiere, baby! The day before the opening they bring in the playwright. Fernando meets with me and Laz and gives us about an hour’s worth of cuts.
I said to him, “Fernando, did you just come up with these cuts?”
“No,” he said in his thick Castilian accent, “I’ve had these cuts for the last ten years.”
“Were you always meaning to give these to us?”
“Yes, I was always going to give them to you. But I just wanted to hear my masterpiece one last time as I lovingly wrote it!”
I wanted to fucking kill him.
Now, I had an eighteen-page monologue right in the middle of this thing where the other character leaves the stage and it’s just me for eighteen pages. You know how hard it is to memorize eighteen single-spaced pages? And it had to be performed like a magic act so the audience would never catch on that what they were watching wasn’t all that good. Well, once again, if you did it fast enough, the audience wouldn’t know what hit ’em.
So we opened. We get amazing reviews. We get a bona fide rave review from Clive Barnes, the number-one reviewer for theNew York Times. He wrote a half-page homage to these unknowns Ron Perlman, Lazaro Perez, and Tom O’Horgan. Barnes compares it to the Anthony Hopkins production and discusses why Hopkins’s emperor fell short while mine didn’t.
The play became the next “in thing,” and all the artistic hipsters of New York came flooding in to see it. For the first time in the history of my life I felt like I was in something that people wanted to see, and one of the reasons they wanted to see it was because of what I was doing. That was the beginning of literally everything: it got me calls from about four or five New York agents. It got me my very first trip to Europe, as Laz and I were asked to tour the play all over Holland, Belgium, and Germany. From that play I got my first agent, was able to join the actor’s equity union, and was finally fuckin’ able to have bragging rights to having done a production in New York that made a little bit of noise. Easy Street—am I right, baby?!
Like I said, while all this is going down, I’m fuckin’ head-over-heels in fuckin’ love. Opal and I began to cohabitate about three months after our Valentine’s dinner. We got a place together over on Twelfth Street, just off Eighth Avenue, which, believe it or not, we managed to hold onto for thirty-six years. Opal had come up to New York from Jamaica when she was about five. So she always had identified herself as a New Yorker. In the early going I kept waiting for her to tell me she had had enough of the bohemian lifestyle, that she was gonna go backto the 175 dudes that were constantly circling her, most of whom were like heavyweight New York sports stars.
But we both genuinely enjoyed spending time in each other’s company, and this click was immediate; it happened from that first dinner date when we stopped playing games and let our pretenses down. She ended up being a really good old lady for a guy like me. It was very, very clear I could have gone through life with nothing. There was nothing to indicate that I was ever going to be successful financially as an actor. And she made no pretenses that she didn’t know this was so deeply entrenched in my DNA that it was something I was going to have to pursue, good or bad, whatever it brought. She was game. She seemed to be ready to go all the way and take whatever came, and this was also something that always remained somewhat of a surprise to me. WhenThe Emperor and the Architectwent on the tour of Europe, which took me away for about two months, she was exactly the same when I came home. That was the first time I realized she was capable of being the same chick when I came home as when I left. Nothing changed; she didn’t feel threatened by me being gone. She kind of almost felt relieved that I got a chance to flex my muscles as an actor and go out and discover new lands, conquer new domains. And it’s been the same ever since.
After I returned from Europe I wanted to find an agent with clout. I then got a very intriguing message from a Richard Astor, an agent with some very well-known clients. He wanted to meet to talk about the idea of working together. I went up to his office in Midtown, in the Forties, and, never having been inside of an agent’s building before, there was a kind of mystical aura to the entire event. Astor was this very elegant homosexual, the gayest of the gayest men I’ve ever met, with this Tennessee Williams and William F. Buckley combined kind of wit.
We’re sitting in his office when he leans back in his high-back swivel chair and says, “I have a piece of very bad news for you.”
“Um, you asked me to come here. We just met. Why would you want to ruin a perfect, unformed relationship?”
Astor said, “I think it’s rather important for you to understand this, and what I’m about to say I don’t say with any joy at all, but you should resign yourself to the notion that you’re not going to get any work until you’re forty.”
I was twenty-six at the time. “Wait a minute.”
“I’m not done yet,” he said. “You’re not going to even begin to get any work until you’re forty, but you’re not going to hit your stride until you’re almost fifty.”
I’m sitting there, dumbfounded. “Why do you say that?”
“Your aura. There is nothing youthful about your talents or your style of working or your aura as an artist. What you do doesn’t fit into this young frame of yours, so you’re going to have to wait until you’re completely mature and become a middle-aged man before your talent catches up with your persona and your persona catches up with your talent.”
I felt like I was sitting in front of a fuckin’ oracle. I said, “That’s the most depressing thing you could’ve possibly said to me.”
I stand, and he asks, “Do you want to sign with me or not?”
“Why would I want to sign with you? You’re telling me right now you can’t get me a fuckin’ job for fourteen years.”
“Well, there’s always a possibility. I’m really good at what I do. If I were you, I’d sign with me and we’ll take our chances.”
So I signed, but as time went by, nothing changed. I was really not getting any good auditions. Occasionally he would get me into meetings with movers and shakers in Manhattan, but it never led to anything. Ultimately I said to Richard, “Look, you very well may be right in your prediction, but I don’t have time to wait. The way you’re representing me seems to be as if you’re absolutely set on this notion of yours that all I’m doing right now is marinating. I really need to work and need money to feed myself.”
I then signed with these two beautiful ladies, older ladies who fuckin’ adored me, Pat Baldwin and Shirley Scully. They seemed to be really, really fan girls; they seemed like family, always rooting for me to do well. It was irresistible to not be a part of their world, and weate dinners together, partied together, went on vacation together—we really became close, and they became like adopted aunts.
But they too kept running into problems getting me work. It’s so much easier on everybody if you’re a recognizable type, so they were constantly trying to figure out how to market me. Casting directors would say we heard Perlman can act, but does he play teachers? Does he play accountants? Can he be a cop? Or is he a better gangster?
Here I was, this guy who was basing everything on this chameleon-like approach to acting in which I can play whatever you cast me as, when people preferred to plug me in as an entity, a specific type, a niche. I started to wonder,Holy shit, this motherfucker Richard Astor—as farfetched as it was—he might be fuckin’ right.
People were saying to me, “You’re just not commercial. You’re not Proctor and Gamble. You’re not the guy next door. We can’t put you in a commercial. We can’t put you in a box.”
It went along like that for a few years, and it was very frustrating. I acted in stuff that hardly paid and spent an awful lot of time making money by selling jewelry and handbags on Eighth Street and McDougal with my dear friend Burton Levy. Then, in 1979, I get a call from Shirley and Pat. They were all excited with good news: “There’s something going around right now that we submitted you for and they actually want to meet you.” I was listening. “It’s not just a meeting like it usually is with a casting director—the filmmakerhimselfwants to meet you.”
I said, “Well, what is it?”
“It’s very odd. It’s this caveman movie. But . . .”
“Hold on. Are you shitting me?” The image that came into my head was the movieOne Million BCwith Victor Mature and Virginia Mayo. That was a low-budget thing in which they wore these leopard skins, carried clubs outta Vic Tanny’s gym, and spoke broken English. I’m saying to myself,Fuck me, this is where I’m going in this fucking business? Fucking cavemen movies with bad fucking eye makeup? I mean, Jesus Christ, this is what I went to fucking graduate school for?
My Cave or Yours?
“It’s for a movie!”
My agents Pat and Shirley tried to convince me to go to a meeting they set up for what I thought was some crapola of a caveman flick. I had only always done theater, and this was my first movie experience. “Ron, you got to get serious about this. We don’t get many shots at movies. In fact, we don’t getany! Would it hurt to just go to the meeting?”
So I sat down for an interview with this very handsome French guy. In fact, everything about him was handsome. His big, salt-and-pepper colored hair-do was perfectly handsome, and he was wearing designer jeans that were obviously dry cleaned, ’cuz I’d never seen dungarees that had a crease in ’em—handsome! He was wearing a white, furry cashmere sweater wrapped around his shoulders and tied in the front. In addition, he had this thick French accent, which, all in all, made me think this dude was clearly a trust fund baby wanting to dabble in film as a little hobby.
I was ready to fuckin’ bolt, thinking,Holy shit, man, if I had Daddy’s money, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use it to make a fucking caveman movie. Ten seconds into the meeting I think,Fuck this, this is a big waste of time, so I decided to start playin’ with the dude—ya know, just for my own edification and enjoyment.
He had a notepad in front of him and was holding a very handsome pen (can’t remember if it was a Mont Blanc, but I do know it was handsome!). “What is your name?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Don’t you have a piece of paper there with my fucking name on it? I’m Tony fucking Curtis.”
Obviously he was going through some sort of checklist. “Have you been trained? What is your training?” He looked up and seemed a little puzzled, but he kept going.
“Well, I’m housebroken and I can fetch the newspaper from outside the front door in the morning, but every once in awhile I make a mistake and drink out of the toilet bowl.”
This went on for like twenty minutes, with him seeming unruffled with my total blasé disrespect. In fact, I was beingsuchan asshole that I thought I’d get him to say, “Let’s step outside and settle this.” I was convinced this way-too-handsome dude and his little caveman project were wasting everybody’s time. After a bit he started looking at me with some sort of a weird fascination. It seemed the more disrespectful I was, the more fascinated he became. At the end of the meeting he stood and shook my hand. “That was fascinating—you are fascinating. I’m going to see you and your fascinating self again.”
“You’ll pardon me if that news doesn’t quite fill me with joy, but if I had a nickel for every fucking guy that ever said that to me . . .”
“No, you’ll see. I’m going to surprise you. You’ll see me again.” And sure enough, about two months later I got a message from my agents that this very handsome guy was coming back to New York and I’d been invited to attend a two-day session in a dance studio for an audition. I was told that each day might be four or more hours, and I was to wear loose-fitting clothes. It all sounded a bit fuckin’ odd but hey . . . handsome, rich kids with movie money, ya know?
I didn’t know how odd it was until I showed up at the studio and saw about thirty-five or forty of the strangest-looking dudes ever assembled in one room. Did you ever see the movieNightmare Alley? It starred Tyrone Power but also had about one hundred real-life sideshow acts and carnival characters in it to add authenticity. This is whatthis fucking casting call looked like. There was one guy who was eight and a half feet tall whose head was the size of a peanut. Another guy was a certified hunchback, with one eye looking up and the other looking down. Some other poor fucker had one arm growing out of his left hip and another one growing out of the back of his head. The whole room was filled with the freakiest, most gnarled, most scary people I’ve ever seen. It didn’t make me feel all that good about myself, knowing this was my niche.
There were a couple of bright spots, though. Danny Devito was there. That’s where we met. He was like me—just a guy starting out, auditioning for whatever. But, even though I love him and we’re friends to this day, he is really a unique-looking man. I admire him ‘cuz he also said “fuck it” and made what he was given work for him. Danny, luckily, didn’t get the part, which in turn made him available to doOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestand thenTaxi.Sometimes life has a way of working out. Also at the audition was an old acquaintance of mine from back in the La MaMa days, Nameer El-Kadi. Although we hadn’t become that close back in the day, he was in one of the casts ofThe Architect and the Emperor of Assyriawhen they, by popular demand, remounted it a year later. Little did I know of the “excellent adventure” he and I were about to embark upon.
The first day of the studio session was an orientation on how cavemen were supposed to move. They brought in these internationally acclaimed mimes to teach us movement. You know the guys who make a living on the street pulling rope that’s not there or opening an imaginary window and climbing through it? The whole first day was this kind of orientation with regard to body movement that was to be employed in depicting a species not yet fully formed. The second day had more of the same but culminated with individual improvisations. The idea was to see how we would portray prehistoric behavior. The handsome French guy with the beautifully handsome cashmere sweater wrapped beautifully and handsomely around his shoulderswith the jeans with the crease in them was there for both days, keenly observing everything.
For the improvisation we were told to act as if we had discovered something we’d never seen before and explore it. Each hopeful was given a few minutes to do his take. So I walked in as a caveman, slightly bent over and my arms swinging sort of ape-like. I chose to discover an imaginary tennis ball. I rolled around on it, I kicked it, and I batted at it. I was into my deal for about a minute when the French guy stopped me.
“There are two things I want you to know,” he said. “Number one, I told you I’d see you again, and number two, I’m even going to see you at least once more after this.”
I said, “Jesus Christ, I appreciate you trying to be nice and everything but, I mean, stop with the smoke blowing!”
“Come here for a second. You really don’t believe me, do you? Here are my notes. You see that? No one has done an improvisation that has gotten four stars except for you. I’m going to see you again, and it’s probably going to be in Europe.”
“Right, see you in Europe. Maybe we could do a spot of shopping at Harrod’s!”
“I know you think I’m full of shit. I know you don’t believe anything I say, but I’m telling you I’m going to see you again.”
Well, about a month went by, and I was playing softball in Central Park one afternoon when an actor friend I know stopped when he saw me and came over to chat.
“Wow, Perl, you gotta be blown away.”
“About the fact that you’re on the shortlist for that caveman movie. In fact, it’s sounding like you’re gonna get the offer. That’s the word around town—that you’re going to get the offer.”
“Well, I guess that’s cool and all, but sorry, dude, if I seem underwhelmed over a fucking caveman movie for some ultra-handsome, rich French guy.”
“Dude, do you know who that rich French guy is?” I just stared back at him. “That’sJean-Jacques Annaud. He just won the Academy Awardfor best foreign film. He’s one of the most celebrated, sought-after filmmakers on the planet right now, and his next movie is going to be the most serious look anybody’s ever taken at what life was like eighty thousand years ago. And you, ya big dope, you’re up for one of the leads.”
“Are you shitting me?” For the first time, suddenly I’m nervous.
I got my glove and bat and bailed out of the game to go find the nearest pay phone. I called my agents—they told me it was true. And I started playing the tape back in my head. And all I know was I abused the shit outta this poor French dude.
“I’m hearing I’m on a short list for one of the leads! How’s that possible? I wasn’t very nice to the guy!”
“No, the director loves you. In fact, whatever you did, he can’t get enough of it. He thinks you’re terrific and loves the idea of you being in this movie! You are on the shortlist for one more audition.” It turns out that Annaud had been on a thirty-two-city tour to find the perfect cast for his movieQuest for Fire, a big studio movie, green-lit by Alan Ladd Jr., who was running 20th Century Fox at the time.
About a week later I got a call from Annaud’s staff telling me that I needed to fly to London. They flew me first class and put me up in this phenomenal hotel. In London we did a few days more of mime improvisation training, but this time it was a smaller group assembled. When we were all done no one was told anything aside from “Thank you for coming. You’ll hear from us soon.” We were just all herded to the production office to pick up our per diem cash and our ticket home.
When I made my way to the production office there was a very friendly secretary there who gave me my money. I thanked her and asked, “By the way, this is my first time in London. Do you know any good restaurants in the area?”
“You should eat someplace really, really special,” she said. “I like this place called Mr. Chow.”
“Okay, but why should I eat someplace special?”
“Because you should be celebrating.”
“And why is that, if ya don’t mind me being too nosey?”
She got up and led me by the hand to another room where there was a big board listing the final cast. The second name up there was mine, and that was when I found out,Holy shit, I got the second lead in a major production for 20th fucking Century fucking Fox, a character named Amoukar in the motion pictureQuest for Fire. To be directed by the incredibly handsome, incredibly respected Jean-Jacques Annaud! You bet I went to Mr. Chow, even if it was all by myself. That’s how the seventies ended and the eighties started for me. This was not only my first movie; this was also my first movie audition. As I mentioned, my agents had a hard time getting me auditions for movie roles because there was nothing they could figure out to plug me into. I wasn’t really a cop because I was a bit of a hippie. I wasn’t really a teacher, because I wasn’t nerdy enough. I just fell in between the cracks of pretty much everything you could possibly think of. How ironic that the only thing I could really trade off of was this quasi-Neanderthal bone structure of mine with the prominent brow and the deep-set eyes. Weird, right?
Once I was back in the States I was told to stand by because production was scheduled to start soon. But what happened next sounds like one of those good news–bad news jokes. The good news is, hey, I’ve got the lead in this movie. The bad news is that just as we are about to begin production the Screen Actors Guild called a strike, preventing all American actors from going to work on American-produced films and television. The absurdity was that during a thirty-two-city search for the cast ofQuest, Annaud managed to cast nothing but Americans for the four leading roles. This was a big 20th Century Fox film, and you can’t really shoot around a union. The union goes on strike for the first time in twenty-one years just as I’m about to have my movie debut, and we spend the next four months fielding phone calls. “Is the movie still on? Is it off?” “It’s off. Yeah, they’re scrapping it.” “No, it’s on again.”
Jean-Jacques had already spent three years and probably around $6 million in preproduction, which was a huge amount of money at that time. He had a lot of skin in the game. He did everything he couldto keep it going. But the forces at 20th Century Fox cannot make the movie with American actors because American actors are on strike, and American actors can’t cross the picket line. It quickly became a massive clusterfuck.
My newest dear friend, Everett McGill, and my old friend Nameer El-Kadi had also been cast in the movie, and during this time we did some informal rehearsals, but mostly just to keep close to one another to keep from going buggy. About two months went by, and I got a call from Everett at 5:20 one evening: “Hey Perl, I got bad news for you. It’s off, but this time it’s for real. It’s done. They can’t figure out how to do it. Fox has tried everything possible to figure out a way around the strike. Nobody knows when the strike’s gonna be over. They were supposed to start shooting in Iceland. They blew that location because they lost the window, because it was starting to get way too cold in Iceland and way too dark way too early.”
“Fuck! So close, and yet so far.” There I was, not only getting my first movie but I was also going to be the lead. It was going to be with 20th Century Fox, and it was going to be a-fucking-mazing, with an Academy Award–winning director to boot. Who was handsome! Goddammit, man, what fucking luck. I looked up at the clock and said, “Okay, it’s 5:30. If I get on the D train right now, I can be at Yankee Stadium by 7:15 to make the night game.” They were playing Oakland.
I had $100 to my name. General admission seats were like eight bucks, so I gave the guy at the ticket window the eight dollars and then I pushed in another $30 and told the guy that’s for him. Like I said before, he knew exactly what I wanted without saying a word, and I wound up with the best seats I’ve ever had—on field-level, between first base and home plate.
I was all fucking by myself after just getting the worst piece of news I’d ever gotten in my short professional career. Maybe the worst piece of news I’ll ever get as a professional. And the beer guy came by. They have these trays of beer in plastic cups covered with cellophane. The tray probably held thirty beers, and I saw only one beer missing. I signaled for him to come over. “How much is that?”
I said, “No. Not one. How much is the whole fucking tray? How much for that?” He says, “The whole thing? You think I’m a fucking Einstein or something? I don’t know how much it is.”
“What could it be? Fifty to sixty dollars?”
He said, “Gimme fifty and it’s yours.” I paid him for this big tray and told him to start passing out the beer to everyone sitting around me, saving one for myself. By the seventh inning I had about forty-five new friends and two dozen phone numbers. I was the most popular guy at the game. The worst night of my life turned into the most fun I’ve ever had at a ballgame. The Yankees routed. They hit about seven home runs. Oscar Gamble hit two all by himself. They were on fire that night. It was just win-win-win. It was a magical night, ’cuz I basically decided to meet adversity by just pissing right in its face.
Sure enough, two days later, I got a call. The movie was on again. They figured out a way to resurrect it. It’s funky, it’s weird, but we were doing it. And it was 100 percent go. At that moment I learned that if a negative thing comes at you, bombard it with positive. That night when Everett called I thought,Fuck this. I’m not gonna give in to how absolutely abjectly depressed I should be right now. I’m just going to go celebrate. And because of that, everything turned positive again. In my head I didn’t accept that the movie was dead, and somehow, once again, the fuckin’ universe came up big!
20th Century Fox pulled off an incredible feat of backstairs maneuvering and handed the movie off to a Canadian company to produce, with the understanding that once the movie was finished and in the can, the movie would revert back to 20th Century Fox for worldwide distribution. But that the movie was going to be produced, for all intents and purposes, as a Canadian film. So it was a foreign film, which meant that American actors could work on it. And the Screen Actors Guild agreed that those conditions were fine. They signed off on it and they let us go. Instead of going to the original first location of Iceland, we started in Scotland. We did three weeks there and then segued to Africa at the end of November of 1980 and spent five weeks there. Andthen we went on a break for about four months, to wait for it to get warm enough in Canada to finish the movie. We had another month and a half to two months to go, shooting in Canada. If you’re working on a Canadian film, you are obligated to shoot a huge percentage of it in Canada. So that’s why we had to do that.
Once in Scotland it was clear before the first scene was shot that this certainly was notOne Million Years BC. We realized we were doing something that had an incredible amount of integrity to it. Annaud brought in Anthony Burgess, who wroteA Clockwork Orange, to create a glossary of prehistoric words for us. Aside from being a giant in the fiction world, Burgess was a teacher of linguistics at Oxford University. Then Annaud brought in Desmond Morris, the man who wroteMan Watchingand one of the most highly regarded anthropologists of his day, as a consultant. He taught us the behavioral ticks that most likely characterized humans of eighty thousand years ago. During that epoch mankind was almost Homo sapiens, but not quite. There were still elements of chimp behavior and chimp movements. We were not fully upright, but we were almost upright. Desmond Morris gave us the template for movement as well as behavioral traits. That began to explain all those long, tedious mime sessions to find that perfect intersection of prehistoric and modern man. Annaud was making the quintessential evolution movie, with the best team he could assemble.
So the guy I wrote off as a handsome French trust fund baby, once on set, was as serious as a fucking heart attack. But this newly formed lovefest was about to get a major test. Jean-Jacques’s notion was that he needed to make the shooting conditions as brutal and uncompromising and unpleasant physically as anyone could imagine. He wanted us to be in the same environment humans had eighty thousand years ago. The conditions he put us in were flat-out punishing.
Even if Jean-Jacque is now one of my dearest friends on this earth and one of the true and abiding benevolent angels in my life, back then it only took a week into shooting before the handsome, dashing Frenchman and I butted heads. Big time. Allow me to set the stage . . .
Wanna Set the Night on Fire . . .
Quest for Firepinpointed a moment in time, some eighty thousand years ago, when conditions existed in the evolution process to make possible the major strides leading up to the final modernization of mankind. The film was set somewhere around the Pyrenees, where, just to the north, due to rugged climate and tough topography, the tribe’s development was a bit stultified, whereas tribes to the south enjoyed the luxuries of more languid, temperate climes and, thus, easy living, which in turn allowed them to develop at a slightly quicker pace. So the basic conceit of the film is that the northern tribes, one of which our three heroes call home, regarded fire as a possession—you either had it, or you didn’t. Whereas the southern tribes had already discovered the secret, one that has since been passed down to Boy Scout troops the world over: the ability to start one’s own fire.
The film opens with a furious attack on our heroes’ tribe, thus causing the loss of their most precious resource, fire, and a circumstance that critically threatens their very survival. The three fiercest warriors are chosen to go on a journey to find more. The clock is obviously ticking, as the longer this quest takes, the more compromised theirloved ones back at the cave become. So they travel south, desperate to save the day.
As for the making ofQuest, the honeymoon that had characterized everything leading up to the start of principal photography was about to take a major and dramatic turn. The peace-love-brotherhood environment that marked the preproduction process, what with the dinners, the parties, the gatherings, and the words and gestures of encouragement, were about to be replaced with, “Holy shit, lemme just get the fuck outta here alive!” For as we were to learn, from the very first day of shooting Jean-Jacque’s notion of recreating the hardships of a group of men with no modern-day comforts was to completely and irrevocably remove all semblance of comfort, thereby leaving us with a set of circumstances that were asuncomfortable as was humanly possible. He wasn’t satisfied with creating just the illusion of hardship; he wanted actual hardship itself. So he went out of his way to make sure we were just completely victimized by the elements. He truly believed the poignancy of the story was how the environmental elements were always going to be the thing that won the day because mankind was not yet equipped to be the master of his own fate: humankind’s early destiny was decided not by him, but for him. The harnessing and creating of fire was to betheprimary discovery that ultimately allowed us to survive as a species, and the locations he chose for the film were picked to duplicate the harshest conditions possible.
The benchmark of this film was that we were always kind of in the middle of nowhere. We had to use locations that had never been civilized, that had never been built upon, and had no signs of twentieth-century comforts—no electrical lines, no homes. It made for incredible imagery, but it was brutal for us. It was the most uncomfortable film—to date—that I have ever been on. Everett McGill and I both ended up with frostbite on our hands and feet. Nameer El-Kadi, who remains one of my dearest of friends to this day, says he’s fine, but I think he’s bullshitting me. We were barefoot and walking through frozen tundra, we had to run through fields of three-foot-tall heather that had literally turned into icicles, and we had to stand instreams that were 33 degrees Fahrenheit, just at the point at which they’re ready to freeze. For most of the film we were in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have tents, dressing rooms, or Winnebagos we could go to for warmth. We would get finished with a take and be completely compromised, shivering and out of our minds. The only thing that kept us warm were the wardrobe girls who wrapped us in these huge blankets and sleeping bags, as we stomped our feet and blew into our hands to keep the circulation going. My lasting gift from that, my very first movie, was that whenever it’s the slightest bit cold, I lose feeling in my fingers and toes. Glamorous Hollywood, am I right?
So cut to the first sequence we’re going to shoot. We were in a barren freezing area of Scotland during November. The sequence has our group walking along when we find a little stream and stop to take a drink. We’ve been on the quest for weeks and weeks and weeks to find fire, but to no avail. We’re hungry and pissed off, and all of a sudden we see two saber-toothed tigers stalking us. Turns out they were even hungrier than we were! The script dictates that we haul ass and start running. We’re running, the tigers are running, and this sequence builds up to this frenzy until you see, off in the distance, this one sole tree, like a miniature, midget fucking tree, slightly larger than a toothpick, with about seventeen leaves on it, and that’s all there is separating us and certain death. We run and we run and we run, and we make it to the tree.
The script had us hauling ass up this tree as high as possible so as to prevent the tigers from having us for lunch. So we’re up the tree, the tigers are on the ground trying to outwait us, and we gotta survive for three days on seventeen leaves. Okay good, okay fine, sounds easy enough, right?
That sequence was rather complex and scheduled to be a three-day shoot. After four hours in the makeup chair we were ready to begin at seven in the morning. Our group, now in costume, does the establishing shot with us running in the frozen three-foot heather; that was thefirstthing to get my attention. I realized I’m hauling barefoot through plants that had literally turned into ice sculptures or actual stalagmites.They were cutting right through my feet, and we were being asked to run at twenty-five miles an hour because we’ve got these fucking tigers on our tails.
So right off the bat, the Perl is in “what the fuck?!” mode. But hey, let’s just get through this, ’cuz it’s bound to get easier—it has to! After we get all the running shit down and make it to the tree, my man Nameer was the first to climb to the top in a snap, and even big, lumbering Everett managed to get up just enough to make it look plausible. What they—and I—hadn’t realized is that this Jew from New York had never climbed a fuckin’ tree in his life. The only thing I ever climbed was when I once jumped over the fence of the schoolyard so I could play ball because it was locked on Veteran’s Day or some shit. I didn’t know shit about climbing shit, trees especially. So we spent the entire first day with me not being able to pull myself up into this puny, little muthafucka!
We spent half of the second day attempting to do the same. It wasn’t working. We broke for lunch, and they finally sent out a team of carpenters to put pegs in the back of the fucking tree so I could have something to fucking hold on to. Meanwhile Jean-Jacques Annaud is so fucking pissed off at me because now he is on his second day and has somehow managed to be two days behind shooting, and that’s costing him serious money. Onday two! Yes, that’s right: after two days of filming we’re already two days behind, and he’s blaming me, this fat Jew from New York who can’t fucking climb a tree for this whole behind-schedule fucking debacle. Finally, at the end of two days, I’ve gotten up in the tree, and we now have to do in one day—in order to get back on schedule—what we were supposed to do in three.
That night, after shooting, everybody from the crew was in the dining room at the hotel. I noticed that Jean-Jacques refused to make eye contact with me and, when he did see me, just turned away in absolute avoidance. He was so fucking pissed off, he looked like if he had a gun, he’d fucking shoot me. ’Cuz I am now the bane of his existence. After all, 20th Century Fox was already sending communiqués to Scotland saying, “You better get your fucking shit together son, ’cuz we’refucking pulling the plug on this whole thing.” Annaud, rightfully so, had nobody to blame but this fucking fuckup who couldn’t climb a muthafucking tree.
So he wouldn’t look at me, huh? Well, screw this, I thought, and I walked up to his table as he was having coffee at the end of dinner and said, “Can we talk?”
“I do not think that is a good idea!”
“No! I’m so mad at you. I may kill you right now. So, please, do yourself a favor, and do me a favor, and walk the fuck away.”
I didn’t budge. “I really feel as though it’s important that you and I come to some sort of an arrangement. Because obviously what’s happened these first two days is not good for anybody!”
“You think so?!” He started yelling and screaming. “Look! It’s not my fault you can’t climb a fucking tree.” He started attacking me to the point at which he was completely not interested in engaging on any rational level. You could tell that the pressure he was under was so palpable, it didn’t compare to anything I’d ever experienced before. I had never been on a movie before, and I never realized what’s at stake and how expensive every shooting day is. And when you get behind a day, especially on a movie like that, in which you only have these locations for a limited amount of time—if you don’t stay on schedule, disaster lurks just around the corner.
Yes, it was partly my fault, but what I wanted to tell him was that if he had planned this differently and had taken into account his actor’s needs and enabled him to give a performance rather than be challenged into doing difficult physical tasks in a compromised state, it would all go smoother. I wanted to communicate to him that if you just figure out a way to empower me to play this character in a way in which I’m actually in control of the elements rather than the elements being in control of me, I can maybe give a performance, and then everything would work out way better than you can imagine. I started to explain that to him. But he was having none of it and instead was looking to make a quick exit and leave me to my own miserable misery.
I said, “Hey! Hang on! You yelled, now it’s my turn!” Remember, I’ve never been on a movie before. Here I was yelling at the director, and people were turning their heads in the dining room, going, “Oh shit . . . Perlman . . . oh my God, he’s about to be on the next plane back to fucking New York. They’re gonna dropkick his ass for sure.”
Jean-Jacque stopped and listened as I explained that if an actor is completely compromised by the elements and all he’s thinking about is his own survival, you’re just going to get a guy thinking about his own survival, not a performance.
He then said, “Do you think that I’m going to pull up a chair and sit back waiting for you to do whatever it is you are going to do, when all you’ve done for the last two days is completely fuck me and my movie?”
“Jean-Jacques, do yourself a favor and get yourself a fucking chair!” And I walked out.
Jean-Jacques and I did not speak for the next three weeks. Well, that is not entirely true: we spoke, especially him to me in order to describe the day’s work. But there was a palpable tension. On that third day of shooting the first sequence, we were up in the tree, doing all these scenes—this interaction between us and the tigers, us eating leaves out of sheer desperation, the ultimate departure of the tigers, and our eventual dismounting of the tree. So it’s a lot of stuff on that third day in order to make up for the time we had lost. Well, not only did we get it all in the can by four o’clock in the afternoon, but we also had enough time to do this beautiful improvisation that was not even in the script but was phenomenal because we caught the most beautiful light of the day, with us exiting the tree and playing out the relief of having escaped with our lives. There was a palpable sense of relief from both the crew and the cast because, just like that, we were back on schedule. I had stayed up very late the night before figuring out what I needed to do to give the performance. I had just dared Annaud, and I knew if I didn’t deliver something akin to a miracle, I was toast. I knew that. And on that third day the tide got turned, and frenzy was replaced by order. And calm. And from that moment on, there was an obsessive determination on my part to prove my theory that with a modicumof concern for safety and well-being, mixed with copious amounts of planning and homework, a detailed, nuanced performance could be given that would include but not be overpowered by the elements. And with that, there began a subtle evolving into the dynamic of my once-contentious relationship with Jean-Jacques.
Then, about three weeks into filming, when we’re finishing this one location, we got to this other scene. And suddenly something remarkable happened. As we got ready to rehearse the scene for the crew to watch, instead of staging the scene and designating camera angles, Jean-Jacques said, “Everybody take a seat. Let’s see what the actors are going to do.” And I froze for a moment: let’s see whatthe actorsare going to do! Holy shit! That’s the first time he ever said that. And we improvised the scene, and he said, “Wow, that’s very nice. Okay, let’s just shoot it. We’ll put one camera over here. We’ll put one camera over there . . .” And for the rest of the movie that’s how it went: instead of directing a scene before he got a chance to see what we were gonna do, he actually watched what we were gonna do, and then, if he saw something that needed clarification or a different interpretation, he would give us notes and we would all be on the same page. But when he said nothing and we just went into shooting mode, that meant he was happy. And, as they say in France, therules of the gamewere forever changed.
When we finally finished shooting our first leg in Scotland, Jean-Jacques and I had slowly and fantastically evolved into becoming the best of friends. This complete and amazing trust evolved between the two of us. There was now a division of labor. He realized that he didn’t have to do everything; he could let the actors do the acting, he could do the directing, and we can both be on the same page and both be making the same movie. And his transformation happened right in front of our eyes. I’ve now done three films with Jean-Jacques Annaud, and there’s no one on the planet—he’s tied with Guillermo—who has given me greater roles, respect, adoration, and love. He’s as close to being a family member as anyone I’ve met along the way. And I think we both believe we are so close to one another because we started off sorocky. But at the end of the day he’s an incredibly fair-minded guy and talented guy. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant man. A tried and true genius. But he knew what he wanted and, prior to that, had never imagined he could give over to the actor and the actor could supply not only what he was looking for but also maybe even something he hadn’t even imagined! I like to think there was a huge learning curve for both of us. I know there was one for me, because I came away from that experience believing it’s the director’s job to drive you to the point at which you can do nothing other than bring your A Game.
You can hate a director for that or you can love and admire a director for that because he’s actually pulling the best out of you. And it was with Jean-Jacques, on that movie, that I learned this. But I also watched him discover that the actor has spent a lot more time thinking about how to pull off this moment than even the director has because that’s his job. So to participate in this evolution of bringing together two different artistries to paint one picture . . . well, I can’t speak for Jean-Jacques, but there is a satisfaction to that convergence that rivals even the greatest of sensations. And the more detailed and bold the choices I was making, the more vivid the mutual wavelength we entered became, thus making him able to augment it, to vary it, to enhance it, and merge it into his vision for the rest of the picture. Jean-Jacques has just turned out to be one of the most sensational, magnificent, generous people I’ve met in all my travels. And as you will see, this was only the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the richest relationships of my lifetime.
After Scotland we went to Nairobi. The location was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest anything, right in the middle of Tsavo National Park. It wasn’t until we arrived there that we were told there were no telephones—hell, the computer hadn’t been invented yet, nor had the cell phone, so forget about worrying about a signal. There weren’t even any land lines. No telegraphs, fax machines, coke dispensers—nada! There was simply no way to communicate back to civilization. For five weeks! And they didn’t tell us that until we arrived there. So we got really paranoid that our families were going to wonderwhat the fuck happened to us. Anyway, we not only get through it, but Africa proved to yield the singular most unique experience of my life—spiritual even, like going back as close to the Garden of Eden as exists on this earth. And I discovered that the more intense the elements and conditions of a movie set are, the deeper the bond that forges within the family who is the cast and crew. For these are memories that remain as vivid to me as if they just occurred.
The African section of filming took us right up to the Christmas holiday, which traditionally means that the company would break for two weeks and resume right after New Year. But in the case of this rejiggered production ofQuest, our next location for the final section of filming needed to be Canada. And because it was simply too cold to shoot in Northern Ontario until at least the end of March, we were all about to disperse for around three and a half months.
So there I was, riding on this huge crest of starring for 20th Century Fox, a major studio, in an extremely esoteric production that’s going to leave me with nothing less than some really serious bragging rights. And I was feeling good. I was on a high, and I had a few bucks in my pocket. I’m living a little bit, well, not real large, but enough to fly Opal to meet me in London and spend two weeks traveling the UK and then France.
I’m so close with Jean-Jacques by this point that we even went to visit him and spent a couple of nights with him at his country house just outside of Paris. Opal and I have this magical vacation together. Once we were back in the States in about early February I said to her, “Fuck it. Let’s get married.”
“Let’s get married, and let’s do it on Valentine’s Day, ’cuz that’s five years to the day from our first date. So it’ll be an easy anniversary to remember.”
She said, “How does one get married on Valentine’s Day when nothing has been planned and it’s February 11?”
“I just want to fucking elope. I just want to get the blessing of your mom and my mom, take my best pal Burton and your favorite sisteror two, go up to some fucking justice of the peace, and come home, married. ’Cuz all it is, is an extension of what we’ve already been doing. We’ve metaphorically been married anyway for five years.”
“Well, you crazy-ass motherfucker, okay, YES! Absolutely.” And so I got the Yellow Pages out for justices of the peace, and there was only one listing. It was in Spring Valley, which is just on the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge up in Westchester County, but it was supposed to be a chapel with a scenic view of New York’s skyline.
I called the pastor, or whatever the fuck he’s called, to book an appointment, and he said, “Well, I’m very busy on Valentine’s Day, but I can slip you in between 1:30 and 2 o’clock.” We drove up there—it’s fucking freezing. My best buddy, Burton, along with Burton’s girlfriend and Opal’s sisters, Janice and Sharon, came along to watch us get hitched. Once there, it wasn’t so glamorous or quaint; the guy simply performed services on his front lawn in this suburban neighborhood. Fuck, we coulda been in Akron.
I said, “Not for nuthin, but didn’t it say view of the New York skyline in your ad?”
“No, you can see it,” he said, “but you have to get on the roof, and if you hold on to the antennae and lean out as far as you can, you can actually see the skyline of New York. Trust me—it’s gorgeous!”
Well anyway, metaphorically at least, we had this very kind of bucolic country version of this elopement that was as romantic as I possibly could have made it, given the fact that we didn’t even leave time for blood tests and all the other shit you gotta do to get a marriage license. We just made it in by the skin of our teeth so we could make the Valentine’s Day date. But at the time I was romantic enough to say that this was important: I want to do this on Valentine’s Day. What the fuck good is a holiday like that if you can’t commit to the one you love? I also like the symmetry of getting married five years to the date, like the circles I talked about. Because, shit, marriage is really a fucking big casino. It’s not for the faint of heart, and whatever good omen I could put into it, I wanted to do.
About a month later I went up to Owen Sound in northern Ontario. It’s about a hundred miles due north of Toronto. It was a magnificent location, just a stone’s throw from Lake Ontario. The Great Lakes are like fucking oceans. Freezing my ass off, freezing my kishkes off, and shooting the beginning and the end ofQuest for Fire. All of the stuff that was to depict our tribal life was to be shot at these cave locations. There was the film’s opening, during which we depicted this epic battle between our tribe and that of a warring neighbor and in which our fire is lost. And then there is the film’s end, which consists of our triumphant return, complete with fire back in its cage. And to my surprise and delight, Jean-Jacques had decided to use one of the changes at the end of the script that one time, months before, I had offered him when he was in New York before shooting began.
The end of the movie consisted of a montage of various vignettes of our hero’s tribe now that, through the miracle of fire, life has regained its stability and has, indeed, been advanced. My suggestion to Jean-Jacques was that this little visual exploration include the sitting around the campfire and the regaling of the stories of our quest, almost as if this discovery brought with it the dawn of storytelling, as if the telling of these stories, these sagas, these adventures, were part of our DNA, thus making us more human, and that the story should be like the first fish story ever told—you know, like when you catch a four-pound fish but by the time you tell your buddies about it, that fish is sixteen pounds. Jean-Jacques included that moment in the montage, with the story being told by none other than yours truly. My mom and I were so proud!
Literature is nothing more than the expansion of storytelling. Storytelling is obviously the impulse to chronicle something you’ve been through in order to give it its due, to have a catharsis. Like, “Holy crap, I’ve been through this experience, and it was a life-or-death experience, and I made it through, so there’s a huge amount to be learned from it. Aside from this adrenaline rush, it had to be the most instructive moment a man can have. And I absolutely need to chronicle that notonly to make note of it for myself but also to assert the fact that I’ve been here, that I have done this and I have had this experience. But perhaps by chronicling it I can share this experience with the people who immediately surround me and then expand the notion of community through a shared experience, forming what is at the root of our collective consciousness.
Tapping into this ancient collective consciousness is what drives me to perfect my passion as a filmmaker. Once I became aware of the fact that everybody’s looking for the reason we’re all here, I understood the purpose of what storytelling, literature, theater, and, thus, film is all about. The reason we’re here is to talk about what we did. And if you talk about what you did in a way in which it resonates with every other person who’s ever been here before or is ever going to be here again, no matter what their race, creed, ethnic background, ability to speak or not speak language, well, then you’ve left a mark. It resonates on such a level that it’s completely universal. That is collective consciousness, and as close as we can all come to that—that’s what we strive for in making movies. And that’s the meaning of life. It’s to know you’re not in this alone, that there are a gazillion of us who have come and gone and who feel the same things you’re feeling, and in knowing this comes solace, peace, a degree of resignation. That no matter what it is I’m going through, I’m not the first one, and I’m not gonna be the last.
Quest for Firewas released in February 1982. In its first year it grossed $20 million, a lot for the time. It got great reviews and was well received, eventually winning an Oscar for best makeup. While waiting for it to come out, I was pumped and ready for the next major project, but as was to become a pattern I could not begin to imagine, it led to nothing. Even as it was playing in theaters, with all this wonderful noise about it and with many reviewers positively mentioning my performance, I started to get this unsettling feeling. It wasn’t as if there were a dozen new caveman movies waiting to be made—where do I go from here? ’Cuz certainly the phone ain’t ringing off the hook with life-altering offers! Not only would the next few years bringabout more of what I’d been through before, but now there was also an added element: I was creeping closer to the edge of this black hole, just like my brother, a hole in which only one of us was to barely make it out alive.
Get a Real Job
Prior to the release ofQuestthe buzz was great. Everyone expected the movie to do well, and 20th Century Fox was reasonably sure they had a hit on their hands, which they did, although a modest one. I believed I had just finished a dramatic touchstone in my career and certainly one that would be a life-changer for me. At long last my enduring dream, a life on “Easy Street,” was moments away from becoming a reality. The film, after all, was for a major studio. It was made by an Academy Award–winning director, with the most distinguished people on the scene, including, as I mentioned, Anthony Burgess, Desmond Morris, and Claude Agostini, the DP (director of photography), who was an award-winning camera man. The insiders were heralding my performance before the public even got a glimpse, and all this was leading up to me acquiring my first Hollywood agent, a development that only furthered my conviction that my time had finally arrived.
Coming back to “normal” life, even if I didn’t have to deal with freezing my ass off anymore, took some adjustment. I didn’t make enough money from the role to dramatically change anything financially. I still needed to pay the rent month by month, keep the phone and electricity on, and take my new bride out to an occasional dinner, or whatever. Fuck, I had hoped something would’ve immediately emanated right then and there from the experience, but it didn’t. Therewas part of my ego that made it very difficult for me to square up the fact that I needed to go back to the same day job I had before I had left. Back to selling handbags and jewelry on Eighth Street and MacDougal at Burton’s place. He welcomed me, of course, but to me it was like going back to him with my tail between my legs. It was, “Yeah, I’m a movie actor but I still need a fuckin’ day gig for an hourly wage.” What ensued wasn’t a total downer because, as the months rolled closer toQuest’srelease, there were more and more positive vibes coming my way, enough to make me believe that, upon premiere, new doors would fling open.
About three months before the film came out they started showing it around at special screenings in Hollywood. One guy, a classy, brash agent by the name of Robert Littman watched it and thought this would be my breakout film. Bobby was as colorful a guy as I’ve ever met in this business. He was a British Jew who talked at the top of his voice at all times of the day and night, was a wellspring of stories, and as magnificent a natural raconteur as I had ever met (only topped by my dad and Ralph Arzoomanian). It was about eight o’clock in the evening, and I remember sitting down in my New York apartment to make myself a drink when my phone rings. I hear this guy just yelling and screaming at the top of his voice: “IS THIS RON PERLMAN?!”
“Uh, yes it is. Who’s calling?”
“YOU DON’T KNOW ME, BUT I’M YOUR NEXT AGENT.”
I had to hold the phone a few inches from my ear so as to protect myself from injury. I said, “Congratulations. You couldn’t have picked a nicer guy.”
“MY NAME IS ROBERT LITTMAN, AND I REPRESENT SIX ACTORS.”
And I said, “Oh, I guess business is slow?”
He finally tones down his volume: “No, I have six, I don’t need any more.”
“Who are they, just out of curiosity?”
“Alan Bates, James Coburn, Gene Wilder, Elizabeth Montgomery,” and he names one more icon of the day, I can’t remember who. Andthen there’s this awkward pause after he names the fifth one, and he says, “Oh, I forgot, my sixth one died.”
“Sorry to hear that. Who was he?”
“Lee J. Cobb.” And I said, “So you’re calling me because you have an opening?”
“They told me you were funny, but I didn’t expect you to be . . . well, funny. I’m calling because I want you to sign with me. I’m coming to New York right now. Where are you?”
“I’m in my house, in my tighty whities, pouring myself a nice cocktail.”
“Well, I can’t get there that quickly. I’m in Hollywood.”
He flew in the next day, and we went out for dinner at some fancy place with a lot of showbiz people at the other tables. I could see from the moment we entered the joint that the guy knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was definitely seriously connected to all of my heroes and icons, and on a first-name basis. So I took the bit and worked out an arrangement with Pat and Shirley for them to be my New York agents while Littman would represent me in Hollywood. He told me I would need to come out to Hollywood so he could introduce me around so as to start building the myth. Once he was back in LA he’d call and ask when I was coming out so he could work his magic. I wanted to go, but I was reticent because . . . well, I didn’t have any fuckin’ money. I didn’t have the extra cash I needed to pay for the plane ticket or a hotel room.
“Yeah, I’ll be out there,” and I kept putting it off, and putting it off.
Eventually the official press tour for the film happened. We did talk shows; we did theLA Times,New York Times, CBSEvening News; we did Letterman (this was when he had his original show on NBC after Carson). We’re doing all kinds of press, and we’re going from place to place in limousines. That’s the first time I’d ever been in a limousine in my life. When they sent us out to the West Coast for a week or so I met up with Littman, and he brought me to parties hosted or attended by celebrities every night. I was at Jimmy Caan’s house one night, Alan Ladd Jr.’s house the next night. I’m just partying with nothingbut people who keep my mouth agape for the entire seven days I was there. At the time there was an executive chef at a place called Spago, which was kind of like this parking lot they had converted to a restaurant, and it becamethequintessential Hollywood hangout. I was eating lunch every day there, doing press interviews from there. Orson Welles was coming and going, Kirk Douglas was coming and going, and Jack Lemmon was coming and going. I mean, I suddenly felt as though the Earth had shifted under my feet, and . . . well, I’m for sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto. I was buying into what everyone was telling me: I was surely among this next wave of the new celebrated generation of actors.
That was where my head was at opening night. But as the weeks went by I slowly began to see that all of it was leading to nothing: no calls, no roles, no offers. This crescendo is quickly followed by the blackest hole I’ve ever been in. I began to seriously wonder what was in store for me. Clearly, cause and effect meant nothing. If you do A, B, C, and D in the movie industry, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to lead to E, F, G, and H. Whereas maybe in other industries it would, but this particular business there are other forces at work. In reality, even as I sat in a theater one night a few weeks later and watched the film once again by myself, I came to understand thatQuestwas a one-off. My performance was the creation of a very, very esoteric, specific kind of behavior, completely covered up by makeup and costume, such that the acting never even showed through physically, much less emotionally. It was a very abstract performance. There was no real set of clues left behind. No forensics blurting forth, “This is the guy, and we know exactly who the fuck he is and what the fuck he’s gonna do to set Hollywood on its ass.”
In short, I had been on the highest waves of expectation that a man could possibly be on that my life was going to change completely, patently, and for all time because I was a part of this amazing achievement, because, as I was being told, of my personal contribution to the film’s success. “Your life is gonna fucking change, dude. You’re about to become a movie star, son. You’re gonna be rich, you’re gonna befamous.” Full stop! This is what I was told—actual fucking words that came out of people’s fucking lips, not mine. And then . . .
When I left the theater that night it was as if I had become possessed by some dark force, almost like a del Torian demon spirit had suddenly taken over my mind. Everything began to seem pointless. Opal tried to cushion the blow by telling me something else would come, but this depression was so personal and so profound that I was immune to consolation, and to this day neither Opal nor, indeed, any living person knows how far I fell and to what degree. What I am about to describe has never been told. And it all happened while fuckingQuest for Firewas still in the fucking theaters.
What I’m telling you is that for a kid who came from the background that I came from, who had nothing, who never had any reason to really imagine that he would ever be able to depart dramatically from the die that was originally cast on the whole Perlman thing—to have this in front of me, dangling this carrot, it was seductive. It played tricks with my mind, and I began to buy into the belief that I’m going to wake up and my life is going to be different. I was going to be living in a fucking penthouse and fielding phone calls from agents, producers—hell, studio heads. I was going to be choosing what fucking movie I was gonna be doing next. I was gonna be deciding whether I want to work with the Bette Davises of the day. More importantly, I was going to be able to finally do something significant with my acting—to create and contribute whatever I could to our culture. I was gonna make a difference, a mark. There was all kinds of fucking weird shit rollin’ around in my noggin. The fact of the matter is, nothing happened. I mean, Nothing, with a capitalNuth. The silence was profound. And deafening. And devastating!
I guess this darkness or demon was always there. I’m pretty sure it can’t be too much of a coincidence that I lost my brother to the very thing I almost lost myself to. So maybe there was some sort of a chemical thing that went through both him and me, something we shared in common, despite what my dad believed. But what I had, I later came to understand, was clinical depression, whereas what my brother hadwas manic depression. Yet both are and can be killers. For me, it was a result of this nothing, or really the perception I had of it as being nothing. Whatever . . . it spiraled swiftly and was all-encompassing. I couldn’t stop thinking, “How could I have been that wrong? How could I have allowed myself to be that completely bullshitted?” I was bullshitting myself; I was bullshitted by the universe at large. I bought into a whole lot of shit that a whole lot of fucking people who didn’t give a shit about me were saying. It triggered this emotional descent, which, I guess, for somebody who has a sort of chemical proclivity, like the one I described, led to something that became overwhelming. And it became something that, no matter how hard I tried to grab onto it with both hands, I couldn’t get a grasp. What made it even stranger was that it came at this moment that should have been the very opposite. If I’ve learned anything on this journey I’m on, it’s that I’m in an art form ensconced in a business that is at once neither or both. But one thing is for sure: it is not for the faint of heart.
If you’ve never been through clinical depression before, it’s just gonna sound rather academic, anemic even, like, “Come on, Perlman, you just made a fuckin’ movie. It can’t be that bad. You’re overdramatizing all of this. Get yourself together and stop with the bullshit.” And that’s the way most of the world treats something that is as disturbing as this mental illness, simply because most of the world is reminded about how ill-equipped we are to deal with somebody who is in that much trouble. Depression goes through stages, but if left unchecked and not treated, this elevator ride will eventually go all the way to the bottom floor. And finally you find yourself bereft of choices, unable to figure out a way up or out, and pretty soon one overarching impulse begins winning the battle for your mind: “Kill yourself.” And once you get over the shock of those words in your head, the horror of it, it begins to start sounding appealing, even possessing a strange resolve, logic. In fact, it’s theonlything you have left that is logical. It becomes the only road to relief. As if just the planning of it provides the first solace you’ve felt that you can remember. And you become comfortable with it. You begin to plan it and contemplate the details of how bestto do it, as if you were planning travel arrangements for a vacation. You just have to get out. O-U-T. You see the white space behind the letterO? You just want to crawl through that O and be out of this inescapable hurt that is this thing they call clinical depression. “How am I going to do this?” becomes the only tape playing. And if you are really, really, really depressed and you’re really there, you’re gonna find a way. I found a way. I had a way. And I did it.
I made sure Opal was out of the house and on a business trip. My planning took a few weeks. I knew exactly how I was going to do it: I didn’t want to make too much of a mess. There was gonna be no blood, no drama. There was just going to be, “Now you see me, now you don’t.” That’s what it was going to be.
So I did it. And it was over. Or so I thought. About twenty-four hours later I woke up. I was groggy; zoned out to the point at which I couldn’t put a sentence together for the next couple of days. But I was semifunctional, and as these drugs and shit that I took began to wear off slowly but surely, I realized, “Okay, I fucked up. I didn’t make it.” I thought I did all the right stuff, left no room for error, but something happened. And this perfect, flawless plan was thwarted. As if some force rebuked me and said, “Not yet. You’re not going anywhere.”
The only reason I could have made it, after the amount of pills and alcohol and shit I took, was that somebody or something decided it wasn’t my time. It certainly wasn’t me making that call. It was something external. And when you’re infused with the presence of this positive external force, which is so much greater than all of your efforts to the contrary, that’s about as empowering a moment as you can have in your life.
These days we have a plethora of drugs one can take to ameliorate the intensity of this lack of hope, lack of direction, lack of choice. So fuck it and don’t be embarrassed or feel like you can handle it yourself, because lemme tell ya something: you can’t. Get fuckin’ help. The negative demon is strong, and you may not be as fortunate as I was. My brother wasn’t.
For me, despair eventually gave way to resolve, and resolve gave way to hope, and hope gave way to “Holy shit. I feel better than I’ve ever felt right now.” Having actually gone right up to the white light, looked right at it, and some force in the universe turned me around, I found, with apologies to Mr. Dylan,my direction home. I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt. I’m not exaggerating when I say for the next six months I felt like Superman. Like I’m gonna fucking go through walls. That’s how strong I felt. I had this positive force in me. I was saved. I was protected. I was like the only guy who survived and walked away from a major plane crash. I was here to do something big. What started as the darkest moment in my life became this surge of focus, direction, energy, and empowerment.
I wanted to change everything, and the first thing I thought of was to try to find a way to make some dough to pay the rent, ’cuz selling handbags just wasn’t cutting it. I saw this TV commercial for Fugazy Continental, one of the early limo companies in New York City, advertising for drivers. Part of what they were advertising was that if you come work for them, you can be an owner/operator, setting your own hours and making the dough of your dreams. They were trying to recruit a lot of guys to jump on board and pay them a very, very hefty fee in order to have access to the amazing opportunities that being a part of Fugazy Continental entailed, or so the commercial said. I needed a job that let me set my own hours so I could continue with auditions, so I finagled my way into the company without paying anything. I was hired as an independent and was paid per fare. I had a fuckin’ chauffer uniform, a hat, and the whole fuckin’ get-up.
I worked for them for about a week before I realized I hated working during the day, so I said, “Can I get the car for twenty-four hours a day, and I’ll bring in a second guy. He’ll be my day guy, and I’ll do the night?” That was when I lured my friend Nameer El-Kadi, who was the second lead inQuest for Fire, into joining me. And so it went, me and Nameer. Ya got the two leads in the greatest caveman movie of the last six months in our new roles as chauffeurs for this fuckin’limo company. Fuck it, though, we made the best of it, and the money they said they’d pay didn’t seem bad. You drove around all types of money people, some celebs, some politicos. I was okay at it, treating it as though it were a part in a movie. Speaking of which . . .
One day I got an assignment to pick up some guy and his secretary someplace in Midtown and take him to the American Bar Association on the Upper East Side. So he got in the car—very sweet older fellow, very well mannered, very warm—and began to tell me what a thrill it is for him at his ripe old age to be treated to his first limo ride. Turned out this guy was a distinguished New York magistrate, beloved by all in the industry, and that night all his peers would be honoring him. Very exciting. And a limo to boot.
So I said to him, “Yeah, I kinda know what you mean. I just took my first limo ride a few months ago.”
“Oh really? What was the occasion?” And when I told him I had starred in a movie he leaned forward and looked at me closer. “Wait a minute . . . were you inQuest for Fire?”
“Yeah. You really recognize me from that?” He said he knew something was weird about me the minute he stepped in the car but only finally put his finger on it. So then he said, “What’s a movie star doing driving a limo?” And I told him how things don’t always work out the way ya thought they might but how much I loved being in a limo too. So when money got tight I figured, “What the hell? I’ll drive a limo. It can’t be that much different in the front than it is in the back. You know, one year you’re in the back, the next you’re in the front. And that, my friend, is America to me!” The judge laughed his fuckin’ ass off. When he got out he tried to give me a tip, not knowing the protocol. “Thanks, Judge, but keep it. This was the best ride I had all month!”
So I did that for about a month when the first check came in that was supposed to pay for the first weeks’ fares. The dollar amount seemed off. I did the math, and it seemed like I worked my ass off. I felt like I worked 175 hours the first week, and the first check was only $230? How is it possible that I could have put in that many hours andended up with so little? So I walked up to the cashier who fronts the paymaster, and I said, “Hey, who do I talk to about this check?”
“What’s the problem?”
“It seems as though you guys shorted me a little bit.” I was getting really loud.
The cashier says, “Sir, would you keep your volume down?”
“No, I won’t keep the fuckin’ volume down. I worked my ass off the week this check is for, and I’m supposed to get thirty-five dollars more. Not two-thirty—it’s two-sixty-five! What the fuck is going on here?”
“Well, the paymaster is inside, but he’s a little bit busy right now, and hold on, you can’t go in there . . .”
But I already said, “Fuck it,” and pushed open the door to this back room, and I held the check up in the air with my left hand and said, “Who the fuck do I speak to about this fucking check?!” I’m talking at the top of my voice. As I get halfway through the sentence, I realize I’m in a room with thirty-five guys. They all are wearing suits, but with no sports jackets, and they all have shoulder holsters on. I’m the only guy in the room that’s not packin’. But some fuckin’ jerk inside me keeps going. I said, “Who the fuck do I talk to about making good on this check?”
There was about ten seconds of silence, and then one guy looked around to the other guys in the room and said, “Who the fuck does he talk to about taking care of this fuckin’ check?” Everybody started laughing. The guy then came over to me and put his arm around my neck, like in a mafia movie, and he said, “This kid is beautiful. I love this fuckin’ kid.” He looked at the check and asked how much I was shorted. He told some other guy to make the check right. He looked at his other guys and said, “For thirty-five fuckin’ dollars. I love this kid. This kid has gotsomefucking brass over here. Give this kid whatever he wants.”
After that, the dispatcher started throwing me these crazy good accounts. I was driving for some major players in New York—ESPN guys, CBS guys, and everyone like that. They were throwing me somereally good accounts because I amused them, if ya know what I mean! For thirty bucks I was ready to get shot 175 times. I was gonna look like fucking Sonny fromThe Godfather. This was part of the new me, when I was starting to feel really, really good about myself. So the next phase of this “recovery” was to take charge of my acting career. After getting paid for a few more weeks I decide to catch a cheap red-eye to Los Angeles. Bobby Littman, my Hollywood agent, had always said I was welcome to stay with him anytime, so I took him up on his offer. Early the next morning I knocked on his door. “Listen, Bobby,” I said, “I ain’t got no money, so can I sleep on your couch?”
“Of course, Perlman. Come in. You don’t have to sleep on my couch. I have a guest room. We’ll have a marvelous time.”
I basically moved in and quickly started taking over the place. I borrowed one of his cars. I made him stay up late and keep telling me stories about Hollywood and all of his buddies and pals, to the point at which after about a week and a half he came into the guest room where I was sleeping and sat on the side of the bed.
“Can I ask you a question, Perlman?”
“Sure, Bobby, anything!”
“How much longer are you going to be here?”
“Bobby, you know, I’d like to leave, but I learned from my first Hollywood agent that I shouldn’t really go anywhere till he gets me a fucking job.” He just looked at me. “Do you know who my first Hollywood agent is, Bobby?”
“It’s you, Bobby. So I leave the minute you get me a fucking job.”
He got on the phone and I heard him yelling, “YOU GOTTA HIRE THIS GUY. GIVE HIM ANYTHING.” He came back into the bedroom and said he’d have a contract for me before the month was out and that I should go home. Instead of a horse head in his bed, Bobby got me. To this day I never did see a man more possessed!
I worked at Fugazy for about a month more, until Littman called and said I was hired to do this movie in Hollywood calledIce Pirates. I had to be out there right away. The film was a spoof onStar TrekandStar Wars, done in a purely comedic version. It was shit. I don’t want to even talk aboutIce Pirates, but it was a studio movie and I was heading back to Hollywood—with a paying gig. Finally the silence was silenced!
Stage or Scream
While I was shootingIce PiratesOpal came out to visit me. It was her first trip to Hollywood, and, I don’t know, there must’ve been some exotic scent in the air. What I’m tryin’ to say is that she got pregnant during that trip. I mean, she didn’tknowshe was pregnant right away, but she sure suspected it, if ya know what I mean!: “Um, excuse me, hello, but what in the fuck do you think you’re doing Mr. ‘Boy, wasn’t that beautiful’? We don’t have the income needed to have a kid right now. HEY, I’M TALKING TO YOU!”
I said nothing. I got her in the car and drove up the winding roads above Hollywood to this spot I used to go to when I had an hour to kill. It was this magnificent lookout spot on Mulholland Drive that overlooks the entire San Fernando Valley, where you could see all the studios,plusBrando’s house,plusNicholson’s, Brando’s neighbor’s house. I mean, this was the place to sit and dream big, son! I stopped the car just short of the cliff, rammed it in park, turned to my dearest Opal, and said, “Excuseme! Do you know when the right time to have a kid is? WHEN IT FUCKING HAPPENS!” I paused for dramatic effect, threw the car into reverse, and sped down the hill, never saying another word on the subject—that is, just until we found out days later that her hunch was, in actuality, true, and our firstborn was, indeed, on its merry way.
After about a week being home my prophetic Mulholland resolve started to waver a little. That high an actor is on while he’s in the middle of a gig gradually started to get replaced by the same old, same old. I began thinking, “Well, once again, my career is over. The phone’s not ringing, and nothing is happening.” And reality was biting. I mean, it was one thing when it was just me and Opal I had to worry about; we got real good at the spaghetti-and-meatball, followed by the meatball-and-spaghetti diet. But it’s another thing when you’ve got a baby to think about. It takes on a completely different modality. Before I even had time to panic, the phone rang, and it was my agent girls, Pat and Shirley, with a tone in their voices that actually sounded promising. “Peter Brook is in town and wants to meet you.” The frame of reference jumped out at me. During the sixties and seventies Peter Brook was one of the true godheads of theater everywhere. He had written a book calledThe Empty Space, which becamethetextbook for anybody who studied theater during those decades. He had been the artistic director of the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he did one iconic production after another, thus continuing to raise the bar for the work that was done at those distinguished and venerable institutions. He then eventually went off on his own and started doing very experimental stuff, and some of it was so experimental, so unconventional . . . I mean he would actually go off to a hilltop in Tibet and perform obscure versions of the classics for goats—literally, goats and animals, because there was no one else there to watch. But that wasn’t the point, was it?! However, regardless of what Peter was calling to discuss, the notion of havinganydiscussion with Peter Brook commanded one’s undivided attention. So I gathered up my goat vaccine and off I went, titillated all the way.
I embarked over to my old stomping grounds, the La Mama Theater in the East Village, where Brook was holding his meetings. I was excited because this guy occupied such an amazing place in this incredibly pure part of my fascination with theater, in particular, and all art in general. More than just a director, he was like the high priest of theater at that time. When I sat down with him he told me he hadn’tbeen able to get me out of his mind since he sawQuest for Fireand that he was inviting me to join his company. This fuckin’ blew me away. FinallyQuestceased to be in vain—it actually did lead to something. And although what it led to wasn’t something I would have ever guessed, and although it didn’t lead to a prime table at Spago’s, it did take me to the single-most esoteric, purely artistic avenue one could ever be invited to stroll down. He wanted to mount the classic ancient Hindu epic upon which all spirituality emanates,The Mahabharata, first for his theater company in Paris, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, and eventually for the screen. His idea, as the original story is in eighteen volumes of Sanskrit and is the most epic story ever told, was to stage it as a trilogy, three three-hour plays. He had the brilliant French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere to adapt it and was offering me the role of Bhima, whose father is the god of wind and whose mother is the most beautiful mortal woman ever born to this Earth. Oh, and because the Bouffes du Nord was an experimental theater company, there was no money, or very little anyway. Oh, and I’d hafta move my newborn baby and young wife to Paris for two years.
Needless to say, it was a big honor to finally be talking with Peter Brook, who was truly a god of mine and, indeed, any other theater actor of my generation. And it came as a result of what he saw in this movie, which I thought no one had noticed at all. So right away I was incredibly seduced. “Good,” he said and then suggested we go for a walk. He took me to a bookstore on the Lower East Side and bought me a copy of theMahabharata, which, in its condensed version, was more than twelve hundred pages. He said, “This is a story that is really not meant to be read; it’s meant to be told verbally. But if you’re going to read it, this is the greatest adaptation there is. So start sinking your teeth into this, and if you are interested in continuing to talk about this, here’s all my information. We would love to have you in the troupe.”
I was looking at him and down at this giant fuckin’ book in my hands.
Then he said, “I know this is a big decision, so while you are making it I would like to invite you to immediately become a part of the group by joining the cast for the production ofLa Tragedie de Carmenthat I’m about to open at Lincoln Center. You do this while you are pondering and, in the meanwhile, you get a taste of what it’s like to work with us.”
So perform I did inCarmenat Lincoln Center, and it was a dream come true. Lincoln Center is like the Yankee Stadium of New York culture. And I was doing it for the great Peter Brook. My first performance fell on a Friday night, exactly one week after Opal was due to deliver our first kid. And God bless my dear wife for having the decency to wait till I got my first performance under my belt, because the following morning Opal went into labor. Now Saturday is a two-show day on Broadway, a Saturday afternoon matinee followed by another show in the evening. Well, I had a clause in my contract that, as I was my wife’s Lamaze partner, if she went into labor, I was excused and could miss a performance. So I missed both the matinee and the evening show on Saturday. I did, however, enjoy a way better show: I watched my daughter Blake be born into the world, and the minute I held this precious child in my arms and she looked up into my eyes, I had an epiphany: I was not gonna go to France. I was gonna pursue a career in cinema in a more conventional way right here in the good ol’ US of A. And even though being invited to perform at Lincoln Theater by the inimitable Peter Brook was probably the greatest compliment that could ever have been paid to me, and even though I knew this invitation represented a major circle closing for me, still, I was certain destiny lay elsewhere. Yes, what Brook had embodied and what he had evolved into equated to pure artistry, never concerned about pandering for profit or appeasing the bottom-liners. And there was and still is something inside of me that yearns for something that pure, that innocent, that unfettered.
But at the end of the day it would have required almost the devotion of a monk, to be cloistered in a world where there are notemporal limitations. Well . . . turns out I just ain’t that muthafucka; I just didn’t havethatkind of devotion. Turns out all I wanted was to be a crass, commercial American actor who was going to make some fuckin’ money and give this fuckin’ kid a life I didn’t have.
WhenCarmenfinished, Opal and I felt we had a decision to make. We had an eight-month-old baby, and we both realized that the opportunities available for a New York actor to actually make a living never seemed to have my name on ’em. If you were getting paid in the Apple, you were either doing soap operas or commercials or singing and dancing your ass off on the gay white way. So we packed a couple of bags and made our way out to Hollywood—Opal, me, and eight-month-old little Blake. We chose to stay at the Highland Gardens Hotel, which is this funky-ass little efficiency apartment/hotel famous for catering to actors, singers, dancers, and musicians. The reason I knew about it was because it was where Janis Joplin had overdosed. What more perfect way to be introduced to the seedy underbelly of Hollywood? But mainly we stayed there because it was a very transient kind of place, where one was free to either commit or not. You could stay a day, a week, or for years. It was a way for us to come check out Los Angeles without getting stuck in Los Angeles, because we both had a feeling that we might hate it. Which is also why we decided to hang onto our apartment in the Apple for the time being.
We had been there less than a week when my mom called. She found my brother. He was dead from a gunshot wound to the head. I guess she got suspicious when she couldn’t get him on the phone for days on end. So she went down to his pad in the Village to see what the problem was . . . fuck! What a nightmare.
I was on the next plane back to New York. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it was gonna be ugly. I was terrified for my mom—whether she could handle a blow like this, having lost the first love of her life, my dad, at such a young age, and now this. The flight back to New York found my mind going faster than the plane. My brother, up until this last episode, had only experienced the manic side of this manic depression of his—that is, until this last one. This one foundhim lower than low. I had spent all day every day for the last four months talking to him, counseling him, trying to get it into his head that there were beautiful things out there waiting for him. He was not to be reached. But even I, who had been through my own version of what he was going through, never, ever thought he had the resolve to take his own life. And then he waited until I left town to do it. Sadness doesn’t begin to describe what I was feeling, and what I am still feeling.
One of the hardest parts of that moment was, aside from the profound loss of my hero, my brother, was there I was with a mom who desperately needed something to believe in and something to give her a reason to not give up. And I had this brand-new child and wife and this life that I’m just about to embark on. The decision as to whether to just kind of throw that plan out the window and come back to New York, to be the rock my mom could lean on, was one of the toughest I ever had to make. Ultimately, she made it a lot easier for me, as she’s always done when it comes down to me and the good of my career. She said, “No. There’s nothing that gets in the way of that. I’m fine. Besides, I have Irving”—her second husband and one of the sweetest most generous of men—“I’ll be good. I’ll be fine. You go back and do this thing. That’s what everyone would want.”
So after a period of a few weeks of mourning and putting my brother’s house in order and all of the things that bring the closure of the moment, I went back to the Highland Gardens to my wife and my now nine-month-old child. I started this insipid career march toward God knows what. But at least it was something I was going to commit to, even though we decided to go month-by-month, holding onto the apartment in New York because we were only going to commit to it just so far. We left the door open to come back. If LA was truly all the things we ever heard it was—vapid, one-dimensional, superficial, an idiot’s delight—there was only so much of it we were gonna tolerate. We would only stay if we saw some real signs that it was gonna be a sort of utopia for me, commercially.
I did a few TV shows. I played an attorney twice, once in the TV seriesMacGruder and Loud. I played a thug twice, once in theFall Guy,and for a TV show calledSplit Image, along with a few other small character roles. Everything indicated that Hollywood was every bit as terrible at figuring out what to do with this fall-through-the-cracks character actor as New York had been. Those first years were rough, and we barely scraped by. We survived from these bit parts and some inheritance dough my rich aunt left me, the one who took me to my first Broadway play,Fiddler on the Roof. We kept our expenses very low. We bought a cheap car, stayed in a cheap flat. We cut corners.
Then something happened toward the middle of the end of ’85 that kind of changed the conversation. I read an article that said my friend Jean-Jacques Annaud had signed on to direct the adaptation of this incredibly celebrated book,The Name of the Roseby Umberto Eco. The book had been on theNew York Timesbest-seller list so long it had broken records for the amount of consecutive weeks it had occupied first place. So there was this huge bidding war as to who was gonna be the guy to adapt the book into a film. It turned out that Jean-Jacques Annaud, who had doneQuest for Fire, was most convincing both to the studios and to Umberto Eco, and little by little he was starting to put the pieces together to make this into a movie.
I went and bought the book and read it. The book was really hard to get into. It was almost like readingTitus Andronicus, in that it’s so dense with characters. It’s kind of a very obscure, very mysterious, fourteenth-century monastery world that had Franciscans and other Orders—to a Jew they all look alike! All told, it took me four attempts to get past the first one hundred pages. And then I finally got on a roll and started really getting into this mysterious world Eco was depicting, and it became one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. I noticed that there was a role in there of this hunchback, Salvatore, who spoke seven languages, but all in a jumble, not as if he was literate but more like he was too mentally challenged to understand there was a difference between one and the other, so he spoke every word of every language all at once, with a logic that was impenetrable. But he was part of this world that got swept into this order of outlaws within this strangely conflicted world of religious fervor.
The character grabbed me. He was this hunchback who was mentally challenged. He was ugly, deformed, distorted, and yet he was functional. Plus, he had an insatiable sexual appetite and was a coward of the highest order. He was this compendium of fascinating elements that made for an analysis and execution as an actor that would have been every bit akin to the fascinating challenge I had already enjoyed with Annaud inQuest.I became obsessed with the idea of trying to solve the puzzle that was Salvatore. It was like a Rubik’s Cube, trying to line up a series of divergent attributes and mold them into a piece of humanity that, even though you’d never seen anyone like him, seemed at once organic and natural. That very exercise was whyQuest for Firehad been so satiating, and I imagined having that identical kind of rush creating the role of Salvatore inName of the Rose.
So I reached out to Jean-Jacques, and he liked the idea of me playing the part but was very discouraging because he said the production was really complicated. There was a lot of politics involved, and he needed to put me on tape to get the approval of a whole lot of people for me to win the role. Meanwhile, I’m reading things saying Sean Connery had signed on, and F. Murray Abraham had signed on. This was beginning to become more and more of an obsession for me, to become a part of this thing, ’cuz it’s gonna be a real high-water mark for anybody involved.
I waited for Jean-Jacques to come to Los Angeles and then spent an afternoon with him doing improvisations in front of a video camera, trying to find some sort of essence that would lead people to believe I was the right guy to play Salvatore. We never really did. In fact, looking back on it, I think it was a pretty mediocre attempt. I don’t think I had a particularly good handle on the character yet. I don’t think Jean-Jacques even had a particularly good handle on what he was looking for in the character yet. We both had this unbelievable desire to see me get it, but that was pretty much the end of it. This one event that would have been the signpost I desperately was seeking, this signal that it was right to keep going, was slipping through my fingers. Fuck! Now what?
Name of the Rose
Sure enough, a few months went by and I read in the paper that the role of Salvatore was awarded to Franco Franchi, who was sort of like the Red Skelton of Italy and a beloved TV personality. He was a comedian who had his own variety show. He did a lot of voices and invented a lot of characters. So I said,Okay. Congrats Mr. F. You can’t win ’em all. This was not meant to be mine, and all that other bullshit one tells oneself when trying to play down a pretty big disappointment. So I went on with my life.
One night Opal and I . . . well, without going into too much detail, I ended up on the couch in the living room. At about five in the morning the phone rang. I fumble for it in the dark, dropping it several times. Finally: “Um, hello?” I could tell from the interference on the line that it’s definitely not a local call.
“Hello. I’m looking for Ron Perlman. Hello. Hello?”
I was groggy, fucking half-asleep. Not half-asleep—fully asleep. “Who’s calling?”
“My name is Anna Gross, and I’m calling from Germany. I’m calling to offer Ron Perlman . . . is this Ron?”
I said, “Keep talking.”
She said, “Well, I’m calling at the behest of Jean-Jacques Annaud to offer Ron the role of Salvatore inName of the Rose.”
“Come on! Who is this . . . really?”
“I know you think that this is probably a joke. And I’m well aware of the fact that it’s five o’clock in the morning where you are. I know this sounds too weird to be true, because I also know you know that we started production on this movie three weeks ago. But nevertheless, we are offering you the role of Salvatore inName of the Rose, and the reason why we need to cut to the chase and stop with this scintillating repartee right now is because you need to be on a plane at eleven o’clock this morning if you’re going to do this role. Now once again, is this Ron?”
“Okay, enough. Who the fuck is this?”
“Oh Jesus! Wait a moment. I’m putting Jean-Jacques on the phone right now so we can prove to you that we’re not kidding around. But before I give him the phone I need to have your agent’s phone number, because we need to strike a deal right now so you can get on the plane at eleven o’clock to be here the first thing tomorrow morning, to start shooting almost immediately.”
As it turned out, she wasn’t bullshitting. Jean-Jacques got on the phone, and I said, “J. J.? Is that you? What’s going on?”
“So it took me a little bit of maneuvering,” he said, “but what we both wanted to has come true; you are gonna be Salvatore. So get your ass over here. I gotta go. And whatever you do, just make sure you make that eleven o’clock flight.”
The first thing that came to mind, I guess in my still-asleep shock, was, “Holy shit, I got dry cleaning! I got most of my good fucking clothes at the fucking dry cleaners. What time do they fucking open? Do they open in time for me to put them in my fucking suitcase?” I thought that by using the wordfuckingenough it would help me to regain consciousness. And then, sure enough, the sleepy, groggy state started getting overwhelmed by theHoly shit, I gotta get moving state, so I started making calls to my agent, wakin’ his ass up and figuring out what in the fuck to do next. I had to pick up a copy of the script from Lynn Stalmaster, the Los Angeles casting director, before I left. They wanted me to be ready to hit the ground running the minute I landed in Germany, as shooting was to start immediately.
With all the hubbub coming from the living room, finally Opal woke up. I told her the news, and she knew by the look of sheer and utter panic in my eyes that I wasn’t fucking around. Oh, and she forgave me, by the way, for what neither of us could remember what we were fighting about in the first place. I threw some shit in a bag, brushed my teeth, grabbed my passport, kissed the baby, and,boom, out the fuckin’ door. The driver swung around to get my dry cleaning, and,boomagain, I was on my way. The half-smile that never left my face during the whole ride to the airport belied the strangely delicious irony that played out in my mind’s eye: For two and a half, three years I was thinkingQuestwas a one-off and nothing like it was ever gonna happen again. And sure enough, and with the same magician, no less, Annaud rode in like some dashing deus ex machina on a white charger to save me from oblivion and obscurity. And not only that but also hands me this jewel of a character on a silver tray and says, “This is yours.” This unbelievable role was an incredible opportunity to do something requiring all of the skills I’d learned. I mean, looking back on the creation of Salvatore, it took every single fiber of my being to solve the riddle of who this character was and how to play him.
I poured over the material, going back and forth between the novel and the screenplay for the entire ten-hour flight. I was obsessively attempting to figure out how I was going to distill this character I previously described, with all his behavioral quirks, seamlessly to life. The first revelation that hit me on the plane was that the reason the audition had been so mediocre is that I didn’t have the guy in me yet, that I needed a model outside of myself to draw from. I didn’t know who this guy was. I didn’t know what he looked like. I didn’t know what he talked like. And because he was such an exotic compendium of behavioral traits, I needed to physically see a guy like that. I concluded that my search might start in an institution for the mentally challenged, just as Salvatore himself was. So I wrote down a list of things that I’m gonna need the minute I hit the ground in Germany. I wanted to see if they’d arrange for me to be taken to as many institutions as possible, in hopes of finding the seeds. I also figured out on the plane how tosolve his jumble of languages and make sense of all the seven different languages that Salvatore used, but used without reason. So the other things I needed once in Germany were copies of the book translated into all the languages the character used. I would find everything Salvatore ever says in the book, and I was going to write down every sentence in all those languages. Then I was going to do an eeny, meeny, miny, moe, thus creating his random modality of speech.
I landed in Germany about mid-afternoon, and once there, I was taken immediately to the set, where they were already deep into shooting the movie. I said hello to my old friend Christian Slater, who is the son of another old friend, Mary Jo Slater, a casting director I had known in New York since the beginning. Finally Jean-Jacques appeared. I got a big hug and a kiss. And I said, “Jean-Jacques, I’m gonna ask these guys to provide me with a few things to make this thing happen and happen quick. Can you help me out with that?”
“Absolutely.” He took me to the producers and said, “Give this man everything he wants. Except more money! That’s how we lost the last guy!”
I told them I wanted to visit mental institutions, and within twenty minutes I was on my way to the first one. The place was a locked-down facility for people with Down syndrome, who, of course, back then were insensitively referred to as mongoloids. This place had patients who were distorted physically and were mentally challenged beyond the point at which they were capable of living on their own, but they were marginally functional. This, indeed, was where I found Salvatore! I watched this one guy interacting with a group, having been given a bunch of ice cream Popsicle sticks so as to create a little house or something; it was the institution’s version of occupational therapy. But while he was doing it, he was touching every girl’s tit that he could get his little hands on, including the nurses and all the patients. And he was just getting the biggest charge out of this, squeezing a titty and then giggling profusely over how clever he was to cop a feel. This obsessive proclivity for sexual thrills was ahugewindow into one of the completely illogical attributes Salvatore displays in the movie. Andso now I was locked into this guy! As he went back to his little task of building a stick house with Popsicle sticks, all the while his eyes were darting around, seeing which titty he could snag next. That was a part of Salvatore that I needed. Suddenly I am infused with power and well-being. I am on a roll. I decided to check out one more place, a prison for the criminally insane. To say I didn’t find my guy in there was an understatement. In fact, all I knew was that I needed to get the fuck out of there as quickly as possible. Aside from the open call forQuest for Fire, that was the sickest place I’ve ever been in my life.
When I went back to the set I thanked everybody for making my little tour happen. Then I got my marching orders. They told me Jean-Jacques wanted to have dinner with me that night. I checked into the hotel and waited until a driver fetched me at around nine o’clock to take me to a restaurant where J. J. was waiting.
“Good to see you, my friend.”
“Same here, mon ami, same here! So, tell me, J. J., how the fuck did I get here?”
“Well, frankly you were very close to getting the role from the beginning, but because this movie is a coproduction between Germany, France, and Italy, and because each country is responsible for putting in a small modicum of money to come up with the budget, after the Italian government put in their four million, they said, ‘Who are the Italian actors in there?’ I said, ‘We don’t have one.’ And they said, ‘Well, what role’s open?’ And I tell them there are none. So they flex some muscle and said, ‘Well, you either open up a role, or we take our four million dollars and go home.’”
“Ergo, Franco Franchi,” I said.
“Exactement! The only role I was still figuring out was Salvatore. So I said, ‘Salvatore is half-open,’ and then they directed me to Franchi. So, reluctantly, I sign him on and tell him to come in for a haircut. I wanted to make him look like he had mange or something, with patches of hair missing and exposing his scalp, giving him an even more unsettling demeanor. It was a special haircut I had designed. So we made an appointment for Franchi to come in, and he doesn’t showup. A week later we made another appointment. Again he is a no-show. He did this about four times, and then finally, on the day I called you, it was the day prior to when he was scheduled to do his first scene. This is after weeks and weeks of him not coming in for the haircut. So he arrives to get the haircut, when, apparently, trouble brews. They pull me from what I am doing and call me into the makeup room. They say, ‘Jean-Jacques, we have a problem.’ And I say, ‘What’s the problem?’ Franco Franchi stands with the haircutting cape around his shoulders and raises his voice. ‘I tella you what is de problem. If I cutta my hair . . . now, you haffa pay me double.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me? What did you say?’ And Franchi repeats, ‘You hearda me. I want twice as mucha money, and then I cutta ma hair.’ I turned my back on him and said to the producer standing behind me, ‘I want him off my set. He’s trying to rob me, and if he’s not off my set in five minutes, I’m going to go get my gun and I’m gonna start shooting at him. You got it?!’ And the producer says, ‘Yes J. J., I got it, but the character works tomorrow. Do you have a second choice?’ And I say, ‘HE IS MY SECOND CHOICE! MY FIRST CHOICE IS ASLEEP IN LOS ANGELES!’ That’s when you got the call at five in the morning.”
“Over a fuckin’ haircut. What kinda beautiful fuckin’ luck is that?” I said.
The next day on the set I met Sean Connery. I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of a movie star. And not only was I in the presence of a movie star, but I was in the presence ofthemovie star. Because in my mind there was everybody else, and then there was Sean. To this day I feel as though Sean Connery is the very last of the great movie stars of old, like in the mold of the guys who were around when I was a kid growing up—larger-than-life, guy-guys . . . nothing ephemeral about them. Complete masculine forces of nature. Like Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, and Robert Mitchum. Sean was cut from that cloth. And there have not been any to replace him since. The closest you come these days is Clooney, but pretty much everybody else is ephemeral, everybody else is kind of like . . .I’m not talking about a lack of talent, because there’s a lot of actors out there who are incredibly talented, but what we are looking for in our leading men has changed, starting with McQueen, Newman, Redford, all of whom possessed a bedroom sort of manliness. Then that morphed into the leading men of today. But back then there was the final hold out for the fuckin’ OG, fucking alpha-male thing. That was Sean fucking Connery. And so to be in his presence, the very first true, bona fide movie star I ever worked with, was indeed a gift of a very singular nature.
He seemed delighted to meet me and was so welcoming and warm: “You’re that fellow who Jean-Jacques keeps talking about. He adores you. It’s good to meet you. I can’t wait to work on this film with you.”
And so he immediately welcomed me into his world, even to the point of giving me the feeling that he was gonna have my back. Regardless of what happened, he was completely behind me playing this role. There was nothing I had to worry about. Sean was tickled that Jean-Jacques got his way in this particular thing. He was completely up on the whole story about what happened to the original guy, how he got fired, and how happy it made Jean-Jacques. He was such a fan of Jean-Jacques; he was truly one of “us.”
As soon as we began shooting the same scenes together, he made me realize that he was as dependent on me giving a performance that was gonna fuel him as I was on him. I felt part of this exclusive club, even if I had that same ol’ fucked up tape running in my head: “I’m not worthy.” At first I was thinking I had no business being on the same set as Sean Connery, much less in the same scene as Sean Connery. Then, not long after we met, one scene was scripted in which I spit in his eye. I was hesitating . . . how do you spit in the eye of the great Sean Connery?
Sean leaned in to me and said, “You have to spit in my eye because if you don’t, I won’t have anything to play.” And that’s how I came up with the fucking balls to fucking spit in 007’s eye. And you really, really gotta do it, ’cuz the only thing more terrifying than spitting in the muthafucka’s eye is “take two” of spitting in the muthafucka’s eye!
There were not a lot of moments in my life when I got the acting lessons I did from Sean. I remember one day I was not on the call sheet. It was going to be this very, very big, dramatic scene in which William of Baskerville, the character that Sean played, is in serious trouble. He was to be investigated by all of the Brotherhood because at one point he had been labeled a heretic, thrown out of the church, and spent a huge chunk of his life paying for this empty accusation. Now he’s back, and there’s this whole host of guys from this other order just laying for him. He’s a Franciscan, but his rivals are desperate to finally and decisively take him down. So there is to be this kangaroo trial, and it’s this big scene with probably thirty actors. Sean has some gorgeous dialogue to speak in this scene.
Because we were on location and I didn’t really have anything much better to do, I went to the set that day just to observe. I watched Sean do this one moment about twelve times. It was the first time I realized the glory of language when it is loved and respected as if it were a beautiful woman you wanted voraciously, for that is how Sean caresses his every word and every syllable. I was never able to catch it by watching his movies, but being on that set with him, seeing him grappling with giving this performance each time as if it were the first time—my God! Glorious! No word should be uttered unless it is important enough to be uttered beautifully. So the pace at which Sean Connery speaks stems from a decision he’s made. And every single vowel delivered is with respect for the language. But he delivers it so naturally and with so much humanity that you don’t realize that, technically, he is giving a master class in how to deliver a line. And because I watched him do this thing over and over and over again, I would never have seen it otherwise. This is something I’ve taken with me for the rest of my time as an actor: Don’t say a word unless that word is worth saying, and if that word is worth saying, say it beautifully. I learned that from Sean Connery. And I’ve never delivered a line the same way since.