Ron Perlman on Starring in TV's 'Beauty and the Beast': "That Was the Feeling I Had Growing Up"

The veteran actor says the part that made him a star came naturally: "I never had a particularly positive image of myself physically, but I felt like there was something in there that I wished I could share with the world."
CBS/Photofest
Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman in CBS's 'Beauty and the Beast'

As part of an appreciation of the cult '80s fantasy series Beauty and the Beast — which includes an in-depth talk with series writer George R.R. MartinTHR offers this reminiscence from the show's Beast himself, Ron Perlman.

Beauty and the Beast is a project that remains very near and dear to my heart, for a full assortment of reasons.

When I got the part, I had been kicking around Hollywood for a while but hadn't yet made it. The show was the first mainstream gig I ever got. Friday night, 8:00 p.m. on CBS primetime, playing one of the title characters. So it was a momentous event in the creation of a career.

I had a running theme psychologically streaming through me that probably promoted my becoming an artist more than any single thing. I can only encapsulate it by telling you my reaction to watching Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). There was something that deeply moved me about the juxtaposition of this thing that was ungodly on the outside, but inside was clearly the most precious, innocent, sweet, nurturing character in the whole pastiche of players.

That was the feeling I had as a kid growing up. I never had a particularly positive image of myself physically, but I felt like there was something in there that I wished I could share with the world. It had more to do with things that are unseen, like the heart.

Watching Laughton take those two polarities and connect them in a way that was exciting, dynamic, incredibly moving and sublime as a performance piece was a very seminal thing for me. And there I am playing that character on primetime television, on CBS, with one of the most beautiful women in the world in a show brilliantly conceived by Ron Koslow taking place in the underworld of the realest place on Earth, New York City.

There’s this sort of Jonathan Swift-ian panacea taking place underneath the city that’s just as real and in your face as it can possibly be. It was such a great concept by Koslow. I was just thrilled to be the guy that got to play that character for all those reasons.

My very first movie I ever did was called Quest For Fire. That was another transformational character. It took four hours of prosthetic makeup to turn me into an 80,000-year-old Neanderthal. Then the same filmmaker a few years later did a movie called The Name of the Rose and I played this hunchback (which was almost like full closure to the story I told you about earlier, about Charles Laughton).

Right as Name of the Rose was hitting theaters, that’s when they were on the search for who was going to play Vincent in Beauty and the Beast. Rick Baker, who had already been hired to create the Beast makeup, said "there’s this guy who’s done all this work in masks and he’s comfortable working that way and he doesn’t mind the four hours sitting in the chair." So he recommended me to the producers and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s purely the writing, man.

Whether you’re wearing makeup or not, your job as an actor is to identify the heart and soul of the character, how he moves through the universe, what his relationship is to his fellow man. That doesn’t change regardless of what trappings you add on externally. The concept of the Beast in Ron Koslow’s version was so vivid and moved me so personally, because this was a character who by dint of his fate was unable to participate in the thing he loved most — which was the fellowship of man.

He was a self-educated man of letters with an Elizabethan education — literature, poetry, music, etc. — but the tragedy of his life was that he had no one to share it with. When he by happenstance comes into a relationship with this beautiful girl who has been left for dead in Central Park, then suddenly his world opens up and we watch him open up as well like a flower.

I really, really loved the way Ron laid all this out and laid the foundation for this beautiful exchange to take place. It was very much in keeping with the true spirit of the parable of Beauty and the Beast, which has been on the landscape of mankind for 2,000 years. It was probably originally cave paintings that depicted something along the lines of this beautiful girl and this beastly, other-worldly thing that meet on a kind of a Gothic level.

The story has been told over and over again, as we see in the Disney version. It never gets old. There’s a lot of touchstones in the relationship to jump off from. There are different versions of Beauty and the Beast, each encompassing its own color palette. The one that affected me the most was the 1945 Jean Cocteau film, which was one of the cinematic masterpieces of all time. I watched it over and over again while we were prepping our version.

Koslow wrote beautifully. He wrote like no one else wrote. I’m a big jazz guy. I would compare his scripts to Miles Davis. The following week you’d get the next episode, which was written by George R. R. Martin, and I would compare his scripts to John Coltrane on acid (which Coltrane was on for the last two years of his life). George wrote bestially and primally but with incredibly elegance and sophistication — a very different color palette from Ron, who wrote more lyrically.

Then you had [staff writers] Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, who were just so smart and clever, who created situations for our two lovers that were not like anybody else’s. That was the first time I was in a TV situation where I was in a writers’ room giving individual variations on the same scene.

I’m very good friends with all of them to this day. George and I stayed quite close. We’re constantly looking for something to do together. Same with Alex and Howard. I’m really not all surprised at all by all of their successes. They’re some motherf—ers. Those guys can just flat-out write.

I love the show. I love the experience. I love talking about it to this day. We’ve always had a very small but very, very enthusiastic bunch of people who love the show. Who knows, maybe the mainstreaming of it through the Disney movie will rekindle some old flames.

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