Ron Perlman's Hellboy Casting Was A Years-Long Battle Behind The Scenes

Some of the greatest behind-the-scenes battles between directors and studios are waged over casting decisions. Particularly when it comes to leading roles. One such director was Guillermo del Toro, the monster movie master who gave the world two films based on Mike Mignola's comic "Hellboy." But those films did not come without some serious determination on the director's part. Not only was he facing a growing stigma towards comic book movies in the early 2000s, but he also faced stone-walling by studio heads on his choice to play Big Red.

To think there was a time when Ron Perlman and Hellboy were near antonyms feels sacrilege. Even though both director and Mignola agreed there was no one more fit to play the part, they couldn't get anyone else to agree — or at least not anyone with enough money to fund the project. Here's another timeless Hollywood anecdote though: the actor that the studio thought wasn't "right" for a leading role ends up being perfect. Perlman himself has had plenty of moments in his career when he's defied expectations, and the long road that both he and del Toro had to walk in order for him to play Hellboy was one of them.

Why Guillermo del Toro thought Perlman was perfect

Making the intimidating, dare we say monstrous, relatable is something of a running theme in del Toro's films. As Hellboy, the gruff but humanizing sarcasm that Perlman exudes naturally couldn't find a more fitting role. In 2004, the director explained in an interview with "Today" his carefully envisioned look for the character:

"Hellboy is the guy that walks in with his box of tools and says, 'Where's the leak?' He's a working stiff. He's a plumber, the guy who says, 'I'm here to fix your monster problem."

It's almost eerie how accurate Perlman as Hellboy fits this description. In both the first film and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," the half-demon destined to bring about Ragnarok moves about town like the Ghostbusters, hunting down all the things that go bump in the night. Except, instead of proton-packs, Hellboy is packing a colossal four-round revolver named the "Good Samaritan." 

Comic creator Mike Mignola also had plenty to say about why Perlman was always the right man to bring his character to life.

"What Ron has, what Ron brought to it that was so important, is that Joe Average, working stiff thing. He already had the attitude of the character, a guy who never really got the red-carpet treatment."

Perlman has rarely been given the leading-man treatment. His first was in 1995 with "The City of Lost Children," and it wasn't until "Hellboy," nearly 10-years later, that the actor would be given another shot.

A long-time promise

Perlman once gave an enlightening and characteristically candid Q&A with IndieLondon about his experience becoming Hellboy. When asked about the first time he came across the character or comic, the actor recalled a providential nighttime walk with del Toro. The following anecdote sounds like something out of a movie, but in reality, it's because of it a movie was ever made. Perlman recollected:

"Guillermo introduced me to the comic book that very night, which was eight years ago. He took me to a comic book store and said 'Hellboy – Ron, Ron – Hellboy, at some point you guys are going to be one and the same.' He said, 'I'm going to buy you a comic book,' and I said, 'Please don't.' I avoided Hellboy for all that time because I didn't want to become emotionally involved with a character that I didn't think I would be playing, because I really didn't think I was going to [play] him. To this day, I still think 'did that really happen?' But I'm not gilding the lily, I truly thought it was impossible, and I refused to address myself emotionally."

I can just imagine del Toro waving a "Hellboy" comic in Perlman's face while people exiting the store do double-takes at them. We understand the actor not wanting to get his hopes up, especially given how smitten he was with the character from the start. Obviously, the director kept his promise, but like any good story, Perlman revealed there was a small tragedy mixed up in the triumph of him officially nabbing the role. Perlman explained what happened on the day he found out someone was willing to pay for a "Hellboy" with him in the lead:

"The day [del Toro] told me that Joe Roth had plonked down the money to do it. At that point, I drove myself to that same comic book store and bought every comic, which was a stupid idea, because the following day a box of 'em arrived, and I was out about $125. Tried to exchange them but they said, 'Sir, we don't do exchanges on books.'"

We imagine that'd be an excellent bit for Hellboy too: buying some of his own comics and being unable to get his money back for them. There's even a moment in the first film in which he ironically references the comics and laments them not getting his eyes exactly right. But the eyes were certainly done right on the big screen, where Perlman carried the mantle of Hellboy through two still deeply loved films. But the actor has no illusions about the fact that del Toro, if not for his loyalty and belief in him, could've easily lessened his headache had he caved to recast the lead role.

Guillermo del Toro championed Ron Perlman for seven years

Apparently, del Toro was the kind of director who didn't succumb to pressures other than his own. He kept his promise to Perlman and waited almost a decade because of it. In the aforementioned Q&A, the actor pointed out just how grateful he was to discover del Toro's fierce loyalty:

"I mean, it took him seven years from the moment he acquired the rights to this, to the moment when someone actually submitted to his single-minded, uncompromising vision of this film. Seven years! And it went through one studio for five years, where he could have made the movie ten times over if he had just changed that one little idea of his as to who was going to play Hellboy. The fact that he prevailed in this quest, which I always believed was absolutely [undoable], is an act I've never witnessed before in my 30 years as a professional actor, and probably never will again. I've never, ever seen somebody willing to sacrifice something that was as important to them as Hellboy was to him for the sake of an idea. He made it very clear: 'I would rather not do the movie than do it in a way that's not the way I see it.'"

Seven years is quite the crucible to get a movie made. Though it wasn't the first time del Toro or Perlman were involved in such a monumental act of perseverance. The director spent eight years trying to make his debut film "Cronos," which also starred Perlman, who had to take a pay cut to help get the film made. Then there was the miracle that went into creating "Pan's Labyrinth," and the infamous book he's spent 15 years trying to adapt.

But del Toro's entire career has been defined by his uncompromising struggle to get the films he wants to make onto the silver screen. Because of that, it's clear why Perlman wasn't doubtful of the director's ability to keep his promise — he was just trying to be realistic about his prospects and psyche himself out of a role he really wanted to play. After all, the last time the actor was asked about it, he's still fully game for a crack at "Hellboy 3," and frankly, so are we.