Ron Perlman, the US actor and voice of Optimus Prime in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, is quoted as saying, “Some people meditate; I smoke cigars.” As the title character in the film Hellboy and the sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Perlman takes this indulgence onto the screen, with his character often sporting a short, stubby cigar. There is a scene in which, in response to his attempting to light a cigar with a Zippo lighter, he is told he should rather use a wooden match because it “preserves the flavour”.
Another beast of a film character who is often seen with a cigar at hand, and in mouth, is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who often bites the cap of the cigar as opposed to using a cutter, before lighting it, occasionally from the flames of destruction around him. I always enjoyed that these characters fly in the face of the stereotypes around cigar smokers, often tied to wealth, elitism and, by extension, exclusion of us “ordinary people”, epitomised most by former UK prime minister Winston Churchill.
The Churchill vitola, which is usually a medium to full-bodied, 7 inch by 47 ring gauge is even named after him, having been created by Romeo y Julieta which was said to be his favourite cigar brand. As an African, I can’t help but also associate him with the worst of “the British Empire” in terms of his actions and prejudices, despite sharing a love for a good cigar.
Gary Oldman, who played Churchill in the 2017 movie Darkest Hour, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter around the time the movie came out, “I got serious nicotine poisoning. You’d have a cigar that was three-quarters smoked and you’d light it up, and then over the course of a couple of takes, it would go down, and then the prop man would replenish me with a new cigar — we were doing that for 10 or 12 takes a scene.”
Oldman smoked about 400 cigars which cost about $30,000 in total for Darkest Hour and won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance.
Over the years, cigars have played varying roles in film and television, positioning and contextualising a character. At times, it has been celebratory, as in the 1996 Independence Day with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum where Smith’s character Steven Hiller pre-emptively gives Goldblum’s character David Levinson a cigar for them to celebrate their victory over the invading aliens.
Other times, it is to show a character’s evolution, or devolution. For example, in the iconic film Scarface, as Tony Motana goes from rags to riches, refugee to crime boss, the cigar symbolises his indulgence in what can be called the finer aspects of life and his growing status, in a way, tying into the stereotype.
Another film in which the cigar represents wealth is the 1987 film Wall Street featuring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. The movie showed the excesses of Wall Street, in particular the greed and rampant materialism in the financial sector with the cigar-smoking Gekko symbolising the immorality and lack of ethics of those who believe that “greed is good”.
In a different way, immorality lies at the heart of Leonardo DiCaprio’s slave trading character Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, who is rarely seen without a cigar smoked using a cigar holder throughout the film. Django is Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti westerns, it does kind of make sense that he would have a cigar-smoking character considering a skinny cigar is featured, dangling from the main character’s mouth, throughout the iconic series of spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Directed by Italian director, producer and screenwriter Sergio Leone, who is said to have pioneered the genre, my favourite was the 1966 The Good, The Bad and the Ugly — the two others Eastwood starred in are A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.
While Eastwood is not actually a cigar smoker, there are many actors whose character’s love for cigars reflects their own personal tastes and lives, none more so that former bodybuilder, California governor and action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cigars are featured in the movies Predator, Last Action Hero and Batman & Robin and Schwarzenegger could be considered to be a poster child and a global ambassador for cigars.
From a television perspective, James Gandolfini enjoyed a good cigar in his personal life and as Tony Soprano in the series The Sopranos. CAO Cigars created a specific cigar brand just for The Sopranos.
Beyond the screen, many actors enjoy (or enjoyed) a good cigar, from Laurence Fishburne, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone and Whoopi Goldberg to John Travolta, the late Raul Julia, Demi Moore and Perlman.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a cigar is a character, a companion as you navigate life. In the words of Matthew McConaughey, “There’s a ritual about smoking a cigar that slows my clock down.”