‘A career in pictures did not look promising,” recounts two-time Academy Award-winning actor Anthony Quinn about his early brush with Hollywood. “I was either too dark, or too Mexican, or too unusual looking, and the good parts always seemed to go to the actors who fit a more conventional mold.”
The epic personality--who has made 275 films over the past 60 years, won Oscars as Eufemio Zapata and Paul Gaugin, became loved by the world as Zorba the Greek, cussed out C.B. DeMille on his own set, took lovers like aspirin and threw tantrums legendary even by Hollywood standards--is now an old man. Re-emerging this month in Alfonso Arau’s romantic period saga “A Walk in the Clouds,” Quinn, 80, is finally trying to make his peace with the world and himself.
The transition from international Lothario to introspective octogenarian hasn’t come easy. For a self-proclaimed revolutionary, old-world masculinity is an identity, not just a personality trait.
“Yo soy revolucionario, like my parents,” he declares from his New York atelier. “I live a revolutionary life.”
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to an Irish Mexican father and Mexican Indian mother who fought side by side in the Mexican Revolution, Quinn may not have toppled governments, but he laid siege to the conventions of Hollywood, America and his day, in the process becoming an international star.
His first brush with the limelight came at age 16 as a translator and street preacher for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson at her Angelus Temple in Echo Park. To improve his speech, he worked as a janitor in exchange for acting classes.
In 1935, when one of his classmates took ill, Quinn played the role of John Barrymore only to find the legendary actor backstage after the show. When Barrymore realized some 20-year-old kid had played him, he obliquely complimented Quinn with a string of obscenities, becoming his mentor and friend. Later that year, Quinn got a walk-on as a gangster in “Parole!” and took his grandmother to the premiere.
He remembers her saying, “Tony, you are going to be a big star.” She died two weeks later, without seeing her prophecy come true.
According to Quinn, it almost didn’t. His brushes with discrimination have been tempestuous. For years he battled unsuccessfully against the prejudice of Hollywood, including that of his father-in-law and boss, Cecil B. DeMille. The legendary director went so far as to refuse to invite Quinn’s family to the wedding when the unknown 22-year-old actor married his daughter, Katherine, in 1937.
Five years later, when Quinn helped raise money for one of the Mexican defendants in L.A.'s Sleepy Lagoon murder case, he was accused of being a Communist and a “knee-jerk Mexican.” In an act of racial scapegoating, 19 young Latinos were accused of murdering 20-year-old Jose Diaz on flimsy evidence. The trial became a racially charged cause celebre for the Hollywood left.
Nevertheless, with his career at stake in the days of the blacklist, Quinn pressed for justice, enlisting the help of Orson Welles and George Raft.
“I’ve never accepted discrimination against myself,” he boasts. “I’ve always walked proudly, maybe too much so, never apologizing for being Mexican.”
Arau, who has had his own long and honored career as an actor and director in Mexico and Cuba, remembers a time when Mexican actors didn’t need to worry about discrimination. “Remember that in the past, Mexican silent stars and those of the ‘30s and early ‘40s were accepted,” he says. “But then I don’t know what happened. Attitudes changed. Everyone had to start hiding their heritage.”
Quinn says he never camouflaged his Mexican heritage like other old Hollywood contenders and feels he suffered personally and professionally for it.
“At that time Hollywood--hell, America--looked down on anybody not blond or blue-eyed as potential enemies,” he recalls. “We all had to put up with it. I always said I was Mexican, Indian and Irish. The only Mexican leading man was Gilbert Roland but he told everyone he was Spanish.”
Whether it was because of prejudice, the vagaries of Tinseltown or his own frequently self-destructive behavior, success as an actor did not come quickly or easily. For 10 years Quinn played banditos and Indians, the cholos and gangbangers of the time. Typecasting and the news from Darryl Zanuck that he was on the gray list of actors tabbed as Communist sympathizers made Quinn pack his bags and leave Hollywood for Broadway.
“If I stayed in Hollywood, I’d still be playing Indians,” he says with certainty. “I went on stage, where I had the chance to play many nationalities. I was an English king, a Polish worker in ‘Streetcar,’ taking over the role from Brando.”
It was the start of an internationalism--part creative license, part survival strategy--that has characterized his life and career.
If the stage gave Quinn freedom as an actor, it was the Italian cinema that gave him stature. Although he had already received his first Oscar for “Viva Zapata!,” it was Fellini’s “La Strada” that catapulted Quinn from respected supporting player to international star.
From 1953, when he picked up his first Oscar, until the mid-'60s, Quinn worked steadily but found better, starring roles overseas. He’s made films throughout Europe and the Middle East and feels worlds have opened up to him. Except the one that matters most.
“I’m sorry to say my home country never really accepted me as Mexican,” he laments. “If I had a Mexican name and won two Oscars, I’d be a god to Mexicans everywhere. But I’ve never been taken up as anyone’s hero. They don’t know whether to treat me as Mexican or Irish because of my name.”
Arau affectionately disagrees. “I think everyone in Mexico perceives him as Mexican. We’re all proud of him. One of our national characteristics is we’re oversensitive about the appreciation of our own people.”
With a chuckle, he adds, “His sense of being slighted just proves he’s Mexican.” With a new generation of Latinos on both sides of the camera and increased pressure on the industry to get its demographics right, Quinn would like to be recognized as a pioneering talent who faced down the odds to become a true international star.
“I hope I opened the door for ethnic leading men,” he says. “Many Mexican actors didn’t reach out to play other nationalities, other roles, but now they can.”
Quinn views his own career, however, like a “no- man’s-land,” a response to the lack of opportunities for a Mexican in the United States and the lack of acceptance for a Quinn in Mexico. “For so many years I defied Mexico, angry for not recognizing me,” he admits. “I had no backing. I’m no longer angry or disappointed. I made my own life out of defiance and I’m proud of it.”
Quinn’s defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle anywhere, much less into that good night, is evident in his second autobiography, “One Man Tango,” published last month.
In it, he recounts scores of romantic indiscretions. At the tail end of his 28-year marriage to Katherine, which produced five children, Quinn was simultaneously involved with his co-star, the British actress Margaret Leighton; an American starlet, and the woman who would become his second wife, Iolanda Addolori, then pregnant with his son Francesco.
The international press may have printed the headlines but Quinn himself wrote them. He admits to 12 children with four women. Francesco Quinn, 32, a Los Angeles-based actor and director and the first of Quinn’s three sons with Iolanda, laughs skeptically when asked about this. “I’m aware of five, no wait, at least five different women he’s had children with, probably more. Don’t ask me how many children there are. I don’t know.”
With the birth of his daughter Antonia two years ago, Quinn says he began the hard process of making peace with his past, no longer trying to stop the clock or recapture the limelight. “Antonia is my miracle,” he beams. “She’s transformed my life.”
In more ways than one. Quinn left Iolanda after 30 years of marriage to live with the baby’s mother, 33-year-old Kathy Benvin, his former assistant. “Even though my folks didn’t get along, they still lived together,” explains Francesco Quinn. “We were a family in all its good and bad. Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, the works. Then one day my father comes out of the closet and says, ‘I’ve had a daughter here, a few sons elsewhere on the planet. I want to leave your mother, bring it all out into the open and cleanse my soul.’ So our family went out the window.”
The elder Quinn is philosophical. “I believe in karma,” he explains. “One is guided by la duende , a worm inside your stomach that makes you do all sorts of things. This worm, no matter what you do, how you try to change, this duende calls the shots.”
Quinn’s son chooses his words carefully. “I love my father. We learned how to play from him but we certainly haven’t learned any morals. We’ve had to balance between what he taught us and what he actually did in his life.”
Father and son still speak once a week. “I could speak to him more but I choose not to,” the younger Quinn explains. “I speak for both my brothers in saying we don’t want to hurt our mother by condoning this new relationship.”
Despite the painful consequences, Quinn has committed wholeheartedly to his new life and role as father, in the process hoping to find some small measure of salvation.
“I can’t help but feel this was part of my responsibility to have this child,” he explains earnestly. “I’m going to enter the next century with a new soul. God gave me the privilege, the honor of this child. She’s my gift to the 21st Century.”
Whether it’s age, fatherhood or the duende that’s transformed his life, When not working, Quinn spends his days playing with Antonia, sculpting, painting and pursuing roles that challenge him.
Quinn’s belief that “actors should have no nationality” has left him little patience for the identity casting championed by some ethnic actors.
He, predictably, dismisses those who might grumble about casting two of the principal Mexican characters in “A Walk in the Clouds” with European actors.
Director Arau, in his first English-language picture, has cast Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini and Spanish Italian actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as Quinn’s son and granddaughter.
Quinn plays Don Pedro, the patriarch of an upper-class Mexican family whose lives are changed forever when Keanu Reeves’ Paul Sutton arrives at their Napa Valley vineyard. Never one to pull his punches about directors or fellow actors, Quinn has only praise for Arau, who first came to Hollywood’s attention as the director of the international hit “Like Water for Chocolate.”
“Arau and I like and respect each other enormously,” he says. “It’s great to find someone who can tap into the same background and work with that.”
The director returns the compliment. “It was a dream to work with him. Minute No. 1, I was intimidated by his stature. Minute No. 2, I became his friend and minute No. 3 I found he was modest, disciplined and a hard worker. I know his work since ‘La Strada.’ He’s a giant.”
Quinn is now in Germany playing an octopus. The English-language film, “Seven Servants,” is about a rich old man who is bored with life.
“He sees a picture of an octopus and thinks they live a wonderful, interesting life,” Quinn explains. “It’s an unusual risk but I learned from my foster father John Barrymore that you’re only as good as you dare to be bad. Imagine the wonderful satisfaction if I can pull it off.”
As an actor, husband, father and Latino, Quinn has defied con vention and the odds. He’s patterned his life after those of the great men he’s admired and known, like Barrymore, Picasso and the great Mexican muralist Siqueiros. “I hate to place myself in such auspicious company but I live that kind of life,” he boasts.
The duende that guided Quinn to make his own life throughout the world will ultimately lead him back to Mexico. “A man must belong somewhere,” he says. “When I die I want to return and claim my six feet of Mexican soil. It’s my way of saying ‘accept me.’ If I go back maybe then they will say, ‘He was one of us.’ ”