It’s not every day reporters get movie actors to personally deliver copies of their films for review. But Francesco Quinn, the son of Hollywood legend Anthony Quinn, didn’t mind being his own messenger service to promote his latest film, “The Tonto Woman,” which is nominated for an Oscar in the best live-action short category.
“I’ll just run it up there myself,” said the 45-year-old actor and motorcycle enthusiast, as if a 20-mile jaunt across the San Fernando Valley was like a trip to the corner store. Later that day, the DVD appeared tucked under my front door, a picture on the cover showing a woman’s bare shoulder branded with the initials “TW.”
The haunting, Sergio Leone-like western, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, focuses on a fateful encounter between a Mexican cattle rustler, played by Quinn, and a mysterious white woman, played by blue-eyed British actress Charlotte Asprey, who had been kidnapped by Indians and kept as a slave for 11 years until rescued by her conflicted husband. He then keeps her living in isolation in the Arizona desert, forever branded as a squaw in white society by tribal marks left on her skin and her soul. The suspenseful 35-minute movie, filmed in Spain, marks the cinematic debut of director Daniel Barber.
For Quinn, the story of compassion and redemption marks a high point in a meandering career that started auspiciously 20 years ago in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” the Vietnam War drama that won a 1986 best picture Oscar. Among his costars at the time were other young actors who would go on to thriving Hollywood careers, including Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp.
But after his debut, Quinn seemed to vanish. He had earned a reputation, undeserved he now says, as somebody who was hard to work with. It may have had something to do, he acknowledges, with an altercation he had with actor Willem Dafoe on the sweltering set of “Platoon,” a fight that Quinn says started with a profanity-laced argument over the use of a monkey in one scene and ended when he decked Dafoe.
Quinn says he was dropped by his manager and agent and had to retreat to Italy, where he was born, to find work for the next few years. He still holds on to his wounded pride from the confrontation (“I come from Mexican stock. Do not disrespect me”). But the temporary exile served to temper the excesses and expectations that come from instant success.
“It was too easy,” says Quinn, who was 22 at the time. “I hadn’t paid my dues. I felt a sense of entitlement, and I was wrong. . . . It’s a good thing my career didn’t go anywhere then because maybe I wasn’t ready.”
Truthfully, I was not aware of Quinn’s work until “The Tonto Woman” showed up on my doorstep. In his role as the brooding gunslinger Ruben Vega, Quinn looks remarkably like his father, with his broad forehead, long face and prominent nose. (He darkened his fair skin on screen by rubbing Guinness beer on his face.) But the film also shows that he inherited some of his father’s talent, without the old-fashioned inclination to overact.
Anthony Quinn, an immigrant carried across the Rio Grande on his grandmother’s back, made more than 200 films and had more than a dozen children by several women. The patriarch still casts a long shadow over his son. A life-size portrait of the late actor as Zorba the Greek, his most beloved character, hangs in his son’s Sherman Oaks living room. There he is, arms outstretched and poised to take those joyful dance steps, a constant reminder that it’s almost impossible to fill the old man’s shoes.
“It’s like living with the queen of England, are you kidding me?” says Quinn. “My father’s larger than life! He’s Mexican. He’s Irish. He’s a god in Greece. You walk into a room and there’s nobody else in the room.”
At times, directors even invoked his father to set up a scene, Quinn recalled over lunch at a favorite trattoria. The actor stands at the table and puts his foot on the chair, mimicking a director mimicking his father: “Remember when your father did that in ‘Viva Zapata’? You know, he turned to talk to Brando in that way and gave him that look. Do that!”
His father was a great role model, but that was ridiculous, Quinn thought. Even as a child it was hard to compete for attention.
“I could be winning the decathlon in high school, which I’ve won twice,” he recalls, “yet, if my dad is in the audience, ‘Oh look! It’s Anthony Quinn.’ And I’m like, ‘Hello?’ ” He raises his hand as if vainly trying to call attention to himself. “ ‘Kid just got a gold medal. Helloooo? I’m over here.’ ”
Quinn says his pedigree allows him to play a variety of ethnic roles, like his father. He was “conceived in Morocco during a lull in the filming of ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ ” His mother, Iolanda Addolori, was an Italian wardrobe assistant who met his father on the set of “Barabbas,” the 1962 film made in Italy. Francesco is the eldest of three children born to that marriage, which lasted more than 30 years; the elder Quinn died in 2001, at age 86.
Today, Quinn is raising two children, a boy and girl, with his wife of 16 years, Julie McCann. The couple ferry the 5-year-old twins back and forth to school on the backs of matching Vespas.
He works regularly on television, with 80 episodes to his credit. He has played a Farsi-speaking terrorist on “JAG,” the recurring villain Syed Ali on “24" and is a regular character in the final season of “The Shield,” which begins airing next month. He’s also appeared in two dozen feature films, including opposite his father in the 1990 production of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” playing the lead character as a young man.
He costars with Luke Perry in the upcoming western “The Pledge,” to air on the Hallmark Channel, and appears with Dennis Hopper in the motorcycle gang drama “Hell Ride,” executive produced by Quentin Tarantino, due in the fall. He also plays a guitar instructor and mentor to a troubled Vietnam vet in the upcoming “Broken Promises,” set in South Texas.
Quinn seems to get along well with co-workers nowadays. Asprey, his current costar, who’s staying in the Quinns’ guest room during her visit from England for the Oscars, says he was a pleasure to work with on “The Tonto Woman.” Yet there’s still an edgy impatience to his personality. At the restaurant, he fussed in Italian with the staff over the pasta and the dessert. You can see why taking long daily rides on his motorcycle would be good for him.
“I’ve lived an amazing life,” says Quinn, who visualizes an Oscar statuette for good karma. “There’s no reason to focus on the bad. They teach you that in racing school. Keep your eye where you want your front tire to be. You don’t want to be stuck in the rut? Then don’t look at the rut. Always look at where you want to go.”