Anthony Quinn, the Mexican Irish Academy Award-winning actor whose earthy portrayals of such characters as Zorba the Greek and the patriarch in “The Children of Sanchez” made him larger than life to millions, died Sunday. He was 86.
Quinn, who lived in Bristol near Providence, R.I., died of respiratory failure in a Boston hospital, according to Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, a longtime friend.
The eclectic Quinn earned two Oscars as best supporting actor, the first in 1952 for “Viva Zapata!” and the second four years later for his portrayal of painter Paul Gauguin in “Lust for Life.”
Personally lusty, passionate and rugged, Quinn had lived with his feet planted in two cultures, the Mexican and the Irish, and resisted categorization. In his lengthy career, he played a pantheon of nationalities, ranging from Mexican to Eskimo, Greek, Italian, Panamanian, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and East Indian.
And in the early stages of his film work he was the American Indian being pursued by the cavalry or cowboys in several forgettable Westerns.
Quinn’s dual heritage had a profound effect on his sense of identity, which was displayed both in his decision to become an actor and in the various ethnic roles he played.
“Those were rough times, right from the beginning,” he said as he recalled his childhood in a 1981 interview. “With a name like Quinn, I wasn’t totally accepted by the Mexican community in those days, and as a Mexican I wasn’t accepted as an American. So as a kid I just decided, well, ‘A plague on both your houses. I’ll just become a world citizen.’ So that’s what I did. Acting is my nationality.”
Although he was nominated for a best actor Oscar only for his work as Zorba, that remains perhaps his most memorable role.
“Funny thing, you know, one of my favorite characters in all my films was Zorba the Greek,” he said. “And somehow, I think I’ve become more like Zorba ever since I played him.”
Quinn resisted being categorized as merely an actor. He was outspoken on social issues, and at one point considered running for governor of California—until labor leader Cesar Chavez told him he was more valuable as an actor than in politics. Demonstrating a talent for art in early childhood, he also became an accomplished artist known for his oil paintings, sculptures and serigraphs.
Parents Joined Pancho Villa
Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to Frank Quinn of Irish descent and Manuella Oaxaca of Mexican and Native American heritage, both of whom fought in the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa. Fearing for his life from federal troops, Quinn’s father escaped to the United States. Manuella, carrying the infant Anthony in her arms, soon followed.
After first living in El Paso, Texas, Frank Quinn moved his family to California, where they traveled up and down the San Joaquin and Napa valleys picking fruit. Quinn worked alongside his parents at age 4 and 5, earning 10 cents an hour.
The actor recalled this experience in his 1972 autobiography, “The Original Sin,” in which he describes driving with his first wife through the hills behind Santa Barbara in the very area he and his family had worked.
“The lovely rolling hills reminded her of the time when she’d gone out horseback riding with her school chums,” Quinn wrote. “The same terrain reminded me of the indignity of earning a living on your knees.”
He wrote a second autobiography, “One Man Tango,” in 1995.
When Quinn was 6, the family moved to East Los Angeles, where they settled in a house at the corner of Brooklyn and Hazard avenues. Hazard now is Cesar Chavez Avenue and the site is the parking lot of the Anthony Quinn Library, the former Belvedere branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, renamed after him in 1983.
Quinn’s father worked as a property man at the Selig film studio. Although some biographies have listed his father as a cameraman, Quinn said this was not true. His father was killed in an automobile accident when Quinn was 9.
He went to Hammel Street Elementary, Belvedere Junior High School and Polytechnic High School, where he took courses in art and architecture, but never earned a degree. Largely self-educated, as a young man he embarked on a self-improvement program in which he read a book, listened to a new symphony and familiarized himself with a different artwork each week.
He once met Frank Lloyd Wright and showed him plans he had drawn for a supermarket. But Wright’s advice had nothing to do with art. He told the youth to undergo an operation to get rid of a speech impediment so he would have proper elocution.
Wright, who remained a life-long friend, also pointed him toward acting lessons after the surgery so he could practice proper speech.
Quinn had a stint as a professional boxer that included 16 consecutive victories, but hung up his gloves after he was knocked out in his 17th fight, deciding he lacked the “killer instinct.”
The future actor also dabbled in music, taking up the saxophone and forming a small orchestra that played for Los Angeles area dances. The music led him to the Foursquare Gospel Church of Aimee Semple McPherson, and he joined a band with Angelus Temple in Echo Park. He even preached a bit, lending meaning to the downtown Los Angeles mural of Quinn as “The Pope of Broadway.”
Quinn made his acting debut in 1936 in Mae West’s play “Clean Beds,” imitating John Barrymore, for whom the role was originally written.
On opening night in Los Angeles, Barrymore himself came to see the play, throwing the cast and director into a panic. After the show, Barrymore came backstage in search of the young man who had portrayed him. Quinn writes:
“Nothing can equal the impression he made walking into that little dressing room. He glowered at me, and said, ‘You were marvelous out there.’ ”
Learning that Quinn was only 21, Barrymore invited him to visit and became a friend and mentor.
“Many people remember Jack Barrymore as either a wit or a drunk, but what impressed me was his courage of conviction,” Quinn said years later.
“He used to tell me that you can only be as right as you dare to be wrong. That you must be willing to take chances to achieve superiority in your craft. He gave me his armor from ‘Richard III.’ He was like a retiring matador, who gives his sword to the most promising newcomer he knows.”
Quinn’s film debut also came in 1936, a 45-second cameo as a convict who gets stabbed in “Parole.” Next, he played a Cheyenne Indian in the Cecil B. de Mille film “Plainsman” that starred Gary Cooper. Quinn said he deceived de Mille into thinking he was Cheyenne to get the part, even speaking gibberish that passed for the Cheyenne dialect.
In 1937, Quinn married de Mille’s adopted daughter, Katherine, whom he met on the set of “Plainsman.” Quinn and de Mille had five children.
Their first son, Christopher, drowned in 1941 as a toddler when he wandered onto the estate of W.C. Fields in Los Feliz--down the street from the Quinn residence—and fell into the fish pond.
Quinn and de Mille divorced in 1965 when it was revealed that Quinn had a child by Iolanda Addolori, a wardrobe assistant on the set of “Barabbas,” a film Quinn made in Italy. He later married Addolori.
Quinn appeared in numerous films between 1936 and 1947, usually in bit parts and none of them noteworthy. He made his Broadway debut in 1947 in “Gentleman From Athens,” and followed it with a successful two-year stint as Stanley Kowalski in the road company of Elia Kazan’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
A New Star Wins an Oscar
Quinn achieved stardom as a film actor in the 1950s. His breakthrough role—as well as his first Oscar—came in “Viva Zapata!” playing opposite Marlon Brando as the older brother of the great Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata.
Quinn then went to Italy in search of the starring roles he could not get in Hollywood. He appeared in “La Strada,” directed by Federico Fellini, as the circus strongman Zampano. He also portrayed the artist Gauguin in “Lust for Life,” earning his second Oscar.
Quinn cemented his position as a major film star in the early 1960s, appearing in such movies as “The Guns of Navarrone,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
The performance Quinn is most associated with, however, came in 1964 as Alexis Zorba, the Greek peasant in “Zorba the Greek.” Nearly 20 years later, he reprised the role on Broadway, eventually taking the show on a three-year U.S. tour that included more than 1,200 performances and grossed more than $48 million, making it one of the most lucrative revivals in theater history.
It was as the Broadway Zorba that he finally came to grips with his son’s death more than 40 years before. Zorba also lost a son, and refers to him twice in the course of the show.
“I have never, never, never talked about my son’s death,” Quinn said. “I’ve never used the term death in connection with my son. But every night doing the show I had to say, ‘He’s dead.’
“At first I cut the line out of the play,” he said. “The director came to me and said: ‘It’s wrong. I know how painful it is, but you’ll have to do it.’ He loved his son very much, this Zorba. He left his family because he couldn’t bear being with them after the loss of his son.
“Zorba and I are very much alike.”
Looking back on his career, Quinn was especially proud of his portrayal of Mexican and Native American roles, which he believed helped broaden his audience’s understanding.
“I fought early to go beyond the stereotypes and demand Mexicans and Indians be treated with dignity in films,” he said in a 1978 interview as he was filming “The Children of Sanchez,” in which he portrayed the patriarch Jesus Sanchez, based on anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ study of a family in Mexico during the 1960s.
“You know, the character in ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ [which Quinn played opposite Henry Fonda in 1943] was the most influential depiction of a Mexican for its time. He was a young outlaw but a young outlaw who spoke eight languages.”
Quinn also gained some notoriety for his political stands. After the 1942 “Sleepy Lagoon” trial, in which 22 Mexican youths from East Los Angeles were convicted of murder following a gang killing, Quinn helped to raise funds for an appeal, a move that many considered radical for an actor at that time.
“Probably it’s the Irish in me that makes me speak out,” he said in a 1943 interview. “But there are about 800 boys in my profession who have a political ideal and want to express it. How can an actor be real in his work if he hasn’t some convictions regarding the problems in the world around him?”
Years later, people in East Los Angeles remembered Quinn’s help in the case. At the 1983 rededication ceremony for the Anthony Quinn Library, Lupe Leyvas of Montebello, whose brother Henry was one of the principal defendants in the trial, threw her arms around Quinn and told anyone who would listen: “If it hadn’t been for the help we got from him to raise money, they would have sat there in jail. Nobody would have cared.”
Among Quinn’s more recent roles were his 1988 television portrayal of the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in “Onassis: The Richest Man in the World,” his 1990 turn as the old man in a television production of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” and the 1994 CBS television movie with Katharine Hepburn, “This Can’t Be Love.” He also appeared in such 1990s films as “A Walk in the Clouds” and “The Last Action Hero.”
Turning From Acting to Art
Quinn’s last years were devoted more to his art than to his acting. Since 1982 he had numerous major exhibitions in cities from Vienna and Paris to Seoul.
Asked to describe his style, Quinn said, “I’d guess you’d just have to call it Mexican abstract. I don’t really think about it. I just do it. I dunno, I was born in a revolutionary era, so maybe that’s why I’ve always been sort of a revolutionary figure.”
Art dealers acknowledge that part of the appeal of Quinn’s art rests with his status as a celebrity. Quinn openly admitted borrowing techniques from several other artists.
“I steal from everyone,” he said in a 1990 interview.
“Picasso did it. Modigliani did it. So did da Vinci. Rufino Tamayo stole from the Mayan civilization,” he said. “The thing is, a big talent steals; a small talent borrows.”
Thrice a husband and reportedly 13 times a father (according to this year’s version of “Celebrity Biographies”), Quinn told the Chicago Tribune last year: “I love, love, love women.” He also had well-known dalliances with such actresses as Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and her daughter Pia Lindstrom among others.
Quinn is survived by his third wife, Kathy Benvin, whom he married in 1997 after divorcing Addolori, and his children: Christina, Kathleen, Valentina and Duncan by De Mille; Francesco, Daniele and Lorenzo by Addolori; Antonia and Ryan by Benvin; Alex and Sean by an unnamed German woman, and an unnamed son by an unnamed French woman.
FOR THE RECORD
The obituary of actor Anthony Quinn gave an incorrect name for what is now Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles. It was formerly called Brooklyn Avenue.