Two of Hollywood’s most rugged leading men, both with careers which lasted decades, were indeed from Mexico although the general movie going public didn’t know this — or didn’t care.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers back again to discuss stars of the Golden Era who came to Hollywood from south of the border. Last week we discussed that amiable smoothie, Gilbert Roland. This week we look at the career of the versatile actor — and far more prickly personality type — pictured above.
Although he was famous for portraying Greeks and Italians, and although he had an Irish name, Anthony Quinn was perhaps the most famous and successful star from Mexico in the last half of the 20th century.
His career covered more than 160 big screen and tv titles — including a roster of memorable classic movies — spanning a whopping 65 years. And unlike Roland, Quinn took himself verrry seriously as an actor and international star.
He played down his Mexican roots for years but became more outspoken about his heritage later in his life as actors with Hispanic back rounds proliferated in Hollywood. Quinn was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in 1915 in Chihuahua, his father the son of an Irish immigrant and a Mexican woman. His mother was a full blooded Mexican from an Aztec background.
Quinn came with his mother to El Paso as a young boy, and later they moved to Los Angeles. Before he made his first movie appearance at the age of 21, he had logged lengthy stints in various odd and unpleasant jobs. He was a boxer, and at one time harbored aspirations to become a painter.
Before he established himself as a star, Quinn had worked twenty years as a Hollywood exotic — Redskin, dago, wop, greaser: his mixed origins swallowed every variation. He grunted, leered, had bad table manners, made suggestive remarks to the ladies and generally cultivated the uncouth, wrote British author-critic David Thomson. He dutifully let every Paramount white man slug him….
But in time Quinn established himself as a genuine star, and after he moved to Italy in the early Fifties, he became an international star working regularly all over the world.
Quinn portrayed a headstrong Arab chieftain in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. Eight years before that, he played an Italian carnival strongman in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. He was ‘Alexis Zorba’, the lusty middle-aged title character in 1964’s Zorba The Greek. He played an Aristotle Onassis type in 1978’s The Greek Tycoon. He was a down-for-the-count boxer in 1962’s Requiem For A Heavyweight, and costarred as Marlon Brando’s Mexican revolutionary brother in 1952’s Viva Zapata!
His last movie — which he finished in 2001, the same year he died in Boston of complications of throat cancer — was Warner Brothers’ long forgotten Avenging Angel, an underworld crime drama starring Sylvester Stallone. Quinn played a mobster.
He won three Oscars, two for best supporting actor (Viva Zapata! and as French painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s 1957 Van Gogh biopic, Lust For Life) and one for best actor (Zorba).
Perhaps all that international travel and the Oscar attention got to Quinn a bit. As he aged, he became a more ponderous figure offscreen (and offstage) assuming regal airs. In the recently published (and highly recommended) memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, 74-year-old stage and screen actor Frank Langella recalls his rather unpleasant encounters with Quinn.
‘Kneel!’ Anthony Quinn seemed to be saying when first we met. The encounter took place at a Hollywood reception in the early 1990’s, and Mr. Quinn was one of the very few majors stars in the room. Langella found the older actor cold and imperious…his aura was so sour and his sense of entitlement so pervasive that I was helpless to conquer my distaste for him.
(Quinn) appeared to me to be a man incapable of an introspective thought. A big bully in the school yard or an imperious mob boss looking to get both his ring and his ass kissed until death.
Final note: Langella worked in the 1970’s with Gilbert Roland, whom he found totally engaging. I just loved every minute I could grab with him.