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The Revolutionary at 80 : Anthony Quinn, who plays a Mexican in 'Clouds,' dreams of being accepted in his native land.

August 06, 1995|Eric Gutierrez | Eric Gutierrez is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. and

'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.

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