June 3, 2001
He cared. When he died on June 3, 2001, he was remembered as a Greek dancer, but not many people knew his true story, as a caring person who would speak up for other people, even considering a run as governor and putting his reputation on the line defending the rights of a group of young Mexican-Americans accused of murder.
He was born amidst the violence of a revolution in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1915. Fleeing the war-torn country, his Mexican-Aztec mother hid him in a coal wagon and escaped to El Paso, Texas when he was only eight months old. His father, who was a Mexican of Irish descent, was not able to join them until several years later.
Searching for work, the family picked fruit in California before eventually settling in East Los Angeles. The young boy worked alongside his parents at age 4 and 5, earning 10 cents an hour.
When the young boy was 11, tragedy struck the family again, when his father was killed outside their home by a passing automobile. The young boy vowed to support his mother, sister, and grandmother. He skipped school, working at various jobs, such as a migrant farm worker, a newsboy, preacher and taxi driver. He also made five and ten dollars a fight as a welterweight boxer.
The young man also met Frank Lloyd Wright, studying art and architecture. It was Wright who convinced the young man to try his hand at acting.
Because of his strong Mexican accent, the young man was cast in a series of roles as an ethnic villain. His first role was that of a convict, followed by a role as a Cheyenne Indian with Gary Cooper, one of many early forgettable Westerns, in which he portrayed American Indians being pursued by the cavalry or cowboys.
He also played other ethnic roles from Mexican to Alaska Native, Greek, Italian, Panamanian, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and East Indian, including that of a Filipino freedom fighter, an Arab sheik, the Pope, and a Chinese guerilla.
One of his roles was in “Viva Zapata!”, playing Zapata’s brother Eufemio, opposite Marlon Brando’s Emiliano Zapata, which won him a 1953 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the first Mexican-American to win an Academy Award.
But, his most memorable role, of course, was as the peasant-musician, Alexis, in “Zorba the Greek”, which earned him another Oscar nomination. It is also the reason why of all places a statue of “Zorba the Greek” stands on the outskirts of Chihuahua, Mexico, his birth place.
Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn, now known simply as Anthony Quinn, became one of the most successful and beloved actors of his generation in the early 1960s, also appearing in such movies as “The Guns of Navarrone,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
Side note: He also played an Alaska Native, which, according to rumors, led to Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo”.
But, here’s another part of Anthony Quinn’s story, that many people may not know about – Anthony Quinn spoke out for Mexican, Native Americans, and other people of color, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“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”. He also mentioned that his role opposite Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” “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, who experienced discrimination growing up in Los Angeles, also supported various civil rights groups, including the Latino advocacy group and the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress. He was also a panelist at the Mexican-American Conference and narrated a documentary film by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discussing job discrimination faced by Hispanic Americans.
While in Paris, he and several other prominent Americans, composed a petition endorsing the 1963 March on Washington.
He also supported the Native American student activists occupying Alcatraz Island and even visited with them.
He was a supporter of the United Farm Workers organization led by his friend and labor activist César Chávez. He, at one time, even considered running for governor of California, until Chávez (like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talking to Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols), told Quinn what he was doing was important, that representation matters and his role was very valuable as an actor of Mexican descent who was able to speak out on the issues.
In 1942, after the “Sleepy Lagoon” trial, in which 22 Mexican youths from East Los Angeles were convicted of murder without evidence, Quinn spoke out for the youths, helping to raise funds for an appeal, after a so-called expert testified that Mexicans as a community had a “blood-thirst” and a “biological predisposition” to crime and killing, citing the culture of human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs.
Quinn’s support was a move that many considered radical for an actor at that time, according to the Los Angeles Times, but years later people in East Los would still remember Quinn. Because of Quinn and many others who spoke out, in 1944, the state Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision and criticized the trial judge for his bias in and mishandling of the case.
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.”