Decades before Hollywood got serious about the need for diversity, Anthony Quinn was diversity. This month marks the birthday of the Mexico-born, L.A.-raised actor who played Bedouins, Native Americans, Soviets — and even Mexicans and Americans in his 60-year career. He was the first Mexican-American to win an Oscar, for his supporting performance in “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and won another as French painter Gaugin in “Lust for Life” (1956). His two trademark performances were in “Zorba the Greek” (another Oscar nom) and as an Italian circus strongman in Fellini’s “La Strada.”
Antonio Rodolfo Oaxaca Quinn was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, on April 21, 1915, and began acting in 1936. His rise in Hollywood is especially remarkable considering the times. From 1929-36, the U.S.’ “Mexican Repatriation” program sent those of Mexican descent south of the border (even though many were U.S. citizens) out of fear they were taking jobs from whites. In 1943, Southern California was home to the Zoot Suit Riots, after whites physically attacked Mexican-American youths, claiming they were hoodlums.
Amid those events, in 1941, Fox released “Blood and Sand,” starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. The movie’s highlight is a torrid dance by Quinn and Rita Hayworth — memorable by any standard, but especially impressive since it featured two Latinos stealing the show in a Hollywood era of non-diverse casting.
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Quinn starred in more than 100 films, including “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “Behold a Pale Horse,” “The Secret of Santa Vittoria,” “Lion of the Desert,” and Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”
But his life was more interesting than most of the films.
He was born to a Mexican mother and an Irish father, who rode with Pancho Villa then moved to East Los Angeles and worked as a movie cameraman. Anthony Quinn played in the church band for famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and appeared in a stage show with Mae West. On Broadway, he replaced Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” then alternated the lead roles with Laurence Olivier in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket.” Quinn also studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, and always pursued his passions for painting and sculpture. He spent years trying to get a film made about Picasso, and he played the artist in a one-man show in 1989.
Other notables Quinn worked with: A-list directors, including Cecil B. DeMille (who was his father-in-law for 25 years), George Cukor, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Spike Lee, Nicholas Ray and Raoul Walsh. Among his co-stars were an eclectic group that featured Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret and Keanu Reeves.
His autobiography “The Original Sin: A Self-Portrait,” was published in 1972. Quinn died in Boston in 2001, at the age of 86, after a career in acting that spanned parts of eight decades.