Zorba Wasn’t Greek … and Other Mexican Actor Trivia

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Not only was Anthony Quinn (1915 – 2001) not Greek, he was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, as Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca. His father was Francisco Quinn, a Mexican of Irish descent, and his mother was Manuela Oaxaca, of Aztec ancestry. Francisco rode with revolutionary Pancho Villa; then in 1952, in Viva Zapata! Anthony played revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata’s brother Eufemio, opposite Marlon Brando who played the lead role of Emiliano. Brando lost the Best Actor Oscar to Gary Cooper, while Anthony took Best Supporting Actor, making him the first Mexican to win an Academy Award.

Before returning to the fascinating life of Anthony Quinn, let’s look at interesting facts in the lives of three other personalities of the silver screen.

Cheech Marin (b. July 13, 1946) is of Mexican descent, but was born in Los Angeles as Richard Anthony Marin. The comedian, actor, voice actor and writer gained recognition as part of the comedy act Cheech & Chong during the 1970s and early 1980s with Tommy Chong, then later as Don Johnson’s partner, Inspector Joe Dominguez on Nash Bridges. He voiced characters in several Disney productions.

Marin’s trademark is his strong Mexican accent, part of his comedy persona, yet in reality it is not a natural accent since he was born and raised in the United States. Although he speaks Spanish and uses it in some of his movies, he is not particularly fluent.

Marin’s nickname “Cheech” is short for chicharrón, fried crackling pork skin popular throughout Mexico. It’s purported to be a favorite amongst marijuana smokers, who get the munchies. Cheech & Chong became an easy alliteration because of the association with the munchies. At some point someone came up with the term “cheeched,” connoting being well under the influence of marijuana.

Danny Trejo (b. May 16, 1944) is another American actor of Mexican descent, but otherwise he’s the polar opposite of Marin. The heavily tattooed and muscular Trejo plays tough guys or villains, often prisoners and assassins; his face is strongly marked. His characters in the films of Robert Rodgriguez are usually named after knives (Desperado [1995] – Navajars; the From Dusk Till Dawn trilogy – Razor Charlie; the Spy Kids movies – Machete; the Grindhouse [2007] trailer – Machete; Predators [2010] – Cuchillo; Machete (2010] – Machete again).

Before beginning his acting career Trejo spent 11 years in jail. His imprisonment was mainly for armed robbery and drugs and while serving time in San Quentin he won lightweight and welterweight boxing titles. He turned his life around by completing a 12-step rehabilitation program. While speaking at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting in 1985, he met a man who requested his support. He met him at what turned out to be the set of Runaway Train (1985). He was immediately offered a role as a convict extra. His acting career then took off.

Trejo is now one of the most prolific actors in America. Since the 1990s he has generally been in at least four movies a year. In 2002 alone, he did nine films. He has appeared on Breaking Bad, Monk, King of the Hill, Desperate Housewives, and has been a regular on The Young and the Restless. He has played alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme, Johnny Depp, Al Pachino, Nicholas Cage, Charles Bronson, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Val Kilmer and Antonio Banderas.

Ricardo Montalban

(1920 – 2009) enjoyed a career which spanned seven decades, and a marriage of 63 years (to Georgiana Young, sister of Loretta Young). Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino was born in Mexico City. He moved to the United States as a teenager, returning to Mexico in 1941 after learning that his mother was dying. He acted in a dozen Spanish language films in Mexico, becoming a local star before moving to Hollywood in 1943.

Montalban was best known as the TV spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba beginning in 1975, and from 1977 to 1984 as Mr. Rourke in the Fantasy Island series with sidekick Tattoo.

Montalban acted in over 43 films including the Planet of the Apes series (1971 & 72), The Mark of Zorro (1974), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988). He appeared in close to 250 TV episodes. There are few popular series which aired between the 1950s and the end of the millennium in which he did not appear: Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, Bonanza, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Untouchables, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, Chicago Hope, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Ironside, It Takes a Thief, Hawaii Five-O, Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy, Columbo, Dynasty, Murder, She Wrote, B.L. Striker, The Love Boat, and more.

In a 1978 interview, analyzing the success of Fantasy Island, he stated:

“What is appealing is the idea of attaining the unattainable and learning from it. Once you obtain a fantasy it becomes a reality, and that reality is not as exciting as your fantasy. Through the fantasies you learn to appreciate your own realities. Mexican is not a nice-sounding word and Hollywood is at fault for this because we have been portrayed in this ungodly manner.”

Anthony Quinn, like Trejo, was a young boxer, but Quinn boxed professionally to earn money, not to survive in prison. Quinn studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright and in fact it was Wright who encouraged Quinn to take up acting.

Another similarity with Trejo is that Quinn, at least in the early years, often played villains, and frequently ethnic roles because of his appearance: American Indians (i.e. Crazy Horse in They Died with Their Boots On [1941]), Mafia dons, Hawaiian chiefs, Filipino freedom fighters, Chinese guerrillas and Arab sheiks. By 1947 he had appeared in over 50 films. His role as Inuk, an Eskimo who found himself caught between cultures, in The Savage Innocents (1959) inspired the Bob Dylan song Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn).

Memorable movies included The Guns of Navarone (1961), Requiem for a Heavyweight, Lawrence of Arabia, Barrabas (all in 1962), and of course Zorba the Greek (1964). He also appeared on Broadway to great acclaim, in Beckett (1960) opposite Laurence Olivier.



Quinn’s acting career continued through subsequent decades, and in fact he reprised the Zorba role in the 1980s, performing 362 times on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in D.C. He became a renowned painter, having been influenced by his Mexican ancestry as well as residency and filming in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

His hot Latin blood never waned. His personal life was volatile and passionate, with three marriages, affairs with at least one of his costume designers and a secretary, and fathering at least 12 children. He not only portrayed organized crime figures, but had personal relationships with some of them.

Montalban’s 1978 statement regarding Hollywood’s portrayal of Mexicans was illustrative of a lamentable era in the history of Mexican-American relations, and while Marin’s contrived stereotypical accent has served him well, that was more so in the past than now. While the legacies left by the stars of yesterday shall remain, we should look to today’s stars, the Diego Lunas and the Gael García Bernals, for ongoing greatness and sources of pride for all.

Alvin Starkman co-owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast and Oaxaca Culinary Tours, and operates http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com. He teaches about the complexity and nuances of mezcal, and has written over 30 articles about Mexico’s fermented and distilled drinks.