The tempestuous screen image of two-time Academy Award-winner and Renaissance man Anthony Quinn matches his much publicized unquenchable thirst for life. His exotic background has enabled him to play a potpourri of ethnicity, ranging from an Eskimo in “Savage Innocents” (1960) to a Russian pope in “Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968), as well as historical roles like Crazy Horse (“They Died with Their Boots On” 1942), Attila the Hun (“Attila” 1955), Paul Gaughin (“Lust for Life” 1956) and Kublai Khan (“Marco the Magnificent” 1966). The death of his Irish-Mexican father, who had ridden with Pancho Villa before settling in Los Angeles to work as a cameraman and prop man, forced the younger Quinn to help support his grandmother, mother and sister. In addition to working in a mattress factory, he played saxophone in evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s orchestra and studied and worked with celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose insistence that he go to an acting school to improve his speech ultimately led to a career in film.
Though he had acted on stage with Mae West in “Clean Beds” and spoken his first lines on film in “Parole” (both 1936), he made a lasting impression by standing up to Cecil B DeMille who had cast him as a Cheyenne Indian in “The Plainsman” (1937). As cast and crew looked on, Quinn responded to the most recent of a series of abusive outbursts from the director by telling him how he should shoot the scene and where he could put his $75 a day salary. After staring at the young actor for some time, DeMille announced, “The boy’s right. We’ll change the set-up,” and later said admiringly, “It was one of the most auspicious beginnings for an actor I’ve ever seen.” Quinn would act in two more movies (“The Buccaneer” 1938, “Union Pacific” 1939) for the directing legend, woo and marry his adopted daughter Katherine and helm the 1958 remake of “The Buccaneer”, executive produced by DeMille (his last project before his death). By then, Quinn had shaken free of the son-in-law tag, having become a star in his own right, and has since exhibited tremendous staying power over the course of a career spanning seven decades, mixing inspired performances with good cured ham.
Quinn played his fair share of Indians amidst assorted heavies, even ending up with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in two of the “road” movies (“Road to Singapore” 1940; “Road to Morocco” 1944), but despite many good notices for supporting roles in pictures like “Blood and Sand” (1941), “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) and “Back to Bataan” (1945), it would take a return to the stage to raise his stock higher. He made his Broadway debut in “The Gentleman from Athens” (1947) before director Elia Kazan tapped him as Stanley Kowalski for a US tour of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1948-49), followed by a NYC run. Kazan then cast him as Marlon Brando’s brother in “Viva Zapata” (1952), for which he earned his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. After making three films in 1953 with fellow “man’s man” Budd Boetticher, Quinn traveled to Italy where he acted in pictures that included “La Strada” (1954) and “Attila”, his performance in the former opening eyes back home in the USA to the enormity of his talent when it finally opened there in 1956. As director Federico Fellini’s circus strongman who too late realizes his love for the woman once in his care, he played the brute American audiences knew, but he also revealed a bottomless well of emotion as he baptized himself in the water of a quiet beach and sobbed uncontrollably as if there were no end to his grief.
Quinn played an aging bullfighter opposite Maureen O’Hara in Boetticher’s “The Magnificent Matador” (1955) and then won his second Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of larger-than-life artist Paul Gaughin in “Lust for Life”, the title an apt description of his own zestfulness. Finally, after 20 years in the business, he had become a full-fledged box-office star, and the next year would see him garner a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn opposite Anna Magnani in “Wild Is the Wind”, as well as following in the prestigious footsteps of Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Quinn was splendid in Nicholas Ray’s “The Savage Innocents”, hunting and fishing Eskimo-style (though audiences avoided the film) and gave one of his best performances in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) as Mountain Rivera, the boxer who sacrifices his last ounce of self-respect to enter the professional wrestling ring, wearing an Indian war bonnet and waving a tomahawk in order to save his manager’s life. He was also a standout as the opportunistic Bedouin Auda Abu Tayi in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (also 1962).
Although Quinn had portrayed with distinction Greek patriot Colonel Andrea Stavros in “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), that character paled before what would become his signature role. The very embodiment of the actor’s passion for living, “Zorba the Greek” (1964) was a wise and aging peasant, totally committed to life, no matter the outcome. From his slapstick pursuit of aging French courtesan (Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova) to the pathos of cradling her as she died in his arms, Quinn pulled out all the emotional stops on his way to another Best Actor Oscar nomination. Nearly 20 years later, he reprised “Zorba!”, this time in a 1983 revival of the Broadway musical which reunited him with both Kedrova and the film’s writer-director Michael Cacoyannis. He earned a Tony nomination for his efforts before touring the USA from 1983-86, forever stamping the part as his in the minds of the theatergoing public. Pity the poor thespian toiling as Zorba in regional theater somewhere, the incredibly long shadow of Quinn haunting his every move. Pray that his audiences have never seen the movie, or have very poor memories, or at the very least are extremely forgiving.
Quinn’s United Nations tour rolled on with roles as an Algerian peasant (“The Lost Command” 1966), a boozy Italian mayor (“The Secret of Santa Vittoria” 1969), and an outcast Indian (“Flap” 1970), among others, before he dabbled in series TV as the star of “The Man and the City” (ABC, 1971-72), playing the ruggedly independent mayor of a city in the Southwest. He weighed in with his Aristotle Onassis impersonation in “The Greek Tycoon” (1978) and later portrayed the shipping magnate’s father in “The Richest Man in the World: The Aristotle Onassis Story” (ABC, 1988), for which he received an Emmy nomination. Few were the roles, however, that did justice to his overwhelming, mystic life force, and perhaps that’s why he resorted to the otherworldly, assuming the guise of Zeus in five syndicated “Legends of Hercules” action-adventure movies in 1994.
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Filed Under: Actor Profile