Oscar Actors: Quinn, Anthony–Celebration

Centenary of Anthony Quinn, versatile, two-time Oscar-winner–and accomplished painter.

Zorba_the_Greek_Lila_Kedrova_5The art critic Donald Kuspit once noted, “examining Anthony Quinn’s many expressions of creativity together—his art and acting—we can see that he was a creative genius.”

Quinn was influenced by his Mexican ancestry, lengthy residence in Europe, and visits to Africa and the Middle East while filming in the 1970s and 1980s.

Quinn’s screen persona was largely based on his strong physical presence. and he became known for three types of roles: exotic and ethnic heavies, brooding machismo, most notably as the vicious circus performer in Fellini’s 1954 masterpiece “La Strada,” and selfish, opportunistic men, such as the Bedouin Auda Abu Tayi in David Lean’s 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia.”

His personal life was as volatile and passionate as the characters he played in films.  But our focus–as always–is on Quinn as a public persona, as an iconic actor-star whose screen career spanned over six decades.

Born as Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca on April 21, 1915 in Chihuaahua, Mexico, Anthony Quinn always talked proudly about his mother,  Manuela (née Oaxaca), who was of Aztec ancestry.

His father, Frank, later moved the family to East Los Angeles, where he worked as an assistant cameraman at a studio.  Growing up in El Paso, Texas, and later Echo Park, Quinn attended several schools in Los Angeles, but quit before graduating.

The Wright Connection

zorba_the_greek_6To earn money, the young Quinn engaged in boxing, before studying architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright at the latter’s Arizona residence and Wisconsin studio, Taliesin.  When Quinn mentioned that he was drawn to the screen and had a modest offer of $300 per week by a studio, Wright urged him to take it. Upon Wright’s recommendation, Quinn took acting lessons as a form of speech therapy, which led to a long and successful acting career.

Playing Villains and Colorful Characters

After some stage performing, Quinn launched his career in 1936 with character roles in Parole (his screen debut) and The Milky Way.  He played villains in several Paramount films, including Dangerous to Know and Road to Morocco, and also some sympathetic roles, such as They Died with Their Boots On, opposite Errol Flynn.

By 1947, Quinn had appeared in over 50 films, playing Indians, Mafia dons, Hawaiian chiefs, Filipino freedom-fighters, Chinese guerrillas, and Arab sheiks.

He returned to the theater, playing on Broadway Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that Marlon Brando had originated to great acclaim.  When he came back to Hollywood , he was cast in B-adventure movies, such as Mask of the Avenger.

Viva Zapata

lust-for-life_2His big break came after playing opposite Brando in Kazan’s Oscar-nominated biopic, Viva Zapata (1952).  Quinn wanted to play the lead, but Brando, fresh off from his recent success in A Streetcar Named Desire, was Kazan’s first choice.  However, Quinn’s supporting role as Zapata’s brother earned him a Supporting Actor Oscar Award, thus becoming the first Mexican-American to win an Academy Award.

Italian Movies: Fellini’s La Strada

Quinn appeared in several Italian films starting, including as the dim-witted, thuggish and volatile strongman in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, La Strada (1954), opposite Giulietta Masina.

Paul Gauguin: Second Supporting Oscar

Quinn won his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for portraying the painter Paul Gauguin in Minnelli’s acclaimed biopic, Lust for Life (1956) about Van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas).

The following year, he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his part in Cukor’s melodrama, Wild Is the Wind, opposite Anna Magnani.  In 1969, he again co-starred with Anna Magnani in The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

In The River’s Edge (1957), he played the husband of the former girlfriend (Debra Paget) of a killer (Ray Milland), who turns up with a stolen fortune, forcing the couple at a gunpoint to guide him safely to Mexico.

Savage Innocents

wild_is_the_wind_1In 1959, Quinn played another iconic role, in The Savage Innocents, as Inuk, an Eskimo caught between clashing cultures.  The film later inspired Bob Dylan’s song, “Quinn the Eskimo (“Mighty Quinn”)

The inevitable process of aging–manifest in increasingly weathered face and rugged posture–actually had a positive effect on Quinn’s career.   He played a Greek resistance fighter in The Guns of Navarone (1961), an aging boxer in Ralph Nelson’s superb Requiem for a Heavyweight, and the Bedouin shaikh Auda abu Tayi in David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic, Lawrence of Arabia (both 1962).

Zorba: Signature Role

zorba_the_greek_7The international success of Cacoyannis’s Zorba the Greek in 1964 became the high-point of Quinn’s already glorious career, resulting in his fourth and last Oscar nomination, this time as Best Actor.

Other films included The 25th Hour (1967), with Virna Lisi; The Magus (1968), with Michael Caine, based on the novel by John Fowles; and Guns for San Sebastian with Charles Bronson.



The Shoes of the Fisherman got a lot of attention due to the fact that Quinn played a Catholic Archbishop in a Soviet Siberian prison who becomes Pope.

In 1971, after the success of the TV movie The City, where Quinn played Mayor Thomas Jefferson Alcala, he starred in the ABC TV series entitled The Man and the City. Though the program was shot in New Mexico, the name of the city is not disclosed on the program.

His subsequent TV appearances were sporadic, among them Jesus of Nazareth.  In 1976, he starred in Mohammad, Messenger of God (aka The Message), about the origin of Islam, as Hamza, a respected uncle of Mohammad the last of the prophets of Islam.

In 1981, he starred in the Lion of the Desert, alongside with Irene Papas, Oliver Reed, and John Gielgud. Quinn played the real-life Bedouin leader, Omar Mukhtarm, who fought Mussolini’ss Italian troops in the Libyan deserts.  The film, directed by Moustapha Akkad, was critically acclaimed, but performed poorly at the box office because of negative publicity due to funding by Libya.

He appeared on Broadway to great acclaim in Becket, as King Henry II to Laurence Olivier’s Thomas Becket.  The 1964 movie version starred Peter O’Toole in Quinn’s role and Richard Burton in Olivier’s.

In 1983, he reprised his famous role of Zorba the Greek for 362 performances in Zorba, a revival of the Kander and Ebb musical.  Quinn performed this musical both on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Quinn’s career slowed during the 1990s, but he continued to work, appearing in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), A Walk in the Clouds (1995) and Seven Servants (1996).

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