Anthony Quinn is dead at 86, the evening news announced on Sunday, and I felt as if I had lost a family member. Quinn was much more than an actor to me as I was growing up. The first film I ever remember seeing was Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata," in which Quinn played the brother of Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader of the Mexican Revolution. Five years old and sitting in the ornate Kimo Theater in Albuquerque, N.M., with my parents, I remember crying out loud in the auditorium Quinn's line as he rode across the screen after Zapata was killed: "No, no, he's not dead. He's in the mountains with his people." The movie, whose screenplay was written by John Steinbeck, can be seen on classic movie stations on cable sometimes and still brings tears to my eyes.
Mexican and other Latin actors were relatively common in the '40s and early '50s. Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Desi Arnaz, Ricardo Montalban, Carmen Miranda, Dolores Del Rio and Linda Darnell were romantic leads in many a Hollywood movie. But Quinn stood apart from the others. As he once observed, he rarely got the girl in any of his movies because his looks weren't the classic, fine-featured variety favored for those parts. But he became a popular character actor, not confined to playing Latin lovers, caballeros or bandits -- the roles most often assigned to Mexican actors of the period. Quinn played a Greek in his famous role, "Zorba the Greek," a Bedouin sheik in "Lawrence of Arabia," the French Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin in "Lust for Life," a Russian pope in "The Shoes of the Fisherman," and even an English king, Henry II, in a Broadway version of the play "Becket." What mattered more than his ethnic background was his charisma -- an overused word today, but the only one to describe adequately Quinn's extraordinary appeal.
I met Anthony Quinn when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the early '70s. He had been invited to a private lunch with a group of Hispanic graduate students, and I was dispatched along with another student to greet him outside Campbell Hall, where we had set aside a room to host the small affair. I remember I was taken by his swagger and his size as he walked down the hall toward us. He reminded me of my father, who was about the same age and height, over 6 feet tall, a rarity among Mexican Americans. Quinn wore a light tan sports jacket, dark pants, and an open necked shirt. When he sat beside me at lunch, I noticed he wore a thin, copper bracelet. I remember little of what he said, perhaps because he said so little. He was somewhat taciturn, answering a few questions, but mostly listening as the students complained of prejudice and discrimination on campus.
He seemed as if he didn't really want to be there, and I wondered if perhaps his agent had arranged the meeting to boost his reputation among young Hispanics. I don't recall ever reading that Quinn was much of a political or ethnic activist, certainly not like Edward James Olmos and some of the other younger, more radical Latino actors who followed in his professional footsteps. Quinn did tell us that he regretted not earning a degree as an architect -- his first ambition -- and encouraged us to stay in school. And then the lunch was over, as quickly as it began.
In this hyper-ethnically-conscious age of ours, a Mexican American like Anthony Quinn seems an anomaly. His New York Times obituary quotes film historian David Thomson cleverly noting that Quinn was cast in parts in which he "dutifully let every Paramount white man slug him" during his early career. But Quinn never seemed bitter about his early typecasting as an Indian renegade or a Mexican outlaw. "I think I'm lucky," the Times quotes Quinn once saying. "I was born with very little talent but great drive."
In fact, Quinn's talent was as big and imposing as his physical presence. And he gave all of us, not just his fellow Mexican Americans, someone whose skills and grace we will admire long after he's gone.