The late actor had many faces, and a lust for life
June 15, 2001
By Ty Burr
Picture Editor Denise Sfraga

Anthony Quinn wasn't Zorba the Greek‑he just played him in real life. When the actor died of respiratory failure June 3 at 86, he left the testament of a roistering, lived‑in existence: three wives, 13 children, two Oscars, two autobiographies, a bunch of paintings, and more than 130 films, some of which were good and almost all of which were made enjoyably bigger by his canny sense for the grand gesture. "There was a wildness about him," recalls Jacqueline Bisset, his costar in 1978's The Greek Tycoon. "He was one of those people who, when they walk in, life's a little brighter."

Quinn portrayed members of nearly every dark‑haired ethnic strain, from Inuit to Arab to Asian to Italian; he played both Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin; he was as believable as Crazy Horse (in 1941's They Died With Their Boots On) as he was as a Russian pope (in 1968's The Shoes of the Fisherman). Nor did such peripatetic assignments faze the man who once boasted, "Acting is my nationality." Here are the highlights of Quinn's storied career.


"No sabe," says Quinn's gambler when he's cornered by a vigilante posse in William Wellman's antilynching classic. On the contrary: His character turns out to speak 11 languages, and Quinn's shrewd performance busts him out of the ethnic‑extra ghetto.


Marlon Brando plays a charismatic but two‑dimensional saint in Elia Kazan's bio of the Mexican firebrand; Quinn, as the hero's cynical brother, steals the show -and wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. "My kids won't think I'm just another bum," he crowed post‑win. "Now they'll know what I do for a living."

LA STRADA (1954)

The Oscar didn't lead to meaty roles, so he was off to Europe and a collaboration with an obscure director named Federico Fellini. The result: a timelessly sentimental fable in which Quinn's callous circus strongman suggests Bluto touched by divine grace.


Another secondary role, another theft: On screen a mere eight minutes as worldly Gauguin to Kirk Douglas' tormented Vincent van Gogh, Quinn anchors the film in needed sanity ‑and wins a second supporting‑actor Oscar.


Quinn's most outré ethnic assignment ‑an Eskimo with his back against the floes as civilization creeps in‑ results in one of his strongest (and quietest) performances. Bonus points for inspiring Bob Dylan to write "The Mighty Quinn."


Director George Cukor's only Western ‑about a theatrical troupe in sagebrush country‑ offers some beguiling Technicolor paradoxes, including a blond Sophia Loren and sweet comic finesse from Quinn.


The film version of Rod Serling's classic teleplay begins with young Cassius Clay beating the tar out of washed‑up boxer Mountain Rivera (Quinn) ‑from Rivera's point of view. A magnificent portrayal of a dying bull at bay.


Maybe it's odd to call a Mexican‑Irish actor playing an Arab chief felicitous typecasting. Still, the role of Auda abu Tayi captured Quinn's vital, earthy charisma just before it began hardening into caricature.


Yes, it's mediocre, full of simple-peasant daily affirmations, and responsible for hamstringing his career thereafter. (Though he once claimed, "I've become more like Zorba ever since I played him.") But criticizing Zorba is like criticizing Crete.


Quinn's late‑career choices could lack surprise, but his barbed‑wire turn as John Turturro's abusive dad is a shock. Trust Spike Lee to bring out Zorba's dark side -and props to Quinn for knowing where to look.

(Additional reporting by Clarissa Cruz)


Quinn with Benvin and children Ryan and Antonia in 1997.

Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn is born in Mexico on April 21, 1915, to an Irish father and Mexican mother, both fighters in the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa. The family escapes to Texas, then moves to California.

As a teen in California, aspires to a career in architecture. Meets architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who advises him to take acting lessons.

In a stab at professional boxing, wins 16 straight bouts, loses the 17th, and quits. Plays saxophone in the band at evangelist Almee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Gospel Church, preaching a little on the side.

Debuts on stage opposite Mae West in 1936's Clean Beds, in a role based on the young John Barrymore. The old John Barrymore shows up opening night, befriends Quinn, and introduces him to showbiz inner circles.

Cast in first speaking role, as a Cheyenne in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936). Gary Cooper gets the lead, Quinn gets DeMille's daughter Katherine: The two wed in 1937 and have five children. To his lifelong sorrow, 3‑year-old son Christopher drowns in 1941 in neighbor W.C. Fields' fishpond.

After WWII, plays Stanley Kowalski opposite Uta Hagen in a tour of A Streetcar Named Desire. Later replaces Marlon Brando on Broadway.

Causes a scandale in 1965 when it is revealed that he fathered two children with Iolanda Addolori, an Italian wardrobe assistant. After first wife puts him through DeMille, he marries Addolori, by now pregnant again.

After Herschel Bernardi fails in the 1968 stage musical Zorba, Quinn revives the show in the early '80s (and his late 60s), embarking on a three‑year U.S. tour that rakes in $48 million over 1,200 performances.

In 1993, Kathy Benvin, his former secretary, bears him a daughter. A son is born in 1996, when Quinn is 81; the couple wed in 1997. Quinn leaves 13 children in all, including three by two unnamed women. He must have been kidding when he told an interviewer, "I never get the girl."