Born April 21, 1915 in Chihuahua, Mexico to an Irish-Mexican father and Mexican mother, Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca (later Anthony Quinn) emigrated with his family to El Paso, Texas, then to Los Angeles where his father was an assistant cameraman at one of the studios and after his father’s death, to Tucson, Arizona.
Intending to become an architect, Quinn studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, but caught the acting bug and with Wright’s encouragement soon gravitated toward the movies where he was cast in minor roles including a part as an Indian in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman. He met and wooed the director’s daughter Katherine, whom he married in 1937. The couple had five children together. Quinn would have an additional seven children with various subsequent wives and mistresses.
His standout roles during the 1940s were in The Ox-Bow Incident and Back to Bataan. By the end of the decade he moved to Broadway, briefly replacing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and then playing the part in the national tour.
Cast by Kazan as Brando’s brother in 1952’s Viva Zapata, Quinn all but stole the film from Brando, and although Brando received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, it was Quinn who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
It was in Italy, however, for Federico Fellini that Quinn became an international film star as the brute showman in La Strada. Released in 1956 in the U.S., Quinn’s brief turn as Paul Gauguin in that year’s Lust for Life also won him rave reviews and resulted in a second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
Finally a star in American films, his lead opposite Anna Magnani in 1957’s Wild Is the Wind brought him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. This led to leads opposite Shirley Booth in Hot Spell; Sophia Loren in Black Orchid and Lana Turner in Portrait in Black, after which he had major roles in the blockbusters The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia.
A stint on Broadway as Henry II opposite Laurence Olivier as Becket brought him further acclaim, but it was on screen in 1964’s Zorba the Greek in which Quinn had his career high, earning another Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the role he was born to play, that of the gregarious Greek peasant.
Quinn became so closely identified with his Zorba persona that practically every role he played thereafter was joked about as Zorba this or Zorba that. It wasn’t Quinn, it was Zorba the Pope in The Shoes of the Fisherman; Zorba the Drunk in The Secret of Santa Vittoria and so on.
Finally in 1983, he played Zorba again in the revival of the 1968 musical version of Zorba the Greek, entitled simply Zorba opposite his film co-star Lila Kedrova.
As the years went on, the roles became less and less important, although he could still shine occasionally in such projects as Only the Lonely and A Walk in the Clouds. Turning to painting in his later years, his work as an artist brought him still further acclaim.
Anthony Quinn died on June 3, 2001 from pneumonia and complications of throat cancer. He was 86.
VIVA ZAPATA! (1952), directed by Elia Kazn
His father having ridden with Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Anthony Quinn was well reversed in the period mythology that informed to his portrayal of Emiliano’s brother Eufemio. Smartly cast by director Kazan opposite Marlon Brando as Emiliano, Kazan’s two Stanleys from Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire brilliantly play off each other with Quin coming off somewhat better. The performance brought him his first Oscar.
LA STRADA (1954), directed by Federico Fellini
Quinn wanting to work with Fellini, offered his services to the director who to his great surprise cast him as the lead in his epic about a traveling circus in which Quinn plays the strong man who manhandles waif Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini). The film was an international success, a breakout film for both the director and his stars.
LUST FOR LIFE (1956), directed by Vincente Minnelli
Quinn had a brief role as Paul Gaugin, the full of life painter in counterpoint to Kirk Douglas’ morose Vincent Van Gogh in Minnelli’s meticulous production about the life of the Dutch painter. Despite the brevity of his role, Quinn pulled off his second Oscar win within five years.
ZORBA THE GREEK (1964), directed by Michael Cacoyannis
Quinn’s signature role so fit the actor that it almost seemed as if the role was written for him. In fact it was taken from Nikolas Kazantzakis’ celebrated novel about the Greek peasant who lives every day as if it were his last. The film boasts strong performances by Alan Bates, Irene Papas and Lila Kedrova, as well as Quinn, but it’s Quinn’s performance that dominates. Quinn played variations of the character for the remainder of his career and even played Zorba again in the 1983 revival of the 1968 musical version.
THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN (1968), directed by Michael Anderson
The film version of Morris West’s celebrated novel predates by ten years the actual election of a Pope from a Communist country, in this case a Ukrainian opposed to a Pole. Quinn excels as the former political prisoner who spent twenty years in a Siberian prisoner who must overcome self-doubt in order to succeed as Pontiff. Laurence Olivier and Oskar Werner excel in major supporting roles.
ANTHONY QUINN AND OSCAR
- Viva Zapata! (1952) - Oscar - Best Supporting Actor
- Lust for Life (1956) - Oscar - Best Supporting Actor
- Wild Is the Wind (1957) - nominated Best Actor
- Zorba the Greek (1968) - nominated Best Actor