“Movies don’t want tough guys; they want guys who can act tough.”
Sadly, with each passing year, this quote continues to gain relevance. Once upon a time, the film industry was filled with real-life badasses, larger than life personalities with no problem convincing the movie-going crowd that they were capable of shooting the bad guys (and sometimes the good) without a care in the world. They could run ’shine in a souped-up 1950s Ford with the cops in hot pursuit, all the while remaining so unflappably cool when taking corners on unpaved-mountain roads at 60 miles an hour, smoking and laughing to themselves about how stupid those coppers are for even trying to keep up. This all but extinct breed of male could walk into a scene causing every viewer’ eyes in the darkened movie house to fixate upon them immediately. Sometimes accompanied by an audible gasp. Sometimes with a cheer.
Those days, dear movie fans, are gone, lost to a bygone era, a time when men were allowed to be men, in movies and in life. The days of Mitchum, McQueen, Marvin, and Belmondo are squarely in the rearview, replaced with “action stars” and male leads of today that leave this film fanatic scratching his head as to how a studio could expect anyone outside of the tween set to accept these actors in their given roles. Taylor Lautner in Abduction anyone? No? How about Orlando Bloom in anything ever? These guys aren’t fit to carry Richard Widmark’s Lucky Strikes let alone shoot guns or weld swords in a convincing manner. There is no denying we have fallen on hard times, but in this era of manscaping and metrosexuality we have a beacon of light, possibly the biggest badass to ever grace the silver screen in its long, illustrious history; the one actor that acts as a cure-all antidote to our current predicament, one Danny Trejo.
Like most, I’m sure, I first remember seeing Danny Trejo in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado playing Navajas, a hitman whose chosen method of assassination is the throwing knives he has strapped to his torso. Trejo’s Navajas has only one scene to speak of, but he pops up in the background of the film at random intervals, each time causing the viewer to ask aloud, “Who IS that?” His slicked back, jet-black hair, epic horseshoe mustache, and muscular body which supports more tattoos than the entire carny population of the North Carolina State Fair all but guarantee that reaction. Then, of course, there is the small matter of his face. If there ever was a visage made for a Sergio Leone close-up, it’s Danny Trejo’s. With numerous pot-marks and acne scars working in concert with the large, ever deepening bags under his eyes, the roadmap of his hard-living life is right there before us, and when you combine his outward appearance with his bone-chilling scowl and 1,000-yard stare, well, I would be willing to bet that on more than one occasion an actor he is working with onset has actually thought Trejo himself WAS going to kill him, not just the character he was being paid to play. He has a presence that any actor would die for; when he’s onscreen, that’s all you want to or can look at, and in Desperado he does it all without uttering a word. I didn’t know who he was when I walked in the theater that day, but he damn well made sure that I did before exiting, managing to create a life-long fan out of me with around 3 minutes of screen time. Don’t believe me? If you haven’t seen the film for some ungodly reason, check out the knife scene embedded below for yourself. Heck, even if you’re like me and have seen the movie dozens of times, check it out again anyway, you know you want to.
Sometime around 2005, I heard that a documentary focusing on the life of Danny Trejo was coming out. It had been making the rounds on the festival circuit to rave reviews; apparently Trejo had given them full access and didn’t pull any punches when it came to relating his life story to the film crew. After reading early reviews, I tried to track down a release date but had no luck, so I had to wait for Netflix to get a copy of the film. To this day, this is the only place I know of to rent a copy of this wonderful documentary; it is on Amazon for the low, low price of $14.99 however, a steal for any fan of the actor, believe me. Champion serves as an oral history of the actor’s life, with interviews of friends, family members, and fellow actors relating their own personal stories and impressions of Trejo as an actor, drug counselor, criminal, and family man. A bulk of interviews used in the film are conducted with Trejo himself, allowing an inordinate amount of access to his life, even taking the film crew into the prison that served as his home for so long. The result is a profile of a man that has seen and experienced all that life has to offer, from its highest peaks to the lowest valleys, he has survived anything and everything that could possibly be thrown at a human and come out the other end with a desire to help and educate others in an effort to prevent them from walking the same path in life he chose at such an early age.
Born in 1944 in Los Angeles, Trejo’s life is best described as turbulent from the jump. His parents were of the working class; his father a hard man that was more likely to choke his son in a fit of rage than to tell him he loved him. He went to live with his grandmother at an early age, a poor woman who allowed her grandson to play outside in her “front dirt.” For several years, this created a unique schism in the boy, one that Trejo himself refers to as “the war of Shirley Temple and John Wayne” and, unfortunately for him, the actor relates with a laugh, Wayne won. Without a solid male figure in his life, Trejo turned to his father’s brother as a role model, Uncle Gilbert. Sadly, he wouldn’t be a beacon of light in the young boy’s life, setting him on the straight and narrow. Instead, Uncle Gilbert was responsible for getting him into the drug culture at an early age, introducing him to marijuana when he was 8 with his first taste of alcohol soon thereafter. Following in his Uncle Gibert’s footsteps, the young boy became a daily user, but soon drink and smoke wasn’t enough, and at age 12, he began to use heroin, overdosing the first time the needle broke his skin. By age 13, he started to rob supermarkets and convenience stores with his uncle and his thug friends; his chosen method had him employing the use of grenades. By this time, Trejo had become so violent that his uncle’s gang wanted nothing to do with him, so he joined another posse comprised of members considered too violent for most, becoming the first syndicate in Los Angeles to pack heat on a regular basis. So lost was Trejo that he had been arrested 20 times as a juvenile, spending a bulk of his time in numerous juvenile detention camps in the surrounding area. With his family and authority figures giving up on him, prison was the only likely place for him to end up, and in 1960 he entered a maximum security prison for the first time.
From San Quentin to Soledad, Trejo took up residence in every notorious penitentiary California had to offer. While in the slammer, he became the lightweight and welterweight boxing champion of the California State Prison System, virtually guaranteeing the fact that other, hardened, violent criminals would give him a wide birth. His actions during a prison riot on Cinqo De Mayo in 1968 helped to further cement his status with inmates when he allegedly hit a guard in the head with a concrete block, an offense that was punishable by death. Instead, he would find himself in solitary confinement from the fifth of May until August 23 of that same year. In order to stay sane, he would act out his mom’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, line for line, over and over again. Before being released from the hole, Trejo prayed for guidance, the ability to kick drugs and alcohol, and found his way back to God. Roughly a year later, August 22, 1969, he was released from prison and went straight to an AA meeting, never looking back. He was 25 years old.
“Every good thing that has happened to me in life is a direct result of me helping someone else.”
Later on in life, Trejo’s work as an alcohol and narcotics anonymous sponsor led him into film. A young man he sponsored in the mid 80s was working on the set of Runaway Train—a movie starring Eric Roberts and Jon Voight—which revolves around escaped convicts and requires Roberts to box in one scene. When Trejo received a call from him one night, he met him on the set to provide support and, due to his unique appearance, he found himself cast as an extra. Later on in the same set visit, when he ran into Eddie Bunker (screenwriter extraordinaire and sometime actor in films like Reservoir Dogs), he was given a job as Eric Robert’s boxing trainer. Bunker knew he was the real deal, he had done time with Trejo and had seen him box in the prison system on a semi-regular basis. From that point on, he was an actor, spending most of his time plying his trade in menacing heavy roles, oftentimes billed as Thug #2 or Criminal #1. Before too long, casting agents and directors took notice of his presence, and supporting roles came rolling in. Now, Trejo has become a leading man in films like Machete, although most of his starring efforts are of the DTV variety, but even in those his character and charisma shine through the shoddy scripts and amateur direction. In Sherrybaby, Trejo’s private and public lives intersected, as he gave his best and most heartfelt performance as Sherry’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) friend and fellow AA member, Dean Walker.
To this day, Trejo still works as a counselor within the AA program and will often tour the worst schools in an area, giving speeches and providing one-on-one help to anyone he meets who needs it. He works with inmates in the California prison system, helping to keep them on the straight and narrow while working toward parole dates. These scenes in the movie, along with Trejo visiting his old prison cell and relating stories of his wayward youth, provide the movie with its heart. In telling the story of his life, he leaves no stone unturned, and the emotion of his journey and how he has touched the lives of others through his wisdom, experience, and spirit is more uplifting than any cheesy “inspirational” sports movie that the Hollywood machine can churn out. The documentary also serves as an engrossing examination of the duality of human nature; in certain scenes, the laidback Trejo of today is fully present, only to have a comment or question from the filmmakers or a memory from his past life come roaring back, and the viewer sees a sudden change in the actor. His eyes go dark and a look crosses his face that would make the toughest of characters’ hearts skip a beat, their blood running cold the instant they make eye contact with him. Then, just as quickly as it came across his scraggly face, its gone again, replaced with a smile and raspy laugh that could fill any room, no matter its size. I can think of no better way for someone to remind others not to screw with them. Ever.
While Trejo’s legacy will certainly go down as one of cinema’s authentic tough guys, his actual story is 100% crazier than anything a screenwriter can make up. The fact that he was able to turn his situation around at a time when most would have given up the ghost and then go even further and dedicate his life to helping others do the same only serves to make him even more legendary. Despite his colorful past, it seems that the world would be better off with more Danny Trejos and fewer Robert Pattinsons. One thing is for sure, our cinematic universe would be a lot more entertaining and authentic. Who knows, if the actor were used in more mainstream flicks, maybe the popularity of tattoos that take up one’s entire chest would spike in popularity. Maybe the government would take notice of his efforts, instituting a new national holiday named after him, with citizens of every race and creed slicking back their hair and donning felt mustaches. I don’t know; I’m just spit-balling here. Anyway, here’s to hoping that we continue to get more films featuring (and starring) Danny Trejo, a true Mexican American badass.