Quinn was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution. His mother, Manuela “Nellie” Oaxaca, was of Aztec ancestry. His father, Francisco (Frank) Quinn, was also born in Mexico, to an Irish immigrant father from County Cork and a Mexican mother. Frank Quinn rode with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, then later moved to the East Los Angeles neighborhood of City Terrace and became an assistant cameraman at a movie studio. In Quinn’s autobiography The Original Sin: A Self-portrait by Anthony Quinn he denied being the son of an “Irish adventurer” and attributed that tale to Hollywood publicists. When he was six years old, Quinn attended a Catholic church (even thinking he wanted to become a priest). At age eleven, however, he joined the Pentecostals in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (the Pentecostal followers of Aimee Semple McPherson). For a time he played in the church’s band and was an apprentice preacher with the renowned evangelist. “I have known most of the great actresses of my time, and not one of them could touch her,” Quinn once said of the spellbinding McPherson, whom he credited with inspiring Zorba’s gesture of the dramatically outstretched hand.
Quinn grew up first in El Paso, Texas, and later the Boyle Heights and the Echo Park areas of Los Angeles, California. He attended Hammel Street Elementary School, Belvedere Junior High School, Polytechnic High School and finally Belmont High School in Los Angeles, with future baseball player and General Hospital star John Beradino, but left before graduating. Tucson High School in Arizona, many years later, awarded him an honorary high school diploma. As a young man, Quinn boxed professionally to earn money, then studied art and architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, at Wright’s Arizona residence and his Wisconsin studio, Taliesin. The two very different men became friends. When Quinn mentioned that he was drawn to acting, Wright encouraged him. Quinn said he had been offered $800 per week by a film studio and didn’t know what to do. Wright replied, “Take it, you’ll never make that much with me.”[this quote needs a citation] In a 1999 interview Private Screenings with Robert Osborne. Quinn said that the contract was for only $300 per week.
After a short time performing on the stage, Quinn launched his film career performing character roles in the 1936 films Parole (his debut) and The Milky Way. He played “ethnic” villains in Paramount films such as Dangerous to Know (1938) and Road to Morocco, and played a more sympathetic Crazy Horse in They Died with Their Boots On with Errol Flynn. By 1947, he had appeared in over 50 films and had played Indians, Mafia dons, Hawaiian chiefs, Filipino freedom-fighters, Chinese guerrillas, and Arab sheiks, but was still not a major star. He returned to the theater, playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. In 1947, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
He came back to Hollywood in the early 1950s, specializing in tough roles. He was cast in a series of B-adventures such as Mask of the Avenger (1951). His big break came from playing opposite Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952). Quinn wanted to play the lead role of Zapata but Brando, coming off his recent success in the film Streetcar Named Desire, was Kazan’s first choice. However, his supporting role as Zapata’s brother won Quinn an Oscar while Brando lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Gary Cooper in High Noon. He was the first Mexican-American to win any Academy Award. He appeared in several Italian films starting in 1953, turning in one of his best performances as a dim-witted, thuggish and volatile strongman in Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954) opposite Giulietta Masina. Quinn won his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor by portraying the painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s van Gogh biographical film, Lust for Life (1956). The following year, he received an Oscar nomination for his part in George Cukor’s Wild Is the Wind. In The River’s Edge (1957), he played the husband of the former girlfriend (played by Debra Paget) of a killer (Ray Milland), who turns up with a stolen fortune and forces Quinn and Paget at gunpoint to guide him safely to Mexico. Quinn starred in The Savage Innocents 1959 (film) as Inuk, an Eskimo who finds himself caught between two clashing cultures. The film later inspired the song Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn) by Bob Dylan.
As the decade ended, Quinn allowed his age to show and began his transformation into a major character actor. His physique filled out, his hair grayed, and his once smooth, swarthy face weathered and became more rugged. He played a Greek resistance fighter in The Guns of Navarone (1961), an aging boxer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, and the Bedouin shaikh Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia (both 1962). That year he also played the title role in Barabbas, based on a novel by Pär Lagerkvist. The success of Zorba the Greek in 1964 was the high-water mark of his career and resulted in another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Other films included The 25th Hour (1967), with Virna Lisi; The Magus (1968), with Michael Caine and Candice Bergen, based on the novel by John Fowles; La Bataille de San Sebastian (Guns for San Sebastian) with Charles Bronson; and The Shoes of the Fisherman, where he played a Catholic Archbishop in a Soviet Siberian prison who becomes Pope. In 1969, he starred in The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anna Magnani, and each were nominated for a Golden Globe Award. In 1970 he appeared in a film titled A Walk In The Spring Rain with Fritz Weaver and Candice Bergman.
He appeared on Broadway to great acclaim in Becket, as King Henry II to Laurence Olivier’s Thomas Becket in 1960. An erroneous story arose in later years that during the run Quinn and Olivier switched roles and Quinn played Becket to Olivier’s King. In fact, Quinn left the production for a film, never having played Becket, and director Peter Glenville suggested a road tour with Olivier as Henry. Olivier happily agreed and Arthur Kennedy took on the role of Becket for the tour and brief return to Broadway.
In 1971, after the success of a TV movie named The City, where Quinn played Mayor Thomas Jefferson Alcala, he starred in the single-season ABC television series entitled The Man and the City. Though the program was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the name of the city is not disclosed on the program. His subsequent television appearances were sporadic, among them Jesus of Nazareth. In 1976, he starred in the movie Mohammad, Messenger of God (also known as The Message), about the origin of Islam, as Hamza, a highly respected uncle of Mohammad the last of the prophets of Islam. In 1981, he starred in the Lion of the Desert, together with Irene Papas, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, and John Gielgud. Quinn played the real-life Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar who fought Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops in the deserts of Libya. The film, produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad, is now critically acclaimed, but performed poorly at the box office because of negative publicity in the West at the time of its release, stemming from its having been partially funded by Libya. In 1983, he reprised his most famous role, playing Zorba the Greek for 362 performances in a successful revival of the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba. Quinn performed in this musical both on Broadway in New York City and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Quinn’s film career slowed during the 1990s, but he nonetheless continued to work steadily, appearing in Revenge (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), A Walk in the Clouds (1995) and Seven Servants (1996). In 1994, he played Zeus in the five TV movies that led to the syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. (However, he did not continue in the actual series, and the role was eventually filled by several other actors). Quinn made an appearance at the John Gotti trial, according to John H. Davis, author of Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family. He told reporters he wanted to play Paul Castellano, the boss of the Gambino family after Carlo Gambino. Gotti had Castellano murdered, becoming the boss of the Gambino family thereafter. Gotti was on trial concerning a variety of felony charges when Quinn visited the courtroom. Although he tried to shake hands with Gotti, federal marshals prevented him from doing so, Davis says. The actor interpreted the testimony of Sammy (“The Bull”) Gravano, Gotti’s underboss, against Gotti as “a friend who betrays a friend.” He hadn’t come to “judge” Gotti, Quinn insisted, but because he wanted to portray Castellano, who inspired the actor because he had had a “thirty-year-old” mistress, which Quinn believed was “a beautiful thing.” He would later portray Gambino family underboss Aniello Dellacroce in the 1996 HBO film Gotti. Armand Assante portrayed John Gotti and Richard C. Sarafian portrayed Paul Castellano. Quinn was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Dellacroce.
Art critic Donald Kuspit, explains, “examining Quinn’s many expressions of creativity together—his art and acting—we can see that he was a creative genius…” Early in life Quinn had an interest in painting and drawing. Throughout his teenage years he won various art competitions in California and focused his studies at Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles on drafting. Later, Quinn studied briefly under Frank Lloyd Wright through the Taliesin Fellowship—an opportunity created by winning first prize in an architectural design contest. Through Wright’s recommendation, Quinn took acting lessons as a form of post-operative speech therapy, which led to an acting career that spanned over six decades.
Apart from art classes taken in Chicago during the 1950s, Quinn never attended art school; nonetheless, taking advantage of books, museums, and amassing a sizable collection, he managed to give himself an effective education in the language of modern art. Although Quinn remained mostly self-taught, intuitively seeking out and exploring new ideas, there is observable history in his work because he had assiduously studied the modernist masterpieces on view in the galleries of New York, Mexico City, Paris, and London. When filming on location around the world, Quinn was exposed to regional contemporary art styles exhibited at local galleries and studied art history in each area. In an endless search for inspiration, he was influenced by his Mexican ancestry, decades of residence in Europe, and lengthy stays in Africa and the Middle East while filming in the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1980s, his work had caught the eyes of various gallery owners and was exhibited internationally, in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and Mexico City. His work is now represented in both public and private collections throughout the world. He wrote two memoirs, The Original Sin (1972) and One Man Tango (1997), a number of scripts, and a series of unpublished stories currently in the collection of his archive.
Quinn’s personal life was as volatile and passionate as the characters he played in films. His first wife was the adopted daughter of Cecil B. DeMille, the actress Katherine DeMille, whom he married in 1937. The couple had five children: Christopher (1939-1941), Christina (born December 1, 1941), Catalina (born November 21, 1942), Duncan (born August 4, 1945), and Valentina (born December 26, 1952). Their first child, Christopher, aged two, drowned in the lily pond of next-door neighbor W.C. Fields. In 1965, Quinn and DeMille were divorced, because of his affair with Italian costume designer Jolanda Addolori, whom he married in 1966. They had three children: Francesco Quinn (March 22, 1963 – August 5, 2011), Danny (born April 16, 1964), and Lorenzo Quinn (born May 7, 1966). The union ended in 1997, after Quinn had children with his secretary, Katherine Benvin. He then married Benvin, with whom he had two children, Antonia Quinn (born July 23, 1993) and Ryan Nicholas Quinn (born July 5, 1996). Quinn and Benvin remained together until his death. Quinn also had two children with Friedel Dunbar: Sean Quinn (born February 7, 1973), a New Jersey real estate agent, and Alexander Anthony Quinn (born December 30, 1976), an event producer in Los Angeles, California. Quinn had a personal relationship with New York Mafia Crime Boss Frank Costello and other Genovese gangsters.
Quinn spent his last years in Bristol, Rhode Island. He died aged 86 in Boston, Massachusetts from pneumonia and respiratory failure while suffering from throat cancer shortly after completing his role in his last film, Avenging Angelo (2001). His funeral was held in the First Baptist Church in America in the College Hill section of Providence, Rhode Island; late in life, he had joined the Foursquare evangelical Christian community. He is buried in a family plot in Bristol, Rhode Island.
- April, 21, 1915
- Chihuahua, Chihuahua
- June, 03, 2001
- Boston, Massachusetts
Cause of Death
- pneumonia and respiratory failure
- Quinn Family Estate
- Bristol, Rhode Island