Anthony Quinn’s first on-screen credit came in 1936. His last in 2002. In between, he managed to carve out an enviable career that broke ground for Mexican and Mexican-American actors (he became a naturalized US citizen in 1947). Born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuaha, Mexico, the rugged actor found his start playing a series of “ethnic villains.” In the over fifty films he shot in his first decade in Hollywood, he got to play everything from Indians and Mafia don to Hawaiian chiefs and Arab sheiks.
But after his big break in Viva Zapata! where he played Eufemio Zapata opposite Marlon Brando (winning an Oscar in the process — the first for a Mexican actor), Quinn leveraged his tough guy persona in better parts and better films. In his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, he got to work with directors like David Lean, Federico Fellini, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, and Nicholas Ray. Continuing to work late into his life, Quinn was one of the pioneering crossover actors of his generation who charmed audiences both on screen and on stage. In case you’ve never taken a good look at his filmography, or want to watch some of his most memorable performances, we’ve compiled five to get you started.
One of the earliest (and perhaps most egregious) examples of the glass ceiling Mexican actors have faced in Hollywood, Viva Zapata! is the epic tale of Emiliano Zapata, the legendary revolutionary leader. Only, in Elia Kazan’s classic film, the leading figure of the Mexican Revolution, who harnessed the power of the campesinos against Francisco Madero was played by Marlon Brando. (Similarly, the role of his wife Josefa was played by Jean Peters.) Thankfully, even back in 1952, audiences and critics alike were able to see that the standout in the film was Mexican-born actor Anthony Quinn who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Emilian’s brother, Eufemio, in this dust-covered revolutionary war film with plenty of brown face to go around.
Lust for Life
This Vicente Minnelli biopic of Vincent Van Gogh was a performance showcase for its leading actor, Kirk Douglas. Telling the story of the now-famous Dutch painter, Lust for Life tracks Van Gogh’s lowly beginnings when he was training to be a minister through his time in Paris as a penniless artist and later still in Arles where he spent time with fellow painter Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). A portrait of a troubled artist unable to wrestle with his demons the film visually echoes some of Van Gogh’s greatest works and features Quinn’s second Oscar-winning performance.
Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic remains an indisputable classic. Peter O’Toole stars as T.E. Lawrence, a British Lieutenant who was involved in organizing warring Arab tribes against the Turks during World War I. With striking vistas of the arid deserts he and his men traversed as they arranged guerrilla-styled attacks and with a tender attention to Lawrence’s own conflicted views about war, identity, and patriotism, this three and a half hour film features O’Toole’s most well-known performance. Joining him is a slew of talented performers, including Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, José Ferrer, and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe.
Zorba the Greek
Based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek stars Anthony Quinn as the larger than life titular character. When Basil (Alan Yates) heads to Crete to visit a long unused mine he owns, he comes across Zorba. The two men, one English one Greek, are as different as they come. Basil is introverted and guarded, whereas Zorba lives his life to the fullest, always happy and eager for adventure. When the two set out to get the mine working again, Basil finds himself learning to follow Zorba’s example in this black and white buddy comedy that became an unlikely hit back in 1964.
La Strada is Federico Fellini’s black and white drama about a strongman and a tender young woman. When strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) buys Gelsomina (Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) from her mother to take on the road with him, it’s clear their personalities are at odds. Chronicling their time together busking on the streets, later working at a circus, and later still in between brushes with the law, this dour drama works at the level of fable, showing how the innocence and gullibility of Gelsomina is no match for the cruelty of Zampanò.