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Original at The Independent
05 June 2001
Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn, actor: born Chihuahua, Mexico 21 April 1915; married 1937 Katherine De Mille (died 1995; one son, three daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1965), 1966 Jolanda Addolori (three sons; marriage dissolved 1997), 1997 Kathy Benvin (one son, one daughter); died Boston, Massachusetts 3 June 2001.
When the Citadel Press published The Films of Anthony Quinn (by Alvin H. Marill, 1975), I asked one London bookseller how many she had ordered. "Three," she replied. "I usually take two or three dozen in this series and I'm only stocking these for those who want a complete set." Anthony Quinn was a star by sheer will, but with a little help from his friends.
For the first two decades of his career he was anything but a star. He began as an unexceptional member of Paramount's B stock-company, but was elevated to appear in two movies directed by Cecil B. De Mille, The Plainsman (1936), his second film, as an Indian, and The Buccaneer (1938), as a French pirate. After he married De Mille's adopted daughter, Katherine, the director gave him a more substantial role in Union Pacific (1939), again villainous, as a dandy and cardsharp, but Paramount thought that his talent extended to no more than a heavy in B-movies. (Robert Preston was another whom the studio thought had no future except in its B-movies.)
Brought up in Los Angeles, Quinn was born in Mexico, of mixed Irish-US-Mexican descent, with looks that seemed suitable for sinister foreigners but even then he was never in the big league. Being a crony of John Barrymore (who had noticed him in a play, Clean Beds, in which he played a drunken actor based on Barrymore), and a member of the De Mille family, he consorted with the famous, which to his chagrin did not further his career. After a good role as a Cuban assassin in an A picture, The Ghost Busters (1940), Quinn broke his contract and began to freelance, hoping for better opportunities. His model was Humphrey Bogart, who was then being promoted to stardom: but there was a great difference, for Bogart was already a much-admired actor.
Quinn was only offered the sort of roles he had been playing, if in bigger pictures, but both they and he had more bite: in Road to Morocco (1943), as an Arab chieftain; in The Ox-Bow Incident, as one of the Mexicans who is lynched; in Buffalo Bill (1944), as an Indian warrior. In sympathetic roles Quinn seemed only vacuous, but he excelled with a sneer, a bad man who could be suave and stupid at the same time. In 1949 he persuaded a minor company, Allied Artists, to star him and his wife in White Gold, in which they played ill-treated Indians, but it passed unnoticed; he starred in a Broadway play that flopped, but that brought him Marlon Brando's role in the touring company of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Elia Kazan liked him sufficiently in that to ask him to play Brando's elder brother in Viva Zapata! (1952), against the wishes of the head of the studio, Darryl F. Zanuck, who disliked Brando's mumbling and Zanuck himself favoured either Tyrone Power or Quinn for the lead. In his memoirs Kazan writes bemusedly of Quinn's competitive behaviour, but Quinn felt himself justified when his performance brought him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. At last what he wanted was within his grasp.
Europe brought him to stardom. The Italian team of Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis, aiming at the international market offered him a three-picture deal, starting with Ulysses (1954), opposite Kirk Douglas and continuing with Attila the Hun (also 1954), with himself in the title-role. The one that made the difference was Fellini's art-house hit La Strada (1955), in which Quinn was the itinerant entertainer who is so cruel to dear little downtrodden Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife). Nothing Quinn had done up to this point had allowed him to show his range brutish as usual, but for the first time commanding a certain sympathy.
He was given star billing in Hollywood in three undistinguished films, but returned to below-the-title in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956): the prospect of Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Quinn as Gauguin was fairly daunting, and the result was that they were less like artists than caged animals. Though decried today, the film was then a prestige success; and a second Best Supporting Oscar did Quinn no harm at all.
Nor did it do him any good. In Europe he played Quasimodo in a French Hunchback of Notre Dame, opposite Gina Lollobrigida, and then he announced that he was giving up acting for directing. His father-in-law allowed him to remake The Buccaneer (1957) with Yul Brynner, but it failed resoundingly. He returned to acting and over the next few years it was impossible to read the trade press without reading of Quinn's prolific plans for starring vehicles, mainly in independent productions. He had been around a long time and knew who to talk to: but none of these pictures was made.
However, a new era had dawned in Hollywood, and it was one in which Quinn could flourish. It had taken the post-war world a while to tire of the relentless unreality of Hollywood, even as American critics were praising more earthy fare from Europe. Hollywood responded by turning to television, which hadn't the budget then for glamour and the restorative in drama, amidst a diet of soap operas, was some slice-of-life plays, the most celebrated of which was Paddy Chayevsky's Marty. In the 1955 film version the ugly-pug hero was played by Ernest Borgnine, who won his Best Actor Oscar alongside Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo: and she was no oil-painting either.
As the most praised actress of the Italian neo-realist cinema, Magnani had been wooed by Hollywood for years. Striking lucky that first time, she agreed to make a second film for the same producer, Hal Wallis. Having okayed Quinn as her leading man, they set out to breathe new life into one of the old perennials that one about the mail-order bride and the rough unfeeling husband who doesn't realise that he loves her till he finds her in the arms of another man. It was called Wild is the Wind (1957); George Cukor directed it and virtually no one went to see it.
But it had made Quinn an over-the-title star. The days of typecasting had gone, and he could be loutish in Hot Spell (1958) as Shirley Booth's husband, avuncular in a Marty-clone, The Black Orchid (1959) as Sophia Loren's old reliable, and flamboyant as an old-time touring actor in Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights (1960) none of which, by the way, was successful. However, he was in a popular western, Last Train From Gun Hill, with Kirk Douglas, and he held his own when he returned to Broadway to co-star with Olivier in Anouilh's Becket. Quinn was Henry II and at some point in the run Olivier decided that that was the better of the two parts. Quinn was committed to a film after a short tour, but deeply resented not being informed that Olivier intended to take on his role while bringing in Arthur Kennedy to play Becket.
In Europe Quinn was among several stars in two successful spectaculars, The Guns of Navarone (1961) and David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), respectively as Greek resistance leader and an Arab chieftain; he was the biggest of several lesser names in one of De Laurentiis's equally ambitious productions, Barabbas, in the title-role, a performance best described as "careful". When he agreed to do a low-budget film for the little-known Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis, 20th Century-Fox agreed to finance it: and when Zorba the Greek was released in 1964 the studio had a world-wide hit on its hands.
Whatever the merits of Kazantzakis's original novel the film is little more than an over-heated tale of a prissy young Anglo-Greek (Alan Bates) who, inheriting some land in Crete, goes there to meet what Synopsis called "a life force" i.e. Zorba, who is Quinn, irreverent, coarse, instinctive, cheerful, boastful, cunning, fatalistic. To America's two most influential critics the performance was a revelation; in The New Yorker Pauline Kael called it "wonderfully satisfying" but Bosley Crowther went even further in The New York Times:
We are not used to so much exuberance, so much persuasiveness . . . [Quinn possesses] all the energies of the great ones of history and myth. He is Adam in the Garden of Eden, Odysseus on the windy plains of Troy.
Anyone impressed by this presumably also believed in "the meanness and ignorance of the people of Crete" and that it was an island with a "hard, barren look". Crete? Those who dissented from the torrent of praise included those self-same people, a consolation to non-Cretans who found the film like a bad Victorian academic painting: carefully done, but sentimental, predictable and specious. Quinn's performance was technically correct and a sure centre: the Oscar which seemed such a shoo-in, from the reviews, went to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady.
The director's next film, The Day the Fish Came Out, was a fiasco, but Quinn had found the role he would essentially play for the rest of his life, a rough diamond who was not so much son-of-the-soil as Earth Father, gusty, lusty, unshaven, all-embracing. Only five years later John Coleman wrote in the New Statesman, "Mr Quinn goes on doing his personal impression of the life force. Once more and some of us won't be around tomorrow." Dilys Powell echoed this the following year:
There is a persistent tendency, when someone is wanted to play an Eskimo, or a gypsy, or a drunken Indian, or a Mexican, or just another throaty character, to send for Anthony Quinn. OK, but I wish they would not ask me along to watch.
The range and versatility which Quinn had shown for a while were seldom apparent thereafter, and down with him went several versions of modern classics, from A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) and The Magus (1968) to The Old Man and the Sea (1990), made for American television. As early as 1968 the show-business paper Variety looked at Quinn's box-office record and decided that he was not worth the money he was being paid. Other supporting actors who achieved eminence but who were not star material returned to their more humble roles, like Borgnine and Jack Palance while Lee Marvin, for instance, proved himself to be of the stuff that stars were made.
It was not so much that Quinn was a bad actor as the fact that he had no variety, no depth. Within five minutes he gave you everything in his box of tricks and there was nothing more to reach for. So perhaps did Cagney, but he had style, magnetism, charm and above all a truth, all of which Quinn lacked. These were/are qualities not greatly in abundance in Charles Bronson, the only other player to challenge Quinn's record of stardom after a long stint in supporting roles: but Bronson restrained his appearances to sure-fire (at least, as far as the box office was concerned) action adventures and thrillers while Quinn still had aspirations to class. Powell and Coleman were in the vanguard of critics no longer interested in him; with that support gone and with no popular following Quinn looked beyond Hollywood and, it was rumoured and widely believed, he would have had to do so much earlier had he not had Mafia protection.
Even the bad guys couldn't persuade the Hollywood studios to invest in movies which would not make back their advertising costs. Quinn filmed in Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, Mexico and, most notably, some Arab countries. I say "most notably" because how many buffs, even, could name any of Quinn's films in the last 30 years except Caravans (1978), financed by the Persian government when that country was trying to enter international film production, and The Message (1976), a.k.a. Mohammad, Messenger of God, and Omar Mukhtair, Lion of the Desert (1981), both propaganda spectacles made by a consortium of Arab countries. The latter was one of the most expensive movies made till then, costing $30m, but it took only $1.5m in the US despite hefty promotion.
During this period (1983-86) Quinn did have a personal success with a musicalised Zorba on Broadway and on tour, in fact a revival of a show which had not done very well the first time around. He returned to Hollywood to play a supporting role for Kevin Costner in Revenge (1990), which Costner also directed, as the friend whose wife Costner takes away from him. It was good to have him retrieved from the deceptive heights of stardom, to which he was temperamentally never really suited.
David Shipman *
Anthony Quinn was an actor whose forceful personality inevitably attracted a passionate response, writes Tom Vallance, and there were times when one groaned at the prospect of yet another portrayal of life-affirming virility. But it must be acknowledged that it is hard to imagine another actor being such an indelible Zorba, the rugged romantic dancing to bouzouki music with a bottle of ouzo in his hand. There were other fine performances his memorable depiction of the libertine painter Gauguin in Lust for Life, one of the shortest performances (less than 10 minutes' screen time) to win an Oscar, his brutish travelling player in La Strada and his vigorously amoral Bedouin chieftain in Lawrence of Arabia.
One of his greatest performances was given in the screen version of Rod Serling's television play Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), in which he totally sublimated his personality in the character of a proud but battered prizefighter. It was a favourite of the actor himself, who was aware of his limitations "I think I am lucky," he once said. "I was born with very little talent but great drive."
In 1983 when I went to see him in the Broadway revival of the musical Zorba (a show which had originally failed with another actor) it was with some trepidation, since Quinn had already been touring in the show and would possibly be going through the motions by rote at this stage, but his performance was full of energy, brio and enthusiasm as if it were the first night the mark of a true professional. He had his original co-star Lila Kedrova as the ageing coquette Hortense, and the charisma the pair exuded was palpable.
"I am Zorba!" the actor once said, and his zest for life certainly paralleled that of his screen creation. He had 13 children by five women, three of whom he married. (Tragically, his first child Christopher died at the age of three when he wandered into the neighbouring garden of W.C. Fields and drowned in the swimming pool.) He married Jolanda Addolori, his second wife, who had been a costumer on Barabbas, when she was pregnant with their third child, but they separated when Quinn's former secretary Kathy Benvin announced that she was having his child. He ultimately married Benvin in 1997.
In his autobiography One Man Tango (1995) Quinn revealed that he had affairs with Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman. He also found time to pursue a lifelong interest in sculpture and painting, his works being exhibited all over the world and drawing high prices on the international art market, and most days he would jog and swim.
Although he underwent a coronary bypass in 1990, he continued to act in both America and Europe during the last decade. He co-starred with the veteran actress Maureen O'Hara in the romantic Only the Lonely (1991), played a foul-tempered, bigoted father in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991), had a cameo in the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero (1993), and once again portrayed a firm believer in the life-affirming power of love in A Walk in the Clouds (1995) as the exuberant Mexican patriarch of a family vineyard in California. He was a mobster in the television movie Gotti (1996) and plays a mafia chieftain in his final film, Avenging Angels, which stars Sylvester Stallone and is still in production.
"To me," Quinn once said, "acting is living. I love to live, so I live. I love to act, so I act. I gotta have vitality."
* David Shipman died 22 April 1996
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