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From Drugs and Prisons to Fame and Fortune, Danny Trejo Finds Redemption Helping Others
(Novus writes inspirational stories of people in the news who have overcome addiction. This is not to infer that these people are connected to Novus Medical Detox Center but simply to provide hope and encouragement to those fighting addiction.)
Danny Trejo is one heck of a busy Hollywood actor. While most others his age are retired and long forgotten, the dynamic, muscular and tattooed 72-year-old is in greater demand than ever.
And if you don’t recognize the name, you sure will recognize the face. In most roles, if Trejo isn’t smiling, everyone squirms a little and looks for an exit. Danny Trejo has made a career out of scaring the pants off people with a scowl that can blister paint and make children cry.
Few other character actors have such instant screen recognition. He’s been in hundreds of movies, so it’s safe to say that even casual moviegoers instantly recognize that craggy, intimidating countenance.
But it’s not just his scary scowl. Few other actors in Hollywood are in such demand, or work as much, as Danny Trejo. He’s known as a reliable actor who always delivers what’s wanted, and then some.
Career just keeps expanding
How many character actors work more as the years go by? Few indeed.
Over the past 30 years, since Trejo’s first movie appearance in 1985 in Runaway Train, with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay (more on that story later), Trejo’s career has just kept on expanding.
In 2016 alone, Trejo’s Internet Movie Data Base page lists at least 35 projects. And it’s only half-way through the year! Similar numbers are shown for most recent years – over 30 projects in 2015, for example, including a repeating role in seven episodes of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, the TV version of the 1996 film From Dusk To Dawn developed by Robert Rodriguez.
In the original feature, with Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Salma Hayek and Juliette Lewis, Trejo was an outstanding and frightening presence. He’s continued playing the scary character Razor Charlie in two movie sequels and the popular TV direct-to-video series. The From Dusk till Dawn franchise includes a comics version and enjoys a huge cult following.
Although Trejo is called for supporting roles as the very-tough-and-scary bad guy, he’s also in demand for starring roles, usually as the equally-scary-and-tough good guy. His projects are often wildly violent adventure, revenge, horror or crime movies, and often ‘straight to video’ productions that don’t get wide theatrical distribution. But many others have been bigger movies with big-name stars, like Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Con-Air with Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich, and Desperado, another Robert Rodriguez thriller starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin and Quentin Tarantino. He’s also starred in Reindeer Games and a whole series based on the character he created for Machete.
Whether it’s a low-budget straight-to-video or a big-budget blockbuster, crazy violence or a comedy, Trejo’s roles seem specially created for that ferociously threatening trade-mark scowl – the kind that you never want to see on a dark and lonely street in a strange part of town.
Drugs, prison and redemption
Danny Trejo was born in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Mexican American gangs were often at war with each other and the world. He is the son of Alice Rivera and Dan Trejo, a construction worker, and a second cousin of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, although the two didn’t find out they were related until Trejo joined the cast of Rodriguez’s Desperado.
Trejo says he was an alcoholic while still a child, and started using drugs and getting into legal troubles early on. “I started smoking weed at age 8,” he told CNBC not long ago. “I went to juvenile hall so many times, I thought Mexicans were supposed to go.”
Drugs, alcohol and petty crime led to more serious crime and more serious drugs, and eventually to addiction and prisons. He wound up in Folsom and San Quentin on various drug and robbery convictions. By one account, Trejo spent time in juvenile offenders’ camps and six California prisons between 1959 and 1969. He says that his last prison term was five years.
It was in prison that he says he decided to attain a new goal – prison boxing champion. While serving in San Quentin, he won the prison’s lightweight and welterweight titles. This skill played a key part in his life, later on.
Meanwhile, Trejo had the good fortune to complete “a life-changing 12-step rehabilitation program,” and he overcame his addictions. When he was released from prison in 1969, he began to apply the ideas he’d learned to his life. And central to that was the decision to help others caught in the same trap of drugs and crime in which he’d been trapped for so long.
The call for help and Hollywood stardom
Trejo got involved in numerous rehab and counseling programs, offering his help wherever he could to others. He continued this for some years. In 1985, at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, Trejo agreed to mentor a young man – sort of a “call me any time for help” kind of thing.
Well, one day a call for help came in. This particular young man was on the verge of using again and asked Trejo to come over. Trejo thought he was going to a warehouse, but it turned out to be the set of the movie Runaway Train. When the director saw the fierce-looking tattooed Mexican American, he was quickly offered a role as an extra, as a convict in a scene with dozens of other “convicts.”
But when the screen writer spotted Trejo, history was made. He had been a fellow inmate from Trejo’s boxing years in prison, and asked Trejo to help teach actor Eric Roberts to box. And when the director saw this happening, he offered Trejo the chance to play the character that Roberts boxes in the movie.
Fortunately for us movie-goers, Trejo agreed. And his life changed forever.
Life began 48 years ago
Roughly 48 years ago this week, Danny Trejo got sober in prison and has stayed that way ever since. He may play one badass after another on screen, says The Hollywood Reporter, but it’s clean living in real life, thanks to a promise he made 48 years ago to get and stay clean. Being a household name and recognizable face has allowed Trejo to do an enormous amount of good, he told the Reporter.
“I help at-risk kids. I go to high schools. I do whatever I can,” he says. “That’s what I do. In many ways, that is my job. I am still a drug counselor. I will get their attention before you or a doctor or a nurse or a plumber or anybody. It helps me with what I love doing.
“Everybody asks me, ‘How do you stay so young?'” the 72-year-old actor said.
“I consider myself 48 years old. That’s when my life started.”
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