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For over two decades, casting agents looking for an actor who could convincingly portray the baddest of the bad went to one man - Danny Trejo, whose muscular, tattooed frame and leathery face bespoke volumes about violence and vice in films including "Heat" (1995), "Desperado" (1995) and "Machete" (2010). The conviction behind his performances was due in part to his own life, which was spent partly behind bars; after his release, a chance encounter with a fellow ex-con on the set of "Runaway Train" (1985) led to a long list of bit parts as crooks and killers. His ubiquity and unquestionable authenticity made him a favorite of moviegoers and directors alike, including Michael Mann, Allison Anders and his cousin, Robert Rodriguez, who cast him in nearly all of his films, including a comic turn in his lighthearted "Spy Kids" franchise. In 2010, Rodriguez paid Trejo the ultimate compliment by making him an action hero in "Machete," a gore-soaked tribute to '70s-era grindhouse films. The picture only solidified Trejo's status as one of the toughest talents on the planet.Born Dan Trejo, Jr. in Livermore, CA on May 16, 1944, he was the son of construction worker Dan Trejo and his wife, Alice Rivera....
For over two decades, casting agents looking for an actor who could convincingly portray the baddest of the bad went to one man - Danny Trejo, whose muscular, tattooed frame and leathery face bespoke volumes about violence and vice in films including "Heat" (1995), "Desperado" (1995) and "Machete" (2010). The conviction behind his performances was due in part to his own life, which was spent partly behind bars; after his release, a chance encounter with a fellow ex-con on the set of "Runaway Train" (1985) led to a long list of bit parts as crooks and killers. His ubiquity and unquestionable authenticity made him a favorite of moviegoers and directors alike, including Michael Mann, Allison Anders and his cousin, Robert Rodriguez, who cast him in nearly all of his films, including a comic turn in his lighthearted "Spy Kids" franchise. In 2010, Rodriguez paid Trejo the ultimate compliment by making him an action hero in "Machete," a gore-soaked tribute to '70s-era grindhouse films. The picture only solidified Trejo's status as one of the toughest talents on the planet.
Born Dan Trejo, Jr. in Livermore, CA on May 16, 1944, he was the son of construction worker Dan Trejo and his wife, Alice Rivera. Writer-director Robert Rodriguez, with whom he would collaborate frequently in the late 1990s and beyond, was a second cousin. After moving to Pacoima, CA with his family, he was introduced to drugs at the age of eight by an uncle, whom he later joined in carrying out petty crimes. As a result, Trejo spent much of his childhood in juvenile hall and other youth authority situations where he quickly learned to defend himself. He soon became so adept at fighting that a career in boxing appeared to be an escape for the young, but a spate of armed robberies landed him in San Quentin. At the time, Trejo was also struggling with addiction to heroin and alcohol.
While incarcerated, Trejo began taking major steps to change his life. He entered a 12-step program that gave him control over his substance abuse issues, and pursued his boxing career with a vengeance, eventually working his way up to undefeated lightweight and welterweight champion of the institution. After his parole in 1969, Trejo became a fixture in AA and Narcotics Anonymous as a counselor and a speaker. In 1985, he began supporting a young man in the entertainment industry, who later invited him to the set of the film "Runaway Train" (1985) to play a convict in the film's prison scenes. After doffing his shirt and exposing his heavily tattooed frame - which was dominated by a portrait of a woman in a sombrero that sprawled across his massive chest - he was recognized by the film's screenwriter, former convict-turned-novelist Eddie Bunker, who had served time with Trejo in San Quentin. Bunker soon hired him to train the film's star, Eric Roberts, for a fight sequence; his skills so impressed director Andrei Konchalevsky that he tapped Trejo to play Roberts' opponent in the film. That cameo served as the launch of Trejo's acting career.
For the next decade, Trejo's steely glare and weathered visage was a familiar if not immediately identifiable presence in features and television, playing roles that were not far removed from his own criminal past. Bit parts as convicts, crooks and drug dealers in B-movies like "Penitentiary III" (1987) eventually led to more substantive roles in indie films like Allison Anders' "Mi Vida Loca" (1993) as a Echo park drug addict, and Taylor Hackford's gang drama "Blood In, Blood Out" (1993) as a San Quentin convict. The latter film was a particularly trying experience for the actor, who was sent to the therapist's couch as a result of experiencing post-traumatic stress after returning to his former prison.
The year 1995 proved to be a watershed one for Trejo's career. Years of toil in minor parts finally gave way to substantial supporting turns in two major features; in "Desperado" (1995), director Robert Rodriguez's sequel to his micro-budget debut "El Mariachi" (1993), he was the knife-wielding hood Navajas, while in Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995), he played Trejo, a member of bank robber Robert De Niro's crew. The latter film allowed audiences to see that Trejo's talents extended beyond his fierce-looking appearance, thanks to a deathbed scene with De Niro. The following year, Trejo was dividing his time between Hollywood features and independent fare.
Trejo soon became the go-to bad guy for major stars to overcome; among his on-screen adversaries were Harrison Ford in "Six Days Seven Nights" (1998), Nicolas Cage in "Con Air" (1997), Chow Yun-Fat in "The Replacement Killers" (1998) and Ben Affleck in "Reindeer Games" (2000). Though these and other films afforded Trejo more exposure, few gave him more to do than lend his fearsome presence. He found a faithful patron in Rodriguez, who provided him with work in nearly all of his own films, including "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1998) as the vampire bartender Razor Charlie. In 2001, his "Spy Kids" gave Trejo a rare opportunity to play not only a protagonist but also a comic role as Machete, the inventor uncle of the film's pint-sized secret agents. He would reprise the role, which gradually grew more humorous in "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" (2002) and "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003). The role made him a favorite with a whole new audience - young children - who knew little of his more rough-hewn film characters.
In 2000, Trejo launched his own production company, Starburst, which debuted with a hard-boiled prison drama called "Animal Factory" (2000). Based on the novel by Edward Bunker, who also wrote the script, and directed by Trejo's frequent co-star, Steve Buscemi, the film starred Willem Dafoe as a hardened convict who attempts to shield a newcomer (Edward Furlong) from the more predatory elements of a major state prison. Well received on the festival circuit, it led to more producing efforts for Trejo, though these were largely low-budget action and thriller pictures like "Nightstalker" (2002), a biopic loosely based on the crimes of serial killer Richard Ramirez. Trejo frequently took supporting parts or an occasional lead in these efforts.
By the new millennium, Trejo was so ubiquitous in films and television that he had passed from beloved character actor to pop culture icon; a favorite of highbrow critics for work in the Rodriguez films and thoughtful work like "Sherrybaby" (2006), which cast him as a 12-step advisor to Maggie Gyllenhaal's ex-con. He also enjoyed a devoted following among direct-to-video devotees and aficionados of genre pictures like "Hood of Horror" (2007) and Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects" (2007), which cast him as a vicious bounty hunter. He was so popular that his voice and likeness were used in the popular video game "Def Jam: Fight for New York" (2004), in which he appeared alongside such major rap artists as Ice-T and Busta Rhymes.
Though tough guys remained a staple of Trejo's career, he eventually began to balance them out with sympathetic characters, like his "Sherrybaby" role. He was the voice of both the obnoxious though well-meaning propane truck driver Enrique and fearsome muscle-for-hire Octavio (whose likeness was modeled after Trejo's) on "King of the Hill" (Fox, 1997-2009), and played an ex-con who aids Gabby (Eva Longoria) in dealing with the loss of her baby on "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2005- ). Rob Zombie also tapped his kinder side as a sanitarium worker who befriends the adult Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) in his 2007 remake of "Halloween."
That same year, Rodriguez filmed a faux trailer for a 1970s-style action film called "Machete" that was featured between films in "Grindhouse," his portmanteau collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. The trailer featured Trejo as a death-dealing Hispanic super-warrior named Machete - though not the same person as his "Spy Kids" character - who fought against racist government officials while bedding countless women. The short was eventually expanded to a full-length "Machete" (2010) with Trejo in his first major film lead as the titular hero, a former Mexican federal agent who joins a Hispanic resistance army to fight a racist senator (Robert De Niro) and his Minutemen-styled acolytes. The film opened to positive reviews and the No. 2 spot on the box-office tally for late August.
As if "Machete" wasn't enough, Trejo was seemingly in every other film and TV production in 2010, turning up on episodes of the tense drama "Breaking Bad" (AMC, 2008-2013) and in the Rodriguez-produced sci-fi/action sequel "Predators," among many other projects. In 2011, he appeared in the fourth "Spy Kids" installment, "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D" and began a recurring stint on the biker series "Sons of Anarchy" (FX, 2008- ), where he blended seamlessly into the rough-hewn cast. In 2012, he took up the lead again in "Bad Ass," where he portrayed an elderly war vet who stands up to racist thugs and becomes a vigilante. At age 69, Trejo returned to play Machete again for "Machete Kills" (2013), which didn't have quite the same impact as its predecessor. Still, it positioned the veteran actor to be one of the hardest-working septuagenarians in the business.
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CAST: (feature film)
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While in prison, Trejo became involved with a program called the Narcotics Prevention Project in East Los Angeles. From there he started working for Western Pacific Rehab and is still working for them.
About his first experience on a movie set, "Runaway Train": "All these guys were dressed in prison clothes and they've got these big tattoos and they were, yeah, tougher than you. It was cute. This guy asked me if I wanted to be in the movies. I said, 'What do I do ?'
He said, 'You want to be an extra?' I said, 'An extra what?' I'd never been on a movie set before. He said, 'Can you act like a convict?' It was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. I'd been in Soledad, San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville, Susanville, Sierra--and here's a guy asking can you act like a convict. I remember I said, 'I'll give it a shot.'" --Danny Trejo in THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, June 8, 1997
"I don't think anybody really changes that much. You just do different things. I mean, I still walk into a bank sometimes and think, 'Damn, this'd be easy to take down.' But then I think of my kids and my responsibilities, and I realize I don't have the nerve anymore." --Trejo to MOVIEMAKER, August-October 1997
"I always say:'The first half of my life was a character study for the second half of my life.' For a lot of people, acting was their destiny. They were supposed to be actors. I was supposed to be dead. What's so cool about the acting is that now when I go into a high school to talk to these kids, I've immediately got their attention. It's like God gave me this hook - this face, as a hook. That's what allows me to stop these kids from doing the things I did and winding up where I was...this face."--Trejoe Entertainment Weekly April 2002
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