MOTW: Up From the Abyss: The Life of Danny Trejo

Photo Credit: Open Road Films (II)
October 3rd, 2013

MOTW: Up From the Abyss: The Life of Danny Trejo

Everybody loves a success story, and Danny Trejo is an American success story writ large. From just about the least promising beginnings that can be imagined, Danny Trejo has overcome a troubled youth, frequent run-ins with the law, and epic struggles with drug and alcohol addiction to become one of the most prolific and well-liked actors in Hollywood today. Looking at Trejo as a young man, it would have been difficult to believe he would even be alive in fifty years, let alone the clean, sober, popular movie star he's become. The story of his life has the power to bring hope to even the most troubled person.

Danny Trejo was born the son of a homemaker and construction worker in Echo Park, Los Angeles, in 1944. Growing up as the son of working-class Latinos in the America of the 1950s, Danny's prospects weren't bright. From an early age, he would skip school and run around the streets of Los Angeles with other troubled kids. Before long, he was stealing and getting caught. As Trejo says of this period, "Juvenile hall, youth authority . . . I was in a lot of trouble. I grew up like the characters I've been playing. The only things that were available to me were either be a laborer or be a drug dealer. So I became an armed robber. It was a lot simpler."

It might have seemed simple at the time, but there were serious consequences for Trejo. In the ten years between 1959 and 1969, he was locked up in at least six of California's prisons, including San Quentin, where he learned to box. While serving a sentence for armed robbery at San Quentin, Trejo managed to win champion status in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions, staying on good behavior so he'd be allowed to keep boxing. He couldn't have known it at the time, but boxing at San Quentin would play a role in his change of fortune years later.

After his release from prison in 1972, Trejo enrolled in a sponsored drug recovery program. He worked the steps and stayed clean. In 2011, he remarked that he'd been sober for forty-two years, since 1969. It was as a sponsor that he first visited a movie set, in 1985, at the invitation of a production assistant who asked for his support in coping with the cocaine-dusted environment of a movie shoot. While on the set, Trejo was recognized by Edward Bunker, himself an ex-con who had seen Trejo box at San Quentin. The film was "Runaway Train," and as Trejo recalled years later, "I thought it was cute. I had never been on a movie set in my life. All these guys were dressed up as inmates, and they were all trying to act tough. They all had these fake tattoos."

Seeing Trejo with the other extras, Bunker, who was writing the screenplay, offered him $320 a day to train actor Eric Roberts to box. Bunker warned Trejo that Roberts was "high strung," and might hit back if he got carried away. Trejo's response was worthy of a Spartan, "For $320, man, give him a stick. I'll fight Godzilla for 320 bucks."

Trejo and Roberts got along well, and seeing their chemistry, director Andrey Konchalovskiy asked Trejo to take a role in the film. Trejo accepted, and delivered a generally well-regarded performance. For nearly thirty years, Trejo played roles in nearly 200 other movies, including "Heat," "Con Air," "Anaconda," and "From Dusk Till Dawn." Today, he usually plays someone scary, though his later roles, such as that of Isador Cortez from "Spy Kids," have leaned toward the heroic and sympathetic.

Danny Trejo hasn't let himself take any of this success for granted. Speaking on the disconnect between his old life and the way things have turned out for him, he said, "I'm so blessed. I'm still scared that somebody's going to wake me up and say, 'Hey, we're still in prison. Let's go to chow'.'"

Today, Trejo is married to actress Debbie Shreve ("Jack's Law," "High Hopes," and "Tennis, Anyone. . . ?"). His three sons and two daughters are all adults. As far as anyone knows, and according to his own public statements on the subject, Trejo has managed to remain sober, out of trouble, and steadily at work for decades. On March 8, 2012, Trejo was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, in Austin, Texas.