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Anthony Quinn’s Greatest Roles

by Legacy Staff

Anthony Quinn made over 100 films during his career and was the first Mexican-American to win an Oscar. On Cinco de Mayo, we look back on some of his greatest roles.

Anthony Quinn (1915 – 2001) made over 100 films during his Hollywood career and was the first Mexican-American to win an Oscar. On Cinco de Mayo, we look back on some of his greatest roles.

Viva Zapata! (1952)
Anthony Quinn began his career onstage before becoming a contract player at Paramount, where he appeared in B pictures playing a hodge-podge of villainous ‘ethnic’ roles including Indian chiefs, Italian mafia dons, Chinese guerillas, Arab sheiks and Filipino freedom fighters. After playing Stanley Kowalski in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, he came to the attention of director Elia Kazan, who cast him opposite another former Kowalski – Marlon Brando. Quinn was disappointed at not getting the lead role of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, instead having to make due with playing Zapata’s brother Eufemio. Perhaps it was some consolation that he won an Oscar for his performance, while Brando lost to Gary Cooper.


La Strada (1954)
Beginning in 1953, Quinn starred in a number of Italian films. The best was undoubtedly Federico Fellini’s La Strada. It’s the story of a simple woman named Gelsomina who is sold to abusive circus strongman Zampano, played by Quinn. In other hands, the brutish Zampano may have been an utterly unsympathetic character, but Quinn’s deceptively sophisticated performance brought the character a measure of humanity. The film won the first Oscar ever given for Best Foreign Language Film, along with more than 50 other international awards.

Barabbas (1961)
Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author Par Lagerkvist, Barabbas is the Biblically-inspired story of the violent criminal chosen by the people of Jerusalem to be pardoned instead of Jesus Christ. He spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with why he was spared, skeptically witnessing the crucifixion and apparent resurrection of Christ, and watching later as the peaceful man’s teachings begin spreading through the country. Though the film delivers a spiritual message, in the hands of producer Dino DeLaurentiis it’s heavy on the epic sword-and-sandals action. Critical opinion was mixed, but most cited Quinn’s strong performance, along with the stunning crucifixion scene shot during a real-life solar eclipse.

Lawrence of Arabia (1964)
Widely considered one of the greatest and most important films in the history of cinema for its epic storytelling and sweeping panoramic images, Lawrence of Arabia also provided Quinn with one of his most memorable supporting roles, playing the great Bedouin leader Auda abu Tayi, described by the real-life T.E. Lawrence as “the greatest fighting man in northern Arabia.” Quinn designed his own make-up for the role based on photos of the real Auda, and was so convincing that, according to one anecdote when he first showed up on set in costume, director David Lean mistook him for one of the locals and told his assistant to notify Quinn that he was being replaced by the new man.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Every major studio in Hollywood at one time turned down this project based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and actors including Burl Ives and Burt Lancaster had passed on playing the simple but wise Greek working man who teaches an English writer how to enjoy life. Early in the shoot, it appeared they’d made the right decision. French actress Simone Signoret dropped out after one day of shooting, throwing the budget out of whack and forcing Quinn to act as casting agent and make calls to Barbara Stanwyck and Tallulah Bankhead in hopes of filling the role. He also had to personally appeal to producer Daryl Zanuck for completion funds. In the end, director Michael Cacoyannis cast a virtually unknown Lila Kedrova, who would go on to win an Oscar for her performance (Quinn was also nominated). One of the most indelible images of Quinn’s career is the dance he does on the beach, but it too came about accidentally. He’d broken his foot before shooting the scene, and had to do a slower shuffle instead of the sort of hopping about that had been choreographed. When the director asked him about the origins of the improvised dance, he told him it was a traditional Greek dance called sirtaki. In reality, Quinn had made up both the name and the dance.

Quinn would reprise his role nearly two decades later, playing Zorba on Broadway in 1983. He would continue acting until his death on June 3, 2001, leaving behind a rich legacy of memorable performances.

Originally published April 2011

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