With his gravelly voice and rough demeanor, Danny Trejo is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable character actors.
He’s also one of the industry’s best feel-good stories.
Since the early 80s, Trejo has starred in hundreds of movies and has developed a reputation as one of the best supporting players in town. Now 72 years old, Trejo has no plans to slow down. He’s appeared in over 300 films and TV shows, including Machete, the Spy Kids franchise, Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn, and The Devil’s Rejects.
It’s been a surreal experience for Trejo, to say the least. Not many people have gotten the opportunities he has. You could call him a man of second chances.
Born in 1944 in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Trejo grew up on the rough streets of East L.A., surrounded by poverty and crime.
“I honestly believe that circumstances create destiny, almost,” Trejo says now. “There weren’t too many ways I could have done things. 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.”
Trejo was first arrested at the age of 10. He first tried heroin at age 12. By the time he was a teenager, he was dealing cocaine, robbing stores, and getting in fights.
Trejo spent time in and out of jail throughout his 20s, mostly for armed robbery and drug offenses. He did time in some of California’s most notorious prisons.
On May 5, 1968, Trejo and two other prisoners instigated a riot and were sent to the hole – solitary confinement in triple-digit California weather.
“We committed three gas chamber offenses, and I was sitting in the hole. I thought I was gonna go to the gas chamber. And I just kind of said a prayer, ‘God, if you’re there, it’s gonna be alright, and if you’re not, I’m screwed.’ I made a promise: ‘If you let me die with dignity, I’ll say your name every day, and I’ll do whatever I can for my fellow man.’”
Trejo ended up getting off on a technicality. A little over a year later, on August 3, 1969, he was a free man.
Soon thereafter, Trejo began the long road back to normal life. He finally got clean and decided to help others do the same, finding work as a drug rehab counselor.
In 1985, one of Trejo’s patients was a production assistant on the set of Runaway Train.
“I was helping this kid I was counseling. He called me up and said, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of blow down here.’ It was 1985, and cocaine was running rampant in the movie industry. It was crazy. You’d walk into production and there’d be lines on the table. He just asked me to come down and support him, because that’s what I did.”
Trejo’s distinctive face and multiple tattoos caught the eye of the director, who offered him a part in the film as an extra. He asked Trejo if he could “act like a convict” – which, of course, wasn’t a stretch!
Later, on the set of the same film, Trejo was approached by the writer of the movie, Eddie Bunker. Bunker was also an ex-convict who had seen Trejo win the heavyweight boxing title at San Quentin Prison back in the 60s. So Trejo was upgraded from a movie extra to a boxing coach – for $320 a day.
The ever-humble Trejo insists that becoming a movie star was a “happy accident.” And it’s hard to argue with that.
Trejo is perhaps best known for his multiple collaborations with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. They’re actually second cousins, although neither of them knew it until they worked together. To this day, Trejo is one of Hollywood’s busiest actors – in 2002 alone, he appeared in nine films.
He’s also been featured on numerous TV shows, including Monk, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad. In 2005, Trejo was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Champion.
“I’m an ex-con turned icon,” he frequently says.
On his rare days off, Trejo still works as a drug rehab counselor and mentor. He’s involved in charity and animal welfare causes. He loves spending time with his kids (he has three). And he recently opened up his own taco shop in West Hollywood.
Only a few weeks ago, Trejo announced that he had been sober for 48 years. In 2014, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Las Cruces International Film Festival.
Trejo also visits schools and interacts with kids by telling his incredible life story. He’s even admitted that the reason he chooses to play so many bad guys is that he wants to show kids that crime doesn’t pay.
If anyone can teach that lesson, it’s Danny Trejo.
But sometimes, Trejo will still visit his old neighborhoods. They’re still rough places. And he says it’s nothing short of surreal to go back.
He dealt cocaine on one corner. He shot three people on another. He robbed certain liquor stores repeatedly.
Now, something different happens. Young kids run up to him and ask him for autographs.