How Danny Trejo’s criminal past helped him succeed as an actor

How Danny Trejo’s criminal past helped him succeed as an actor

In 1993, actor Danny Trejo was walking through San Quentin State Prison, where he was filming scenes for the movie, “Blood In, Blood Out.”

The cast and crew stopped at cells C545 to C550, which were blocked off for the filming, and suddenly Trejo felt an eerie sense of déjà vu.

“We were climbing the stairs to the set and with every step, my heart pounded harder,” Trejo writes in his new memoir, “Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood” (Atria Books), out now.

“When we reached the flight between the fourth and fifth tier, I stopped. I was standing on the same steps where [fellow prisoner] Tyrone stabbed the man who tried to kill me.”

C550 was his former cell, his home from 1966-1968 for selling heroin to an undercover cop.

After rehearsing the scene, Trejo entered C550 with a fellow ex-prisoner on set and said a prayer.

“We got down on our knees and thanked God for our freedom from drugs and alcohol, our freedom from prisons, and we thanked him for our kids and our lives,” writes Trejo. 

Ex-con Trejo brings authenticity to badass roles in films like 2007's "Grindhouse."
Ex-con Trejo brings authenticity to badass roles in films like 2007’s “Grindhouse.”
Weinstein Company LLC

“I’d come full circle.” 

Trejo, with over 300 film and TV roles to his credit, is best known to audiences for his roles in “Spy Kids,” “Breaking Bad” and “Machete,” which made him the first Chicano action star.

But Trejo, 77, had an unlikely path to stardom. A heroin user by age 12 and dealer by 13, Trejo spent the better part of 1956-1969 in prisons like San Quentin and Folsom for a variety of crimes including drug dealing and armed robbery. From his prison tattoos to his world-weary look, he seems more like a bouncer you’d never want to mess with than a kid-friendly action star.

Danny Trejo was paid $320 a day to train actor Eric Roberts to box for the film "Runaway Train" in 1985.
Danny Trejo was paid $320 a day to train actor Eric Roberts to box for the film “Runaway Train” in 1985.

After finding God and sobriety in 1968, Trejo became an advocate for recovery, founding rehab centers and giving his phone number to every addict he met so he could help them break free from the nightmare of addiction.

Then, in 1985, he got a plea from an addict that would change his own life.

The call came from a man who said he was working on the set of the movie “Runaway Train,” where cocaine was plentiful, and he was afraid he’d start using again.

Trejo dropped everything and headed to the set. He never found the man and suspects he relapsed before Trejo arrived.

But once there, an assistant director spotted Trejo’s rough-hewn look and asked if he wanted a role as an extra, playing a convict. Trejo accepted and soon discovered that one of the film’s screenwriters, Eddie Bunker, was a “career criminal” who Trejo and his uncle had bought plans for a heist from back in 1962.

Bunker asked if Trejo, who had boxed in prison, was still fighting. Actor Eric Roberts played a boxer in the film and needed to be trained, a job that paid $320 a day.

Trejo went to work and was quickly upgraded to Roberts’ on-screen opponent. With acting, Trejo found a well-paid profession that seemed eerily natural.

On the set of "Death Wish 4," star Charles Bronson was impressed by Trejo's intensity.
On the set of “Death Wish 4,” star Charles Bronson was impressed by Trejo’s intensity.
Cannon Films

“Acting wasn’t new to me,” Trejo writes. “I’d acted to survive my childhood. I’d acted like I wasn’t scared when I was terrified. In Folsom, I acted to keep my sanity. Now that I was doing it for fun, I loved acting. I loved the feeling. Like a new drug, I was hooked.”

Throughout his career, his tough-guy persona would help him in unexpected ways.

On the set of 1987’s “Death Wish 4,” a veteran character actor named Perry Lopez, “a legend among Latino actors,” Trejo writes, was guiding the actors through a scene.

A younger actor objected to this, and said to Lopez, “Who the f–k made you the director?”

“Perry looked like he’d been punched,” Trejo writes. “I snapped. I said, ‘I did, motherf–ker. Do what he says or I’ll beat you to death.’ ”

Just then, Trejo felt someone hovering behind him. The film’s star, Charles Bronson, had heard the exchange.

“Bronson gave me a once over and said, ‘I heard you’re some kind of drug counselor.’ ” 

Trejo responded that he was and Bronson smiled. 

“I like the way you counsel,” he said. 

On the set of the 1993 prison flick “Last Light,” director Kiefer Sutherland cast a friend who wound up being a loose cannon, and was fired and escorted off the set. 

About a week later, Trejo noticed something was bothering Sutherland. The director confessed that the fired actor was threatening him and his children. 

“I was an actor, but I was also seen as a bit of a fixer,” Trejo writes. “If people had problems that they didn’t think had a legal solution, they hit me up for advice and help. I told Kiefer not to worry about it.” 

Trejo — here with “Spy Kids” Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega — is now known for his role in the kids' film.
Trejo — with “Spy Kids” Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega — is now known for his role in the kids’ film.

Trejo and a friend visited the man, who said he was upset because Sutherland had implied the role would earn him a SAG card, giving him entry to the Screen Actors Guild, and that opportunity was now gone. 

“I tried to be diplomatic,” Trejo writes. “I said, ‘Maybe the card didn’t work out on this one. But if you don’t cut it out, someone might put an M-80 up your ass and light it.’ ” 

The next day, the man sent flowers to Sutherland and apologized to his wife. 

Trejo’s career was filled with poignant moments, too. Filming “Muppets Most Wanted” in London in 2013, he and Ray Liotta played convicts who sang and danced while prison guard Tina Fey gave Kermit the Frog a tour of the facility. 

While on set, Trejo learned that his mother had died. 

“Right before we started filming, Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who did Kermit, put the puppet close to my face and said, ‘I’m so sorry your mommy died, Danny,’ ” Trejo writes. 

Trejo experienced an especially emotional moment on the set of “Muppets Most Wanted” in 2013.
Trejo experienced an especially emotional moment on the set of “Muppets Most Wanted” in 2013.

“There’s a rule Steve was abiding to that when you are working with the Muppets you always have to stay in character. Steve was sincere. Kermit was sincere. He scrunched up his little face and that puppet showed so much emotion it cut through all the layers of hurt I was holding on to. I bolted off the set . . . and burst into tears. To this day I’m convinced it was my mother who told Kermit to say something.” 

Trejo also became a regular in the films of director Robert Rodriguez. Playing Uncle Machete in Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” made him recognizable to children around the world, changing his image in a way that thrilled him. 

“Overnight, with ‘Spy Kids,’ I’d gone from being the bad guy, a Mexican stereotype, to someone kids could look up to,” writes Trejo, who is divorced and has three grown children. “Over the years, I’ve probably heard, ‘Look, Mommy, it’s the man from “Spy Kids” ’ in forty different languages.” 


“Machete,” an adult expansion of his “Spy Kids” role, gave him top billing for the first time, marking the pinnacle of a life that saw him vault from childhood heroin dealer to hardened convict and, finally, to Hollywood star. 

His first day on the set, he stepped out of his trailer and saw co-star Robert De Niro. 

“He smiled that world-famous smile and pointed at me,” Trejo writes. 

“Number one on the call sheet!” De Niro said of the list of the film’s cast ordered by priority. 

“When Robert pointed at me and made a number one with his finger, he was saying I was the captain on this one and giving me his blessing,” Trejo writes. 

“I bowed. ‘Mr. De Niro, sir, can I get you a cup of coffee?’ ” 

De Niro laughed. 

“Let’s both get one,” he said.

The Many Deaths of Danny Trejo 

Danny Trejo has died on-screen 65 times, the most in movie history, according to the site Movie Mortality. (The late horror film star Christopher Lee is second with 60.) 

“I’ve been shot, stabbed, blown up and hanged. You name it, it’s been done to me,” Trejo writes. “I know some actors who refuse to have death scenes, especially older actors. For me, it’s fun.” 

Here are seven of Trejo’s most memorable on-screen deaths: 

“Death Wish 4”
Cannon Films/Paramount Pictures

“Death Wish 4” (1987) Charles Bronson places a wine bottle on a restaurant table where Trejo sits with two associates, calling it a gift on the house. Moments later, the bottle explodes, killing Trejo instantly. 

“Heat” (1995
Warner Bros

“Heat” (1995) Beaten within an inch of his life, Trejo tells Robert De Niro, “Don’t leave me like this.” So De Niro shoots him to death. 

“From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996
Dimension Films

“From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996) Trejo is slain when a pool cue impales his heart, disintegrating his vampire body. 

“Con Air” (1997)

“Con Air” (1997) Trejo, handcuffed to a fixture in an airplane, dies when it crashes. His body is taken away. His arm remains inside the plane. 

Breaking Bad” (2009)

“Breaking Bad” (2009) Trejo is decapitated and his head is placed on a turtle with the words “Hola DEA” written on it. When a DEA agent later lifts the head, it explodes, killing him as well. 

“Predators” (2010)
20th Century Fox

“Predators” (2010) Trejo is murdered by “Hell-Hounds” at the Predators’ Game Preserve Planet, then propped up in a trap that kills anyone who tries to help him. 

“Zombie Hunter” (2013)
Arrowstorm Entertainment/Highland Film Group

“Zombie Hunter” (2013) Playing Father Jesus, who uses an ax to lop off the heads of the undead, Trejo is decapitated himself by a giant zombie.

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