Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Honoring Zorba, el Mexicano


Photo by Teamperks/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Mural depicting Anthony Quinn, as Zorba, on the old Victor Clothing Company building downtown, 2008

It looks like I'm on a movie kick today, so here's another film-related post: I loved a short piece that I read today on LA Beez on efforts to restore a downtown mural that depicts Hollywood's best-known Greek as played by a Mexican, the late actor Anthony Quinn.

The mural is known as "The Pope of Broadway," painted in 1984 by artist Eloy Torrez. Money is being raised to restore the fading artwork, which faces 3rd Street on the south side of the Victor Clothing Company building, now residential lofts. A non-profit group hopes to involve at-risk youths in the restoration as part of an educational project. It's a gorgeous mural, even in its faded state, one that speaks to both the Los Angeles of immigrants and the Los Angeles of film lore.

Quinn was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1915, during the Mexican Revolution. He was a 1.5 generation immigrant who came to the United States as a child with his parents. The family eventually settled in Los Angeles, where his Irish-Mexican father (hence Quinn) worked as a cameraman. According to the LA Beez story, the elder Quinn grew up in Echo Park and in Boyle Heights, attending Polytechnic High School and later Belmont High.

The Eastside kid went on to win two Oscars. He played a variety of ethnic characters - a Bedouin, an Eskimo, a Russian pope, a Greek tycoon - and most famously, the freewheeling, boisterous Alexis Zorba in "Zorba the Greek," the 1964 film perhaps best known for his traditional Greek dancing, (much imitated, as in this amusing video of a guy dancing in a pool hall titled "Zorba el Mexicano") and its infectious soundtrack (much covered, as in this vintage version by Jose Feliciano).

In Quinn's day, ethnic names didn't go far in the entertainment industry (hence the luminaries otherwise known as Margarita Carmen CansinoDino Paul Crocetti, Joan Alexandra Molinsky, among others). Even a guy with a name like Alexis Zorba, while he made a great movie character, would have had his agent urging him to change his name to, say, Alex Sanborn.

But Quinn, who died in 2001, did in fact win one of his Oscars for playing a Mexican revolutionary: He won for best supporting actor in 1952 for his role as Eufemio Zapata (the brother of Emiliano Zapata) in the film "Viva Zapata." But the leading role as Zapata? It went to Marlon Brando - who, incidentally, was not Italian, though he played one on film. Go figure.