The Oscar winning ''Zorba'' star had many faces, and a lust for life

By Ty Burr
Updated June 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Anthony Quinn: Sipa Press

Anthony Quinn wasn’t Zorba the Greek — he just played him in real life. When the actor died of respiratory failure June 3 at 86, he left the testament of a roistering, lived-in existence: three wives, 13 children, two Oscars, two autobiographies, a bunch of paintings, and more than 130 films, some of which were good and almost all of which were made enjoyably bigger by his canny sense for the grand gesture. ”There was a wildness about him,” recalls Jacqueline Bisset, his costar in 1978’s ”The Greek Tycoon.” ”He was one of those people who, when they walk in, life’s a little brighter.”

Quinn portrayed members of nearly every dark-haired ethnic strain, from Inuit to Arab to Asian to Italian; he played both Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin; he was as believable as Crazy Horse (in 1941’s ”They Died With Their Boots On”) as he was as a Russian pope (in 1968’s ”The Shoes of the Fisherman”). Nor did such peripatetic assignments faze the man who once boasted, ”Acting is my nationality.” Here are the highlights of Quinn’s storied career.

”The Ox-bow Incident” (1943) ”No sabe,” says Quinn’s gambler when he’s cornered by a vigilante posse in William Wellman’s anti-lynching classic. On the contrary: His character turns out to speak 11 languages, and Quinn’s shrewd performance busts him out of the ethnic-extra ghetto.

”Viva Zapata!” (1952) Marlon Brando plays a charismatic but two-dimensional saint in Elia Kazan’s bio of the Mexican firebrand; Quinn, as the hero’s cynical brother, steals the show — and wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. ”My kids won’t think I’m just another bum,” he crowed post-win. ”Now they’ll know what I do for a living.”

”La Strada” (1954) The Oscar didn’t lead to meaty roles, so he was off to Europe and a collaboration with an obscure director named Federico Fellini. The result: a timelessly sentimental fable in which Quinn’s callous circus strongman suggests Bluto touched by divine grace.

”Lust For Life” (1956) Another secondary role, another theft: On screen a mere eight minutes as worldly Gauguin to Kirk Douglas’ tormented Vincent van Gogh, Quinn anchors the film in needed sanity — and wins a second supporting-actor Oscar.

”The Savage Innocents” (1959) Quinn’s most outré ethnic assignment — an Eskimo with his back against the floes as civilization creeps in — results in one of his strongest (and quietest) performances. Bonus points for inspiring Bob Dylan to write ”The Mighty Quinn.”

”Heller in Pink Tights” (1960) Director George Cukor’s only Western — about a theatrical troupe in sagebrush country — offers some beguiling Technicolor paradoxes, including a blond Sophia Loren and sweet comic finesse from Quinn.

”Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) The film version of Rod Serling’s classic teleplay begins with young Cassius Clay beating the tar out of washed-up boxer Mountain Rivera (Quinn) — from Rivera’s point of view. A magnificent portrayal of a dying bull at bay.

”Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) Maybe it’s odd to call a Mexican-Irish actor playing an Arab chief felicitous typecasting. Still, the role of Auda abu Tayi captured Quinn’s vital, earthy charisma just before it began hardening into caricature.

”Zorba the Greek” (1964) Yes, it’s mediocre, full of simple-peasant daily affirmations, and responsible for hamstringing his career thereafter. (Though he once claimed, ”I’ve become more like Zorba ever since I played him.”) But criticizing ”Zorba” is like criticizing Crete.

”Jungle Fever” (1991) Quinn’s late-career choices could lack surprise, but his barbed-wire turn as John Turturro’s abusive dad is a shock. Trust Spike Lee to bring out Zorba’s dark side — and props to Quinn for knowing where to look.

Additional reporting by Clarissa Cruz