Danny Trejo looks like he came straight out of a crime story. He wears leather clothes and has tattoos all over his body. The permanent lines on his face and the fact that he has a criminal record prove that he has had a hard life. When he was young, Danny Trejo almost died in prison.
Robert Rodriguez wanted to cast real Hispanics in his films about border towns, so he took one look at Trejo and cast him in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado. These small roles led to bigger ones with stars like Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford, who could tell that his scary presence wasn't just an act.
In 1962, Danny Trejo was sent to prison for selling drugs and stealing. He had just turned 18 at the time. He was 21 years old when he was caught by an undercover agent for selling four ounces of heroin to him. He was locked up for a total of 11 years. During that time, he lived through prison riots, solitary confinement, and a terrifying close call with death row.
The Early Life of Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo was born on May 16, 1944, and grew up quickly in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Trejo shared a room with his cousins at his grandmother's house after his abusive father ran away. This is how he got close to his uncle. Trejo would use live grenades to rob liquor stores.
Uncle Gilbert was only six years older than Trejo, so he became more of a big brother than a father figure. He taught Trejo how to box and gave him his first taste of marijuana when Trejo was 8 years old. When Trejo was 12 and caught him shooting up, he gave Trejo his first taste of heroin. "He was kind of the cool one," Trejo said. "He was always the one with a lot of money." From there, things went downhill quickly.
Trejo became addicted and joined Gilbert in robberies and drug deals to feed his habit. He went to juvenile hall within a year, and he was 18 when he went to jail for the first time because of what he did. While he was in jail, Trejo became addicted to cocaine. During that short time in county in 1961, Trejo met Charles Manson, who he remembers as a "dirty, greasy, scrawny, white boy."
He went from robbing liquor stores with live grenades and drive-by shootings to stabbing someone in the face with a broken beer bottle during a bar fight after he got out of prison.
But in 1965, Trejo's life would change in a way that would never be the same again. Even now, he says that it was just sugar, but he was arrested for selling heroin to undercover federal agents. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and barely made it through the harsh conditions of Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin.
Life Behind Bars in San Quentin
"When you pull up to San Quentin, you can see two lights on the top of the North Block," he remembered. "A red light and a green light are in front of you. If the red light is on, someone is being killed. That's the first thing you see, so you know this is a death house because people come here and don't leave."
Trejo's childhood boxing lessons came in handy when he was a new face in a dangerous place. His fights as a teenager were now keeping him alive. Anyone in San Quentin could see how good he was and put him to the test. "In every prison I was in, I was the lightweight and welterweight champion," he said. "And I was in all of them." The fear of dying never stopped, though.
Even though he was a well-known inmate who had done many things to make money behind bars, nothing was certain when prisoners entered the yard. Trejo remembered how scary it was when an inmate was stabbed in the back and everyone just laughed. He thought, "Danny, you're going to die here."
After he was moved to Soledad State Prison in 1968, the system almost swallowed Trejo whole. During a prison riot, Trejo fought with a rock against other inmates and accidentally hit a guard in the head. He had been locked up alone for three months and was now facing the death penalty for trying to kill someone.
He said, "I was sitting in the hole and it was like I knew it was all over." "I'm done with it, it's over. I'm 24 years old and I'm done with life. I told God, "If you're there, everything will be fine." If you're not, I'm in trouble.' And that is what I prayed for. I've never forgotten it. And that completely changed the course of my life."
How Danny Trejo Got to Be a Star in Hollywood
Trejo got out of prison on parole in August 1969, the same month that Charles Manson ordered the murder of Sharon Tate. Trejo changed his life after hearing a powerful Alcoholics Anonymous talk in prison.
Trejo had odd jobs like being a gardener and a labor foreman, and he went to recovery meetings in the evenings. He got his start in acting as a background actor, but for years he was always cast as a tough gang member. But when a screenwriter who had been in San Quentin and was working on the set saw his prison tattoos, he took off. After Eric Roberts asked him to teach him how to box for the 1985 movie Runaway Train, directors and casting agents began to recommend him more and more.
It took Trejo a long time to go from small parts to leading roles, but he did it and became a professional actor who worked with Al Pacino and Nicolas Cage. His story also inspired young people.
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