Danny Trejo by the numbers:
10 - age when he was first sent to a police station.
12 - first time he shot heroin.
14 - first time he robbed a store.
25 - age when he finally got sober.
65 - number of times he’s been killed onscreen.
Just a few of the tidbits to be found in Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood, a sobering, entertaining, and occasionally infuriating autobiography co-written by the 77-year-old criminal-turned-Hollywood icon and his longtime buddy, actor Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve, Gotham).
Make no mistake, though. Despite the literally hundreds of movies and TV shows he has appeared in—Trejo estimates nearly 300 between 2010 and 2020 alone—this is no Danny Trejo Hollywood tell-all, with schmoozy stories about the stars he’s hung out with and the movie premieres he’s attended. It is, first and foremost, the brutally honest tale of a child who grew up in an abusive household, was mentored by a gangster uncle, then started out on a career in criminal violence, drug abuse, and incarceration, but managed to correct course and wound up a beloved figure whose face is recognized by millions. He’s even become a food entrepreneur, with a chain of taco restaurants and coffee and donut shops.
Trejo, whose truth-telling is off the charts and obviously influenced by his years in recovery, is not afraid to admit that in his younger days he took a “sick pleasure” in fighting, and doesn’t hesitate to recount a 45-day run of drugging, dealing, and stealing in the mid-1960s that culminated in a 10-year prison sentence, which he spent in the famous hell holes of Folsom, San Quentin, and Soledad. Put in solitary because of his participation in a prison riot and worried about the ultimate consequences (the death penalty was on the table), he decided to turn his life around and get sober. Released from the joint in 1969, he began a career doing full-time recovery work dealing with drug addicts.
Trejo got into the film biz in the 1980s as an extra—he liked the money and also thought drug-fueled film sets were a good place to find clients for his recovery work. His big break came in 1985, when a man he’d met at a recovery meeting called and said he was on a film set with a lot of cocaine, and was afraid of using; could Trejo get him through it? So Trejo went to what was the set of Runaway Train, where an assistant director liked his look and he was hired to fight star Eric Roberts in a prison boxing scene.
“I worked for the first four years of my career as ‘Inmate #1,’” a chuckling Trejo told The Daily Beast. “I never had a name, but I got paid $350 a day.”
From that point on, it was up and away career-wise and although in some of his most famous roles, like From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Machete, he was often cast as a nasty Chicano with tattoos, he also managed to charm audiences in films like the Spy Kids series, Muppets Most Wanted, and A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas.
Trejo says in his book that being in the moment in a place like San Quentin—which he calls “the most Right Now place on Earth that isn’t a war zone”—was a major factor in his success as an actor.
“Everything I experienced in prison, and the attitudes, it comes out” in film, he told The Daily Beast. “A director once said to me, ‘How do you do this? You go from being a maniac to running over and playing with your kids.’ I said I’ve been that maniac, and I’ll go there, but I won’t stay there. I won’t stay in that moment too long, because being in that moment you’re willing to hurt somebody.”
His private life, however, was something else entirely. Influenced no doubt by the fact that his birth mother was married to another man when she had an affair with his father (who was a drunken bully), he ran through a series of marriages, and admits in the book that “I felt women were out to get you, so I had to get them before they got to me. I wasn’t violent, I was dismissive.”
He also had to deal with the fact that some of his children were having their own struggles with drugs and, as he says in the book, “I know the fact I was so high profile in recovery made it harder for my kids to get sober. People looked at them like it should be easy.”
Trejo tends to be as hard on himself and his folks as a human can be—he told the Beast, for example, that “there was no such thing as anger in my family, there was rage.” If there’s anyone other than himself he’s down on, it’s Edward James Olmos, with whom he had a major falling-out over the 1992 film American Me, about the rise of the Mexican Mafia in the California prison system. Trejo, who personally knew some of the people the film was based on, believed it was riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. But when he told Olmos of his objections, Trejo felt the actor/director blew him off, and says today that “I wish [we] had broken bread and been friends, because we could have done so much for Hispanic kids coming up.”
“I think it was just frustration at the irresponsibility,” says Trejo co-author Logue about the incident.
“Danny had insecurities as an actor, he struggled with ‘Am I a curio, a token, am I someone who deserves respect in this world, what is my place in it? Are they judging me? Well, fuck ’em, I’ll judge them.’”
The book itself actually got rolling thanks to Logue, whose literary agent suggested Trejo do a work about his life. So Logue wrote a proposal, and then spent two years interviewing his buddy and whipping the project into shape. “He’s the most articulate guy I ever met,” says Logue, “and he pretty much laid out the structure of the story. He has no problem speaking or being quoted, but packaging it, putting some structure to it, fell on my lap.”
Logue met Trejo in 1999 at an AA meeting, when both were acting in the Ben Affleck-Charlize Theron film Reindeer Games. Trejo had rescued Logue when he was on the verge of falling down a hill and ruining a key shot in the movie, and they’ve been friends ever since. But this friendship has also contributed to what is Trejo’s one flaw—the over-reliance on what I would call “recovery speak,” the presence of lines like “the magic of forgiveness is so profound, and it starts with us forgiving ourselves,” that are scattered throughout the book. You can just imagine thoughts like this being articulated at every AA meeting, but their greeting card sincerity can be a bit off-putting.
No matter. Trejo has earned his place in the sun, after years wondering if the people he worked with on film sets related to him more as a gangster than a peer. The way he has turned his life around, and his self-awareness, are truly extraordinary. And it hasn’t been easy. As he says in his book, “I was a bad man on the hardest prison yards, but the most terrifying thing I ever had to face was my own emotions.”
Face them he has. In spades.