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Actor Anthony Quinn dies at 86

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Jun 04, 2001 | 1:33pm EDT

A former shoeshine boy, he went on to a prodigious movie career and a prodigious life, starring in more than 100 feature films and siring 13 children. On Saturday, Anthony Quinn passed away from respiratory failure, robbing Hollywood of a true legend. Quinn was 86.

The tempestuous screen image of two-time Academy Award winner and Renaissance man Anthony Quinn matched his much-publicized, unquenchable thirst for life.

Quinn's exotic background enabled him to play a potpourri of ethnicity, ranging from an Eskimo in Savage Innocents (1960) to a Russian pope in Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), to his most famous role, Zorba the Greek (1964).

Quinn also played a plethora of historical roles like Crazy Horse in They Died with Their Boots On (1942), Attila the Hun in Attila (1955), Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956) and Kubla Khan in Marco the Magnificent (1966).

The death of his Irish-Mexican father, who had ridden with Pancho Villa before settling in Los Angeles to work as a cameraman and prop man, forced the younger Quinn to help support his grandmother, mother and sister. In addition to working such positions as shoeshine boy, cement mixer and foreman in a mattress factory, Quinn also played saxophone in evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's orchestra.

During junior high school Quinn won a chance to study and work with celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose insistence that Quinn attend acting school to improve his speech ultimately led to his career in film.

Though Quinn acted on stage with Mae West in Clean Beds and spoke his first lines on film in Parole (both 1936), he made a lasting impression by standing up to Cecil B DeMille, who cast him as a Cheyenne Indian in 1937's The Plainsman.

As cast and crew looked on, Quinn responded to the most recent of a series of abusive outbursts from the director by telling DeMille how he should shoot the scene and where DeMille could put his $75 a day salary. After staring at the young actor for some time, DeMille announced, "The boy's right. We'll change the set-up," and later said admiringly, "It was one of the most auspicious beginnings for an actor I've ever seen."

Quinn would act in two more movies, The Buccaneer (1938) and Union Pacific (1939), for the directing legend. He would also woo and marry his adopted daughter Katherine and helm the 1958 remake of The Buccaneer, executive produced by DeMille and the director's last project before he died.

By then, Quinn had shaken free of the son-in-law tag to become a star in his own right, exhibiting tremendous staying power over the course of a career spanning seven decades, mixing inspired performances with good cured ham.

Quinn played his fair share of Indians amidst assorted heavies, even ending up with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in two of the "Road" movies: Road to Singapore (1940) and Road to Morocco (1944). But despite many good notices for supporting roles in pictures like Blood and Sand (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Back to Bataan (1945), it would take a return to the stage to raise his stock higher.

He made his Broadway debut in The Gentleman from Athens (1947) before director Elia Kazan tapped him as Stanley Kowalski for a U.S. tour of A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan then cast him as Marlon Brando's brother in Viva Zapata (1952), for which he earned the first of two Oscars as Best Supporting Actor.

Quinn played an aging bullfighter opposite Maureen O'Hara in Budd Boetticher's The Magnificent Matador (1955) and then won his second Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of larger-than-life artist Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956), the title an apt description of his own zestfulness.

Finally, after 20 years in the business, he had become a full-fledged box office star, and the next year would see him garner a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn opposite Anna Magnani in 1957's Wild Is the Wind. Quinn followed in the prestigious footsteps of Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the actor was also outstanding as the opportunistic Bedouin Auda Abu Tayi in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Although Quinn had portrayed with distinction Greek patriot Colonel Andrea Stavros in 1961's The Guns of Navarone, that character paled before what would become his signature role. The very embodiment of the actor's passion for living, Zorba the Greek (1964) was a wise and aging peasant, totally committed to life, no matter the outcome. From his slapstick pursuit of aging French courtesan (Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova) to the pathos of cradling her as she died in his arms, Quinn pulled out all the emotional stops on his way to another Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Nearly 20 years later, Quinn reprised Zorba!, this time in a 1983 revival of the Broadway musical which reunited him with both Kedrovaand the film's writer-director Michael Cacoyannis. Quinn earned a Tony nomination for his efforts before touring the U.S. from 1983-86, forever stamping the part as his in the minds of the theater-going public.

Wife Kathy Benvin, who is the mother of his two youngest children, survives Quinn, along with eight sons and four daughters.

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