The Inspiring Story of the Convicted Man Who Became an Actor
The true story of Con Air’s biggest criminal
Danny Trejo is famous for his characters in Con Air and Heat. What is less well known is that Trejo was a convicted drug dealer before his acting career and served over ten years, nearly dying in San Quentin prison. His life would have been different if Robert Rodriguez, determined to hire a Hispanic actor, hadn’t taken one look at him and cast him in From Dusk to Dawn and Desperado.
Trejo was born on 16th May 1944; he grew up in Echo Park, Los Angeles. His abusive father fled to Texas when he was young and was later arrested for stabbing a man. Trejo moved in with his grandmother, where he lived with his cousins. He struck up a close relationship with his uncle.
Uncle Gilbert was six years older than Trejo and taught him many things, including boxing. However, he wasn’t always a good influence, as at eight, he introduced him to marijuana. Trejo tried his first heroin at twelve when he caught his uncle shooting up and was offered a hit.
Trejo quickly became addicted; to finance his habit, he started to join Gilbert in robberies and other drug deals. At eighteen, he was sentenced and attended juvenile detention, where he tried cocaine for the first time. In 1961, he claims he met a young Charles Manson during this stay.
Once he left prison, Trejo graduated to deadlier crimes. He robbed liquor stores with live grenades, initiated drive-by shootings and got into many bar fights. He stabbed a man in the face with a bottle during one fight.
In 1965, he attempted to sell four ounces of heroin to an undercover federal agent; he was sentenced to ten years and sent to San Quentin.
Trejo said the first thing he noticed when he pulled up to the prison was the red and green light on the roof. If the red light was on, then someone was being killed. He said this hung over the prison throughout his time there. In the yard, many people would challenge him to a fight; he credits boxing with saving his life on many occasions. He became a champion boxer in every prison he stayed in.
Soledad State Prison 1968
During his time at Soledad, a riot broke out. During this, Trejo fought other inmates with a rock. He accidentally hit a guard over the head with the rock among the chaos. For three months, he was placed in solitary and faced the death penalty for attempted murder. He said that he reached out to God and started praying during this time.
His plea was answered as all three thousand inmates refused to collaborate the guards’ claims. Finally, at twenty-four, Trejo was ready to start his life again.
A New Life
Trejo was released on parole in August 1969, a changed man. He worked odd jobs and spent evenings in recovery meetings. This was when he started to work as an extra. He began to be noticed by the film industry.
In 1985, he was asked to train Eric Roberts to box in the film Runaway Train. He became known to directors, that then offered him bit parts. Slowly over time, these bit parts changed to starring roles.
In 2010, the film Machete was written specifically for Trejo; it made $44 million. Trejo’s transformation from convicted drug dealer to box office star was complete. He now uses his story to inspire other juvenile offenders.