An ex-gangster’s crazy ride to Hollywood on the sober express
Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood comes out swinging: “1968. I felt like shit. I was high on heroin, pruno, reds and whiskey. I was three years into a ten-year stretch, which for a Mexican was more likely to be a twenty-year stretch, a life stretch, a death stretch. I always figured I’d die in prison.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
At 26, Trejo was at the lowest point of his life: locked up in San Quentin for a string of armed robberies and drug crimes, the prison boxing champ was now facing capital charges for alleged participation in a prison riot. He was a seasoned criminal & addict since boyhood, incarcerated in California’s most brutal prisons most of his young adult life, running extortion & enforcement rackets and hooked on the pills and heroin he smuggled.
Half a century later Danny Trejo is a revered padrino in Chicano culture (LA named a day in his honor and his prerecorded greeting meets LAX arrivals), an icon in the recovery community, an internationally-recognized Bad Dude of film, and the rarified kind of movie star also adored by fellow actors and crew. On the heels of the astonishing 2020 documentary “Inmate #1”, Danny’s bestselling memoir explains how he went from Folsom to fame and the simple answer makes for a much shorter book: he got clean.
Danny Trejo’s Higher Power
He even frames his early story in terms of addiction and recovery: his childhood desire to escape from his close-knit but emotionally broken family; his bond with his beloved uncle Gilbert, who protected and mentored him but also introduced him to heroin at 12 years old; and the juvenile crimes that supported his habit and launched his prison career. “At the end of my running days,” he says, “I didn’t know if I was pulling robberies to support my drug habit, or doing drugs to support my robbery habit.”
Drugs were a hallmark of his time in prison: they remained his curse and his bread and butter until the day he got sober in solitary at Soledad in 1968. They deadened the insanity of daily stabbings, beatings and victimization he witnessed. Once he was so desperate to get high he sat through a guided-meditation virtual drug trip with a young inmate named Charles Manson. But even sober and free, Danny’s life was wilder than any Robert Rodriguez script. The Harley-riding ex-con wrangled junkies out of flophouses, saw several women at a time, and acted as a liason between the criminal underworld and the system.
He credits what folks in recovery call his Higher Power for stumbling into his breakout role boxing Eric Roberts in Runaway Train, asking the director “how bad do you need this guy beat up?” Death Wish 4 with Charles Bronson, and groundbreaking Chicano movies Mi Vida Loca and Blood In, Blood Out soon followed. Trejo’s knowledge of California prison politics lights up the tense chapter about making Blood In Blood Out, a movie about a southern gang filmed in a northern prison. His past also collided with his rising star when Hollywood offered him a role in American Me, which took the unwise tack of mangling the origin story of the Mexican Mafia. Trejo’s take on the lethal controversy surrounding the film’s production is worth the price of admission alone.
He tells the stories behind movies like Heat (another consultant job that became an iconic role) and Con Air in recovery language: serendipitous meetings, gallows humor, emotional coincidences and the hardness of life dissolving into blessings and miracles. Trejo co-wrote the book with actor and writer Donal Logue, a fellow recoverer who worked with him on Reindeer Games. Their mutual respect is evident in the writing, where it meets the story so seamlessly it reads like an internal monologue.
Self-examination, honesty and confession are the trifecta of drug recovery; they become narrative tools giving Trejo insight into the family secret behind his troubled relationships with women, and reevaluating aspects of the machismo that underwrote his chaotic early life. The bonds of the rehab community keep him humble and focused, forging a grinding work ethic that would lead to over 400 movie roles and make him the most-killed actor in history; and cooled his felonious impulses enough to retool them into a film legacy. As he puts it, “a bad day on a movie will always be a million times better than your best day in prison.”
Trejo’s humble assessment of his insecurities and flaws lends credibility to the bloody stories that built his fearsome reputation; the bona fides he earned both in and out of prison set his memoir and his acting chops apart from Hollywood’s stage-trained Brandos and McQueens. Trejo says learning to hide his fear on the streets was his first acting class; but his criminal background also set him apart from professionally-schooled performers, as he often doubled as backstage muscle or behind-the-scenes fixer. “I’d think, Did you want to hire me because I’m an actor, or because I’m an ex-convict?”
Ultimately, sobriety isn’t a fix-all for Danny: he’s clear-eyed about his issues with anger and infidelity, battling health scares, PTSD and financial worries, and struggling with his childrens’ addictions after getting clean himself. But Logue says recovery gave Trejo a powerful tool he still wields like a machete: the insight to free himself from damaging old patterns. The therapeutic purge of the memoir format is the perfect nesting doll for the redemptive arc of Danny’s drug recovery, his fifty years of service to the addict community, and the triumph of his acting success.
Today Trejo is an author, producer, counselor, entrepreneur, prison and homeless advocate, a literal hero, flush with personal and professional achievements–but he still speaks of his life with the head-shaking wonder and gratitude of the newly sober. He’s been outlining this memoir since he spoke to his first recovery group a half century ago: life is about making peace with the past, accepting the present for what it is, and sharing his story to build a future that is, in the words of recovery, happy, joyous and free.