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Grunge, April 27, 2022.

There are few actors who are as instantly recognizable and entirely unforgettable as Danny Trejo. With his lined face and muscular, tattooed frame, Trejo is well-known for playing an assortment of stereotypical tough guys, starting with his 1985 debut in the action movie "Runaway Train." According to the IMDb, Trejo continued appearing in small roles in a slew of movies, credited as "Prisoner," "Tough Inmate #1," "Angry Customer," "Tattoo Artist," "Second Inmate," and so forth, until his breakthrough role as "Trejo" in Michael Mann's 1995 crime epic "Heat," followed by his appearance as "Razor Charlie" in the first of many collaborations with director Robert Rodriguez in 1996's "From Dusk Till Dawn." Perhaps his many early roles as an inmate were tinged with a special sort of realism, because Trejo did indeed spend many years in prison before he began work as an actor. 

Born in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California in 1944 to Mexican-American parents, per Prison Legal News, he was first given marijuana by an uncle when he was just 8 and went on to "threaten to snitch on him if he didn't give me a fix" when he was 12, which led to "just whatever drugs were available." According to the Huffington Post, Trejo was first arrested for assault and battery when he was 10 years old. He moved on to robbing liquor stores with live hand grenades and gang-banging, noting, "We had a lot of pistols, and you don't really want to mess with somebody who's got a lot of pistols."

Per his interview with Prison Legal News, Danny Trejo was first sentenced to a work camp in 1959, followed by prison in 1962 and a second term in 1965. In total, according to Trejo, he "was in San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, Vacaville, Susanville, Sierra." His last stint came to be after he sold "four ounces of pure sugar to a federal agent." In a 2020 feature in Texas Monthly, Trejo remembered his time at the notorious San Quentin State Prison, the only prison in California with a death row. "When you pull up to San Quentin, you see two lights up on top of the North Block," he told journalist Cat Cardenas. "You see a red light and a green light. If the red light is on, that means they're killing someone. That's the first thing you see, so you know this is a death house — people come in here and don't come out." 

Trejo feared he was headed for death row in 1968 when he ended up in solitary confinement — "the hole" — after he hit a guard in the head with a rock during a prison riot at Soledad State Prison. He entertained himself by acting out scenes from his favorite movies, including "The Wizard of Oz," and started praying to God. He remembered his time there in his interview with Prison Legal News, telling journalist Paul Wright, "When I was in the hole I kind of dedicated my life to helping other people."

"I made a deal" with God, Danny Trejo later told Texas Monthly. "I told him, 'Let me die with dignity. You don't need to get me out of this, I know what I've done. Just let me die with dignity and I'll say your name every day. I'll do whatever I can for my fellow man.'" As no one came forward to corroborate assault and attempted murder charges against Trejo stemming from the prison riot, Trejo was released from solitary confinement and paroled in 1969. He did indeed follow through with his promise to God. Per his interview with Prison Legal News, he started a successful gardening business and began volunteering, talking at schools about his experiences, which led to a job with the Narcotics Prevention Program. 

His work as a drug counselor led to his introduction to the world of acting. One of the people he was working with asked him to come meet him at work to help him work through the urge to use drugs. The workplace ended up being the set of the movie "Runaway Train," where someone took notice of Trejo and invited him to be an extra, asking "Can you act like a convict?" Trejo replied "I'll give it a shot," and the rest is Hollywood history. Trejo has been sober for over 50 years, has three children, and in addition to his work as an icon of the small and large screens alike, owns several businesses, including Trejo's Tacos, Trejo's Coffee & Donuts, and a record label, Trejo's Music. He published his memoirs ("Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood") in 2021.