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How Danny Trejo went from prison inmate to action star

With his pockmarked face and trademark tattoos, Danny Trejo has become one of the most beloved celebrities in Hollywood today. After spending years working as a character actor, playing crooks and convicts, Trejo finally slashed his way into the spotlight with his portrayal of Machete Cortez in both the Spy Kids franchise and the Machete series. However, Trejo's rise to fame had quite a few twists and turns along the way. Years before he took up acting, Trejo was actually a violent criminal who'd spent time in multiple prisons. So how did he turn his life around so drastically? Well, put away your throwing knives as we look at how Danny Trejo went from prison inmate to action star.

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Growing up a criminal

Long before showing up in a Snickers commercial as Marcia Brady, Danny Trejo was busy terrorizing the streets of Los Angeles. See, back in the day, Trejo wasn't the lovable badass we so often see on-screen. No, he was a legitimate badass, a guy who got started in the criminal business when he was just a kid. Speaking with Sabotage Times, Trejo said he was only 12 when he was first tossed into juvie (although Grantland says he was 15, but either way, he was really young). His crime? Hitting a kid with a rock.

Things only escalated from there, largely thanks to his Uncle Gilbert who would rob stores and have his nephew act as the getaway driver. And as Trejo got older, he got tougher, meaner, and willing to throw down with anyone. Or as he once put it, "You're either a pusher or a pushee. And I decided to be the guy that pushes." So it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Trejo was 18, he stabbed a sailor with a jagged bottle. Yeah, he got tossed into the slammer for that one too.

Trejo would commit at least five armed robberies (sometimes with live grenades) before he was busted for selling a four-ounce bag of heroin for $30,000. Well, the bag was actually full of sugar, with just a few smudges of heroin at the edges to complete the con, but unfortunately for Trejo, his buyer was an undercover agent who didn't have a sweet tooth or a sense of humor. As a result, the 20-something Trejo was sentenced to ten years and shipped off to San Quentin where he quickly became one of the baddest dudes behind bars.

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Life in prison

After Trejo arrived in San Quentin, his fellow inmates discovered that Danny wasn't locked up with them…they were locked up with Danny. The young crook quickly made a name for himself by donning a pair of boxing gloves and knocking bums out. Speaking with Men's Fitness, Trejo said he'd been busting noses since age eight when his aforementioned uncle (who was 13 at the time) used him as a "punching bag" during sparring sessions. So naturally, when Trejo stepped into the San Quentin ring, he quickly became the king of prison pugilism.

"Boxing, in jail, literally made me a celebrity," Trejo explained, and when he was eventually shipped to a new prison, he kept it up with all those jabs and uppercuts. According to Trejo, he was both the lightweight and welterweight champ in three separate prisons: San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad. Of course, Trejo was just as scary outside the ring. As the head of a small gang, Trejo made quite a bit of cash by intimidating weaker inmates, forcing them to fork over protection money. Naturally, most people agreed to pay up because who's going to say no to Danny Trejo?

It was also behind bars that Trejo picked up his infamous tattoo. If you've ever seen the man shirtless, you've probably noticed the sombrero-wearing, cleavage-baring cowgirl scrawled across Trejo's chest. That iconic piece of work was done courtesy of a tattoo artist named Harry "Super Jew" Ross. However, because Trejo kept getting sent to different prisons, Ross wasn't able to finish the cowgirl all at once. Instead, whenever the two met up—at San Quentin, then Folsom, then Soledad—Ross would work on the piece just a little bit more. All in all, as Trejo put it, it took "two and half years, three penitentiaries, and it's the most famous tattoo in the world."

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The riot that changed Trejo's life

So how did Danny Trejo go from terrifying thug to beloved public figure? Well, his transformation started on Cinco de Mayo 1968 when—instead of throwing a party—Trejo decided to riot. It all started after some of the Mexican inmates got a bit inebriated, and soon, Soledad prison had erupted into madness. In the chaos, Trejo hit a prison official in the head with a rock, a crime that got him tossed into solitary confinement. (Trejo claims he hit the officer by mistake…he was aiming for someone else.)

Trejo spent over three months in the solitary, acting out movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to keep sane. The cell was an absolute hell hole, and according to Trejo, "The last guy in there had written 'God Sucks' on the wall in his own feces." Even worse, Trejo believed he might soon find himself in the gas chamber for taking part in a riot and assaulting an officer. Realizing he needed to get his life straightened out, the young inmate started to pray, saying, "God if you're there, everything will be alright—if you're not, I'm screwed."

And evidently, somebody up there was listening. The charges against Trejo were dropped, and the man slowly but surely began to rehabilitate himself. "I was in the depths of hell," Trejo explained, "and because I said that prayer, my life changed."

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His sobriety success

While his prayer back in solitary was a good start, if Danny Trejo really wanted to put his life back together, he needed to knuckle down and get sober. You see, Trejo had been struggling with substance abuse since he was a little kid. He started using marijuana at age eight (courtesy of his uncle), and he began shooting heroin at age 12 (once again, thanks to his uncle). On top of the weed and the smack, there was a whole lot of booze, and when you shake all that stuff up, you get an explosive cocktail of stabbings, fistfights, and armed robberies.

According to Trejo, he pulled off all his heists to pay for his drug habit, so he desperately needed to get clean. Determined to set things right, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and today, Trejo has been sober for nearly 50 years. And after he was released from prison, he decided to lend a hand to his fellow man, working as a drug counselor for 15 years

Today, Trejo is still counseling people and speaking to at-risk youth, encouraging kids to make better choices so one day they'll find success. And how does Danny Trejo define success? Well, as the actor put it, "My definition of success is waking up in the morning clean and sober and having three kids that absolutely adore me."

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Making ends meet

Trejo kept himself pretty busy after leaving prison in 1969, working as both a drug counselor and court liaison. But as a free man, Trejo was forced to do all sorts of things to pay the bills. Needing cash, Trejo tried becoming a boxer, but when his license was denied, he picked up some pocket change by throwing down in "smokers," aka unsanctioned matches. He also earned a living by working at a wrecking yard before teaming up with a friend to start his very own enterprise.

The two opened a gardening business, but while they had plenty of get-up-and-go, they didn't have all the necessary equipment. "We didn't even have a lawnmower," Trejo told Prison Legal News. "Someone wanted us to mow their lawn, we'd say okay, you have a lawnmower, we'd use theirs." In other words, things were tough. Sure, it was way better than robbing liquor stores or serving time, but Trejo wasn't exactly living on easy street. However, that was all about to change, all thanks to the man's experience inside prison.

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His big acting break

In 1985, Trejo was working as a drug counselor when he got a call from a client who desperately needed help. This guy was working on the set of Runaway Train, a prison thriller starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and he was struggling with an urge to use cocaine.

Being a real-life superhero, Trejo showed up on the set to give the guy some assistance, but it wasn't long before someone approached Trejo and asked if he'd like to be an extra in the movie, playing the part of inmate. Trejo took the job, but as he was changing into his outfit, screenwriter Eddie Bunker (who played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs) spotted his chest tattoo. Bunker had also served time, and when he saw the scantily-clad cowgirl, he remembered that Trejo had done some boxing behind bars. It was kind of an amazing coincidence, especially since the filmmakers were looking for someone to teach Eric Roberts about the sweet science.

According to Trejo, Roberts was working on a boxing scene, and he allegedly kept hurting his fellow cast mates. So Bunker asked Trejo if he could give the young guy a few lessons in fisticuffs. But as the ex-champ taught Roberts the proper way to throw a punch, he caught the eye of director Andrey Konchalovskiy who was so impressed with Trejo that he offered him a much bigger part as the guy who squares off against Roberts on-screen. It was Trejo's first role, the one that kickstarted his acting career, and it was all thanks to that wild tattoo…or maybe the man had a little bit of angelic assistance. "It's like divine intervention," Trejo once said. "For me to meet Eddie Bunker on a movie set. It was amazing."

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His impressive acting career

Ever since Runaway Train, Trejo has been keeping himself pretty busy. Visit his IMDb page, and you'll find he's got over 300 credits in his filmography. And during his 30 plus years of acting, he's starred alongside some of the biggest action stars in the business, like Charles Bronson (Death Wish 4: The CrackdownKinjite Forbidden Subjects), Steven Seagal (Force of Execution), and Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger).

Trejo has also appeared in some of the biggest thrillers of all-time. He played serial rapist John "Johnny 23" Baca in Con Air, a movie he once described as "the biggest case of testosterone I've ever been in." As he explained to The AV Club, "It was 30 guys all trying to be bad-asses. It was so weird. If you would spit, somebody would spit a little farther." Trejo also appeared in the Michael Mann classic Heat. Originally hired as an "armed robbery consultant" to make the heist scenes look real, Mann eventually cast him as the appropriately named Trejo, a member of Robert De Niro's criminal crew.

He also played in xXx with Vin Diesel and Six Days Seven Nights with Harrison Ford, not to mention movies like Anaconda, Animal Factory, The Devil's Rejects, and Rob Zombie's Halloween. Plus, if you've ever turned on a TV, you've no doubt seen Trejo in shows like The X-Files, Baywatch, Sons of AnarchyBreaking Bad…and The Young and the Restless. Really, it's not that surprising that Trejo would show up in a soap opera given his crazy career. In addition to action flicks, he's done kid movies (Muppets Most Wanted), comedies (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), and once he even starred in an indie drama (Sherrybaby).

Of course, to talk about Trejo's movies, you've got to mention his relationship with one particular director—the filmmaker who helped cement Trejo as one of the baddest dudes in Hollywood today.

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Working with Robert Rodriguez

Cinema is full of fantastic actor-director collaborations: De Niro and Scorsese, Mifune and Kurosawa, John Wayne and John Ford. And while it's not quite as legendary as those famous duos, we can't forget about Danny Trejo and Robert Rodriguez. The two first met while working on Desperado, where Rodriguez was struck by Trejo's "natural magnetism." Rodriguez thought Trejo had the perfect look to play the knife-wielding assassin Navajas and, strangely enough, while working on the film Trejo and Rodriguez discovered they were actually second cousins.

After their first film, the two quickly formed a personal and professional bond that would lead to nine movies, including Spy Kids and From Dusk Till Dawn. And that's not counting the third Predators film (which Rodriguez produced), the From Dusk Till Dawn TV show (which Rodriguez created), and the fake trailer that popped up in the Rodriguez-Tarantino joint Grindhouse. However, it's safe to say the two are best known for working on Machete, the 2010 exploitation flick that made Danny Trejo a household name.

Rodriguez was inspired to make this nutso B-picture from pretty much the first moment he laid eyes on Trejo. "It's an idea I came up with back during Desperado," he explained to IGN. "When I met Danny, I said, 'This guy should be like the Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme or Charles Bronson," and that's when Rodriguez began formulating a plan to transform this tattooed ex-con into a machete-wielding action star. And, naturally, the respect and admiration goes both ways, with Trejo praising Rodriguez as "the most innovative director I've ever worked with."

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He's a restaurateur

So once you've become the toughest star in Hollywood, where do you go next with your career? Well, if you're Trejo, you go into the restaurant business. With the help of two partners, the action star recently founded his own culinary kingdom, with locations across Los Angeles. If you're in the mood for Mexican cuisine, you can stop by one of three Trejo's Tacos restaurants. Or if you want coffee and churros, you can drop by Trejo's Coffee & Donuts, where you can pick up treats with names like "Gringo," "O.G.," and "Machete." And if you fancy a proper drink with your meal, you've got three Trejo's Cantinas to choose from. (The man even owns a food truck.)

Fortunately for foodies, Trejo's restaurants have menus for vegans, vegetarians, and people who prefer their food gluten-free. And the actor makes sure that nothing goes to waste. "Nothing is kept overnight," he explained to Forbes, "and what we have left over goes to a homeless shelter. It's all part of sharing the success." The food here is so good that it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's show, Parts Unknown, and the late, great chef had nothing but praise for Trejo's Mexican cuisine. Unfortunately, if you live outside California, you might have to wait a bit before you can buy yourself a "Lowrider" donut. However, the actor has big plans for his franchise and wants to open locations in San Antonio, Las Vegas, and New York.

It seems that Trejo's Tacos might soon sweep across the nation, and that's all thanks to Danny's personal motto. As he explained to Fox News, "People ask me if it's because I'm a celebrity that my places are popular. I say, 'Well, they may come in because of that, but the food better be good if you want them to come back.'"

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He's a protector of pets

Everybody knows that under his leathery façade, Danny Trejo is a big ol' softie. He's a dad, a drug counselor, a dude who gives food to the homeless, and naturally, Trejo is a big-time dog lover. In fact, the actor is such a fan of our four-legged friends that he's dedicated countless hours to making the world a safer place for pets.

With his ex-wife Debbie, Trejo founded a group called K9 Compassion, a rescue organization that emphasizes the importance of spaying and neutering. The actor has worked with various groups like Best Friends Animal Society and the Villalobos Rescue Center, he's spoken with high school students about proper pet care, and he's appeared in ads like the one above supporting Friends of Animals. And like any dedicated dog lover, Trejo believes in adoption and, as of 2016, had four cute canines of his own.

Really, looking out for man's best friend is just second nature to the action star because, as he explained to Inked Magazine, "We called the dogs in out of the wild. We built the fire and brought them in—they're our responsibility."

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He does a lot more than just movies

Danny Trejo is a man who likes to keep busy. Just check out his IMDb page, and you'll see he's currently working on a crazy amount of movies. But Trejo does a whole lot more than just appear on the silver screen. For example, he's shown up in more than a few video games. If you've ever played Fallout: New Vegas, Call of Duty: Black Ops Zombie, or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, then you've probably heard his familiar gruff voice. He recently promoted the online shooter Guns of Boom, and you can also play the man himself in a sidescroller called Taco Run, a game where you're trying to grab as many tacos as you can. In addition to video games, he's appeared in a whole lot of music videos. He goes full-on Psycho in Slayer's "Pride in Prejudice," throws back some shots in Enrique Iglesias' "Loco," gives off serious Machete vibes while lip-syncing in Train's "Angel in Blue Jeans," and gets pushed around by the Jonas Brothers in "Burnin' Up." In other words, you don't have to look very long to find Danny Trejo because he's pretty much everywhere.

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Strong opinions on stunt work

With over 300 movies to his name, Danny Trejo just might be the uncrowned king of action cinema. The man has played in mainstream spectacles like Heat and Machete, and he's starred in more bloody, badass B-movies than you can possibly imagine. We're talking films with incredible titles like Dead Again in Tombstone, The Night Crew, and Bad Ass 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou.

But even though he's one macho man, Trejo has his limits when it comes to screen action. In fact, he's very opinionated when it comes to the topic of stunt work. After Tom Cruise injured himself filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Trejo shared some serious thoughts about stars who put their lives on the line. Talking with Yahoo! Movies in a Facebook chat (via ScreenCrush), Trejo said, "I know that all the big stars hate me to say this, but I don't want to risk 80 peoples' jobs just to say I got big huevos on The Tonight Show."

According to Trejo, it's irresponsible for a leading man or woman to jeopardize a film shoot in order to crawl up buildings or hold onto the side of planes. If the lead gets injured, that might ruin the entire movie, and then everybody loses a paycheck. "We have stunt people who do that stuff," Trejo explained. "And if they get hurt, I'm sorry to say, but they just need to put a mustache on another Mexican, and we can keep going. But if I get hurt, everybody's out of a job. So I don't choose to do that."

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He's doing his best to make a difference

Danny Trejo might seem like a scary guy on the big screen, but in reality, this man has a heart of gold. Knowing full well that he packs some serious celebrity clout, Trejo does his best to make a difference wherever he goes, working as a drug intervention counselor, fighting for autism awareness, and appearing in PSAs to promote good manners on the L.A. Metro and to support male caregivers.

Trejo is also incredibly serious about prison reform, going so far as to produce a 2018 documentary called Survivor's Guide to Prison. Trejo also appears in the film to analyze the problems with the U.S. legal system, talk about the abuse that goes on behind bars, and discuss the cases of two men who were wrongly convicted and incarcerated. As a guy who's been on the inside, Trejo knows a thing or two about how cruel prison can be and how authority figures are often indifferent to the inmates struggling to survive. As the actor-turned-activist told CBS News, "I want somebody to watch this film and say, 'Hey, the system really is unfair'… There has to be something done about the criminal justice system in this country."