To the Zorba in all our lives

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We are doing a play about Anthony Quinn and revisiting his life and it strikes me that though he was Mexican/Irish, to every Greek he is at least an honorary Greek, and after Zorba he considered himself an honorary Greek, as well.

Greek, or Mexican/Irish, he shared so much with all of us.

He was born in Mexico to poverty, followed his father to the States after the revolution, lived in the slums of Los Angeles and did every job imaginable to help support the family, from boxing, to picking apricots, to dancing for hire, to playing the sax, to working in a mattress factory, to shining shoes—to drawing for Frank Lloyd Wright and preaching with Aimee Semple McPherson—the great preacher of her time.

That’s before he even broke into movies!

And once he broke into movies he started dating the daughter of Cecil B. DeMille—the great producer of his time—and married her and they had five kids together.

Quinn being Quinn, though, he wanted to be Michelangelo, as well as Zorba, and he started drawing and painting and sculpting and working in every possible medium with abandon. He did a movie in Tunisia and saw the gnarled stump of a tree and he had it uprooted and shipped back to his studio in the States and he created a great, gnomic totem pole out of it that is as startling as anything found in native cultures.

His wife says that when they checked into a hotel room he would inevitably take the prints off the wall, shop locally for original art, and stock his room with original art.

He was a man mad about art and mad about creating beauty in his world. He got that from his father, Francisco, who when they lived in poverty by the garbage dump and the tracks in Los Angeles would take a brush and paint all the windows and walls with beautiful Alpine settings and a depiction of the whole Pacific Ocean on the walls.

“I learned a lot from my father,” Quinn once said. “I learned how to make my life beautiful.”

He did it with gusto to the end and his house is still a shrine to the titanic life force of the man—and to the immigrant spirit of the pioneers we all came from and their eternal quest to shape their world.

Mr. Quinn looked very much like a favorite uncle of mine, Thio Stelio Neamonites, who came from Greece with nothing and created a whole world of his own and a wonderful, vibrant extended family: he’s everybody’s uncle!

I grew up with Thio Stelio and I remember him taking us, a group of boys, for a ride to the beach in his maroon Chevy Impala station wagon with the power rear window, which he rolled down so we could all yell to the pretty girls we passed as we drove to the beach.

Thio Stelio joined in, as well, and tooted his horn and the girls looked startled and we looked embarrassed, but Thio Stelio had his arm out the window and he flashed them his Zorba smile and we took courage and smiled at them, too, though we’d never have the nerve to speak to them if the car ever stopped. But with Thio Stelio we did.

To Thio Stelio, who was our Zorba, and to Anthony Quinn, who was the Zorba for the rest of us.

Dimitri C. Michalakis


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