Danny Trejo’s Rise From Incarcerated Boxer to Hollywood Star

A new documentary explores Danny Trejo’s life and career, from his troubled youth to Hollywood stardom.
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There’s a scene in Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo where the subject remembers when he was a teenager, high on heroin and robbing an electronics store with a hand grenade. Another memory focuses on his time in San Quentin prison, when he reenacted the entire script from The Wizard of Oz in solitary confinement just so he would keep his own sanity. Or how about that time when he heard his mother had just died. He was on the set of Muppets Most Wanted and sitting next to him was Kermit the Frog. “I’m really sorry about your mom,” said the frog. Danny, the tough, no-nonsense, rugged warrior couldn’t handle it and broke down right there on the set.

This is just a taste of the two-hour documentary (directed by Brett Harvey, available on digital and on-demand July 7) about the iconic Mexican-American actor, which essentially becomes a therapeutic, cathartic confession as Trejo takes us on an almost-unbelievable journey of struggles in South Los Angeles and the eventual fortune of his extraordinary career in Hollywood. Alongside others who know him best—including Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, Cheech Marin and his immediate family—Trejo paints a picture of the ultimate underdog, who became a champion boxer in prison, a substance abuse counselor and eventually a Hollywood star, producing some memorable characters including Navajas in Desperado, Johnny "Johnny 23" Baca in Con Air and of course, his greatest creation: Machete.

“I love what came out of the documentary even if it wouldn’t have been me, because I think it gives to a whole lot of people who don’t have any,” says Trejo, speaking to SI.com. “I think what we did with this film is give people hope and if you haven’t been to jail it just shows you that anything is possible. If you got a good education and you graduated from high school to college, and you’re having a rough time, well, here’s a guy who started under the gas chamber... so anything is possible.”

Anything is possible. That should be scripted on his tombstone.

Trejo, 76, is the ultimate character actor but something that makes him even more unique is the fact that neither his toughness, nor his vulnerability, were ever fabricated. He was born to a family of Mexican immigrants, later moving to the Pacoima neighborhood in LA. The devil constantly pestered him, and his rebellious attitude would transform into a criminal one where Trejo the teenager became involved with armed robbery, drugs and violence. He didn’t know it at the time, but sports would become one of his saviors. His uncle, who was a major influence on him, taught him how to box at an early age in order to defend himself and so began his fascination with the sport.

“I love boxing. I think boxing is an art,” he says, wearing his Trejo’s Tacos t-shirt, just one of his multiple restaurant/food truck companies. “The perfect example is Floyd Mayweather. A lot of people don’t like him, man. I don’t care, I’ve never broken bread with him, met him a couple of times, but a far as boxing is concerned, I’ve never seen a better boxer. Just all out boxer.”

He also naturally has a lot of time for Andy Ruiz Jr.—the former unified heavyweight champion, who defeated Anthony Joshua in June 2019—but Trejo lost faith in him before the second fight. “The minute I heard be bought a Rolls Royce, I thought, ‘ah hell…’—the whole world can think you’re champion of the world but you can’t. It’s like the whole world can think you’re a movie star but you can’t, because then people start disliking you. So, with Andy, when he came in 19 pounds overweight I had to bet on the other guy. Cause if you’re a champ, you have to train twice as hard. Look at Floyd! He never stopped training. You get 30 million dollars and the hunger goes.”

Trejo owes a lot to boxing. It essentially became the door that opened his Hollywood career. In San Quentin, he won lightweight and welterweight titles and shortly after he was released, he became a drug counselor, where he eventually helped a patient on the set of Runaway Train, the 1985 Academy Award-nominated movie with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Trejo was asked to train Roberts, who played a young convict boxer. It would become Trejo’s first appearance on screen.

Trejo would continue to build on his tough-guy persona and deliver some unforgettable characters. Machete, however—Robert Rodriguez’s exploitation action movie—would become his favorite. “I would have loved Machete even if I wasn’t in it,” he says smiling. “That was so much fun. And let’s not forget Machete was the first time I got to kiss a gorgeous girl. I mean, I kissed Jessica Alba... eight times.”

He carries a photo of Michelle Rodriguez’s character Luz in his wallet. “I love her. She reminds me of a little sister. If you’re ever in a bar fight, Michelle Rodriguez has your back. Feminine, gorgeous—but don’t piss her off.”

There is little about Trejo that leaves to the imagination. He is his own man. A Mexican. A Latino in Hollywood. But for all the traits he may be given, it’s important to remember that he is an extremely kind human being. Someone who truly never forgets where he came from.

And during COVID-19, where the Hispanic and Latino/x community have suffered more than most groups, there have been plenty of examples of his character. Thanks to his food truck and restaurant services, Trejo has spent these last few months feeding health workers, at-risk neighborhoods and the homeless community all over LA

This need to help, however, is not just about generosity. It’s about redemption. It’s about making peace with the man upstairs, who time and time again, has given Trejo a chance to be a better version of himself. “First of all, I don’t condemn anybody that doesn’t want to help. They don’t owe. I owe. I owe my life,” says Trejo. “I owe my life with Diosito and the promise that I made, that I will do everything I can for my fellow man. I still owe.”

For now, Trejo continues to pay his dues and live life to the fullest. He walks every day and has a gym in his house to stay active. He also looks forward to the return of the NFL season and be able to watch his beloved LA Rams again. “When they came back to LA in 2016, the first thing I did was feed them at camp. So, we took the taco truck up there. And I tell you something, those boys can eat!”

Everything you think about Danny Trejo is true. He is funny, charismatic, eccentric and honest. He is Machete and Dean in Sherrybaby (watch it).

But the most important value to remember is that Danny Trejo is a man who wants to constantly save and be saved. “I talked to God a couple of days ago and asked him, ‘How am I doing?’ and he said, ‘Keep doing the good work, you’re almost out of hell. So, we help wherever we can, and our lives keep getting better because of it. I have a lot to make up for it.”