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Interview with Anthony Quinn

In the movies he plays the natural man, uninhibited and carefree. When we hear his name, we think first of his performance as Zorba the Greek, arms outstretched, leading that dance of life on the beach. And so it is a little unsettling at this late date to find out that Anthony Quinn has been beset by doubts and devils, and was just as screwed-up as the rest of us.

"I couldn't have played Zorba before I went through psychoanalysis," he was saying the other day. "Zorba has a message for us. He tells us, don't be afraid of failure. I was terrified of failure."

Before psychoanalysis, he says, he used to choose roles that would allow him to analyze himself. Now he reckons he can play just about anybody. "I can play people at peace with themselves," he says. "I can play Zorba. I can play the Pope. In my new Western, I play a rough, tough cowboy who is moved to tears by the sight of a little flower in the desert."

Still, Quinn on a psychiatrist's couch? Quinn has made it easier for us to imagine by publishing "The Original Sin," which is sort of an autobiography as told to his shrink.

The book is in the form of monologues and remembered conversations. Quinn talks to his psychiatrist about his childhood as the son of Mexican revolutionaries; his teen-age as a saxophone player in Aimee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Gospel Band, and his haunted acting career in which every success left him more unsatisfied. There is also a lot of sex in the book. That is only natural when you're spilling the beans to a psychiatrist, I suppose, but this must be the only show-business autobiography to recall the author's first experiences with masturbation and buggery.

Quinn, who assured me that the notion of three meals a day and eight hours sleep a night is no more than "social pressure," flew in from Italy last week to spend seven days visiting a dozen cities to promote his book. I got him right after Dayton, Ohio. I said it must have taken a great deal of courage to be so honest about himself, to reveal the weaknesses behind the strengths.

"Fellini was honest when he made '8 1/2,' " Quinn said. "Picasso was being honest when he painted three noses. I wanted to deflate a kind of notion - in America especially - that success is the end-all and the be-all. We have this fantasy that if you have enough money and all the other goodies, you'll be happy forever. I wanted to tell the truth about myself, and about some of the political and social upheavals I've lived through."

"The Original Sin" is therefore more about Anthony Quinn's inner landscapes than about his acting career. "I have another book that I am writing that will tell about all the gory stuff," he said. "In that one. I will write about all the interesting women I have known."

He paused for a moment of silent thought. "Come to think of it," he said, "I have known more interesting MEN than interesting women. In all my life, I think I have met only about 75 interesting women. And only six absolutely beautiful ones."

Which six?

"I don't want to give away their names. Well, Garbo, of course. And Katharine Hepburn. She was the only one who was both: Beautiful AND interesting."

One out of that many?

"I am still looking," he said.

He was sprawled in an armchair, in the Elizabeth Taylor Suite of the Ambassador East. He had on a rumpled pair of slacks and a knit shirt that didn't quite make it to his navel, and he was barefoot and went through about half a pack of cigarettes. He was not as tall as he seems in the movies; maybe about 5 feet 9, 5 feet 10. I mentioned something about his larger-than-life-size roles.

"Larger than life," he said. "That is a phrase that is often used unkindly about me."

He got up and marched around the room, waving his hands, behaving larger-than-life while he discussed it. "Beethoven, I think you would say, was larger than life." He hummed the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth while slapping the back of an armchair: "Da-da-da-DUM. Did a, smaller-than-life mind write THAT? Picasso is larger than life. Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright, he built not to the size of the human being, but to the size of the human spirit. What do they mean, larger than life? Is 62 per cent OK, but 80 per cent is too much?"

"That is one reason why I wrote the book. To tell people they must learn to accept life, and love. To be able to love, unconditionally - THAT is the most important thing in the world! Why did I write it? I never went to school, I can't spell so good. If I wrote it to make money, I could make a lot more money smuggling dope. I wrote it to tell the news: After all these years, I think I have finally learned to love unconditionally!"

That pretty much wrapped it up, and after a few more minutes Quinn went downstairs to meet with a producer who had flown into town to talk with him about making a movie.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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