Danny Trejo’s Incredible Rise From Prison Riots To Hollywood Stardom

Published October 13, 2021
Updated December 26, 2021

Danny Trejo's roles in movies like "Heat" and "Con Air" have nothing on his early years of drug dealing in Los Angeles and boxing in San Quentin prison.

Danny Trejo Young

Charley Gallay/ CineVegas/Getty ImagesDanny Trejo spent 11 years in prison before shooting a single scene.

Clad in leather with a muscle-bound body covered in tattoos, Danny Trejo looks to be ripped right out of a crime story. The permanent lines on his face certainly suggest a harrowing past, but the Hollywood superstar’s criminal record confirms it — in fact, young Danny Trejo nearly died in prison.

Determined to hire actual Hispanics in his border town-centric films, director Robert Rodriguez took one look at Trejo and cast him in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado. Those bit parts led to roles with Hollywood icons like Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford — who sensed his terrifying presence wasn’t an act.

Young Danny Trejo had just become an adult when he was imprisoned for drug dealing and robbery in 1962. He was 21 years old when he was busted selling four ounces of heroin to an undercover agent. He spent 11 years in total behind bars surviving prison riots, solitary confinement — and a terrifying brush with death row.

Here’s the very real background story of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable — and menacing — character actors.

The Life Of Young Danny Trejo

Born on May 16, 1944, young Danny Trejo grew up in Echo Park, Los Angeles — and grew up fast. His abusive father, Dionisio, had fled Texas for California after stabbing a man, and left the picture when he finally turned himself in. In the absence of his Dad, Trejo shared a room with his cousins at his grandmother’s house, and ended up becoming close to his uncle.

Young Danny Trejo Posing For A Portrait

YouTube/Abrupt FilmsTrejo would rob liquor stores with live grenades.

Uncle Gilbert was only six years older than Trejo and naturally became more of a big brother than a father figure. While he taught Trejo how to box, he also introduced him to marijuana when Trejo was 8 years old — then later provided 12-year-old Trejo with his first dose of heroin when Trejo caught him shooting up.

“He was like the cool one,” recalled Trejo. “He was the one that always had the big wad of cash.”

Things rapidly escalated from there, with Trejo becoming addicted and joining Gilbert on robberies and drug deals to satisfy their habits. He landed in juvenile hall within a year, and was 18 when his activities first landed him in jail — at which point Trejo also became addicted to cocaine.

Trejo met Charles Manson during that brief 1961 stint in county, recalling him as a “dirty, greasy, scrawny, white boy.” He only graduated to deadlier crimes upon release, however, from robbing liquor stores with live grenades and drive-by shootings to stabbing somebody in the face with a broken beer bottle in a bar fight.

“We had a lot of pistols, and you don’t really want to mess with somebody who’s got a lot of pistols,” he said. “You’ve got to remember. People aren’t scared of tough guys. People are scared of crazy people.”

Danny Trejo In Prison

Twitter/officialDannyTTrejo was the welterweight and lightweight boxing champion in every prison he served time in.

It was in 1965, however, that Trejo’s life would change forever. While he maintains that it was nothing but sugar to this day, he was arrested for selling heroin to federal agents working undercover. Sentenced to 10 years behind bars, he narrowly survived the brutal realities of Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin Prison.

Life In San Quentin Prison

“When you pull up to San Quentin, you see two lights up on the top of the North Block,” he remembered. “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.”

As a fresh face in lethal surroundings, Trejo’s childhood boxing lessons came in handy. His teenage scraps were now saving his life, as his prowess in San Quentin was on full display for any challenger in the yard to test.

“I was lightweight and welterweight champion in every penitentiary I was in,” he said, “and I was in all of them.”

The daily fear of death never abated, however. Despite being a well-known inmate with various hustles behind bars, all bets were off when prisoners entered the yard. Trejo recalled the terrifying reaction to an inmate being stabbed in the back being mere laughter, and thinking, “Danny, you’re going to die here.”

Young Danny Trejo Drinking

Left: Pinterest; Right: Twitter/officialDannyTDanny Trejo got sober after prison and found God.

“He was walking around the upper yard, reaching for the knife and coughing up blood,” said Trejo. “What a messed up ‘splace.”

It was after being shuttled to Soledad State Prison in 1968, however, that Trejo was nearly swallowed by the system. Amidst the chaos of a prison riot, Trejo fought inmates with a rock and accidentally hit a guard in the head. In solitary confinement for three months, he was now facing the death penalty for attempted murder.

“I was sitting in the hole, and it’s like I knew, it’s all over,” he said. “It’s just done, I’m through. I’m 24 years old and I’m through. I said, ‘God, if you’re there, then it’s going to be alright. And if you’re not, I’m screwed.’ And that was my prayer. I’ve never forgotten it. And that was just a complete turning point in my life.”

Danny Trejo’s Journey To Hollywood Star

God seemed to listen as none of the 3,000 inmates came forward to corroborate the claims. Trejo was released on parole in August 1969, the same month his former fellow inmate Charles Manson ordered the Sharon Tate murders. Recalling an inspirational Alcoholics Anonymous talk in prison, Trejo changed his life.

Los Angeles Mural

Flickr/Paul NarvaezA mural of Danny Trejo in his Los Angeles neighborhood.

Working odd jobs as a gardener and labor foreman, Trejo spent his evenings in recovery meetings. He was introduced to the acting world as an extra, but was exclusively cast as an imposing gang member for years. When a screenwriter and former San Quentin alumni on set noticed his prison tattoos, however, he soared.

After he was asked to train actor Eric Roberts how to box for 1985’s Runaway Train, Trejo was increasingly suggested to directors and casting agents. It was a long road from bit parts to starring roles, but Trejo grew into a professional actor working alongside the likes of Al Pacino and Nicolas Cage — all the while inspiring juvenile youths with his story.

Written specifically for Trejo, Machete (2010) was a $44 million-grossing box-office smash. For the convicted drug dealer and armed robber who faced the death sentence, spending his third act on the red carpet remains a shock. As chronicled in Inmate 1: The Rise of Danny Trejo (2019), he hasn’t forgotten whom to thank.

“I talked to God a couple of days ago and I said, ‘How am I doing?'” Trejo said. “And he said, ‘You’re almost out of hell. Keep it up. You’re doing great.'”

After learning about young Danny Trejo’s life of crime, read about the hitman father of Woody Harrelson. Then, learn about Frank Lucas and the true story behind ‘American Gangster.’

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.