Danny Trejo Spent Time in San Quentin Before Hollywood

"The last time I went to the joint it was for selling four ounces of pure sugar to a federal agent,” said Danny.

Brandon Charles - Author

May 8 2024, Updated 5:21 p.m. ET

Danny Trejo attends the VIP launch of "Trejo's Tacos" on April 18, 2024
Source: Getty Images

In the last 30 years, Danny Trejo has been one of the most beloved character actors. His legend as a real-life former prison inmate only gives his on-screen characters more gravitas.

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The actor, businessman, and philanthropist wasn’t introduced to film and television audiences for quite some time. Danny was behind bars for most of 1959 through 1972. One of those stays was at one of the most notorious U.S. prisons.

Danny Trejo at the 'Survivors Guide To Prison' premiere in 2018
Source: Getty Images
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Danny Trejo was in San Quentin State Prison for dealing drugs.

The first time Danny was arrested he was only 10 years old. The minor was picked up for assault and battery. Soon he was robbing people using live grenades, addicted to heroin, and dealing drugs. His first sting behind bars was in 1962 for drug dealing and robbery. He told Prison Legal News, "The last time I went to the joint it was for selling four ounces of pure sugar to a federal agent.”

According to San Quentin News, Danny learned to box at San Quentin State Prison. He also managed the prison gym. Danny used those skills quite a bit in the latter half of his life. More on that later.

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Danny Trejo attend the Hand and Footprint Cement Ceremony for Illumination's Minions to celebrate "Minions: The Rise Of Gru" on June 24, 2022
Source: Getty Images

In the documentary Inmate #1: Redemption by Danny Trejo, Danny said, “In prison, I was involved in a fight in prison in which some people were seriously injured. I remember that I only asked God: ‘Just let me die with dignity and I will say your name every day.'"

That fight led to Danny becoming born again and embracing sobriety. He was convinced he was going to death row and vowed to God he would change his life and help others.

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Speaking with Texas Monthly in December 2020 about his new documentary at the time, Danny opened up about his time at the notorious prison. He said, “When you pull up to San Quentin, you see two lights up on top of the North Block. 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.”

Danny did come out and has stayed out for over 50 years. He has also kept his word and worked as a youth counselor. He worked at a drug rehabilitation center and still speaks to men behind bars, which can be seen in the aforementioned documentary.

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Source: YouTube

Would Danny Trejo be a famous actor if he hadn't gone to prison?

While no one wishes they were behind bars, Danny did pick up one skill that directly led to his acting career. It's a skill that got him in the door on the set of a Hollywood movie.

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Danny Trejo attends the "Machete" photocall during the 67th Venice Film Festival at the Palazzo del Casino on Sept. 1, 2010
Source: Getty Images

In a Nov. 4, 2022, interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Danny was asked when he knew when he was going to be an actor. "It was on the set of [1985’s] Runaway Train. I met a friend, [screenwriter] Eddie Bunker, who was a friend of mine in prison. He remembered I was the welter-weight champion in San Quentin. He said, 'Danny, are you still boxing? We need somebody to train one of the actors [Eric Roberts] how to box. It pays $320 a day.'"

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