Actor Danny Trejo:

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The documentary "Champion" chronicles the life of Danny Trejo, who spent time behind bars, and who, after kicking drugs and alcohol, now offers counseling to those in need. Heather O'Quinn / TMT

A ‘Champion’ for

drug abuse education

The tough looking actor, who has spent time behind bars, got his start in the movie biz when he went to offer drug counseling to an assistant on the set of the movie “Runaway Train.” Now, a documentary has been made about his life.

By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times

His face is recognizable, his tattoos are familiar and it is likely he has been in one of your favorite movies, or more probable, several of your favorite movies. His name is Danny Trejo and he is the subject of a documentary about his life that premieres this weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival.

Trejo’s memorable face, large tattoos and tough guy appearance make him the quintessential bad guy on screen. He has appeared in more than 100 movies, often times wielding a weapon or throwing somebody through a window. Off screen he has dedicated his life to warning children and teens about the dangers of drug abuse, alcohol abuse and the various crimes that landed him in prison several times.

Trejo, who grew up in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles and Pacoima, spent years in the California prison system for armed robbery and drug offenses, and upon his release from the penitentiary devoted his life to sparing others the life he had lived.

“I was a drug counselor when I got out and dedicated my life to trying to help other people,” Trejo said during a recent interview at a Hollywood restaurant. “I got a call from a guy I was helping and he was in tears because he was trying to stay clean. He wanted me to come to his work and that’s what I did.”

Trejo assumed he would be visiting the young man at an office complex, but when he arrived at the address, he saw it was a movie location. His client was a production assistant on the feature film “Runaway Train.”

The plotline of the movie revolved around two convicts escaping prison. Additionally, there was a boxing scene in the film and Trejo had been the welterweight and lightweight boxing champion while serving time in San Quentin. The screenwriter on the film was former convict Eddie Bunker, who remembered Trejo from their days together in prison.

“They asked me to train Eric Roberts how to box,” Trejo said. “I asked them how much it paid and they said $350 a day. I said how bad do you want this kid beat up?”

Trejo was so convincing as a boxing coach he was offered a role in the film as a boxer. He parlayed that chance meeting on a movie set into what has become a long, successful career in the entertainment industry.

The documentary about Trejo’s life started out as a project focusing on Latinos in the entertainment industry, but when the producers interviewed him, things changed.

“We were doing this interview with him and the whole crew was mesmerized by what he was saying,” said producer/director Joe Eckardt. “We decided this could be a separate project just about Danny, but we wanted to tell his story without making it look like a TV biography.”

The documentary, titled “Champion,” has celebrity interviews with many people Trejo has worked with including Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Steve Buscemi and Robert Rodriguez. However, it goes far beyond the traditional documentary of interviewing the Hollywood set. It also includes interviews with his closest friends and former inmates, and there are visits to his old neighborhood, prisons and one of Trejo’s former jail cells.

“We realized during the interview that there was so much more to his story,” said writer/producer Cecily Gambrell. “We knew what he was saying was only the tip of the iceberg. We wanted to talk to Danny’s friends and hear from the guys that are always there for him.”

In its limited release, critics have agreed that this story needed to be told and “Champion” has garnered various awards at film festivals around the country as well as having been nominated for an Imagen Award, which honors Latinos in film and television. It was selected as one of five premiere films at this weekend’s Hollywood Film Festival and is one of two documentaries being screened.

The name of the film comes from interviewee Dennis Hopper, who has appeared with Trejo in four projects.

“We were looking for a good title for the film and I took it from the interview with Dennis Hopper,” Eckardt said. “I asked every person we interviewed the same question and that is, ‘What word would you use to describe Danny Trejo?’ and Hopper said ‘champion.'”

The moniker is appropriate given Trejo’s passion of continuing to volunteer as a drug counselor and his involvement with rehabilitation facilities, including several in Malibu.

“I’ve been to Malibu quite a few times. I know the people that run a lot of those centers,” Trejo said. “I like to go there when I’m in town. That’s what I do. The majority of the people who will see this video [“Champion”] will say that’s not us. But that’s not true. It [drug abuse] affects all of us. It doesn’t care where you’re from.”

Trejo credits his sober lifestyle to God, 12-step programs and his determination to educate others.

“One of the reasons I’m still here is that I give back,” Trejo said. “If you look at all the stars that have had problems, the ones that keep having problems are giving nothing back, they just keep taking.”

Trejo said he has visited a prison and high school in every film location he has been to. He said acting is his occupation, but it is only an avenue to reaching young people.

“My passion is talking to kids,” said Trejo, who with his wife, Debbie, has three children. “Acting is the biggest hook I’ve ever had. You have to get their attention and keep their attention. The key for a young kid is identification. They see that this guy is out of the pen and then they shush each other and say ‘hey that’s the dude from ‘Con-Air’ or that’s the guy from ‘Desperado.’ I was in one school and the teacher could not get these kids to be quiet. The minute I walked in they were quiet. Not because of me, but because of those movies. I’ve been in their living room.”

Trejo said he has done a lot of interviews and answered many questions about his life, but he is partial to the documentary, which makes its West Coast premiere on Saturday.

“I’m really proud of [“Champion”]. Not for me, but because I think it can reach a lot of people,” Trejo said. “I think these guys caught what Danny’s all about. I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done.

“In a way that’s sad because I wasn’t acting,” he reflected. “When I went back to the prison this time I wasn’t a character. It was just me.”

The constantly busy actor has appeared in at least 11 films this year and this week he wrapped an episode of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

“Champion” premieres Saturday at 6 p.m. at Arclight Cinemas at 6360 Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and is open to the public. Tickets are available online at www.arclightcinemas.com