06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
"My worst fault," Anthony Quinn once said, "is that at the end of the day find it extremely difficult—impossible, even—to turn off the character and let him rest until tomorrow.... I'm that character until the film is finished." The characters—hard-palmed guys with a burning thirst for life—were never a stretch for Quinn, whose own protean appetites were best reflected in the character named Zorba, the Greek peasant whose passions came to represent Quinn's own during a career that spanned nearly seven decades.
His third wife, Kathy Benvin, 38, mother of the two youngest of his 13 children (with all three of his wives and two mistresses), and his son Lorenzo, 35, were by his side when the two-time Oscar winner died of respiratory failure at a Boston hospital June 3. "It was me and Kathy holding his hand," says Lorenzo, a sculptor whose mother is Quinn's second wife, Iolanda Addolori. "The world lost a legend. I lost a great father."
That legend extended far beyond the movies. Friends remember Quinn, who recently acted in the film Avenging Angelo with Sylvester Stallone and was planning to appear in another with Ricky Martin, as an often foul-mouthed Old Hollywood bon vivant consumed with both work and play. "If anybody had a lust for life, it was Tony," says actor Christopher Lee, 79, a three-time costar. He was as comfortable in an art studio—as a painter and sculptor whose work was exhibited internationally—as he was in a film studio—as a veteran of more than 150 movies, including 1964's Zorba the Greek. And even when playing opposite the likes of Kirk Douglas and Peter O'Toole, "he was always the center of attention," says actor Malcolm McDowell, Quinn's costar in 1979's The Passage. "There was no watching anybody else when he was on the screen."
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a half-Mexican, half-Indian mother and a half-Mexican, half-Irish father, a soldier, Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn spent a childhood colored by his parents' devotion to the rebel leader Pancho Villa, for whom they fought in the Mexican Revolution. His mother, Manuela, joined the cause, said Quinn, "because for most of her life she had been shunned by the wealthy landowners whose blood she carried." The family moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1917, when Quinn was 2, and then to California, where his father, Francisco, died in a car accident in 1925.
In school in Los Angeles, Quinn set his sights on architecture after winning a contest that provided him the opportunity to meet with Frank Lloyd Wright. "I was hoping he'd want to adopt me," an older Quinn remembered in his 1995 autobiography, One Man Tango. "I really loved him." Quinn, who dropped out of 10th grade, took on various jobs, including fruit picker, musician, boxer, mattress-factory worker, taxi driver and apprentice preacher with the renowned evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. "I have known most of the great actresses of my time, and not one of them could touch her," Quinn once said of the spellbinding McPherson, whom he credited with inspiring Zorba's gesture of the dramatically outstretched hand.
By the time he was 21, Quinn had dropped preaching for performing. In 1936 Quinn parodied matinee-idol-of-the-day John Barrymore (grandfather of Drew) in a stage play starring Mae West and soon found work as a $3.50-a-day film extra in a Harold Lloyd comedy. Later that year, on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood, he met Katherine De Mille, the adopted daughter of Cecil B. De Mille, a towering Hollywood figure and one of the town's most powerful directors. At the time, Quinn was an extra playing an Indian in De Mille's 5 sprawling 1936 western The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper. One day Quinn piped up as the tyrannical De Mille was upbraiding the cast and crew. The newcomer not only let the venerable old master know how he should shoot the scene but also told him what he could do with his $75-a-day salary. According to Quinn, De Mille replied, "The boy's right," and later called the outburst "one of the most auspicious beginnings for an actor I've ever seen."
Quinn married Katherine in 1937, but even his new family connections couldn't override the typecasting of the day. "I was never accepted as an American," he recalled for The New York Times in 1995. "The blond boys were the heroes. So I played the villains." After finding success on the stage in the late '40s—he appeared has Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway—he 's made his film breakthrough playing t the brother of a Mexican revolutionary (Marlon Brando) in 1952's Viva Zapata!, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Four years s later he won another for his work as artist Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas's Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life—an impressive feat, since Quinn was onscreen for only eight minutes.
Quinn shone in larger-than-life action roles—a thuggish circus strongman in Federico Fellini's 1954 classic La Strada, a Greek partisan fighting the Germans in 1961's The Guns of Navarone and a bandit chief in David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. In the '80s he played the country's largest arenas in a stage musical adaptation of his signature Zorba. "Every single night he got a standing ovation," says Lorenzo Quinn. "Sixteen hundred performances and the poor stand-in never got to perform, even when [my father] had a fever of 102. He realized people went to see Anthony Quinn as Zorba. Nobody could do Zorba like him."
Although his later parts were less memorable, Quinn was seldom boring. For 1978's campy The Greek Tycoon, he was offered $1 million and the lead as a thinly disguised Ari Onassis to Jacqueline Bisset's Jackie O. The real Jackie asked Quinn not to do it, and Quinn claimed he at first demurred out of respect. But when, soon after, the former First Lady snubbed him—perhaps inadvertently—in a restaurant in the South of France, Quinn called his agent and accepted the part.
He could be equally capricious as a spouse. When, on their wedding night, De Mille confided that she was not, at 26, a virgin—and that she had slept with Clark Gable—Quinn declared he wanted a divorce. Though he recanted a few hours later, he never forgave and was famously unfaithful to De Mille, who divorced him in 1965 and died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in 1995.
According to his own boasts, Quinn bedded, among others, Rita Hayworth, Carole Lombard, Maureen O'Hara and Ingrid Bergman. Actress Ruth Warrick says Quinn once told her, "I want to impregnate every woman in the world"—and in fact he acknowledged having children with five. "We chased women together," Tony Curtis recalls. When one wide-eyed young woman told Curtis she was seeing Quinn, "I asked her what did she call the baby," says Curtis, 76. "That was his reputation."
While still married to De Mille, Quinn met Venice-born wardrobe mistress Iolanda Addolori on the Rome set of Barabbas in 1961. They wed in 1966 and had three sons, but Quinn's roving eye eventually settled on Kathy Benvin. "I put in a classified ad for a secretary [in 1984], and she answered," he told PEOPLE in 1998. "I knew how I felt, but I was a little afraid to tell her. It's a love story I want to make a picture about."
Not so the 1997 divorce from Iolanda, which was a buffet of tabloid headlines. One of their sons, Daniele, testified that Quinn had beaten Iolanda during their 31-year marriage. (Quinn denied it.) In court papers, Iolanda herself claimed that Quinn "kept a harem" during the 1961 filming of Lawrence of Arabia. In the end, Iolanda received half of Quinn's reported $15 million in assets. "Oh, darling, I could write a book, but I'm not going to," Addolori, 67, says now. "Of course I forgive him. I don't feel that he has left. His spirit is here."
His life with Benvin, whom he married in 1997, proved less tumultuous. Living in a waterfront estate in Bristol, R.I., Quinn worked on his art and doted on his children with Benvin—Antonia, 7, and Ryan, 4—taking them to school, the zoo and local restaurants. "I can't say that I recommend it for everyone," he said of being an octogenarian new father, "but it's wonderful. It's only being reborn again." Perhaps he cherished his brood more because of the 1941 death of his first child with De Mille, Christopher, then 3, who wandered into the yard of neighbor W.C. Fields and drowned in the comedian's swimming pool. Quinn never spoke of the death, but said he lived through the grief on stage when Zorba would reflect on his dead son. But little could keep Zorba—or Quinn—down. Throughout his life, the actor reminisced in One Man Tango, he found himself among marvelous teachers, great artists and brilliant writers. "I have often thought there must be a fine magnet inside me," he wrote, "because this is the only way I know to explain the kindness and friendship of so many luminous souls."
Sharon Cotliar in New York City, Frank Swertlow, N.F. Mendoza and Mary Green in Los Angeles, Richard Eaton in London and Robin Micheli in Rome