Before Danny Trejo became a philanthropist, restaurateur and the friendliest tough-guy actor in Hollywood, the Los Angeles native was a real-life tough guy serving time in state prison for armed robbery and drug convictions.

Paroled in 1969, Trejo vowed to not only clean up his life, but also help others however he could. He moved to Venice, worked out at Muscle Beach and became a drug counselor for young adults. In the mid-’80s, a struggling client brought Trejo to the set of “Runaway Train,” where he worked as an extra until inmate-turned-screenwriter Edward Bunker recognized Trejo as the former welterweight boxing champion of San Quentin. Bunker asked Trejo to teach Eric Roberts how to box.

“Now, they were giving me $50 a day for acting like a convict. I say, ‘What’s it pay?’ and he says ‘$320 a day.’ I say, ‘How bad you want this guy beat up?’ I thought he was mad at somebody!” recounts Trejo, laughing, while waiting to speak during the recent Chords2Cure pediatric cancer fundraiser organized by students of Crossroads School. “He says the guy is going to be really high-strung, ‘He might sock you.’ I say, ‘Eddie, for 320 bucks give him a stick.’”

The job morphed into a speaking part in the film, followed by years of on-camera work playing bit parts like Inmate No. 1 or Bad Guy until Charles Bronson finally gave him a name in “Death Wish 4”: Arthur Sanella. “I didn’t play a Mexican; I played an Italian guy,” Trejo says. “I thought, ‘If I play an Italian guy, that means I’m a real actor.”

These days, Trejo has parlayed his fame and good fortune into a group of Trejo’s Tacos restaurants and now also Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts in Hollywood. He can’t stroll the Venice Boardwalk like he used to without getting mobbed, and he misses that.

“Venice is the only place that you can go for free — there’s no price of admission — and what it is, it’s an absolute giant amusement park. I think most of California gravitates toward the boardwalk of Venice Beach. There’s a song, ‘On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City’ … — nah, Venice Beach,” he says. “The tattoo of my kids on my back is them playing in the water in Venice Beach.”

But when Trejo does return to Venice, keeping his visits low-key, he’s addressing one of the social causes closest to his heart.

“The homeless. My friends. Every one of my friends has thermal underwear and socks. That’s what we do — drive around all day and pass them out,” says Trejo, who frequently visits juvenile halls and jumps at chances to help the SPCA.

“My outlook is that people don’t realize we’re all on the Titanic looking for a good seat. We have to help everybody we can until the end,” he says. “My life is dedicated to helping others, and that’s why I’ve had the success that I’ve had.”

— Joe Piasecki

Photo by Ted Soqui