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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. Danny Trejo is the tough guy in action movies like "Machete" and "From Dusk Till Dawn." His first role was playing a convict in the 1985 film "Runaway train" - He was perfect for the part. Before Trejo was an actor, he was an inmate doing time in prisons across California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANNY TREJO: I did drugs, alcohol, robberies, burglaries - whatever you had. Any way to make money when you're being pushed by a drug habit it's like you just don't care. Prison is all about status. Armed robber and your dope dealer, in prison, they have the biggest status, you know, goes down from there, you know what I mean? The boxer, the guy of your boxing - people were betting on you people - so you automatically have a status. I could box really good and so every prison I went to they would always - oh yeah, come on - I end up boxing, you know, I held lightweight and the welterweight championship in every institution I was in. There was a riot, and it was the (unintelligible) that I hit Lieutenant Givens in the head with a rock and so we got sent to the hole and, basically, those are all gas chamber fences. You know, I have a little reputation on the yard in prison so I just remembered asking God to please let me die with dignity and if he would do that I would promise to say his name every day, help anybody I could anyway I can. And was a DJ reject, had no witnesses it was no - 3,000 inmates they had no witnesses - nothing. (Laughing) And by the grace of God, you know, I got out and the, you know, I didn't look back. I dedicated my life to helping other people and I was a drug counselor and one of the kids that I was working with, was about 18 years old, he called me and said hey I'm having a big problem down here. There's a lot of - cocaine was like crazy, you know. So 11 o'clock at night I went down and I just started hanging out with him, you know? I was his support system that's it. He gave me the address to a warehouse so I thought he worked in a warehouse, you know? And I get there and he comes out - it's a movie set of a movie called "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RUNAWAY TRAIN")

JON VOIGHT: (As Manny) You're going to get a job. That's what you're going to do you're going to get a little job some job a convict and get.

TREJO: I stand there, this guy comes up to me he says hey, hey do you want to be in this movie? And I says what do I got to do? And he says do you want to be an extra? And I said an extra what? And he says can you act like a convict? I says I'll give it a shot. I've been in every penitentiary in the state, it was kind of funny, you know? They gave me a blue shirt. I took off my shirt and he saw this big tattoo I have in my chest the, you know, it's like the most famous in the world. It's a Mexican lady with a sombrero. It's a charra - they were the ones that rode with Poncho Villa. This guy comes over and he says hey you're Danny Trejo. And I go, yeah. He says I saw you win the lightweight and welterweight title up at San Quinton it's a real famous fight. And I knew this guy, right. I say you're Eddie Bunker. I said hey, Eddie, what you doing here? He says Danny I adapted the screenplay. He says hey are you boxing? I said I train. He said we need somebody to train one of the actors how to box. And I started training Eric Robert how to box for the movie "Runaway Train." Me and Eric got along and the director saw that we got along. So he says, comes up to me - you find Eric, you'll be in movie, you fight Eric.

(SOUNDBITE FOR MOVIE, "RUNAWAY TRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Jab, punch.

TREJO: You know what, it's like a divine intervention, I think man. You know what I mean? 'Cause for me to me Eddie Bunker on a movie set is amazing. You know, when you talk about My Big Break, you know, I got a few of them in my life. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping somebody else. Everything.

WESTERVELT: Actor Danny Trejo. By the way, he still works for a rehab center as director of patient relations. You don't have to be a movie star. We want to hear your story. Tell us your big break. We might just put you on the air. Send us an e-mail at my bigbreak@npr.org.

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