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Facts and Arguments Can you learn something from celebrities? I did, when Anthony Quinn treated me as an equal

FACTS & ARGUMENTS

My movie-star moment

As celebrities arrive in Toronto for TIFF, Jeffrey Morry recalls learning a life lesson from Anthony Quinn

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

It all started with a piece of paper. And from that moment, I saw life differently. It was 1985 and I had moved to Toronto at 23 with a fledgling business importing rare European posters.

I read that a revival of the 1968 Broadway musical Zorba was being mounted at the then O'Keefe Centre with Anthony Quinn reprising his classic title role from the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. One of my posters was for the 1978 film The Children of Sanchez, starring Quinn. It was a surreal, hand-drawn illustration depicting Quinn with female breasts.

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With hopes of meeting Quinn, I delivered a letter to the theatre addressed to him honestly describing the poster as provocative and saying that if he liked it, it would be my gift. The next day, his assistant called. "Mr. Quinn would like to meet with you before tomorrow's show. Would you be available?" Would I be available to meet one of Hollywood's greatest legends and an actor whose work I greatly admired and respected?

Arriving at the stage door, I was quickly ushered through a labyrinth of corridors to an ornate dressing room swathed in red. The door flung open and Quinn calmly walked in. Tall, barrel-chested with a handful of newspaper clippings, he thrust his hand forward and thundered, "I'm Tony Quinn." Dazed, I mumbled something about how it was an honour to meet him and that I was a fan, particularly of the Federico Fellini film La Strada.

"Sit down! I want to read you something." He paced around me excitedly reading several reviews of the Zorba show. One was quite negative and I assured him he had no need to be concerned given its source. Another pronounced the show a success because of "the personal, serendipitous magic of Anthony Quinn." He was visibly elated when I assured him it was a widely-read daily.

He sat down hard. "Let's see this poster you wrote me about." As I prepared to unfurl it at his feet, I had a flashback to a television interview in which Quinn was asked his opinion of Hollywood's present crop of male lead actors. He described them as not "tough" like the leads in his day.

Then a frightening epiphany hit me. Here I was, about to present to Anthony Quinn – Hollywood star and macho-leading man – a surreal poster of him with female breasts. Remembering the interview, I stalled with an incoherent introduction. Visibly frustrated, he interrupted me, "Yes, yes … let's see the damn thing!"

I slowly revealed the image so that the top-half would be exposed last. A long silence. "Oh my God!" Quinn blurted.

"That's it," I thought. "I'm dead. I should apologize and leave now before he blows up."

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He continued, "This is … beautiful."

"Yes, isn't it?" I spluttered, taking a deep breath.

Quinn went on. "This is such a haunting image. If you had seen the film, this poster would make perfect sense to you. The artist has captured the essence of my character."

He asked his dresser to bring in a number of other cast members. Everyone crowded into the dressing room as he carefully explained the meaning behind the imagery. I was elated. And so relieved. I then remembered that Quinn was an accomplished painter and understood his appreciative reaction to the poster.

"How much do you want for it?" he said.

For a split-second, dollar signs flashed in my eyes. I said, "Mr. Quinn … "

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"Call me Tony … "

"Tony … in my letter to you I said that if you liked the poster, it would be my gift to you. Please accept it as my gift."

"Thank you. In return, I want you to come to the show, best seat in the house. Afterward, come backstage and give me your personal review."

Looking him straight in the eyes, I said, "I'm warning you now, it'll be a drop-dead, honest critique."

With a sly glance, he responded, "Not too honest, I hope."

A few days later, I went backstage. Quinn, then 69, appeared in full Zorba dress. "Let's talk about the show!" he bellowed.

I was enthralled when he paced for an hour, peppering me with thoughtful, detailed questions about his performance, the cast, music, sets and even lighting. I told him the show was good, not great, but he was superb. As we parted, he smiled ever so slightly and whispered into my ear, "I couldn't agree more."

Walking out of the theatre in a cloud that day 32 years ago, I realized what I thought would be a memorable encounter with a screen and stage legend turned into something I had not at all anticipated. It was his gift of a life lesson.

Quinn was a decades-long, much-celebrated actor and not lacking access to people of great depth and experience for advice. And yet, here he was, reaching out to a 23-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears stranger asking for feedback and counsel. Did I have anything of value to offer him? Hopefully. But he taught me that even the most accomplished person can and should take a chance, set aside his or her ego and reach out to others, even those relatively new to the world, in order to listen and grow. I've tried to live that lesson every day of my life.

Although he did give me the great experience I sought, Anthony Quinn gave me something much more precious that day.

Jeffrey Morry lives in Winnipeg.

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