Chris Nashawaty
April 26, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Danny Trejo is not a star. You probably don’t even recognize his name. But if you’ve seen any of the 50-plus movies he’s been in, from Runaway Train to Spy Kids to this month’s The Salton Sea, chances are pretty good you remember his face. It’s hard to shake. Pockmarked and weathered, more than anything Trejo’s face resembles an old catcher’s mitt that’s been left out in the rain. The pouches below his squinting green eyes have the consistency of used tea bags. The downward-turning corners of his steel-wool mustache radiate a sinister Fu Manchu vibe. The rest of his face — from his knotty forehead to his stubbled chin — is a relief map of scars. It’s what happens to a pretty, young Mexican-American kid who grows up to become the welterweight boxing champion of San Quentin.

The voluptuous woman tattooed across his chest is called a charra. Legend has it that these charras rode and fought alongside Pancho Villa and his men during the Mexican Revolution. And it too is a memento from San Quentin. Actually, since it took two and a half years to complete, it’s technically a souvenir from Folsom and Soledad prisons as well. Two and a half years of gritting his teeth while a fellow convict punched tiny holes into Trejo’s chest using the razor-sharp end of a guitar’s E string as a makeshift needle. ”Well, what else are you gonna do?” Trejo asks. ”I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere.” The charra is a crude but permanent reminder of his past. A past he left behind in San Quentin’s South Block. A past when his name was B-948 and his home was cell C-550. A past when Danny Trejo was a bad man.

These days Trejo is known by a nickname, not a number: the Mayor of Venice. It’s not an official title — and with his rap sheet it’s safe to say that Trejo will never be elected to any public office — but an honorary one. On the boulevards and boardwalks of this funky L.A. seaside community, the 57-year-old actor walks around with the smile and cocksure strut of a gladhanding alderman. Giddy Latino kids approach him for autographs. Buzzing needles whir to a halt when he waltzes into a tattoo parlor. And a young Mexican waitress fills him in on the husband whose life Trejo once helped turn around. These days Trejo is a charmer who regards the second half of his life — costar to the likes of Al Pacino and Johnny Depp — as a cross between a miracle and a fluke. And when he talks about his unlikely path from once-seedy sections of L.A. like this one to the glamour of Hollywood, you’d never guess that they’re separated by just a matter of miles.

Danny Trejo got high for the first time when he was 8. His uncle — a slightly older soon-to-be convict named Gilbert — gave him the joint. Back in his family’s Temple Street home in L.A.’s Echo Park, Trejo’s father, a Mexican-American construction worker named Dan, channeled his workaday frustration into strict discipline with his son. ”My old man would literally look you right in the eyes and tell you, ‘I’m gonna hit you to death!”’ Danny chose his uncle, not his father, as his role model. ”I was like his little shadow, and hanging out with him and his friends was where I got my self-esteem,” says Trejo. ”I got to know all the dope dealers and prostitutes and everyone else he knew. He was showing me the game. I learned it real early.”

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