How does an actor, whose mother was Mexican and whose father was Mexican- Irish, get cast as a Greek?
"The same way he gets cast as a Chinese, as an Arab," Quinn replies. ''Because he's a good actor."
Quinn estimates he has played more than 50 different ethnic types in his 208 movies. "Japanese, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian, Filippino, several Arabs, French, German," he ticks them off, even an Eskimo in "Top of the World," a fabulous picture that was dumped into a double-bill with an Elvis Presley movie.
"I have a big pain in my stomach about the fact that some of my pictures have been ignored, and I would love to find out why," he says in a telephone interview from Hartford, one of the cities in which he is playing Zorba as part of a national farewell tour.
"I think we played so many characters that they could never identify me with any one character. They have no focal point on me," he says. "I play Arabs, I play this, I played Mohammed, so they don't know how to characterize me. That's been my great cross to bear. Now in Zorba - 'At last, we can categorize him. Aha! He's Zorba.' "
Critics agree that seldom have a part and actor been so harmoniously matched. Quinn was first cast as Zorba for the 1964 film and came to understand Zorba so well that he declined to star in the 1968 Broadway show.
"It was negative," he says of the musical. "The opening line was, 'Life is what you do while you are waiting to die.' I said, 'S- - -, I'm not waiting to die and neither is Zorba.' I was proven right," he says. "It was not a big success. It ran only six or seven months."
Quinn signed on to star in the 1983 revival, which had its world premiere in Philadelphia, after a rewrite that restored Zorba's optimism and brimming vitality.
At 70, on the edge of his 50th year in show business, Quinn looks back with satisfaction at the overflowing portrait gallery of characters he played.
His skills brought those characters to life, but he didn't create them. He was, in a way, playing out someone else's fantasy.
If Quinn could choose to be someone else, who would he be?
He thinks for a few moments.
"Believe or not, Frank Sinatra. I don't know whether he's a happy man; I doubt that he's a happy man because he carries a great deal of pain inside him. He couldn't sing the way he does if he doesn't have pain," Quinn says.
"We're the same age and we started out practically the same time and he's very, very, very, very, very, very honest with his talent, and he's done nothing else but concentrate on singing. He's done pictures off and on, and he's created a whole age that is Sinatra. My God, at 71 he's still up among the first five singers of America. An artist never finds satisfaction," Quinn concludes, "but he must be very pleased with what he's done. He's wonderful to his talent."
Quinn surmises Sinatra sings with pain because Quinn always acts through his pain.
"I always hurt when I act. It's very painful to act because you have to
draw it from way down deep inside you. It's not just putting the makeup on. You have to live your whole life every night you're acting - some of the painful things in your life, some of the happy things, because you act specifics. Some actors say they can make up a grocery list while they're playing Hamlet. I can't do that."
Since that kind of pain is unavoidable, Quinn wants to eliminate other sources of friction, which is why, "at this age," he prefers stage work to film.
"I have much more control over what I do, and there's no director to cut me off. I have much more to say about the plays than I do about pictures, and the pictures have become a totally different thing than when I was under contract to Paramount, Warners and 20th Century Fox. It's a dog-eat-dog business now."
Quinn has a lot of say about "Zorba" because it is his vehicle and it will remain his vehicle until the tour ends in August.
Next year, he will have a new vehicle in what he calls his "great dream" - starring in "Picasso," a play about world-famous artist Pablo Picasso.
Although Quinn has a home in New York ("I live everywhere," he says) he would prefer the show to open out-of-town and tour a bit before Broadway.
"I don't like New York because it gets very incestuous, living gets very small, you go from your apartment to the theater, the theater to a restaurant, restaurant back to your apartment. The route gets very small and you can get backed down by that experience. There's nothing else to feed on. You start eating your own entrails in New York."
That is something Zorba would never do.
And Zorba is Anthony Quinn.