While spending most of the 1960s in prison on drug and robbery charges, Danny Trejo managed to become a champion boxer at San Quentin—and he kicked heroin. Set free, Trejo stayed clean with the help of a new addiction treatment center in L.A. called CRI-Help. Five decades later, Trejo has nearly 400 acting credits to his name and is still working with the organization to help other people get sober, including his own children. Now, as CRI-Help gets set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in May, Trejo spoke with Los Angeles about his long relationship with the non-profit, and why the pandemic may be “the best damn time” to work on recovery. Trejo will be an honored guest and the main speaker at a gala planned for the fall; there will be a virtual event in May.
How did you first find CRI-Help?
I got clean in the pen. I did ten years. In 1968, I got clean, and I stayed clean up until 1969 when they let me out. There was a place that CRI-Help was born from called Reprieve House and, for me, being an addict and being fresh out of the penitentiary, hanging out at a recovery house was great. I got to meet people who were clean, you know what I mean? I was hanging out at a recovery center where everybody was trying to stay clean.
Then when Reprieve House closed they opened CRI-Help. At that time if you had a car you could go and pick up some guys and take them to a meeting—and even [CRI-Help CEO] Jack Bernstein was [doing it] back then. He was a godsend. He’s got a special place in heaven, shit. He’s a great guy, he’s helped a lot of people, a lot of destitute people that I worked with, and guys that were just coming out of the pen and shit, and he was always like, “Yeah, yeah, bring them down. We’ll get them in.”
With all the places to try to get clean around L.A., what’s special about CRI-Help?
I love CRI-Help. it’s always been at the top of my list as far as people who I take into rehab, and they seem to have more success. Now, any rehab is good, you understand. If somebody’s going to rehab, thank God they’re going to rehab. Good, bad, or indifferent, they’re at least thinking about rehab. CRI-Help just happens to have one of the best success rates.
I’ve used all of them. I mean, I’ve had millionaires say, “No, no I have to go to Malibu.” And so, they do that, spend [thousands of] dollars for eight months or something and, you know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the best success rate I’ve had has been with CRI-Help. Sometimes you can get a free bed. They’re more diverse.
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You also took your kids there?
My addiction was heroin and so was theirs. I took my son [Gilbert, 32]. My son detoxed in CRI-Help, thank God, and he’s got six years clean right now. A lot of people don’t make it the first time. My son was a hardhead, but he started his rehab at CRI-Help. My son was like a little star and everybody fucking knew him, and so he had a lot people coming by, and CRI-Help tried to keep him out and stuff, but finally he just split and started using again. But that got him the foundation. That’s what they’re good at—giving you a foundation.
So whether you make it or not, you’ve got that foundation. And once you go through CRI-Help, it ruins your using.
How does it ruin your using?
Because it’s like you’ll run into people that you were in CRI-Help with and they’ll start talking about how great it was—and, you know, you’re waiting for a connection. And then, even when you start getting depressed, that’s what you think of. What a drag, but that’s what you think of. You think, “Wow, I remember how good I felt when I was there.”
What happened with your daughter?
My daughter [Danielle, 30] almost died. I was in Germany. Thank God her mom and my secretary took her to CRI-Help. She finished the program at CRI-Help and she’s got seven years now. [My kids] got clean and they’re doing bitchin’.
What do you tell people who say the pandemic isn’t a good time for rehab?
Well, I gotta say that right now is probably the best damn time to get clean because it’s so hard to move around and you’re locked up. So if you don’t got dope, you ain’t getting none, so detox and CRI-Help are like the best things going.
“You’ve gotta remember, the thing about CRI-Help is that they keep people moving.”
What do you say to people who feel like they’re climbing the walls?
You’ve gotta remember, the thing about CRI-Help is that they keep people moving. If you keep people in group and keep them moving and doing stuff, they don’t have time to start thinking about, “Woe is me,” and, “What am I doing here?”
How does CRI-Help keep them moving during the pandemic?
People are still doing activities in the facility, on the grounds. You don’t have to stop walking. Your group, you’re always with them, everybody gets tested. Right now the only people I associate with are the people that are with me all the time.
They’ve got a lot of stuff to do there. You’ve got to go to group. You’ve got to participate. You’ve got to participate in everything. That’s the one thing about dope fiends: They’re not real participators.
[A note from CRI-Help: CRI-Help remains fully operational during the pandemic with regular COVID testing for clients and staff, PCR testing and a quarantine period for new residents, individual and small group therapy, telehealth services for family therapy, socially distanced outdoor recreation activities (eg. cornhole and access to basketball hoops), and access to virtual 12-Step self help meetings.]
How has the pandemic affected your professional life?
I work all the time. God, let me see. Two weeks ago I was a cartel member, then after that I was a sailor, then after that I was a vampire, then I was a cartoon character, then I was a cartel member again.
I do a lot of Cameos, too. That’s fun, I love that. I can do them right from home. “Hi! I’m Danny and your husband Bob wants to wish you a happy, happy New Year and thank you for being such a great wife! “
Thank God they pay me. So I’m still keeping busy.
What are the new rules on set?
Well, when I’m on the set, everybody that comes on the set has been tested. They test you before and they take your temperature. So, you know, it’s like our wonderful Governor Newsom and our beautiful Mayor Garcetti… It’s like, you’ve got to wear a mask, social distance, be tested, and you’re safe. It’s like right now there’s a pandemic for all the fools who don’t wanna wear a mask. Shit, I wear gloves and a mask when I touch myself.
If the world had been like 2020 when you got sober, do you think you would have made it?
I got clean in the pen and when I came out, like I said, I thank God that I had a place to hang out and go to meetings and meet some people. And, God, I’ve loved Jack since he got clean. So I had friends. And, you know, a drug addict—you never really have friends for any length of time because they either go to prison or die. And now, you know, I’ve had these friends for 50 years, for 30 years, and I think that’s one of the things that really helped me—the fellowship.
And that’s the thing about CRI-Help. My daughter still keeps in touch with her counselor at CRI-Help and she has been out of CRI-Help for seven years. …
I just love CRI-Help because CRI-Help doesn’t look at your bank account coming in. You could be on Medical, thank God.
So anybody can get help at CRI-Help?
Absolutely. That’s the first place I’d take somebody. I don’t care how much money they have—Boom! Let’s go! Because at least, even if you don’t stay clean, what they give you is that foundation. That’s what happened to my son. Once he left he said, “Fuck, I can’t stop thinking about the people I met and what they were saying.”
So, thank God.
CRI-Help asks that anyone seeking treatment should visit cri-help.org/fight to get started.