Al Pacino on His Legendary Roles

It’s tempting to call him “the inimitable Al Pacino,” although he is the most imitated actor in the world. There are, after all, two categories of imitation: impersonation (“Say hello to my le’el friend!” “Hoo-ah!”) and emulation. Emulating Pacino would mean not just bounding into a field of psychological land mines but identifying each one and purposely jumping on top of it. Some, including Johnny Depp, of all people, think he’s mad. Most see the larger wisdom in his design for living and working — and also think he’s mad. The exception is Pacino, who struggles not to think of himself at all so as to concentrate on the next task, the next land mine. For him, there is no other way. If further validation were needed, he could point to a 31-film retrospective in the place he came of age. It’s called “Pacino’s Way.”

He is thrilled that “Pacino’s Way” was proposed by the folks at the Quad Cinema in the Village. On the phone from L.A. in three rambling, absolutely delightful hours, Pacino, now 77, effuses over the years (beginning at 16, when he dropped out of the High School of the Performing Arts) in which he roamed the neighborhood, sometimes homeless and sleeping on the stages of small theaters, moving from production to production, and meeting, in a bar at age 17, his mentor, the late Charlie Laughton (not the famous one), who brought him to the Herbert Berghof Studio.

“I was just stunned by the fact that the Quad offered this to me,” he says. “I immediately crashed on when I was a kid down there. Sometimes you feel closer to what you were than you expected.”

The retrospective (it begins March 14) features most of the biggies: the first two Godfather films (he thinks the third was a mistake), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Scent of a Woman, Heat, as well as — surprisingly, at Pacino’s request — his most formidable bombs, Bobby Deerfield and Revolution.

Equally vital for him are the movies he directed, like the rarely seen Chinese Coffee (based on a play) and two relatively recent films in New York premieres: a spare, stylized version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé he stars in with Jessica Chastain — he’d hoped the film would help launch her career but she did pretty well without it — and Wilde Salomé, a documentary about his relationship with the play. In it, he reveals the often-wayward process of putting together the earlier film and a concurrent L.A. stage production. The documentary isn’t as exhilarating as his 1996 free-form seminar, Looking for Richard, a kind of goofy master’s thesis on the Bard, the hunchbacked king, and the nature of his theatrical obsessions. But it’s full of enjoyably bizarre episodes, like the one in which Pacino throws a lavish cocktail party so that an unprepared, rather confused Chastain can improvise. Wilde Salomé illuminates the space where Pacino is happiest: the experimental theatrical milieu in which, 50 years ago, he found his voice.

Pacino grew up poor in the Bronx, a wild kid with no dad and a fragile working mother, who raised him with the help of his grandparents. School — even the Fame school — couldn’t hold his attention. In the ’60s, his world snapped into focus after he met Laughton and gurus like the Living Theatre’s Julian Beck and Judith Malina (who’d play his mother in Dog Day Afternoon), and, of course, Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. “I was doing Creditors at the Actors’ Gallery and sleeping on the stage I performed on, and so I’d meet Charlie at Washington Square Park and we’d have hot chocolate and coffee in the freezing cold. It was great. It was next to NYU … I so flash on the Village there. I’ve lived all over the city, but the Village at that period of my life is the memory that seems to keep — it repeats itself. It makes me feel good to think about that time.”

Martin Sheen was a fellow poor player. “We were rooming together, me and Martin,” he says. “We used to clean up the stage and wash the halls. Marty got to play in The Connection, and he was outstanding. I remember sitting in the back every night, watching the plays. Everything was happening in the Village at that time, all these different kinds of groups. The café theaters where you did 16 performances a week, and you passed the basket, and that’s how you lived. That environment fed you, and you wanted to be there … I think that’s where I learned everything.” For a while, he worked as a messenger at Commentary magazine for the likes of Norman Podhoretz and Susan Sontag. “They just thought I was an energetic, crazy kid, which was great.” he says. “I loved being there, I must say. One of the few places I wasn’t fired from.”

In 1968, he got his break as a punk in Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx alongside John Cazale, with whom he acted regularly until Cazale died of cancer in 1978. “We wanted to work with each other so much they had to separate us,” he says, “like when you’re in school and you have a couple of clowns.” With Cazale, he learned to live inside improvisations: “I would come in to do a scene, and he would sit there and look at me as I started talking. He’d say, ‘What are you talking about? What are we doing here?’ It wasn’t pretentious. He was serious. ‘What the fuck are you saying to me?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Are you just saying the words of the play? I don’t want to hear that.’ ‘Oh, then fuck you, do whatever you want to … ’ And we’d get into this series of improvs, and guess what he would do? He would circle it, circle it, circle it, until we came right to the scene. I mean, amazing stuff. Amazing stuff. That spirit was in the earlier films I did.”

The first was in 1971, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, in which Pacino chews a lot of gum — an electric performance but not a particularly revealing one. He hadn’t learned to settle down and open himself up to the camera.

The story of his casting in his second film, The Godfather, is well known. Francis Ford Coppola fought to cast him against executives (including producer Robert Evans, who called Pacino the “midget”) who wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal. Among the people who didn’t think Pacino was right for Michael was … Pacino. He wanted to play the hotheaded Sonny. He auditioned and auditioned. And auditioned. At last year’s Tribeca Film Festival Godfather screening–reunion, Coppola remembered calling Pacino in New York and Pacino’s girlfriend — it was Jill Clayburgh, whom he dated for five years — screaming, “You’re torturing him!”

It didn’t get easier once Pacino got the part. He would take long walks (he could do that then) through Manhattan plotting out Michael’s transformation from an open-faced war hero to someone darker, more inward, more intense. “I remember not being able to articulate [that arc], even to Francis,” he says. “For the first couple weeks of filming, they were going to let me go.” Coppola saved him, Pacino insists, by moving up the shooting of a key scene — Michael’s killing of Sollozzo and McCluskey at an Italian restaurant: “When they saw that scene, they kept me.”

The weird thing is that the inward Michael Corleone — the role that turned Pacino into a star in one of the greatest films ever made — is the one that’s least emblematic of his work. It’s not how he ever was again! He says it gives him pleasure when I say that, though it touches on the charge that he has often strayed into ham territory, distending and syncopating syllables like a demented bebop artist. Michael consumed him, put him in a kind of straitjacket, forced him to take some of the music out of his voice. And he thinks of his acting as musical. “I’m a tenor,” he says, “and tenors sometimes like to hit the high note.”

He was happy, he says, to make the leaps to Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon: “I didn’t have to see Michael Corleone. I was flying.”

In-between the Godfather films and Serpico was a lesser-known movie (also in the Quad retrospective) that some critics think is a masterpiece and Pacino remembers with misery: Scarecrow, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, in which he and Gene Hackman play hoboes roaming the Midwest. The presence of the fractious Hackman ensured there were fights on the set, but Pacino says, “I love Gene as an actor and as a person.” It was the assistant director he talks about. “What can you say,” he asks, “about a movie that comes in 17 days ahead of schedule?” Rehearsal, improvs, time to waste productively — that’s Pacino’s way, the Village-theater way. He speaks with envy about the Berliner Ensemble spending a year on a single production and says that’s why he keeps going back to Salomé and David Mamet’s American Buffalo (on which he worked, on and off, for four years) and Richard III — which he would do a fourth time, although I whine in his ear that King Lear beckons. He says it’s the time and repetition that allow him to be break free — and soar.

Talking about Scarecrow yields two more wonderful details. The first is that Quentin Tarantino recently insisted Pacino watch the first, long tracking shot — Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer — and Pacino was amazed by its beauty and expressiveness. He left before the rest but tells me to see that first shot on the big screen. The second comes when I mention that Schatzberg (now 90) is almost as revered in France as that other “Jherry,” Lewis — which prompts Pacino to describe a scene in The Bellboy in which Lewis fusses with a single chair in an empty ballroom as one of his favorites of all time. He agrees that clowning is essential to his style. He’ll push his performances to the point of foolishness and hope his directors will protect him.

Watch how he clowns — as if for his life — in the tragicomic bank-robbery thriller Dog Day Afternoon (1975), for my money the best of all the films in which New York City is a character. The director, Sidney Lumet, rehearsed for three weeks, and with Cazale, too. The shooting was full of discoveries. Pacino’s Sonny wore glasses when his character first walked into the bank, and when he saw the dailies, he insisted he got it wrong, that the character wasn’t there. He spent a night mulling it over and redid the scene without the glasses, because the key to Sonny, Pacino realized, is that he wanted to be caught — or at least to be recognized. “[Filming] went by like a breeze,” he says, “and Sidney came up to me in the midst of all of it and said, ‘Al, it’s out of our hands.’ He said this. I’m telling you. He says ‘out of our hands.’ It’s got a life of its own, and that was it. That’s the direction he gave me.”

It was an assistant director who whispered the magic word to Pacino in the now-famous scene in which he rallies the crowd outside the bank. “He says, ‘Say “Attica.” ’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. “Attica.” Go ahead.’ So I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. This is on-camera now. Cameras are rolling, and I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’ … And we start improvising, and you get that whole Attica scene, because an AD whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are.”

He adds, “See it on the big 35-millimeter screen. You’re, like, in the middle of it. It’s like 3-D.”

Pacino has never been much for exhibiting himself in real life. (He once wore a ridiculous disguise to a Yankees game — he said he had to leave early and worried that people would take his departure the wrong way but instead became a laughingstock on TV news.) Celebrity confuses him. He has an elaborate theory about what happened to Marlon Brando that he promises to share with me some day. He alludes to his periods of deep depression and the time in the ’70s when his drinking became debilitating. In 1977, once he was sober, he made Bobby Deerfield with one of the loves of his life, Marthe Keller, in which he plays an excruciatingly alienated race-car driver. Putting it in the retrospective was quite a move. “It was a huge disaster, but when I saw it again, I saw someone struggling with something, and it was part of my life, and I thought, Well, why not put in the ones where I sort of slipped and fell, even if it’s tough to look at? It kinds of works when you put it in context, doesn’t it? It’s a retrospective.”

And Revolution in 1985 — which turned out so ludicrously bad that he left movies for four years — he insists is a great film manqué, that it lost vital scenes in the course of filming. Years later, he and the director, Hugh Hudson, reedited it and added narration to explain the bewildering gaps. He says to see it again, and while the prospect is daunting, I will, damn it.

Here’s what Pacino wants you to take away from the retrospective, especially if you think he’s often the same in every role onscreen — if you always say, “Oh, that’s Al”: “It’s an overview of an acting artist from the Village, really,” he says, and suggests looking at his four gangsters, Michael Corleone, Tony Montana in Scarface, Carlito from Carlito’s Way, and Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco. They couldn’t be more different. Pacino’s Montana is huge and burns like a filament, a purposely two-dimensional character in a film that the director, Brian De Palma, called a “Brechtian opera” — and Pacino loves how Tony became a cultural icon, however cataclysmic the trajectory. Carlito, on the other hand, is a man who gets out of prison and wants to put his life in order — the opposite of Montana, who manufactures chaos. Lefty is a Mafia middleman, a second-rater striving to rise in the ranks but brought down by a surrogate son who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent.

Sometimes, Pacino says, he goes overboard, sometimes underboard.
“But as Lee Strasberg used to say, ‘Don’t do what you can do. Do what you can’t do. That’s how you learn.’ ”

I quote Michael Mann, who once compared Pacino to Pacino’s old Village pal Robert De Niro: De Niro “sees the part as a construction, working incredibly hard, detail by detail, bit by bit, building character … [Pacino is] more like Picasso, staring at an empty canvas for many hours in intense concentration. And then there’s a series of brushstrokes. And a piece of the character is alive.”

Pacino says, “Isn’t that great, to hear that? I’m so glad, because I remember hearing about Picasso, who stares for 12 hours at an empty canvas. So, I play around with stuff. When I find something, it’s a combination of doing it so much in my life … and also saying, ‘I don’t know anything about acting at all.’ ”

He’s still learning. In the space of a year, he has played a shocked, stricken Joe Paterno for Barry Levinson in HBO’s Paterno (premiering in April), which he says is more internal than most of his recent performances. From there, he jumped into the part of Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, working with De Niro (playing Hoffa’s close friend and likely killer) and, for the first time, Martin Scorsese. The film was shooting when Pacino signed up — Scorsese warned him it would be “a moving train” — which is not how he likes to work. But he trusted Scorsese and De Niro enough to hop aboard. Also, the budget of the film, produced by Netflix, is big and getting bigger, and the money will doubtless help to underwrite Pacino’s next theatrical experiments.

Pacino left his beloved New York City in the ’90s to be closer to his three children (by Jan Tarrant and Beverly D’Angelo). They’re very much L.A. kids, he says with love but a hint of sadness. As a late-in-life father, he wishes one thing for them: appetite, which he insists is more important than talent. He also wants them to know that happiness is possible only as a by-product of concentration.

But his life lessons are apt to get lost in soliloquies that somehow wind back into the need to experiment, to rekindle his ’60s Greenwich Village spirit.

Pacino: If you’re lucky, and you don’t let the booze get you, the drugs get you, and all that, and then you come out—and I am by no means a happy camper, you know? So that’s okay to know that. That’s okay. It’s really a struggle. And I have to say, maybe it’s wishful thinking here, but it does get easier, you know? I mean, the more you get involved with things, the more you see what the challenges are. I’m always trying to figure things out myself, you know? I’ve been in therapy most of my adult life.

Me: Me too!

Pacino: I like it, don’t you? I don’t lay on any couch. I’m sitting in that chair talking … like I’m talking to you, saying all these dumb things, some of which will get printed, some won’t, but I’m talking about stuff I half-believe in or don’t believe in at all or really think I believe in, right? You can understand why celebrities sometimes get caught up, because it’s so great to be able to say things and you have a little bit of authority, and they get credited, and then afterward, you just despair. It’s funny, isn’t it?

I’ll take his word for it.

My hunch is that Pacino went back over our interview the way he goes back over his roles, second-guessing himself, wanting to get it right. I get this email:

Hi David,

I just want to say in passing an interesting thought, acting is a very private affair. Actors talk about it and say do this and that, but when they are alone and within themselves they go where writers go, after a while that’s what’s so pleasant about it. It’s between you and you, and believe it or not, that’s when the creative moments come. Just as an aside, I think you will get what I’m talking about.

Alright, I hate to be you with that spiel I gave you in your head. Haha! Man I talked a mile, didn’t I? I’m going back to bed.



Pacino’s Way” is at the Quad, March 14-30.

*This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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