From Corleone to Bufalino: Al Pacino looks back on an iconic movie and theatre career
A New York film location was the setting for a reunion of mobster-movie legends when Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci joined Martin Scorsese for the production of The Irishman.
"It was great to be back with Bobby De Niro again," says Pacino, who worked with De Niro on 1995's Heat and 2008's Righteous Kill; they were both in The Godfather: Part II, though they never appeared onscreen together. "I love him and I've worked with him so much and have known him for so long, so it’s always fun to work with people you trust and know. And, of course, Martin Scorsese is a maestro and he was just a pleasure to be with. "
Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, who served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and was also involved with organized crime. Hoffa mysteriously disappeared in 1975 at the age of 62. De Niro plays mob boss and suspected prolific assassin Fran "The Irishman" Sheeran, while Pesci, another Scorsese alumnus, plays Russell Bufalino, the Mafia don who allegedly ordered the hit on Hoffa.
"It was exciting to do something real about something that happened to us in our country, here in America," notes Pacino. "We had a lot of freedom and it was like doing a movie in the way we used to. It took nine months to a year to film and it was the same feeling we used to get. But this was done by a cable franchise."
The project had been in the works for several years and was finally taken up by Netflix, the only entity could afford the budget after the major studios backed out. Pacino also appeared recently as disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in the Barry Levinson-directed HBO biopic Paterno.
"The desire and need to make movies is still there, but the way they get made is different," Pacino muses. "For instance, in the old days when you did movies, you had a solid rehearsal period so you could get to know the people you were playing with, and the movies would have taken twice as long to make. But now it’s truncated down and there's not much time for rehearsal anymore."
At the age of 77 and after a more than 50-year career, Pacino has no intention of taking things easy, although he is choosier about the projects he takes on. “I’ve been thinking about age more and more, and I’m going through a cycle where I just want to do things that I relate to and feel a connection with," he says.
“I am looking at things and making assessments as I read them, whereas before I didn’t think much about it. Now I look at a script and I say, ‘Do I relate to anything in it that’s appropriate to me?’—because there are movies that are very well-written but I wouldn’t be in them, whereas 20 years ago I would be.
"I read different plays, I read books, I sometimes do seminars, I go off and do a lot of work with orchestras, full symphony orchestras, doing Shakespeare or doing poetry. So I have these alternatives,theyare out there for me, and so I am more ready to do that now.Of course, I have hadalotof upsand downs in life like we all do, but I will tell you the truth: If I don’t want to do this anymore, then I won’t do it. That’s a good thing to be ableto say.It’sa workadayworld, we all like to do stuff, and sometimes you need to survive and that requires certainthings you haveto do.Sometimes I feel I am making an excuse astowhyI keepdoingthis,butaslongasthere’schallengesandIhavetheopportunity,I'll dothem."
We are talking in Los Angeles, where he is visiting his 17-year-old twin son and daughter who live with their mother, the actress Beverly D’Angelo, on the West Coast. “When I’m here I see them as much as I can," he says, "and that’s why I’ve been out here a lot over the years.” He also has a 27-year-old actress daughter, Julie, from a relationship with acting coach Jan Tarrant.
Dressed in a rumpled dark suit with a scarf around his neck and his shirttail hanging out of his trousers, Pacino sips from a polystyrene cup of coffee as he talks. He began his professional career as a standup comic and still derives great pleasure in telling funny stories.
Born and brought up in the South Bronx, he had a “complicated” childhood, he says. His stonemason father, Salvatore, walked out on the family two years afterhe was born, so young Al was raised by his mother, Rose, and her parents. Money was always tight, but his mother started taking him to the movies when he was a little boy.
"Afterwards I would go home and enact the parts in the movies I had seen. When I saw The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland playing a drunk, I was so affected by it. I would play the Ray Milland part at home—the scene where he has left his bottle of booze somewhere and he can’t remember where he put it and he starts searching the house and he's going out of his mind...he's so distraught and he has to find it. Well, I would do that scene with such intensity, desperate to find the booze, full of anguish searching for it, and as I was doing it, my relatives would be laughing. And I thought, 'This isn’t funny, why are they laughing?'
"And I only realized much later it wasn't my acting they were laughing at—it was because I was five years old!"
A conversation with Al Pacino takes many twists and turns, ranging from anecdotes about fellow actors and past movies to literary allusions. He quotes Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and acting coach Lee Strasberg, among others, but strangely he is not a very articulate man, leaving sentences unfinished, veering from one topic to the next and occasionally forgetting what he was going to say. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t want to go too deeply into anything.
He still shudders when he thinks about his childhood adventures in his neighborhood. “We used to play tag on the tenement roofs,” he recalls. “We had to go from one roof to the next and there was a big drop between them... I don’t even want to think about it now. Sometimes I have nightmares about it and wake up thinking that I’m so lucky to have survived that.”
Then, unexpectedly, he breaks into song: “I climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right into space. Up on the roof. Up on the rooo-ooof….” He stops and grins. “In the summertime at night, everybody in the building would be up on the roof listening to radios and talking to each other. It was all an adventure.”
Pacino left home when he was 16. He moved to Greenwich Village, where he took various low-paying jobs in order to support his mother, whose health was declining. (She died of a heart attack when Pacino was 22.) He also joined a theatre group, and started performing comedy bits and drama in cafés and warehouses. “It saved my life, really. The theatre became my family for many years and it’s still my family,” he says.
Since training at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg and going on to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather in 1972, he has been nominated for Oscars eight times and won once, for Scent of a Woman in 1992, as well as picking up four Golden Globes, two Emmys and two Tonys.
The Corleone role established him in the gangster mold, which he later took to operatic heights playing the machine-gun toting Tony Montana in Scarfaceand lowlifes such as Mafia foot soldier Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco.
Although Pacino’s most memorable performances have been in dramas, he likes to point out his comedic roots. “I started out as a comic,” he notes. “That was a long time ago, but I hope I’m still funny. I think I am. I got caught up in this tragedian thing, but I like to think there’s humor in most roles, although Michael Corleone, the Godfather, wasn’t a funny guy—and I think that’s the impression that comes into people’s minds about me. But when you look at the movies I’ve made, some of them are funny.” Then he pauses and chuckles. “But not the successful ones.”
Pacino's CV is eclectic and the roles he's taken are frequently challenging: the bisexual bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, for example, or the undercover cop in Cruising, the 1980 William Friedkin thriller that attracted the ire of gay-rights protestors for its treatment of the New York scene. Along with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, the slight Pacino was part of a new generation of unconventional actors who ended the longstanding Hollywood rule that all leading men had to be over six feet tall and ruggedly handsome.
Nevertheless, he has frequently been drawn away from Hollywood by his first love, theatre. Onstage he’s played numerous Shakespearean roles including Richard III (a play he also explored in his documentary Looking for Richard), Mark Antony and Shylock.
A lot of his anecdotes come from his times on the stage—he made his Broadway debut in 1969, winning his first Tony award for Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? Unlike many stage-trained actors who abandon the theatre when they became movie stars, he has never strayed far from the footlights.
“I still have actor’s nightmares,” he confides. “I remember being in a Shakespeare play and saying, ‘My Lord, I have so and so...’, and then I did two or three more lines and realized it was another Shakespeare play—I was in Hamlet and I was doing Julius Caesar. I thought, ‘How do I get out of this?’ It was terrifying. But the audience didn’t understand what I was saying anyway, so it was fine! And I worked my way back somehow, with doubletalk or whatever I was doing.
“And I remember once doing a play when I was still relatively young and we were doing eight performances of Shakespeare a week, and I was tired and you’re up there doing a matinee and a performance at night and I was doing this huge speech—a big oration—and I’m thinking, ‘I’m saying everything twice. I’m repeating myself because I just said that line. What’s going to happen to me? The audience is going to start leaving, saying, ‘The poor guy is saying everything twice.’ Because two hours ago I was doing the same oration.”
When most actors get to his age having amassed a stack of awards, they think about writing their memoirs. But not Al Pacino. He doubts he’ll ever write a book about his life and career for the simple reason that he doesn’t remember much of what he did in the ’70s. The decade in which he earned five Oscar nominations—for the two Godfather films, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and …And Justice for All, as well as having the title role in Richard III on Broadway—passed by in a blur of drink and drugs.
“I was all right in the sixties, but in the seventies I felt as though I was shot out of a cannon, because I became very famous in a matter of minutes,” he recalls.
“People always said the seventies was about pretty boys—then I came along. I never intended to be a movie star. That wasn’t on my agenda and it came as a shock, and I think that was part of what complicated the seventies for me. I was a bit of a wild guy and I was living a life in this kind of explosion, so my memory of it was kind of…as they say, I was in different states at different times.”
He became a teetotaler in 1977, and after critics lambasted his 1985 historical saga Revolution, he dropped out of acting for four years.
His mentor and acting teacher Lee Strasberg, seeing the troubled actor’s difficulties in handling fame, took him to one side and told him: “Darling, you simply have to adjust.”
"Those words, simple as they were, rang a bell in me and I started adjusting, which means accepting all the stuff that goes with fame,” he says. “You have to learn how to deal with your own position in the celebrity world and I think that’s how some people endure and others don’t.
“There’s fame and then there’s success. Success is kind of great, but then you couple it with fame and it gets a little confusing.”
Pacino has never married. His girlfriends have included actresses Jill Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, Kathleen Quinlan, Debra Winger and Penelope Ann Miller, as well as Beverly D’Angelo. For the past seven years, he has been involved with Lucila Solá, a model 40 years his junior. “There’s a lot of life we’ve had together and a lot of things that keep us together,” he says. “It’s enduring and I’m happy because it works, as they say. I just feel lucky and I have so many things to be grateful for. When I think back, I don’t know if I’d do anything different."
He bursts into song again: “Lucky, lucky me! I’m a lucky son of a gun, I work eight hours, I sleep eight hours, that leaves eight hours of fun.”