Nearly 40 years after delivering a shockingly real performance as Bobby, the strung-out dope addict in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, Al Pacino — one of the most honored actors of his generation — is still refining his craft, and defining it for the next generation.
His driving intelligence and quest for excellence have given us such indelible screen characters as tortured mob chief Michael Corleone, Det. Frank Serpico, irresistible bank robber Sonny of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, blind tango dancer Lt. Col. Frank Slade of SCENT OF A WOMAN and Tony Montana, a gangster who remains a cultural force 20 years after the release of SCARFACE.
Between and around those legendary roles, this actor’s actor plays on the nation’s best stages in works by Israel Horovitz, Bertolt Brecht, David Mamet, William Shakespeare and, most recently, in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. His passion for language and the art of acting led him to write and direct LOOKING FOR RICHARD, an award-winning documentary that explores the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare for a modern screen audience. At the same time, he stretches his muscles as a filmmaker with personal projects like THE LOCAL STIGMATIC and CHINESE COFFEE.
Once Pacino discovered his gifts, as an only child in the Bronx of the 1940s and then at the Actors Studio, where as a young adult he studied his craft under the tutelage of mentors like Charlie Laughton and Lee Strasberg, he honored them by making a singular commitment to his craft. By plunging into acting as his way to connect with the world, the intense young actor learned to express himself like no other.
Building on the techniques that fellow Method actor Marlon Brando displayed so brilliantly in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and ON THE WATERFRONT, Pacino plumbed his own psyche to create a finely wrought cast of ruthless gangsters, conflicted cops, street punks and mid-life wrecks who, even from the depths of depravity, can make us love them, or feel what it must be like to walk in their shoes.
Sidney Lumet, who directed the actor in DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SERPICO, tried to explain the Pacino magic: “Everything stems from some incredible core inside of him. I wouldn’t think of trying to get near it, because it would be like getting somewhere near the center of the earth. What comes out of his core is so uniquely his own.”
That core can feel as elemental as the human condition itself, and when it flashes on the big screen it touches something deep inside of us. Like that other movie gangster with the streets of New York written on his face, James Cagney, and that female outlaw Bette Davis, Pacino’s power is volcanic. It keeps us in our seats just waiting for it to explode with operatic intensity. Whether he’s standing up to the tobacco industry and big media as crusading producer Lowell Bergman in THE INSIDER, seducing another pathetic sucker as salesman Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, or slipping into bedlam as the raving Roy Cohn in ANGELS IN AMERICA, the truth feels red hot. And it is compelling to watch.
That same man is also capable of the finest restraint. In the averted glances of worn-out street soldier Lefty Ruggiero at the end of his game in DONNIE BRASCO, in the stooped shoulders of weary investigator Dormer out to crack one more case in INSOMNIA, and in the hollow, calculating eyes of Michael Corleone, Pacino has drawn characters that shimmer with the nuances of real life. He is a master at portraying men who have perhaps seen too much, but who, like Det. Frank Keller in SEA OF LOVE, yearn for a second chance.
In life and on the screen Pacino has not played it safe. He committed to the actor’s life as a poor kid from the Bronx who quit the School of Performing Arts at 16 to help support his family. He held jobs as a messenger, an usher and a building superintendent while apprenticing at avant-garde off-off-Broadway theater companies until joining the Actors Studio and dedicating himself to acting full time at the age of 26. He struggled, sleeping on friends’ floors, appearing off-Broadway in The Indian Wants the Bronx, and screen-testing several times, at the age of 32, for the role in THE GODFATHER that would cement his place in cinematic history.
Paramount thought he was too short and understated to play a gangster, and suggested less ethnic actors for the part. But Francis Ford Coppola, who had seen Pacino on the stage in New York, knew he had found a true son for Brando, a casting decision for which author Mario Puzo was forever grateful.
“The great bonus was Al Pacino,” remembered Puzo in his book, The Godfather Papers. “As Michael, Pacino was everything I wanted that character to be on screen. I couldn’t believe it. It was, in my eyes, a perfect performance, a work of art.”
In his quest to uncover what it means to be alive, Pacino has applied himself tirelessly to his craft and the result is a body of work that glows with vitality. His gifts have not gone unrecognized. The eight-time Academy Award nominee has taken home an Obie, a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy.
As the consummate actor said about identity, at a 2007 seminar at the AFI Conservatory, “Who you are is really about what you do.”
And Al Pacino acts like no other.