An Evening with Al Pacino
Surreal. That is the best way to describe the experience of meeting Al Pacino, the man who is one of the greatest legends of the silver screen. For one night only he made an appearance at the Eventim Apollo theater for a 2 hour onstage live interview with an English movie critic, followed by a question and answer session with the audience and the recitation of poetry by Oscar Wilde. He discussed his creative process, shared backstage stories and commented on the highlights of his illustrious career. This is the man who starred in such classics as The Godfather Parts I and II, Scent of a Woman, Serpico, Scarface, Carlito’s Way, Glengarry Glen Ross and Donnie Brasco, just to cite a few. To call him one of the greatest actors of his generation would be an understatement. But without further ado and before my aging memory betrays my tale, please allow me to commit to paper the most interesting facts that I learned tonight, in bullet point format, and in no particular order.
• Nobody wanted to cast him for the “Godfather” except for Francis Ford Coppola. The director had become enamored with Pacino after seeing him in a Broadway play that earned him a Tony award and desperately wanted to cast him as Michael Corleone. The problem was that no one else thought that was a good idea, not even Pacino himself, much less the studio executives. I must admit that having met him in person, I can now see why he would not be the obvious choice for a leading man. In movies such as the “The Devil’s Advocate” or even “Scent of a Woman”, Pacino has a very strong, commanding screen presence. He simply exudes strength and charisma. However, in real life, he is a very short man, with disproportionally short legs and disproportionally long arms who lumbers around and carries himself as if he was preparing to play the part of Robbin Williams in the Fisher King. In case you may have forgotten, in that movie Williams plays the part of a mentally ill homeless man. So in essence, judging solely by his physical appearance, anyone would be hard-pressed to cast him for the part of Michael Corleone. Fortunately, Coppola could see well beyond the superficial and managed to convince the executives by anticipating the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo and filming it first. Pacino’s performance in that scene finally silenced the studio executives and solidified his claim to the role.
• A sweet ten-year-old girl asked him what movies he would recommend to children her age, especially given that he was a father himself. Pacino was visibly floored by the question. “Whatever you do, don’t watch Scarface!” he said, before pausing for several seconds and finally recommending “Marry Poppins” and “Sound of Music”. “Anything with Julie Andrews would be good for you.”, he said with a sigh of relief.
• He was asked what part he really regretted not getting to which he retorted: “I gave that boy his career!” He was referring to Harrison Ford. Pacino had tested for the part of Han Solo, but for whatever reason didn’t get it and the rest is history, in a galaxy far, far away.
• When offered the part of Michael Corleone his first reaction was to reject it and ask for the part of Sonny Corleone, played by James Caan. Michael was the silent, quiet type and Pacino wanted to play the volatile, high-strung sibling. Michael was the part that would launch his career and it had to be almost forced upon him. I find that strangely amusing. As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
• Have you ever wondered why Robert Duvall never appeared in Godfather Part III? Despite Coppola’s incessant pleadings, Duvall simply refused to relive the part of Tom Hagan. It is rumored that Coppola was nearly insolvent and decided to make the film merely for financial reasons. Duvall was concerned about preserving the legacy of the previous two films and refused to partake in the third installment. Pacino did not say as much, but insinuated. Coppola ended up having to kill the character of Tom Hagan and, for the amount of money that Pacino was asking, he almost killed Michael Corleone as well.
• Whilst shooting Michael Mann’s “Heat”, Robert De Niro refused to rehearse with Pacino, stating that their scenes would be much better if they were simply spontaneous. Pacino wanted to rehearse, but De Niro was adamant that he wanted to be more improvisational in terms of emotional reaction. In the end, the scene required 15 takes. I wonder if it didn’t turn out to be a sparring session more than anything else.
• When asked to name the actor with whom he had worked that had most impressed him in terms of talent and technique, at first he declined to answer. After some prodding, he admitted being overly impressed with Anthony Hopkins, whom he described as a truly complete actor. “But then again, there were so many others.” He was equally laudatory of Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro.
• “Do I care what critics have to say?” He recounts how he once staged a Shakespearean play in Boston only to have the New York Times tear it apart, saying that he had set back Shakespeare in America for at least fifty years. He was so irritated by the criticism that eventually he set out to make the movie “Looking for Richard”. “This is how much I care about what the critics have to say!”
• He will star in a new David Mamet play in Broadway this fall and recommended that we watch Bradley Cooper’s performance in the theatrical version of the “Elephant Man” being staged in London this year, a piece of advice that I have already taken to heart. He also just finished a movie called “Salomé” with Jessica Chastain, depicting the biblical story of the woman who agrees to perform the dance of the seven veils in return for John the Baptist's head on a silver platter.
• He was admitted to Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio when he was about 25 and that was an important stage of his career. For the first time he had a sense of his identity as an actor, for the first time he felt validated in his profession. He was humble enough to admit that finding work is one of the greatest struggles for an actor. The quest for the right part can become all-consuming when your entire life depends on it and there’s only so much that you can do. Being part of the Actor’s Studio really built a strong foundation in terms of technique, giving him an opportunity to hone his craft.
• His recitation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was exceptional, and he wasn’t even trying.
• In the end, what struck me the most was the exuberant, unadulterated passion that this man has for his craft. His work is a labor of love. He loves acting, he loves movies and he loves the theater. To be able to express yourself artistically, touch the lives of others and be universally validated must be a truly dignifying, rewarding experience. It was an honor to have met you Mr. Pacino, god bless, safe journey on.