Lee Siegel on How Broadway Keeps Pulling Pacino Back In

Al Pacino
Acting is a way of “taking you away from your own sick ego,” says Pacino. “It’s about getting back to being free of yourself.” Platon for Newsweek

“I love the idea of risk,” Al Pacino says. “What I don’t like is suicide.” A few days later, he tells me a story about taking the first great risk of his film career, the scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots a rival gangster and corrupt police captain in a Bronx restaurant.

“I’m sure I didn’t plan to throw the gun away the way I did in The Godfather after the shooting of Sollozzo,” Pacino says. “He flicks the gun that way when he drops it, he just flicks it. ‘It’s not a part of me, I’m done, I’m done.’” Pacino pauses, as if he is, once again, the 32-year-old actor in his first truly major motion picture, knowing the studio wants to replace him, trying to find his way into the enigmatic character. “There was a combination of things in that gesture,” he says. He pauses again. “It’s almost like, ‘Get it away from me’—or not even that.” Another pause. “It was ambivalent.”

I first meet Pacino at the large midtown Manhattan apartment that he sublets and uses as an office. He’s about to appear in a Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a modern-day fable of lost souls and failed words, set in the small office of a group of real-estate con men.

The theater keeps pulling him back in from Hollywood, the way a Mafia family and blood ties keep pulling Michael Corleone back in every time he tries to go straight. In Pacino’s case, however, the theater is how he goes straight.

At 72, Pacino has the kind of face that if you see it in an old painting from a distance, you think it is the face of a stonemason, but when you get closer you realize that it belongs to the Duke of Mantua. He has the simultaneously polished and rough appearance of a humbly born aristocrat. The color often rises in his cheeks, battling stubble and goatee. I kept recalling a phrase I read once in a novel: “bathed in high feeling.” Pacino is always bathed in high feeling. Yet he is also detached, removed, even as he cautiously warms to the conversation.

Pacino refers often to painting as a metaphor for acting, and he talks as though he were painting like Jackson Pollock. He walks around the conversation as if around a canvas on the floor: dabbing, jabbing, dripping, pouring, reflecting, beginning again. “I can be contradictory, vague,” he says. “It’s part of the struggle to find the words.” Later, he says, “When we talk, I try to keep it simple.” The seeming contradictions, the vagueness, the constant revisions are attempts to get at some elemental truth, beyond words. It is just like his various interpretations of what is going through Michael’s mind when he throws away that gun.

Al Pacino does reality to perfection. During the 1970s, in films like The Godfather Parts I and II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon—not to mention later films like Scarface, Sea of Love, The Godfather Part III (“If I had anything I didn’t like in that film,” Pacino says, “it would be my haircut”), Scent of a Woman, Heat, Donnie Brasco, Insomnia—Pacino didn’t just bring naturalism in acting to a new level of authenticity. He acted the roles as if he was also writing them. He invented new American types as vivid as Captain Ahab or Jay Gatsby: the son cursed with inherited corruption (The Godfather); the wounded sentinel driven by a heroic compulsion (Serpico); the injured outlaw cut from within by obscure fragments of love and rage (Dog Day Afternoon). His mythic simplicity has redefined American acting.

Even as he was blazing on screen in the 1970s, Pacino returned to his beloved stage, winning a Tony award for his role in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. He tells me that “the very idea of being an aerialist is very significantly connected to getting out there on the stage. You’re at risk, and you have the appropriate feelings connected with that type of thing.” But in truth, Pacino performs in film with feelings appropriate to flying on a trapeze over a stage. Perhaps one reason he and Mamet are such a perfect fit is that Mamet is a playwright writing for the screen. Pacino says Mamet’s language “doesn’t sound natural, and it doesn’t sound theatrical. It just sounds like something you want to keep hearing.” It is no surprise that Pacino’s portrayal of Phil Spector, in a brilliant upcoming movie written and directed by Mamet, is unforgettable.

The two men clearly have a deep admiration for each other. Bringing up Mamet moves Pacino to talk about Shakespeare and O’Neill. About what it’s like to work with Pacino, Mamet says, “I’m just grateful.” As for Pacino the man, Mamet refers to his humility and says simply, “I’m crazy about him.”

Pacino Films In his early films (Dog Day Afternoon; The Godfather II ), Pacino fashioned characters as vivid as Captain Ahab and Jay Gatsby. By the early 90s, he took naturalism in acting to new levels of authenticity in Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman. Everett Collection (4)

Mamet tells me that it is impossible to put Pacino’s gift into words. “Lee Strasberg was trying to figure out [what makes an actor great]. Antonin Artaud was trying to figure it out. None of them had any f--king clue.” Pacino’s gift, Mamet says, “is beyond our ability to reduce, which is to say it has some divinity about it. How, we don’t know.” I ask him what he felt seeing Pacino acting on stage in Mamet’s American Buffalo some 30 years ago: “What Bach would have felt had he heard Glenn Gould.”

Frustrated by some mismanaged films, beleaguered by heightened pressure to deliver at the box office, Pacino took four years off from filmmaking in the 1980s, which was when he returned to the stage in American Buffalo. He also financed the film of a play by the British playwright Heathcote Williams, The Local Stigmatic, a small, shattering masterpiece about the deranging effects of fame and envy in which he plays a frighteningly sensitive and intelligent thug, doing a Cockney accent to a fare-thee-well.

Pacino talks about those four years away from commercial filmmaking as if they were a return to relative paradise. “I got back to being closer to myself than I had been for a while,” he says. “That gave me comfort, and I needed it at the time.”

After the skyrocketing success of his performance in The Godfather, there had been the usual fallout: drinking, depression, feelings of isolation, an obstructive selfishness. Selfishness haunts Pacino. At one point, I refer to a quote from Michelangelo he often cites, about the necessity of freeing yourself from yourself in order to give pleasure to others.

“That’s all part of taking you away from your own sick ego,” he says quietly, but emphatically. “Your own self-serving stuff that gets in the way. You get out of the way of yourself to be able to express what it really is. It’s all about getting back to being free of yourself.”

I ask him if he has ever been in therapy. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I’ve done therapy a long time. I like it.” Then he tells me a joke that is really about the futility of therapy. A woman has been with the same therapist for 10 years. On her last day, she tells her therapist how much he has transformed her life, how complete he has made her feel. But in all these years, she says, you have not said one word. Please, doctor, tell me something. Just one word. The doctor looks at her. “No hablo inglés!” he says. Pacino laughs richly. “There’s something to say about a craft like that,” he tells me.

You get the feeling that after certain questions, Pacino would like to be able to reply “no hablo inglés.” He generally doesn’t like doing interviews, and when I ask him something about his personal life, he replies softly, but firmly, “No, don’t ask.”

He opens up when a question engages his feelings. I want to know if he ever yearns to recapture the anonymity of his life before he achieved fame. He puts his hands to the sides of his head and the color rises slowly in his face. “I’d have to make my way; nobody knows who I am.” His eyes glimmer with self-mockery: “How am I going to get on an airplane? How am I going to go to a restaurant? I don’t know, it’s like I’ve got to learn to walk and talk!” Then he smiles impishly and leans toward me. “How about: it’s just too late.”

I’ve asked him what he would say to his mother, who died at the age of 43, when he was 21, if she came back to life. He is swept by emotion. “I don’t know, I’d just say ... It’s hard to say. First I’d have to have her sit down and put a cold towel on her forehead because she’d probably be so shocked at what had happened to me.” He laughs shyly. “She’d have to recover from that shock first before I could say, ‘Here it is. Here’s the key to ... your new apartment,’ because she would love that, if she could have her own apartment in the city where she could go see plays and stuff, because my mother loved plays. My mother was a very sensitive person.” I ask him how his mother died. “That’s a whole other story,” he says.

You cannot really understand what the theater means to Pacino, why he keeps coming back to it, unless you understand what family means to him. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was very young, and she left East Harlem and took him to live with her parents in the Bronx. There were about seven people living in one apartment—“more than was necessary,” Pacino jokes. The young boy must have felt, at the same time, that he was boxed in by his circumstances—and that every possibility was open to him.

When I repeat Brando’s remark, that by the time he was 40 he couldn’t trust anyone, Pacino replies, “But Marlon did leave the theater”—meaning, for film. In the theater, Pacino says, “a kind of shorthand takes place, a trust and confidence.” Recalling a group of actors sitting in a café that he saw as a young man, he says, “You could almost feel that the comfort they had with each other was very much like a kind of functional family. There it is, that’s the word. It’s family.”

At other times Pacino describes the theater as a place of continuity and tradition, a community that offers a celebrity an opportunity for replenishing anonymity. Of classic actors like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Pacino says, with wistful admiration, that “they went off and did a play and it became a way of life, and their performance was like breathing.” He is in thrall to the ritual of playing the same character every night, for months, even years, through an actor’s every changing mood.

By contrast, Pacino can talk about the movies with exasperation. He loves what he calls their “magic,” and he is clearly grateful for the life he has and has had in film, having just done a delightful comedic turn in a new crime farce with Christopher Walken, Stand Up Guys, appearing in December. But he laments the commercial-movie pressure of having to “accommodate the clock,” as he puts it, even attributing some of his famous mannerisms to shortcuts taken in lieu of a healthy rehearsal time. “Three weeks’ rehearsal is good for a film,” he says. “In today’s world they rarely rehearse at all.”

When he speaks about returning to the theater, he sounds as though he were talking about a rebirth. “It’s like going back to the cave, so to speak,” he says. Pacino’s closest friend and most important father figure is Charlie Laughton, who also happened to be his first acting teacher. About Laughton, who is fighting multiple sclerosis, Pacino speaks with reverence and a sense of profound indebtedness. “Charlie has an innate wisdom,” he says. “He has been the major person early on, and with me my entire life.”

Pacino in fact acknowledges several father figures: Laughton, Lee Strasberg, Brando, Joe Papp, the producer Marty Bregman. But he hasn’t sought out a father figure since he had his own kids, he tells me. “Not for at least the last 25 years.” The children help with the flight from self. “Every time I go back home,” he says, “I say, ‘Wait a minute! This isn’t at all about me, is it?’”

Pacino has told me that “the only thing that helps me as an actor is if I can relate to the part. That’s it.” The statement provokes thoughts of Michael Corleone and his intense filial devotion. I ask Pacino if the lines separating Brando the Mafia patrician from Brando the father figure became blurred for him on the set of The Godfather. He tells me a story about the making of the film.

“Before we started filming, Francis [Coppola] had us all together as a family in an Italian restaurant in East Harlem. We all sat around a table, with Marlon at the head, and after about a half hour or an hour of just being together, what you saw happening was that everybody kind of took on, a little bit, psychologically, the role that they were playing. Marlon was responding to me without knowing me, as if I was that kid, who was not quite decided as to what he wanted to do, and that, somehow, as his son, I had something that Marlon wanted to cultivate, and that he was sensitive to in his youngest son. He understood Michael, he understood his character, this kind of contemplative personality, one that was also very aware of things, independent, and in his own way, anarchic.”

Contemplative, hyperaware, independent, and, in his own way, anarchic: in The Godfather, Pacino found the role he could relate to down to the depths of his being. At that dinner in East Harlem, he clinched his vocation once and for all, with a new, mythic family. It is an American fairy tale about Hollywood, and a Hollywood fairy tale about real life; about the human dream of fulfilling your destiny in your work.

And suddenly, Pacino finds the elemental simplicity he has been hoping to convey since our first conversation: “My love,” he says, “became my reality.”

Join the Discussion