One of the most important, influential and imitated actors of the last half-century reflects on his formative years, his classic roles and his 79th year of life, in which he is garnering Oscar buzz for his work opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Netflix crime epic.
"Some strange stuff is happening with The Irishman now," says the legendary Al Pacino, who has won raves — and considerable best supporting actor Oscar buzz — for his portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa in the Netflix crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese. As we sit down at the DGA Theatre in Hollywood to record the first-ever live episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, Pacino continues, "I'm feeling things and I'm thinking, 'I've somehow been through this before, but it was way back, when a lot of [award season] attention was being paid to me — I don't know what it was!' And then I realize, 'Well, I don't remember because it was the seventies!' I don't remember much of the seventies..."
Pacino may not remember much of the seventies, but the 150 film buffs who gathered for the recording certainly were aware of — and enthusiastically cheered — what he did back then, when he was first establishing himself as one of the greatest stage and screen actors of his generation, and all the great work that he has done in the years since, too. Today, at 79, with an Oscar, two Emmys, two Tonys, a HFPA's Cecil B. DeMille Award, an AFI Life Achievement Award, a National Medal of the Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor on his mantelpiece, Pacino would be well within his rights to rest on his laurels. But instead, he is still hard at work — and doing some of his best work yet.
Pacino was born in Manhattan and raised in the South Bronx. His working-class parents divorced when he was a baby, and he was raised by his mother and grandparents in a three-room apartment that housed numerous other relatives, as well. He was drawn to acting from an early age — after seeing 1945's The Lost Weekend, he came home and started to pretend that he, like the main character in the film, was a drunk hiding his booze; he put on performances to evoke laughter from hard-of-hearing aunts; and he was mesmerized by a touring production of The Seagull that came through his community. But pursuing acting as a profession did not seem like a viable option until Blanche Rothstein, Pacino's eighth grade drama teacher, who had been impressed by his biblical recitations at school assembly, trekked over and climbed the stairs to his fifth-floor tenement in order to urge his grandmother to encourage him to do so.
As a result, Pacino enrolled at New York's High School of Perfiorming Arts — later known as the Fame school — but, at 16, out of financial hardship, dropped out to begin working odd jobs. He was occasionally homeless, but he still managed to take acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, where Charlie Laughton no relation to the Oscar winner of the same name, "a great acting teacher," became a father-figure to him — particularly after Pacino's mother and grandfather died within a year of each other when he was in his early twenties. By that time, Pacino had already applied to — and been rejected from — the fabled Actors Studio. But he reapplied and was accepted in 1967, starting at the same time as Dustin Hoffman; receiving instruction from Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman; sitting in classes audited by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman; and learning The Method.
While the Actors Studio didn't cost anything, it also didn't pay anything, so Pacino had to continue to work other jobs on the side. One of them was as the superintendent of a building, a resident of which was the playwright Israel Horovitz, who, in 1966, cast Pacino opposite Pacino's childhood pal John Cazale in the one-act play The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which Pacino would go on to win an Obie and land the "facilitator" who would guide him throughout much of the rest of his career, Martin Bregman. "I got lucky," he acknowledges. He subsequently made his Broadway debut in 1969's Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, winning a Tony for his efforts, and this time catching the eye of the young filmmakerFrancis Ford Coppola, who asked him to star in a film that then never ended up getting off the ground.
Pacino instead played, as his first important screen role, a heroin junkie in Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park 1971, after which Coppola contacted him again, this time about playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather 1972. Pacino preferred the role of Sonny, and nobody associated with the film except Coppola wanted him for any role at all, but after Pacino auditioned three times, Paramount studio chief Robert Evans finally agreed to let him play Michael — but even after that, Pacino's job was not secure for some time. He was 31, working on his third film, starring opposite the legendary but unpredictable Marlon Brando, and he didn't even realize he was part of a special project until it proved a huge critical and commercial hit. Pacino was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar, and the film was awarded the best picture Oscar.
After The Godfather, Pacino could write his own ticket. He played a real person for the first time, Frank Serpico, in Serpico 1973, a film directed by a man who would become one of his closest collaborators, Sidney Lumet "I loved working with him so much," he says of the late filmmaker". He then reunited with Coppola on The Godfather, Part II 1974, which afforded him the opportunity to act opposite one of his mentors, Strasberg, and which also won the best picture Oscar. And he and Lumet then reteamed for Dog Day Afternoon 1975, another classic. For each of those films, and also for Norman Jewison's ... And Justice for All 1979, Pacino received best actor Oscar nominations.
Throughout the seventies, Pacino's celebrity grew. "It is a big thing to get used to," he reflects. "I remember Lee Strasberg saying to me, 'Darling, you simply have to adjust.' And you simply do. But it's not so simple. And I went through some stuff. I had therapy five days a week for 25 years." He says that the pressure-cooker of life in the public eye eventually led him to work much less in the eighties — indeed, he acted in only one film between Brian De Palma's Scarface 1983 and Harold Becker's Sea of Love 1989. "I just wanted to move away from the pace of the whole thing, and it was good for me," he explains. "I enjoyed it. But then, as happens, the money runs out."
Pacino's next few projects included a reunion with Coppola in the highly divisive The Godfather, Part III "It put some money in the tiller"; Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, for which Pacino received another best supporting actor nom; and, in 1992, both Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman and James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross, which landed him best actor and best supporting actor Oscar nominations, respectively. Only one man before, Barry Fitzgerald, and one man since, Jamie Foxx, have also garnered multiple acting noms in a single year. For his portrayal of a blind bully in Scent of a Woman, he finally won. It was a "big" performance, like many of his have been — something that he explains is the result of seeing himself as a tenor: "Sometimes, if you can hit the note, you go for it — but if you can't, it doesn't look good. So sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don't."
Over the quarter-century since, Pacino has continued to do fine work in films such as De Palma's Carlito's Way 1993, Michael Mann's Heat 1995, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco 1997, Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate 1997, Mann's The Insider 1999, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday 1999, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia 2002 and Barry Levinson's The Humbling 2014, not to mention on TV in Mike Nichols' limited seriesAngels in America 2003, Levinson's TV movie You Don't Know Jack 2010, David Mamet's TV movie Phil Spector 2013 and Levinson's TV movie Paterno 2018. But he took things to a different level in 2019, first with a small but memorable turn as a Hollywood producer in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood "That's a great film," he gushes and then with one of the most colorful and moving performances of his career as the literally irrepressible Hoffa in The Irishman.
While Scorsese and The Irishman's lead actor Robert De Niro have worked together many times, The Irishman marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and Pacino. "It almost happened once," Pacino recalls. "We were going to work on [a film about the painter Amedeo Clemente] Modigliani together a lot of years ago, and then it just didn't happen." Pacino came to be a part of The Irishman because, he says, of De Niro: "He's the one that said to Marty, 'How about Al?'" The two venerated actors, of course, both appeared in The Godfather, Part II, but never together; shared one very memorable scene in Heat; and worked together extensively in a film they would both rather forget, Jon Avnet's Righteous Kill 2008. The Irishman is the first high-caliber film in which they share the screen, and it was as poignant for them as it is for audiences.
"We came up at the same time — I met him around '67 on the street," Pacino says of De Niro. "We both started doing work and sort of paralleled each other as we were coming up... New York actors going through this thing — all of a sudden you're in the limelight. And I think he had a little trouble with it, too. And so we would commisserate from time to time — just talk about things — and there was this bond formed back then, and we kept it throughout all the years." In a sense, The Irishman allows them to make up for lost time, as both play — and interact as — characters who start out as much younger men and then age into contemporaries of themselves, something made possible by groundbreaking reverse-aging technology. "I didn't know what was going on," Pacino chuckles. "There was this computer — it looked like R2-D2 — and it was always there. So I would say hello to it in the morning. And they put dots all over me — I don't see as well as I used to, so I didn't see the dots on Bob."
All joking aside, though,Pacino seems very touched by the tremendous response to The Irishman and to his work in it — which, thus far, has brought him best supporting actor Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Award noms, all but assuring his first Oscar nom in 27 years. "It's extraordinary," he says. "It's almost like a dream. And, as I said, I keep thinking, 'Somehow, somewhere, I've had these things happen to me before — I wish I could remember where!' It was the seventies. And so I remember going through that. And I think I can handle it a little better now. It feels great."