In the hotel suite everything else took second place to talk. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Al Pacino asked, then never lit up. Similarly, he ordered room service but never bothered with the meal. He poured coffee without drinking it, preferring to concentrate instead. (As he once put it, “There is no such thing as happiness. There is only concentration.”)
Al Pacino pointed to the oversized Christmas tree that dominated the living room of his suite at the Beverly Wilshire and said quietly, “Marlon brought me this.” The tree was decorated with silver bells and silver strawberries, and Pacino looked like a leprechaun the other morning as he fiddled with the lights. Then, in a flash, he began to pace the room with a drowsy, heavy-footed walk. “Why am I walking this way?” the actor asked himself. “I put on a necktie and suddenly I’m walking like a grandfather.” The tie would come off later that morning, and Pacino would appear in a Navy peacoat, then a silk sport jacket, and finally--for a long afternoon of talk--a Brando-torn T-shirt.
Pacino at 45 still wears many hats, and shirts, and identities. As Marthe Keller, a former flame and co-star (“Bobby Deerfield”), put it, “He plays so many parts every day.” And not necessarily onscreen, or onstage. The actor hasn’t been visible in two years, since “Scarface.” Now there’s “Revolution,” in which he plays a feisty Scottish immigrant during the American Revolution. Hugh Hudson’s expensive epic opened Christmas Day to reviews that were less than luminous. (“There may be a smashing movie on the cutting room floor,” wrote Newsweek’s David Ansen, “but what’s onscreen is a shambles.”) Pacino had been to London twice in the past month, to loop dialogue, and was only in Los Angeles for a fast 36 hours. He was here to do what he never does: Al Pacino was going to sit still (sort of) for an interview. Then, courtesy of the Warner Bros. jet, he was going to go to Jamaica for Christmas. The tree (not from Brando, it turned out, but from another Marlon) would not go with him.
Pacino has always moved in his own circuitous, complicated way--not unlike a restless chameleon. Playing “Richard III” on Broadway, he was known to walk alone for hours after performances. After “Serpico” was over, he tried arresting people on the streets of New York. After “Scarecrow,” he wore the character’s prison shoes for months. But the offstage part Pacino seems most often to play is question-and-answer man. Or is that just one of his parts?
“Do you think I’m intense?” he asked, without any apparent guile. “I’ve been told that.” Do people tell me to lighten up? It depends. Lighten up about what? And why and when? You mean at a dinner party? When you are making a movie, you are intent on getting to the other side, and that’s your sanity. Period. So when you are working, and walking through a hotel lobby, you’re thinking about that. And so people think you are intense. That comes with being in this position and coping with this stimuli.”
(The “position” means Pacino, five times nominated for an Oscar, is a million-dollar player. “His salary for ‘Revolution’ was seven figures,” acknowledged producer Irwin Winkler. “But lower seven figures than Sly Stallone or Bob Redford.”)
The intensity also reveals itself in quirky ways: “Something happens in the eyes when you connect completely with another person,” Pacino said--but there are various personae here. Pacino today still wears a “Revolution” pony tail and speaks with a hint of a British accent. When he talks wistfully about driving in the British countryside, he becomes the brooding self-driven racing driver of “Bobby Deerfield.” He can also summon at will the weather-beaten look of Michael Corleone at mid-life.
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” said Pacino simply. “It illustrates why it’s very good not to work too much, and to let go of the work. I was in Boston, playing Pavlo Hummel, and I had this ritual. Every night before going on, I’d go in this bathroom backstage, and do my little preparation. I’d put my fingers to my face, look in the mirror, and say what Pavlo says in the play. ‘I’m all right. I do all right.’ Well, finally, after eight weeks, there was this closing-night party and I left the party to go in the little room to say goodby to Hummel. I said to the mirror, to myself, ‘I’m all right. I do all right.’ It was a saying goodby, a departure.”
Pacino craned his neck, hoping his point was made. “You bend your psyche if you are an actor, and it really is a relief when it’s over. Even after ‘Richard III’ closed, around 8 at night I’d find myself walking with a limp. The body doesn’t know a role is over until the mind tells it.” Pacino’s body on this particular day was a victim of jet lag, and a nap was suggested.
“Me nap? How do you spell that? K-N-A-P ? I’ve never napped. Maybe one day. . . .”
Instead, for what he said was the first time in his life, Pacino put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and buckled down to serious discussion. When a hotel maid knocked anyway, Pacino saw the irony and grinned. Most probably, the maid wanted to see a movie star right up close.
What she’d have seen was a man circling a room service table as he circles a question. Like anyone this press-shy, Pacino took the process of being interviewed very seriously--to the point of calling the reporter from Jamaica to flesh out answers. In the hotel suite, everything else took second place to talk. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Pacino asked, then never lit up. Similarly, he ordered room service but never bothered with the meal. He poured coffee without drinking it, preferring to concentrate instead. (As he once put it: “There is no such thing as happiness. There is only concentration.”) The suite, a large corner one in the hotel’s old wing, is the same one the actor used during the filming of “Scarface,” a film that he rarely discusses.
(He got reminded of that fact in his lunch-hour briefing with members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. “I hadn’t met those guys since 1973, after ‘The Godfather,’ ” said Pacino somewhat boyishly. “The guys reminded me how long it had been since they’d seen me. I kind of enjoyed it today.”) That line almost fell on deaf ears. Pacino enjoying the press? In 15 years of movie stardom, he has done only one talk show. (The show was “Merv Griffin,” and when Pacino walked out to applause, he remembers thinking, “These people don’t know who I am. I bowed so low it took a very long time to get up.”)
To orchestrate an interview takes a conductor with the nervous system of a virtuoso. Pacino claims (via his publicists) to have gotten quote and photo approval from the New York Times, Playboy and Rolling Stone. “You have to understand,” said Lois Smith, Pacino’s personal publicist, “he hasn’t talked to a member of the press in years. So he overworries.” Consequently, his people overworry, too. To bring off one interview for Calendar, no fewer than four publicists were involved; the calls going back and forth over a three-week period numbered more than 40. An answering machine tape of messages concerning the interview could be marketed under the title “Ambivalence.”
In person, Pacino rolled his eyes at the mention of the word. “Ambivalence,” he said knowingly. “Yeah. When your nature is ambivalent to begin with . . . it affects everything you do. Like work. The question becomes, ‘What’s more appealing? Having to work or not having to work?’ I’m not a quick ‘yes’ when it comes to movies. Why do I finally say yes? I get tired of saying no.”
Fame is another of the ambivalent cards that Pacino plays with. “I’ve been adjusting to fame for 15 years,” he said matter-of-factly. “I know the ups and downs, right?” Wrong. “I still have ambivalent feelings. At one point in my life, there was suddenly this sense that I was going to become a commercially popular and successful actor. It became a given. I don’t know even now how right that was for me. Commercial movies are not where you learn and experience, not that I’m complaining. But maybe I’ve neglected another part of my work life, or my personal life.”
Pacino claimed to have only lately discovered what fame means to him. “See, in the old days, when I met somebody there would be a natural evolution. Two people meet, and there’s something there or not. You took the time to find out. Now, people just know you right away. Maybe fame is not an easy thing to understand unless you’ve experienced it. People just think they know you right away.”
Unlike many star actors, Pacino doesn’t crave instant intimacy. A theme running through his conversation is his need for time to get to know people, be they writers or co-workers or friends. Pacino’s friends, his closest allies, such as his acting teacher Charlie Laughton, have been in his life since his early 20s. Actors he works with (especially on stage) tend to follow him from project to project. Pacino is acknowledged to be a loyalist. One simple explanation for that could be his need for trusted company off stage and on.
Example: David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” a play he’s performed on and Off-Broadway and in various cities, most recently San Francisco. “With the ‘Buffalo,’ we had four weeks of rehearsal. That’s not like four months, but still . . our idea was to have it play like jazz, fresh every night. By doing the play often, you keep people together and you get into gradations . See, a character needs time to pop up. But commerce gets in the way of that. There’s a pressure to get things out, so you do things that don’t work. You get tired of making something happen before it’s ready.”
Example: Pacino’s troubled attempt to revive Brecht’s “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui” in Boston in 1973. Producer Joseph Papp had given Pacino $40,000 to develop the production in hopes of bringing it to his Public Theater in New York. “But we did it for four weeks in Boston, then we took a break because of my commitment to film ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ We never really got the play right, but the time away from it helped a lot. It’s the same reason why (John) Gielgud and (Ralph) Richardson were so miraculous together on a stage. They’d work together, then go away, then work together again on another play. This is why I do a film every two years,” said Pacino without any ambivalence. “I even suggest on my movies that we take two weeks off after finishing filming, and then come back fresh, and look at what we have. Perhaps even reshoot things.” So far there have been no takers, but then Pacino has never held the reins as producer or director. Not that stars at his level don’t have the muscle.
“On ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ” remembered Pacino, “I’ll never forget the first day of rushes. I was sitting there with (producer) Marty Bregman and I wasn’t happy. And this was after a three-week rehearsal period. I said, ‘Marty, we might have to do these first day’s rushes over.’ I had the kind of closeness with Bregman that I could say that. But still he said, ‘Whaddya mean?’ And I said, ‘I dunno, I’ll tell you later.’ I just didn’t feel I had the character down. Anyway, I went home and drank a bottle of wine and stayed up all night with the script, and in the morning I had the role down. I just had it from that day on.”
Not being anecdotal by nature, Pacino looked pleased at having told the story. He displays an absolute assurance about acting, as a career and a goal and a way of life. Unlike George C. Scott or Spencer Tracy, who thought it wasn’t a man’s job, Pacino is much taken with the notion of the actor as Everyman. “From childhood, I would go to the movies with my mother, and come home and play act all the parts. In acting you could find some peace, you could get away from the loneliness. It was important.”
Especially if home was one room in East Harlem. Pacino’s parents were divorced when their son was 2, and it was the actor’s maternal grandmother who became his audience of one. “I would do Ray Milland looking for the lost bottle in ‘The Lost Weekend.’ I would do it in various ways. That was my favorite, that and doing Al Jolson. I would do these scenes alone, a lot, and then my father would take me to visit his family and I would do the scenes, and they would start laughing. Everyone in that house was quiet because my aunt was deaf, and I think that’s how I learned mimicry, my sensitivity to it. I remember saying, ‘Why are you all laughing? This guy can’t find the bottle!’ I remember that picture having a lasting effect on me. We had no TV, and I’d get so involved I’d lose track of time.”
Yet Pacino doesn’t recall himself being completely introverted. “I was living in the real world too. I mean I had friends. But studying roles helped me with the loneliness. That’s how I learned Shakespeare. And I was fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me.” Up to a point. At 16, the budding actor had to help with family finances. The best of the odd jobs that followed was as a mail boy for Commentary magazine; there, he would crash the parties of intellectuals Susan Sontag and Norman Podhoretz and drink Scotch.
(It’s not accidental that, early in his career, Pacino primarily played junkies. Two of his closest friends died of drug overdoses, and Pacino now admits he “used to drink and do all that stuff. There was a lot of stimuli around, and the more sensitive you are, the more you think you need to dull your senses with drugs or alcohol. Slowly you realize what you could become if you stopped. I stopped slowly. And things got a little clearer. But I mean just a little . . . .”)
And not overnight. Not until he was 28 did Pacino seize his power, in an Off-Broadway play by Israel Horovitz called “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” which he played in Connecticut and Italy and which won him the Obie. (The year before, Pacino had been a janitor at Horovitz’s apartment building.) Previously, he’d worked with the Living Theater and Actors Studio, and was developing the kind of underground reputation that let him borrow from the Studio’s James Dean Memorial Fund. In Boston, at the Charles Playhouse, he was the talk of the Hub in plays like “America Hurrah” and “Awake and Sing.” It was there he made the pivotal decision not to do small parts, ever.
“God, Boston,” recalled Pacino, his eyes moving around like busy marbles. “I borrowed money to get there, and lived on the floor once I did. That’s where I met (future roommate) Jill Clayburgh. I weighed 125 pounds, and when I walked in they handed me a script of ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle,’ and offered me a small part at $50 a week. All my belongings were in a paper bag. But I said no, because I wouldn’t do small parts. I’d been working already. It’s funny. In those years, I was always working. I knew how to get from job to job real fast.”
Be it Cafe La Mama or Caffe Cino, Pacino knew the New York turf. On the edge of 30, he made a Broadway debut that won him a Tony, playing a sadistic psychotic junkie in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” Pacino put on 25 pounds and got praised by Newsweek for having the “choreography of a hood, with a poetic soul.” (Less kind was critic John Simon, who likened Pacino to “a robot programmed for psychosis.”)
He did a bit (as a junkie, what else?) in the Patty Duke-starrer “Me, Natalie,” and Pacino now remembers “feeling a relationship right away with movie acting.” But not with the camera. “It was Sidney Lumet, on ‘Dog Day,’ who made me understand the camera and get comfortable with it. But when I had this bit part, I remember going in at 6 in the morning. I had only three or four words, which I kept saying until 7 that night. It all seemed to be going around in a circle, but I wanted to understand the process so I thought about it and thought about it. People had said to me I’d be good at movie acting.” Why? “Maybe because I had a less declaratory style than some actors.”
By 1970, the Pacino reputation was coming up from underground. “It’s very tricky. You want to be anonymous, yet the work doesn’t have any value if nobody knows. Not to have recognition and, worse, not to have work--those things are harder than fame. To be recognized and appreciated takes luck and timing, but there’s something else,” said Pacino, as though posing a question, or testing his listener. “Whatever it is, you recognize it. Some club singers have it. Bobby De Niro young had it, and the young Dustin Hoffman. I think it’s need ,” he said after pausing a very long time. “I think it comes down to one thing: If it doesn’t happen, you’ll die.”
It happened with “The Godfather.” Director Francis Coppola saw a 12-minute clip from “Panic in Needle Park,” the actor’s first film lead. (“Panic” was perhaps the ultimate Pacino “junkie movie.” At the time, he remembers thinking, “People probably said, ‘Oh, look what happened to Pacino, he went all the way!’ ”) Apparently Coppola thought so, and insisted Pacino play Michael, the Godfather’s youngest son. The competition was Frank Langella, whom the studio vetoed, and the usual Warren Beatty-Jack Nicholson possibilities, which didn’t pan out.
Again, Pacino’s duality proved to be his strength: “His gift is for conveying the divided spirit of a man whose calculations go against his inclinations,” wrote Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. Michael Corleone’s transition from college boy to killer is something Pacino understands, and calculated, but chooses not to analyze. “It was the character who did that, I didn’t do that. You leave yourself behind. I wanted to keep the turmoil inside without showing it. And it depends, a lot, on who plays your instrument. But there’s one very subtle point to always remember about movie casting.” Pacino was talking now in a conspiratorial whisper. “If a director genuinely wants you, and the production needs you, then it’s very good. That’s what happened with Michael Corleone. Francis made it possible, that’s all.” (Pacino got $35,000 for the film, and $600,000 plus a percentage for the sequel.) But Pacino doesn’t always have Coppola looking out for him.
“Sometimes you get into the position I’m in now, when you are not always the first choice. You’re a valuable element, and you make sense to the project, but the director may want you for the wrong reasons. We are talking here about projects that would not normally get put together, but often are put together.” Pacino stopped, to let the impossibility of the situation sink in. “The audience does not always know if you are the first choice, even though you may seem the strangest choice.”
Case in point: “Author, Author!” (1982). Pacino turned down “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Absence of Malice” and “Prince of the City” to do the Israel Horovitz screenplay for director Arthur Hiller and “Revolution” producer Winkler. The show-business domestic comedy was one of the least humorous movie locations, and movies, in the last decade. Temperatures in Gloucester, N.H., were near-zero, and so was the Pacino-chill factor, according to rumor. Much of Pacino’s reputation, at least in the 1980s, rests on this experience. It’s unusual for a major star to tiff so publicly with a director; a troublesome actor is not attractive in the cost-conscious ‘80s. Hiller talked to the press about the incident, and now Pacino was willing to air his side.
The scenario goes like this: Reportedly, Pacino, on the last day of filming, arrived 90 minutes late and got loudly scolded by director Hiller. Pacino walked off the set, and it took producer Winkler to walk him back on. “I got (the movie) to finish up,” Winkler admitted the other day, “I don’t how happily, but I did get it to finish up.”
Remembered Pacino: “I don’t mind talking about it, but I have to go back there in my mind.” He scowled, and looked like he was about to face the winds of New Hampshire. “I want to be fair. There was a misunderstanding about my being late. As I remember it, I didn’t know I was supposed to work that day. I remember being ready and wanting to work, but not being told. Let’s just say he (Hiller) and I had different tempos. But my struggle was the same as his struggle, to get the movie made.”
A bankable actor in Pacino’s shoes undoubtedly also has to choose vehicles carefully. Particularly if one wants to work every two years, at seven-figure salaries, and devote real career time to acting on stage. Industry observers will say Pacino’s career took a wrong turn after Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Deerfield,” the ice-cold misunderstood movie about isolation that never found an audience. But Pacino isn’t somebody one bets against. He got his fifth Oscar nomination (in seven years) for Norman Jewison’s “And Justice for All,” and the seven-figure offers continue to come in. Whether “Scarface” worked or not is beside the point; it worked at the box office.
The genesis of “Scarface” offers a perfect example of how the movie industry works, and doesn’t work, and how truth is relative. Pacino admits his movie career blossomed originally “because Marty Bregman made it happen. He saw me onstage, and said ‘I’ll sponsor you.’ He became my personal manager. He got me to work more, and he absolutely made ‘Serpico’ and ‘Dog Day’ happen. But then, you know, it became a different relationship.”
In other words Bregman became a producer. “In some ways now, it’s less complicated,” Pacino said. “I’m less the kid now, less the boy. But it always takes two. I don’t want to get into ‘He did this to me,’ because it implies ‘I did that to him.’ And I’m not completely over those feelings.”
Yet Pacino was enough over “those feelings” in the late ‘70s to take an idea to Bregman. “I was here in Los Angeles, and one day I went to see the original ‘Scarface’ at an old theater down on Sunset Boulevard. I was very taken with it. I mentioned it to Marty, and three years later we had a movie.”
(Bregman, however, told Calendar a different story two years ago when the film surfaced. He claimed he was watching late-night TV in New York when Howard Hawks’ classic 1932 “Scarface” came on. “It was such an extraordinary movie, considering it was made 50 years ago,” said Bregman at the time. “I realized right away what someone like Pacino could bring to it. Of course, even if Pacino hadn’t been interested, I would still have gone ahead with another actor. But having him show interest was a great plus.”)
Yet the movie took its toll, and Pacino won’t deny that “Scarface” motivated his long hiatus. That, and his search for a private life. “It’s good to go home to other people who bring you their problems,” he said, almost convincingly. Pacino’s private life is protected by more than publicists and bodyguards. He avoids hangouts like Elio’s and Elaine’s, where he might be photographed outside. And he avoids any discussion of the women in his life, past or present. It was the only subject he up-front asked not to discuss. Yet he didn’t shy away when the topic turned to marriage.
“It’s possible. I think about it sometimes. It could be an actress, or maybe not. I haven’t known many women who weren’t actresses. It’s the world I travel in. With actresses, the work can pull you apart for unnaturally long periods of time. But if you can afford it, there are ways to get together.” (Pacino’s most visible liaisons, long-distance or otherwise, have been with half a dozen of the most interesting actresses imaginable: Jill Clayburgh, Marthe Keller, Tuesday Weld, Diane Keaton, Susan Tyrell, Kathleen Quinlan and currently--according to the Manhattan gossip circuit--Debra Winger.)
“It’s very attractive to me now to see a love relationship in which you are also friends. I think when I want to have a family, I will have one. So far, there must be a reason why not. But I’ll tell you, it’s very appealing. A good relationship makes you feel whole, I guess. Alone, I don’t think you ever feel whole.”
Even when acting? “When the lights are shining on you, it’s hard to see what’s out there. I don’t think about acting. When I give a performance, I think about that. But I’m still observing. I go around the city in my station wagon, and a guy drives, and I look out the window. Of course, you don’t have to see with your eyes. Sometimes you just pick up things. . . .”
Finally, Pacino, after hours on end, got up and circled the room service table that had remained untouched. “To endure is everything,” he said gravely. “But how do I keep doing this? You probably wonder how come I’m still here doing this?” He looked away long enough that you knew he was stumped. “Luck,” he said finally. “Luck, and I like the game. I like the involvement. It’s someplace to put the self.”