Pacino Re-Focuses on Film Career : After five-year absence, actor returns to the big screen

So there was Al Pacino on "Wheel of Fortune"--not the one with Vanna White, the one on CBS in the early 1950s that rewarded good deeds. It seems that someone had called the show's attention to an incident involving young Al and his 12-year-old buddy Brucie Cohen.

As the episode was reported on the show, Al and Brucie were playing around at a construction site in the Bronx when Brucie, showing off near the edge of a building, toppled over and clung to the edge until Al, at the risk of his own neck, pulled him back. The next thing Al knew, the TV show was handing him a check and calling him a hero. And if he didn't know it already, he was suddenly aware of the difference between stupid risks and good ones.

"You have to be able to really define what a risk is," Pacino muses on this Dante's Inferno day, with the air-conditioning at producer Martin Bregman's office no match for New York's Oscar-winning humidity. With the erotic mystery-thriller "Sea of Love," which opened Friday, Pacino is nonetheless draped in funereal black--part Bela Lugosi, part bella Armani. Sweaty-eyed and weary, starting sentences four different ways before he latches onto the words he wants, Pacino gamely explains how risk-management has kept an actor deemed one of the four or five post-Brando gods away from movies for almost half a decade.

"Doing a picture when you're not prepared to is not a good risk," Pacino says slowly, in a voice like charred gravel. "I mean, jumping off a building and seeing if you're gonna make it when you fall . . . 'Hey, maybe I'll just break a couple of legs!' " he jokes. "So much has to do with where you are, your timing and stuff. When you start to feel you wanna make a movie again, then whatever (script) is there, available, you start to look at a little bit differently. Because it's a reality--your gonna do it."

That's a relief, because he hasn't done it in quite a while. We're talking about an actor who had rolled through five Academy Award-nominated performances in seven years--"The Godfather" (1972), "Serpico" (1973), "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), " . . . And Justice for All" (1979)--and co-starred in a 1973 Cannes Grand Prix winner ("Scarecrow") to boot. There was the popular, controversial "Scarface" (1983), followed by a successful Broadway revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo." Yet, ever since the virtually nonexistent, $28-million dud "Revolution" (1985), Pacino has been in what you might call his John-Lennon-bread-baking phase.

Fortunately, like Lennon upon his re-emergence, the 49-year-old Pacino still has his chops. His burnt-out "Sea of Love" detective, Frank Keller, is another of his quintessential New York cop characters, the man Frank Serpico might have become had he given in and stayed on the force 20 years, treading in a sea of booze. With John Goodman as his partner investigating the serial murders of personals-ad Casanovas, and Ellen Barkin as the suspect he falls for in a typically crackling script by Richard Price, Pacino is, as he puts it, "in and around territory I've been around before."

Pacino, like Keller, has hit his own 20-year mark, dating from his movie debut in the minor drug drama "Me, Natalie" (1969). Pacino, like Keller, has had serious bouts with the bottle, and has known his way around the dark side of the street, losing friends to the needle. Pacino, like Keller, is one of the best at what he does, which still doesn't mitigate the angst around the eyes.

"I don't feel I'm that close to that guy," Pacino insists. "You just try to feed into the part things in your life that coincide with the character you're playing. A guy like Frank, who doesn't have the love in his life, has the work. And now he's about to lose the work," since he's expected after 20 years to retire on half-pay. Pacino's take: "If you can still work, if you still enjoy the work, it's only time to retire when you no longer wanna do it.

"I guess playing the part now, as opposed to playing it 10 years ago, I have a closer understanding, a more tactile understanding of the character," he says, "because of my age and I understand that situation he's in. I'll look at parts now sometimes, and I'll know it would have excited me to do that five years ago, and now another kind of thing will excite me. It really comes down to what you want to address at this point in your life--the things you start to find are relevant to you."

Pacino has that luxury. At the same time, like Hamlet, the Melancholoy Italian doesn't give the impression of someone who knows what he wants. "That's probably the reason I got into acting," he reflects. "So I don't have to think. I think the reason I act is for a relief from thinking." Yet even considering the leeway rightly accorded artists, Pacino's choices over the last few years have been puzzling. He's kept busy. He just hasn't kept busy with anything any of us can actually go see.

There were workshop productions of "Crystal Clear," "National Anthems" and other plays, including a current Manhattan project he's not ready to talk about. There was "Julius Caesar" for Joseph Papp last year. There was "Carlito's Way," if you go by Elliot Kastner's lawsuit alleging that Pacino committed to the film last April for $4 million plus a profit percentage. And most time-consuming, there is "The Local Stigmatic," a play Pacino had starred in Off Broadway in 1969 then re-mounted in 1985 with director David Wheeler and the Theater Company of Boston to film a 50-minute movie version that may become his "Unfinished Symphony."

"I don't think people relate to that kind of private work," he says. "Because (acting) is such a visible profession that if you're not real visible in it, they assume you're not working.

"I remember back when everything was happening, '74, '75, doing ("The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui") on stage and reading that the reason I'd gone back to the stage was that my movie career was waning! That's been the kind of ethos, the way in which theater's perceived, unfortunately. My big problem has been that I've been trying to ride both rails. And I can tell that some of my work has been affected by that. I wish I was able to have gone into both media with more focus."

He's trying, and the $16-million "Sea of Love" required all the focus he could give it. Producer Bregman let the original director go days before shooting was to begin, bringing in Harold Becker ("The Onion Field," "The Boost") for a long, grueling shoot that lasted from about May through September of last year. Pacino did a cameo in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," playing Big Boy, "the world's largest dwarf." He dabbled with "Three Thousand," reading with Julia Roberts for the role being played by Richard Gere. And in November, he begins production on "The Godfather, Part III." "It's that movie to do, so you sorta gotta do it," he says smiling.

"You know, I wish, in some ways, the government forced me to make a movie once a year," he adds, with a laugh. "There would be a sort of regularity, a kind of consistency in the output so that your movies don't become blown all out of proportion--it turns a simple movie into an epic kind of thing, if you make them only every few years. I've decided not to go as long between them. The idea of going two years between pictures, I'd rather not."

Then again, a few years of that might remind him why he slowed down.

"When it was all happening to me," he says of his firecracker string in the '70s, "I don't think I was aware of it. I knew around me things were going on. But I kept trying to focus on the next play or movie I was gonna do. And when I looked up it was five years later."

The thought brings him in mind of a story:

"We were doing 'Richard III' in Philadelphia one winter, and first we're in this sort of marathon rehearsal and then playing night after night there. And I remember one day finally getting in the car to drive back to New York, and we stopped at a light and I looked out and thought, 'What are these people doing, they don't have coats on, they're just walking without a coat?' And my friend says, 'It's spring, Al.' "

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