Pages Menu
TwitterFacebooklogin
Categories Menu

Posted by on Apr 25, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 0 comments

An Evening with Al Pacino

 

al-pacino-thumb

 

Writer’s Note:  Back in January 2017, I penned this article after seeing Al Pacino interviewed onstage in a two-hour career retrospective.  I’m publishing it here for the first time on the occasion of Pacino’s 80th birthday — April 25, 2020.

 

Few can command a room just by being inside it.  Al Pacino is such a man, with an undeniable command presence.

That was my instant takeaway the moment when the spotlight hit the iconic film actor who was introduced to a Saturday night crowd of about 800 loyal fans at the Opaline Theatre inside the Palazzo.

Pacino had arrived in Las Vegas for an exclusive one-hight-only, one-man engagement.  Think Pacino unplugged.  Aside from the somewhat nameless and faceless interviewer who tossed Pacino plenty of softballs to smash out of the theatre, this was Pacino totally in the raw, mostly unrehearsed and unscripted.  While some of the questions asked were repetitive and maybe even a few of the answers were orchestrated for maximum impact, the intimate setting was also loaded with plenty of spontaneous moments and edge-of-your-seat recollections for classic movie lovers.  Most satisfying of all, Pacino seemed to sincerely enjoy the trip down memory lane, with pit-stops where you’d expect them on his 50-year-career.  He was a much better storyteller than one might have anticipated.

Indeed, Pacino personifies what it means to be a movie star.  He made the Godfather’s fictional character Michael Corleone into someone who’s real to millions, forever embalmed into cinema’s collective consciousness.  When we hear Serpico, we think of Pacino.  Sonny, the bisexual bank robber based on a real incident, is Pacino.  Scarface.  Dick Tracy.  Frank Slade.  Carlito.  Lefty Ruggiero.  Shylock.  Richard III.  Phil Spector.  He even played Dr. Kevorkian.

I was surprised by my own reaction, that Pacino’s best moments weren’t the highlights of his superstardom, but rather the low moments and the struggles, both personally and career-wise.  We can forgive but he can’t forget, and Pacino carries the burdens of pain from his childhood, though no amount of talking about his early life could quite remove the lingering sting of loss all these years later.

He talked about growing up in East Harlem (and later the Bronx), born into a lower-class household, raised by a single mother at a time when single mothers were widely viewed social outcasts, especially in Italian-American culture..  Pacino’s father abandoned the family when Al was 2.  Interesting factoid from the show:  Pacino was mostly raised by his grandparents who were immigrants from….Corleone, Italy.

Pacino seemed the most unlikely heir of what was to become his ultimate destiny.  He worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk in between acting jobs consisting mostly of small roles in stage productions.  There was even a period when he was unemployed and homeless.  Sometimes he slept on the street, in theaters, or at a friend’s house.

In the 1960s, leading men cast in movies did not look and talk like Pacino.  Smallish.  Way too New York.  And way, way too ethnic.  By age 30, even though he’d studied at the famed Actors Studio under the tutelage of mentor Lee Strasberg (who would later play the legendary role of Hyman Roth in Godfather II),  his acting career was going nowhere.

However, everything was about to change, including public tastes and mass audiences’ demands for authenticity combined with Hollywood’s own methods of casting prompted by a new age of writers and directors.  New movies would need smallish actors, with New York accents, who were genuinely ethnic.

Pacino’s role, playing a heroin addict in his first film The Panic in Needle Park (1971) caught the attention of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar for screenwriting Best Picture winner, Patton.  Coppola took a big risk and cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in what became a blockbuster film, The Godfather (1972).  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and even Robert De Niro tried out for the part, but Coppola insisted on Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives who wanted someone better known.

The stories of phone calls between Pacino and Coppola during the tense negotiations were told here, presumably, versions heard by the public for the first time.  Neither knew of the monumental tidal wave that was to come engulfing both of their lives, totally reshaping the careers of both men.  Now, Pacino remained every bit as appreciative of that loyalty, noting that no other film director would have gone to bat with such steely determination, especially given that Coppola was also relatively young and didn’t have total control of casting decisions.

As one would expect, there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the stories.  Even Pacino’s most obscure film roles elicited some hysterical recollections about on-the-set disasters and even the actor’s own missteps.

Pacino had clearly done this before, and his experience as an amiable storyteller showed onstage.  Yet, the actor’s occasional gaffes were among the most endearing moments.  When absorbed in stories, he’d often get excited and would sometimes even ramble off on tangents.  A few times, the moderator had to steer Pacino back on track.  This wasn’t annoying at all.  It gave the presentation a genuine sense of spontaneity, that we were privileged to be sitting in an audience sharing Pacino’s recollections of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling.  I should add that not having any film clips, props, or other supporting materials actually helped the format.  Midway into the retrospective, everyone in the audience seemed to feel what a special moment this was and we were lucky to share it.

Las Vegas might be known for gambling, but it usually leaves nothing to chance.  The odds are known.  Most shows are the same, night after night, year after year.  Pacino’s recollections, though imperfect and incomplete, was in a sense the acrobat performing without the net — no notes and no script.  While other celebrities have done one-person stage shows, with mixed results, most of those efforts look way too contrived, even manipulative.  Not so, with Pacino.

Pacino has crafted a reputation based on playing tough guys in movies.  But his first love is stage acting and theatre.  After taking about 25 minutes of questions from the audience (most of which were terrible — thankfully, Pacino was gracious and answered questions he’s undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times and anyone with access to IMDB can lookup), the legend paid homage to Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, and Noel Coward.  It seemed Pacino wanted to talk more about stagecraft.  Unfortunately, the interviewer cut off some of the evening’s most passionate thoughts from Pacino.

The final few minutes included a short glimpse of what was then Pacino’s next major upcoming film project.  That night, he’d recently signed a deal to play Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Was it enough?  Was it worth paying $80 to listen to a film icon talk about his life and career?  Was this a show to recommend?

The answer is simple.  Hey, it was Al Pacino.

Enough said.

__________

Read More

Posted by on Apr 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

Please, Let’s Not Forget Street Animals

 

 

LET’S NOT FORGET THEM

So many are in need…and needs are not being met…and the need for kindness and giving will only become more critical in the weeks and months ahead.

One of the sad consequences of the lockdown has been on not being able to do as much volunteer work for animals in need, which means those animals are even more desperate for loving homes.

It also means even worse suffering for stray animals on the streets.

Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those television commercials with the faces of sad dogs and cats who do very much need our help.

Rather, this is a plea to put some food out. Yes, place some food out or maybe leave a water bowl in your yard if you’re in an area with stray animals. They aren’t getting as much attention now with people locked inside their homes, and they could use a meal or a drink. If you think it’s a small thing, yes it is a small thing. But when you’re hungry or thirsty, no meal or bowl of water is small.

I’ve read some troubling news about street dogs and feral cats that are really in trouble. Each one of us can do something by giving food to an animal, tossing seeds to ducks, or feeding crows. They rely on the kindness of humans, so let’s be humane and help them.

Message: Please feed street animals. Keep out a water bowl. It is a crisis situation for them as well. Help them survive this phase. This too shall pass. We are in this together. All species.

Thank you.

If one person sees this and feeds a hungry animal, my day’s work is done.

__________

 

Read More

Posted by on Apr 16, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

Scottie Pippen: Nobody Gives a Fuck….

 

Scottie Pippen

 

“It probably is a good thing [I was fired], right?  I like to associate myself with winning.”

— Scottie Pippen, after being let go by the Chicago Bulls after years of leeching off the ex-player-NBA tit like a tic on a pig’s ass

 

SEE:  LINK:

https://sports.yahoo.com/chicago-bulls-scottie-pippen-fired-advisor-ambassador-role-michael-jordan-020030068.html?.tsrc=notification-brknews

 

TOTALLY OUT OF THE BLUE THOUGHT

Okay, I have no idea why this irritates the fuck out me, but here it goes.

1. Nobody gives a fuck.

2. Nobody gives a fuck about an ex-player in his 50s who won six championship rings because he happened to be the luckiest motherfucker on the planet who hit the draft lottery getting to play next to Michael Jordan who now thinks of himself as a drafting and personnel expert.

3. Nobody gives a fuck about an NBA executive who has given consulting advice that’s produced a .443 winning percentage for his underachieving garbage team since he was sucking in fat paychecks.

4. Nobody gives a fuck about a lucky ex-jock still trying to leech sugary paychecks, except for the hundreds of brainy nerds he shut out of jobs who actually went to school, studied hard, and lived and breathed NBA management for decades but instead had to take shit jobs because “Scottie” creamed the payroll and pretended to be calling the shots.

5. Nobody gives a fuck about a dude that retired 20 years ago unless he’s signing autographs at a sports and memorabilia show.

6. Nobody gives a fuck *you’re upset* about losing your $1.3 million-a-year “consulting gig, plus box seats at all the Bulls games. Try to live on the scraps of what you didn’t blow, asshole.

7. Nobody gives a fuck.

Go draw unemployment, jerkoff.

Over and done. I have lots more if anyone likes rants. Took me three minutes to write, but I feel much better now.

___________

 

Read More

Posted by on Apr 14, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Personal, Politics, Travel | 2 comments

Midnight Expression

 

nolan dalla

 

PART ONE

.

Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.

After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.

I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.

But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.

During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.

However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.

Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!

Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!

Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.

The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.

Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.

Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?

I wondered:  Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?

Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.

Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.

A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?

It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?

I was about to explore….and discover so much more.

 

billy hayes in las vegas

.

PART TWO

.

On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.

But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.

Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.

So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?

I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.

Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.

What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.

None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.

When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.

Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:

Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.

Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.

 

__________

 

Read More

Posted by on Apr 13, 2020 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, World Series of Poker | 9 comments

A Stu Ungar Story

 


Ungar

 

Sometime during the mid-90s, each year, I began posting odds on who would win the World Series of Poker Main Event, otherwise known as poker’s world championship.

A few gambling websites picked up on the odds and began posting them for discussion.  This was back when only 300 people or so entered the $10,000 buy-in Main Event each year.  And it was usually the same 300 people.  So, handicapping a field of well-known players with verifiable records wasn’t too difficult. Most insiders generally agreed with who should be the favorites and the longshots.

Nevertheless, one year my betting odds managed to piss just about everybody off — especially players who thought they got shafted when I listed them as longshots.  Naturally, everyone thought they should be one of the favorites to win.  If the average odds of winning came to about 300-1, then those who were listed at 500-1 and 600-1 or worse felt downright insulted.  Some people saw my odds and wouldn’t talk to me.

Poker legend Doyle Brunson read my odds and was incensed.  He posted at one forum, “You don’t have a clue.”

When Puggy Pearson heard he was listed 600-1, he came hunting for me.  That’s funny because I think 600-1 was too generous.  If he knew what I really thought, Puggy might have killed me.

But no one was more furious about my WSOP odds than Stu Ungar.

One year while my WSOP odds were out, Mike Sexton and I joined Stuey for dinner.  We went to the Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Charleston.  That’s the same parking lot where Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was blown up in his Cadillac.  Recall the opening scene from the movie Casino.

Stuey had absolutely no knowledge of the Internet.  He didn’t even know how to turn on a computer.  He never had an e-mail address.  So, he never actually saw my WSOP odds.  But he was about to learn about them and react in a way that I’d never seen anyone act before, or since.

When Mike brought up the odds, Stuey was advised that he was listed at 75-1 to win.  Stuey wasn’t too upset about that, at least not until he heard the names of other players who were ranked ahead of him.  That set off a tirade that would last for the rest of the evening.  Stuey had a tendency to stutter when he got excited:

Who-who-who you got ranked ahead of me?  Nobody can beat me when I’m playing my game!  How can you not have me ranked as the favorite?  Tell me!

Arguing with Stuey was pointless.  But I ignored the obvious warning signs and danger zone and plunged mouth-first towards my own demise.

While the discussion continued on and Stuey became more curious to know why I’d listed him at 75-1, dinner was served.  I hoped full racks of baby-back ribs laced with tangy barbecue sauce might extinguish the flames of tension, especially since it’s hard to talk when everybody’s chewing pig flesh.  But a towering plate of ribs wasn’t about to interrupt Stuey’s obsession to know why he wasn’t the favorite to win that year’s WSOP.

I’ve written about this before, but watching Stuey eat a meal was a comedy act.  He utterly devoured what was in front of him.  It was like a wild beast devouring prey.  While talking, he’d gesture with rib bones, pointing and pushing the baby backs directly into your chest when he felt particularly passionate about a certain point.

Stuey had asked me a direct question, and he wasn’t about to let this go without an answer.  He kept repeating himself, and stuttering:

Seriously, who–who–who you got ranked ahead of me?  Who!

Mike just looked straight ahead like a mute and continued eating his meal without saying a word.  He let me swing the hangman’s loop.

“Uh, well.  Uhhhhhhhh.  Uhhhhhhhh.  I think I had T.J. ranked number one.  Then, there was Huck Seed.  Johnny Chan’s up there,” I said, grappling for straws that were elusive to any common agreement.

Who else?  Who-who-who else you got on that list ahead of me?  Who!

“Uhhhhh, Dan Harrington was 65-1.  I think Barbara Enright was 70-1…..”

Wait!  Stop!   

Did you say Barbara Enright?  Are you fucking kidding me?  Please tell me you’re fucking kidding.

“Yeah, Stuey.  I mean, she made the final table last year.  She’s a goo………………”

Wait!  You mean, you ranked a woman ahead of me?

There was particular emphasis on a woman, almost as though the words were painful for him to say.

“Yeah.  I mean she…………….”

At that point, Stuey stopped eating completely.  Just a few bites into the scrumptious platter, he plopped his ribs down onto the plate as if the entire meal was completely ruined.  Stuey sat stoically in a state of disbelief, starring at no place in particular as though he’d been told something impossible to fathom.

You want to write about me and tell everybody my story, and you’ve got a woman ranked better than me?

“Stuey, it’s not that big a deal.  It’s just some odds that I posted on a website.”

I can’t believe you have a woman ranked ahead of me.  That’s fucking ridiculous.  I’d like to see the rest of your odds.  That’s a fucking joke.

Gee, I guess Stuey agreed with Doyle.

“Stuey, c’mon.  She’s the very best woman player in the world right now.  She’s won three gold bracelets.  Why do you think……”

Reasoning with Stuey was to no avail:

Really, seriously — you ranked a woman ahead of me?  This is a joke, right?

Stuey wouldn’t let this go.  The disgust in his voice became more loathsome with each outburst.  Mike saw this exchange was going nowhere and finally came to my rescue, making a futile attempt to change the subject.

“Stuey, the most important thing right now is that you get your act together and just be ready to play.  I mean, no one even knows if you are going to show up — and if you do show up, what condition you’ll be in.”

Of course, Mike was absolutely right as he always is about matters like this.  I didn’t have the balls to say it and Mike was much closer to Stuey than I was at that point, so he could get away with tough talk.  But Stuey wouldn’t listen.  Mike might as well have been whispering into a pillow out in the parking lot.  There was a tinge of sadness and disgust:

He ranked me below a woman.

It didn’t matter what I did or we said and did after that–Stuey’s night was completely destroyed.  He didn’t eat another bite for the rest of the evening.  Later, we did some other things following dinner and even talked a bit more.  But every 20 minutes or so, Stuey would interrupt the conversation completely out of nowhere and mumble to himself while shaking his head as though he’d been shamed beyond redemption.

You ranked me below a woman.

I’m ranked below a woman.

I can’t fucking believe it.  He ranked me worse than a woman.

__________

 

Read More
css.php