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.