Older Articles
Daily Variety
January 16, 2001

Method Acting force puts life on the line
By David S. Cohen
Thrill of Theater Still Beckons Star
Working with Pacino

Al Pacino's most memorable roles have usually been dangerous men: cops, gangsters, addicts, Shakespeare's ruthless Richard III, even the devil himself.

Yet every one of Pacino's friends and co-workers testifies that he is, in person, a generous, sensitive and very funny man. Why has he made a career out of such intense characters?

Oliver Stone, who directed Pacino in "Any Given Sunday," sums it up simply: "His characters operate out of need. They need, they want something. They need and they'll do anything for it. So those are often his best roles, when Al's life is on the line."

"Well, to me it's always life and death," Pacino conceded to Variety. "That's probably a problem although I haven't thought about it. But it's too damn much life and death for me. I'll tell you, I wish I could cool it a little bit!"

Happily for film lovers, Pacino hasn't cooled it yet. The HFPA's Philip Berk calls him "one of the defining actors of the cinema." adding that this year's Cecil B. DeMille Award is "a small measure of our appreciation of what a great actor he is and what he's contributed to the art of acting."

Pacino had won a Tony Award but had only a single film credit when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." He remembers being nervous as he started shooting, and says that "I think when I look back I was in a dream of some sort."

But he quickly became a full-fledged movie star, delivering memorably intense performances in "The Godfather" (parts I and II), "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." Sidney Lumet, who directed the last two, calls Pacino's sheer talent "unbelievably deep."

"When he chooses to reveal something about a character," Lumet explains, "at the same time he is revealing something about himself, and that in turn is revealing something to you about yourself. That's really what any good artist does, and he is an artist. He tells you something about yourself by the use of him or herself. That's what talent is in my view."

He has always avoided easy typical "star" choices, preferring to stretch himself and work with interesting people. In 1977, he even agreed to work with a first-time writer/director and play the lead in a Vietnam War story. Unfortunately the financing for "Born on the Fourth of July" collapsed just as rehearsals ended, so Oliver Stone would have to wait 22 years to finally direct Al Pacino.

"He had an edge of danger to him, like the Godfather character," remembers Stone of the young Pacino. "He was very emotional. Stormy, which was interesting for a young man. I guess that like everyone else, over time he's conquered some of those moods better."

He has changed as a performer over the years, too. Longtime friend Paul Benedict remembers that "he always had the intensity, but he found a kind of ease the longer he worked, a generosity of spirit that just seemed to be natural to him. It just took him getting comfortable over a number of years for that to come out."

He still brings his trademark intensity to roles like John Milton/Satan in "The Devil's Advocate," Lowell Bergman in "The Insider" and his Oscar®-winning role as a blind veteran in "Scent of a Woman."

Though he prefers the more "three-dimensional" nature of stage acting, Pacino does enjoy the subtleties that film acting permits. "The way you can just drop words instead of having to reach for them. There's a privacy in film acting that is sometimes very fulfilling. Also you can do it again and you can see it played back if you're so inclined. Which I am not. But you do get a second chance and a third and sometimes even a fourth."

Offscreen, though, his friends enjoy his his intelligence, generosity his playful sense of humor. Michael Mann, who has directed Pacino in two films, says that "Al is incredibly funny. His comedic timing is incredible. The most enjoyable moments working with him are having an espresso in my motor home or his motor home." "Sea of Love" co-star Ellen Barkin adds that "He does an extraordinary impersonation of Barbra Streisand."

It's a side of Pacino his fans rarely see, but they can catch a glimpse when he laughs about cooling it, or when he he is asked about receiving the DeMille Award.

"I was overwhelmed in a way," he says. "I put the phone down and I thought, 'Well, what did I do?' And I thought about it awhile and was deeply honored, as I am now. It's nice to wake up and find that you're going to be getting an award, any award, but the Cecil B. DeMille award, that's sort of like, I don't know, am I awake?"