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Daily Variety
January 16, 2001

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Man of the Moment
Working with Pacino
By David S. Cohen
Nothing thrills Al Pacino like acting on a stage. Performing is in front of an audience gives him a pleasure so powerful, so visceral that to describe it, he returns over and over again to a quote from Carl Walenda: "Life is on the wire and the rest is just waiting."

"I think it applies to stage acting," Pacino told Variety. "The idea of rehearsing a play for six weeks with other actors, presenting it from start to finish, the whole idea of that journey has always excited me in a way because it's asked of my whole being to walk up on the wire with a hundred foot drop!," Pacino told Variety. "That's what it feels like and there's something exciting about that."

"There's something ultimately challenging that you look forward to doing, if that's your style and that's been your life's work."

Pacino's approach to acting really does demand the daring of a wire walker. While Pacino makes his way from one end of a show to the other, almost anything can happen.

"When I work with Al, more than any other actor, I have no idea what the choices finally will be. And neither does he, incidentally." says Arvin Brown, who has directed many of Pacino's stage productions, including his legendary run as Teach in David Mamet's "American Buffalo."

"The whole process of rehearsal with Al is kind of this inner voyage. You can serve as an editor and you can make situations and circumstances very clear, but that specific, particular way that he will get inside a role is his alone. I don't know anyone else who works quite like that."

With Pacino, every performance is different because every day is different. He adjusts constantly to the conditions of the moment.

Lance Henriksen has appeared on stage with Pacino several times, including Pacino's 1977 Tony-winning turn in David Rabe's "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel." Henriksen especially remembers one night when they were performing Shakespeare's Richard III.

"We were in a church and right in the middle of one of the scenes a bat flew through the church. He looked up and right in character said 'That's a bat.' He's doing Shakespeare, but he's so present when he's working."

David Wheeler directed "Pavlo Hummel" and "Richard III." He marvels at Pacino's ability to be completely present for on the other actors on stage and at the same time stay exquisitely sensitive to the audience.

He remembers arriving in Philadelphia for Richard III's pre-Broadway tryouts. Pacino and Wheeler were shocked to discover the theater was much larger than they had expected. "Al was worried about how he was going to get to every person in that audience. That intrigued me, because it was a mark of his desire to make a difference, to make an entrance into each of those lives out there."

"Yet the people who act with him and direct him, will tell you how with each performance he will find an adjustment, find a new response."

Pacino is a great movie star, but it is theatre that really consumes him. He was already a veteran New York stage actor when at age 28 he won a 1968 Obie for "The Indian Wants the Bronx." The following year, he won his first Tony, as Supporting Actor, for "Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie?" Later this month, he will be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.

He calls acting in front an audience "the best experience a young actor can have" and keeps returning to that experience himself. He also likes to return to the same role. "He'll literally work on a character for five years," says Henriksen. "He'll go at it and never give it up. He's tenacious."

"I don't know why I do that," admits Pacino, but he offers that "Traditionally, actors of the past would have one or two roles and spend their lifetimes playing them. I think there was something to that tradition." He also compares acting in a great play to a musician playing Bach or Beethoven. "You don't leave the composer just because you've performed him once, you know? You do it again and again, that's part of your life."

For Paul Benedict, appeared with him at the Taper in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie," Pacino's stature as an actor makes his devotion to the stage especially important.

"He's so valuable, he's so valuable," says Benedict. "I think he's probably the best actor in film, but he never let's the stage go. When I was first acting with Dustin and Bobby Duvall and Jon Voight and just everyone, everybody said 'if I ever become big, I'll never give up the stage. I'll always work constantly on the stage.' But the only one that's really done it is Al. He's the only one who works at it all the time."