Ruth Eckerd Hall was advertising it as “Pacino: One Night Only” back during the latter part of last year; an evening of conversation, film clips and Q&A with the acting legend. It would be an “Inside the Actors Studio” type-setting, an interview with Al Pacino hosted by Steve Persall, the film critic for the St. Petersburg Times. We quickly purchased tickets and anxiously looked forward (at least I anxiously looked forward, my wife just waited) for the date to arrive. Then one Sunday morning in early November, I was reading the New York Times and there I see an ad in the Arts and Leisure section announcing Al Pacino will be performing on Broadway beginning November 13th and running through February 2011, in William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice!” Hmm, it was during this period, Pacino was scheduled to appear at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. How can he be in two places at the same time? Even an acting legend cannot perform that kind of magic. Soon the dreaded letter arrived from Ruth Eckerd Hall; Pacino’s appearance was postponed due to other commitments and will be rescheduled for a later date to be announced. It stayed that way for almost six months until we received notification that a new date had finally been set, May 31st. Oorah!
There are few people who deserve the status of legend. In a time when the media deems every reality TV cast member a star or long time TV sit-com star, like say Betty White, a legend, true legends are indeed rare. Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bette Davis and the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor are legends. Betty White, not so much (I am not picking on Betty White, she certainly has endured, as much as I am on the silly “Entertainment Tonight” style media that uses the terminology so indiscriminately). Al Pacino fits the category of a true legend.
Pacino’s career is a dream most actors would love to emulate, filled with classic films The Godfather 1 & 2, Serpico, Donnie Brasco), brilliant TV works (Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack) and an invigorating series of stage performances (The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Hughie, American
Buffalo). There has been no other actor at his level of film stardom who has returned to the theater so often and with so much passion and love as Al Pacino. He loves the theater, it is his roots. Today he is co-President, along with Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel, of the famed Actors Studio.
The evening began with a series of clips from Pacino’s films. All the usual suspects were included along the predictable rounds of applause from the devoted audience for the “Say hello to my little friend” and “Attica! Attica!” scenes from “Scarface” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, respectively. Pacino then came on stage to an enthusiastic round of applause and sat down for the interview in a typical one on one setting. He was outgoing, animated, often getting up addressing the audience enthusiastically when telling one of his many stories. He was very relaxed and comfortable, except for a large pillow that was on his leatherchair which he eventually tossed aside.
He discussed his early days, the influence his mother had on him, taking him to the movies at night after she got home for work. He would act out his favorite scenes from the movie they just watched. He talked about his passion for acting that was there even at such an early age.
His parents were divorced but he did have a relationship with his father. He mentioned one time he acted out a scene for his father and his friends from Billy Wilders’ “The Lost Weekend.” Young Al was fascinated by the scene where Ray Milland, an alcoholic, was desperately searching for a bottle of liquor (previously hidden in a hanging light fixture) and began to tear the apartment apart frantically hunting for the bottle of booze. Six year old Al performed this scene earnestly for his father’s friends and they laughed heartedly as he performed. He couldn’t believe it! Al was stunned as to why his father’s friends were laughing, here he was playing the scene deadly serious, and they were laughing!
Other stories included his early days in the 1960’s living in Greenwich Village and the whole bohemian scene of those times. His learning to act, performing in local village cafes picking up change by passing the hat after a performance. The horror of making his first film (“Me, Natalie”) in which he had a small part but was so shaken by the disjointed process of filmmaking he was not sure if he wanted to act in films. Of course, he did and had his first lead role a few years later in Jerry Shatzberg’s still powerful, The Panic in Needle Park” which would lead to “The Godfather” a few years later.
He had met Francis Ford Coppola a year or so before when Coppola wanted him for a film he planned to make about a Professor and his son. The film could not get the required financing and was never made. However, when Coppola was set to do “The Godfather,” he remembered Pacino and wanted him for the role of Michael. It’s well known that no one else wanted Pacino for the film. Paramount’s Bob Evans said that Pacino would get the role over his dead body. Well, Pacino got the role and Evans managed to survive.
He loved Coppola’s work methods. Their first rehearsal with Marlon Brando, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall was at Patsy’s, an Italian restaurant in Harlem. As they all sat at the table eating and discussing the roles, Pacino realized that each of them began to fall into their parts, talking and responding like their characters which it turned out was Coppola’s plan.
He mentioned that not too long ago he was channel surfing with the sound off (he does not watch much TV), and on one station, caught the opening scene of “The Godfather” which begins with a close-up of Bonasera telling The Godfather about the injustice done by the court on the sentencing of the men responsible for his daughter’s rape and beating. As the camera slowly pulls back, he continues on about how he believes in America but can only come to Don Corleone for justice. Pacino was still blown away by the power of this scene, the camera movement, and what a master Coppola was in constructing it.
Pacino went on to talk about the late Sidney Lumet and he was, “the best director for actors.” He always rehearsed for three weeks prior to filming. “Working with Lumet would make you feel like the character you were portraying.” About “Dog Day Afternoon,” he said, with Lumet “you felt like you were really robbing a bank.” and added that there was no experience like watching Sidney Lumet work behind the camera, “The camera was like clay for Lumet, he formed the film.”
Other anecdotes included his friendship with the late John Cazale who he met when they were both messengers for Standard Oil. He talked about life in the theater, giving insight on what goes on backstage during a performance. He also shared his passion for making some of his more obscure, personal films like “The Local Stigmatic,” which we were treated to a few clips from, and “Looking for Richard”, along with his newest directorial effort, “Wilde Salome,” a re-interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s most infamous work.
The one weak spot in the evening was the Q & A with the audience. This unfortunately consisted of a fan obsessed group who gushed over Pacino like immature twelve year olds rarely even asking a question. Given the opportunity to speak, they fawned over “how wonderful he is” and “Mr. Pacino, you are the greatest actor in the world” and “I loved you in “Scarface.”" One gentleman even offered Pacino he just published novel to read which he claimed had a part for him that would be the greatest role of his career! Another invited him to dinner for a great Italian meal. It was sad and mercifully ended though not soon enough.
The evening did end on a high note with a reading from TennesseeWilliams, “Orpheus Descending.” The show was scheduled to be about 110 minutes long and ended up running a little over two hours. From what I read in film critic Steve Persall’s post show column, the show would have lasted longer with a few more readings from Pacino had he not misplaced his reading glasses.
This was a rare opportunity to see a terrific actor, someone whose career I have followed since I first saw him in “The Panic in Needle Park.” I was fortunate enough to see him on Broadway twice, first in David Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” (1977) and later on in a 1992 revival of Wilde’s “Salome.” Both were amazing experiences, for me especially the first play, Rabe’s first in a trilogy of works whose subject matter was the Vietnam War. Pacino won a Tony Award for Best Actor.