An Evening with Al Pacino

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.

21 comments on “An Evening with Al Pacino

  1. Dave Crosby says:

    John, thanks for giving me a good description of an evening I would have committed bank robbery to witness. It’s very important to act on the stage, I think, in order to experience the whole gaggle of techniques necessary to create a character. Film and stage are two aspects of one art and they inform each other. For instance, I think film helps an actor realize how much his physical attitudes and expressions are when he has no lines. These reactions are the very life of a performance. And stage acting gives an actor a greater ability to synthesize the bits and pieces of filming. And I needn’t mention that vocal technique learned for the stage certainly helps in film. Today I see too many films in which I cannot understand some lines— and my hearing’s okay. Technique, technique, technique, for heaven’s sake. And if I may be permitted a personal note, and this will be unusual for me, reading (for the first time in my life) my own poems at several open poetry reading events has caused me to rewrite several works because they now seem too dense. I have always written with the reader in mind, written for an audience, in other words, and the public readings have made me even more aware that if the poem doesn’t communicate its effects it is really nothing. So I rewrote with greater clarity in mind. This is why I do believe stage acting for film actors enriches their performances before the camera and gives them a better ability to surrender the ego and become the character. In too many films I see acting, acting, acting. What we want is the character, living and breathing before our eyes.

    Once again, John, thanks for the most interesting approach to film appreciation I know of. The internet has given you a genuinely new approach to influencing and informing people.


    • John Greco says:

      Dave, I did not know you were a poet! Wonderful! Are any of your works published?

      I am generally embarrassed by my own writing and just hope that my love of movies come through clearly. I agree with what you say here and will add just one other thing. Doing a play, an actor performs the entire story from the opening act to the end of Act III, straight through. Movies are, as you are well aware, filmed in a disjointed manner and not in sequenece. It must be more satisfying to create a character in a play and go from point a to point b to point c and so on, instead as in a film where you start at point d then jump back to point a, then on to point f and so on.

      It was an exciting evening to say the least and I am still wondering how they, they being Ruth Eckerd Hall, managed to pull it off. Thanks Dave for the very kind words!


  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a fascinating account of what must have been a terrific experience. It’s too bad the audience seems to have wasted a great opportunity during the Q&A session. When I was writing about “The King of Marvin Gardens” awhile back, I ran across an interview with Bob Rafelson in which he said he first offered Jack Nicholson’s part to Pacino, who reluctantly turned it down to do “The Godfather.” “He made the right decision,” Rafelson said!


    • John Greco says:

      R.D. – I agree, instead of asking intelligent informed questions, the results were pure teenybooper type adulation. Thanks for sharing the Pacino/King of Marvin Gardens association, I was completely unaware.


  3. ClassicBecky says:

    John, what a fascinating article about a truly great actor. I wish I had been in the audience — for one thing, I hope I would have asked an intelligent question! Looking for Richard is one Pacino film that should be better known — just marvelous. Can you imagine — dinner at an Italian restaurent in Harlem for rehearsal with that cast. Some people are just blessed in their work. I would like to have heard what he had to say about John Cazale, an actor I think is still underrated. And to hear Pacino performing from Orpheus Descending must have been riveting.

    Beautifully written article about an evening I wish I could have shared!


    • John Greco says:


      Overall, it was an evening I will remember. Actually, one of your remarks (about being blessed in their work) reminded me that someone during the Q&A asked him if he had one choice in life what is it he would still want to do. His reply was, “I am already living the life.” It is great to hear from someone who is so passionate about his work! Thanks so much, Becky!


  4. The Lady Eve says:

    What a great piece, John, I almost felt like I was in the audience, too. My introduction to Al Pacino was “The Godfather” and, even in an ensemble cast filled with brilliant actors and actresses, it was Pacino who stood out for me. I was fortunate enough to see him in “American Buffalo” in San Francisco years ago. Our seats were OK, but toward the back of the house. I was completely floored by Pacino’s stage presence. The theater could (just) barely contain him. Magnificent. I’ve really never experienced anything like it before or since.


    • John Greco says:

      Thank very much Eve! He is powerful on stage. Even in this one on one interview, he pretty much took over and it went in the direction he wanted it too, which I think was fine with the interviewer and the audience.


  5. Dave Crosby says:

    John, thanks for asking about my poetry. Yes, a number of the lyric poems have been published. My book of 100 quatrains,Lamp of Midnight,however, is available free at Lampofmidnight.comk. An attorney friend in Tokyo designed the site and took care of the copyrights for me. Had it not been for his encouragement, these four-line poems would have remained on shelf.


  6. Dave Crosby says:

    Sorry, John. Typo. It’s No k at the end.


  7. Judy says:

    A wonderful piece, John – it sounds like a great evening except for the cringe-making Q&A session. Must agree with you that Pacino is one of the greatest living actors. I’m a big fan of ‘Serpico’ and ‘Donnie Brasco’ in particular, and also really liked his performance in ‘Sea of Love’ – as well as the Godfather films, of course.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy,

      It was a great evening. I have been an admirer of Pacino’s work a long time so hearing him speak in such an informal format was a real treat.


  8. Brent Allard says:

    That sounds fascinating. I loved the description of the early acting role. Pacino truly is a legend, and he is caricatured so often it’s easy to forget what a fine actor he is with enormous range. Guys like make acting something to aspire to.


  9. John Fellman says:

    Great review John! I just bought tickets to see him in Houston in September, and can’t wait to go. I do have a question that maybe you could answer. Do you know if he had an autograph session after the show? I have a Scarface movie poster that is signed by the entire cast except for Al, and am trying to decide if I should even bother bringing it with me to the show. Thanks! John F


    • John Greco says:

      Hi John,

      He did not sign autographs John. As I mentioned in the article, there was a Q&A toward the end of the evening but when the show ended he just took off. Leave the poster at home, you will still have a great time.


  10. Dhiraj says:

    Pacino is a stylish actor. He communicates with flourishes. In most of his roles, his style has been explosive and of maximum rather than minimum communication.


  11. […] in Salome. I did see Pacino live one more time in 2011 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. It was a one night only Q&A, with Tampa Bay Times film critic, Steve Pearsall. These days, Pacino’s films vary in […]


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