Al Pacinoby Lawrence Grobel
For more than a quarter century, Al Pacino has spoken freely and deeply with acclaimed journalist and bestselling author Lawrence Grobel on subjects as diverse as childhood, acting, and fatherhood. Here, for the first time, are the complete conversations and shared observations between the actor and the writer; the result is an intimate and revealing look at one of
For more than a quarter century, Al Pacino has spoken freely and deeply with acclaimed journalist and bestselling author Lawrence Grobel on subjects as diverse as childhood, acting, and fatherhood. Here, for the first time, are the complete conversations and shared observations between the actor and the writer; the result is an intimate and revealing look at one of the most accomplished, and private, artists in the world.
Pacino grew up sharing a three-room apartment in the Bronx with nine people in what he describes as his "New York Huckleberry Finn" childhood. Raised mostly by his grandparents and his mother, Pacino began drinking at age thirteen. Shortly after he was admitted to the renowned High School for Performing Arts, his classmates nicknamed him "Marlon," after Marlon Brando, even though Pacino didn't know who Brando was. Renowned acting coach Charlie Laughton saw Pacino when he was nineteen in the stairwell of a Bronx tenement, and the first words out of Laughton's mouth were "You are going to be a star." And so began a fabled, lifelong friendship that nurtured Al through years of not knowing where his next meal would come from until finally at age twenty-six he landed his first salaried acting job.
Grobel and Pacino leave few stones unturned, touching on the times when Pacino played piano in jazz clubs until four a.m. before showing up on the set of Scarecrow a few hours later for a full day's work; when he ate Valium like candy at the Academy Awards; and when he realized he had been in a long pattern of work and drink.
As the pivotal character in The Godfather trilogy and the cult classic Scarface, Pacino has enshrined himself in film history. He's worked with most of Hollywood's brightest luminaries such as Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Michael Mann, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams, among many others. He was nominated for eight Academy Awards before winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Scent of a Woman. Pacino still seems to prefer his work onstage to film and, if he's moved by a script or play, is quick to take parts in independent productions.
Al Pacino is an intensely personal window into the life of an artist concerned more with the process of his art than with the fruits of his labor, a creative genius at the peak of his artistic powers who, after all these years, still longs to grow and learn more about his craft. And, for now, it's as close to a memoir as we're likely to get.
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Read an Excerpt
Getting to Know You
This first interview, over forty hours of taped conversation, turned into two thousand transcribed pages a lot of talk for a man who was known for his public silence and mystery. "I feel like I have played ball with you," Pacino said as I turned off the tape recorder after our final session in his New York apartment. "Like we know the same candy store or we remember that time when we opened a hydrant or something. It's a good feeling." I smiled and nodded. That was exactly how I felt about him. And I think some of that good feeling comes through in the interview.
AL PACINO: Actually, I'd rather you not put the tape on yet until I get a little bit warmed up here.
Brando had the same reluctance at first. He wanted to talk, but without the tape recorders on.
That reminds me of me.
It's best to just leave them on and forget about them.
Whatever you say. I'm not going to tell you how to do your job. This is so new to me.
Do you feel like this is a coming out for you?
Definitely. It is a huge thing, this interview. There's a certain power in these interviews that I haven't found in profiles a real power. Like what you did with Marlon Brando. It can be taken seriously. I don't know that I can be yet, because I haven't accomplished enough things in my life.
After a lifetime of avoiding the press, what made you finally decide to talk?
I sort of got tired of saying no, because it gets misread. The reason I haven't talked before was that I just didn't think that I would be able to do it. But after a while you just start to feel like, Why not? I'm tired of being too careful, too protective. Actually, look what yes has done to me. I said yes to Richard III and to Cruising. No wonder I said no for so many years! [Laughs]
Want to change your mind?
No, let me try yeses for a while. It's time.
Do you care how you come off in this?
As much as I want to do well in a part, I want to be interesting in an interview.
Good. Hopefully, by the time we're through, we'll have explored some of the public and private sides that make you who you are.
But isn't what I do also who I am? I mean, my work is very consuming; who I am is my work, too.
Part of who you are. We'll get into that. But first, I'm curious: Why do you have Candice Bergen's name on your apartment door and another name on the directory downstairs?
For the obvious reasons to avoid being hassled. She used to live in this apartment, but it doesn't say Candice Bergen, it says C. Bergen. On the directory I had Goldman for a while, but then a guy named Goldman came in and said, "Stop using my name."
How many people in this building know you live here?
Everybody in the building knows. They are very considerate.
From the looks of things in this apartment, it doesn't appear that your star status has gone to your head.
My lifestyle changes a lot. I've been here five years, but it's like I'm passing through. On your way to Bombay you stop here, stay over, and then you keep going. This is the kind of place I have. It's always been that way. I look around at places I think I should be living in, then I come back and move the couch or the piano and I'm satisfied.
Let's go back and look at the place you came from.
I come from the South Bronx a true descendant of the melting pot. I grew up in a really mixed neighborhood; it was a very integrated life. There were certain tensions that usually had to do with one's income situation. Being an only child, I had difficulty with competition. I wasn't allowed out until I went to school at about six; that's when I started to integrate with other kids. I was very shy. It wasn't very pleasant going to school at that age and having the feeling that you might get beat up any day. I think a lot of kids suffer from that kind of tension. I didn't know how to protect myself very well, because I had never learned it. I didn't have brothers or sisters, so when I first went to school it was rough. I learned to wrestle, I learned defensive fighting at a young age, because when somebody hit me, I would throw up and fall down. You had to learn how to take care of yourself. I remember one time coming home and this guy called my mother a bastard. I said, "Don't call my mother a bastard." The next thing I knew, we were fighting. That's how it was: You got challenged. I remember saying to one guy, "You can punch me in my right arm five times; I'll punch you once." So he went first. I didn't cry until I got home. Once, I was swinging from the fire steps and I fell off and landed on my head. My friends were laughing, but it wasn't funny. I went home and fell down I had a concussion. Another time I was doing a tightrope walk on a very thin rail up about five feet. I slipped and fell and the rail hit me right in the crotch. Again, my friends laughed. I got up, walked about twenty feet, fell down. Got up, walked thirty feet, and fell. Then I crawled up against the building, and some of the big guys came and carried me to my aunt's house. My mother and grandmother came over, and there were these three ladies looking at my private parts. I was lying prostrate on my back, and they were all looking and playing with me! I must have been nine.
Then one time I was playing guns in the lots and there was this barbed-wire fence. I caught my lip on the barbed wire. My friend was shooting, "Gotcha, gotcha. You're not falling! I gotcha." I was screaming, and he said, "Yeah, but you're dead! You're dead!" This guy finally runs up and tells my mother that I'm hanging from my lip. She fainted dead away.
You were raised by your grandparents and your mother because your father left the family while you were still a baby. Was it tough?
My mother kept a curfew when I had to be upstairs. I needed that; it gave me a sense of right and wrong, a sense of security. She used to take me to the movies at a very young age; that's how I started acting. My grandfather raised me. He never raised a hand to me. He didn't talk much. He wasn't demonstrative. He didn't display his feelings much in terms of affection. But he was there. I found myself touching him a lot. It was just great to kiss him sometimes. I guess he knew I was an actor, because I used to love to hear him tell me stories about what it was like in New York in East Harlem in the early 1900s. I would bring him out more than anybody else did. I don't think anybody else was interested. He would just string these yarns for hours on the roof. I would spend nights up there, him talking to me. It's almost like a grandfather and grandson on a fishing boat, but we were in the South Bronx, up on a roof.
What were his stories about?
His immigration here, how his mother came first, what it was like. His mother died when he was four. He quit school and went to work at nine on a coal truck. Every time he'd come home from work, I'd be playing in the lot and I'd wait for him to come by. I would ask him for a nickel. He would always kvetch about it, but he'd bend down deep, way down, like he was going into his shoe. And he would come up with this nickel. How did he finger the nickel?
Would you say he provided a role model for you?
I imagine he did, yes. My grandfather was a provider. Work, any kind of work, was the joy of his life. So I grew up having a certain relationship to work. It was something that I always wanted.
In. . . And Justice for All there's a touching scene in which you visit your grandfather, played by Lee Strasberg, and you say to him, "You cared for me, you loved me, but your son was a shit." Is that getting pretty close to your background?
That was the screenplay. No, I didn't have those feelings when I played the character. There are people whose sense of reality is very strong, who have a sense of honesty. Lee Strasberg is like that, my grandfather was like that. These are the kinds of men I've had close relationships with.
What about that line, though? Was your father, in real life, a shit?
No, no. My relationship with my father wasn't a close one, but he saw me throughout my life. He would come and see me and visit. When I was younger, I stayed with him for a while. Sometimes four or five years would go by before I saw him, but he always tried to communicate with me. [Puts hand into empty box] I think I ate the whole box of blueberries.
What was school like for you? Weren't you once put in a class for emotionally disturbed kids?
I was, for a couple of days.
Pranks. I carried on a lot. I put my teacher's glasses on her seat; she sat on them. I was in a library class, sitting in the back, pushing the books until the bookend would fall and make a noise. I did it once too often, and they threw me out. They put me in what they called the ungraded class, but I wasn't there long.
What did you imagine you'd grow up to be?
I wanted to be a baseball player, naturally, but I wasn't good enough. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I just had a kind of energy; I was a fairly happy kid, although I had problems in school. In the eighth grade the drama teacher wrote my mother a letter saying she should encourage me. I used to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And I would read the Bible in the auditorium. That was the first time I heard of Marlon Brando. I was in a play and they said, "Hey. Marlon Brando this guy acts like Marlon Brando." Isn't that weird. I was about twelve. I guess it was because I was supposed to get sick onstage, and I really did get sick every time we did this play. Actually, the person I related to was James Dean. I grew up with the Dean thing. My mother loved him; I loved him. He had that sense of passing through. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me. Remember that red jacket? Everybody wore one. I love that line: "Life can be beautiful."
What encouraged you to attend the High School of Performing Arts?
I went to Performing Arts because that was the only school that would accept me. My scholastic level was not very high. I remember I went to Spanish class, and the teacher started giving a lesson in Spanish.
But you also acted.
I was never very happy with performing; it didn't turn me on much. If I made a catch at third base, I'd do a double somersault and sprawl out on the ground. I was acting overacting. Instead of OD'ing, I OA'd. They taught Stanislavsky at Performing Arts. That whole thing about the Method and serious acting, having to feel it, I thought it was crazy. What was going on? Where was the fun? So I was kind of bored with it. Once, I was in class and had to act out what it was like when I was in my room alone. Since I never had a room to myself, I had to make it up.
How many slept in your room?
At one point there were nine of us living in three rooms. I lived with aunts and uncles and their children. It was back and forth; it changed. There was some tendency for people to get volatile in those situations. Once, I improvised something at school I was supposed to be in my room, talking to myself. I hummed, I whistled, I moved around, turned on the radio, picked up this autograph book and started to read it. Then I stopped and started to turn back the pages. The drama teacher, who was into Stanislavsky, said, "Stop! Stop!" She got up and said to the class, "What was he going to do? He was going to tear the page out." Then she said to me, "What were you going to do?" I said, "I was going to tear the page out." She said, "You have the fire of the Sicilian actors!" I said, "What did I do?" I didn't understand. She called my mother and told her that. My mother said that acting was for rich people, and that I should get a job. I left high school after two years to support myself, but I remembered how "natural" the teacher had said I acted. And I went around all the time trying to be natural. I didn't know the difference between being natural and being real. What do I know from Stanislavsky? He's Russian, I'm from the Bronx.
As a kid, what did you learn about sex?
I was wondering when you'd turn that corner. I love work because it keeps sex in perspective. Otherwise it can become a preoccupation.
You mean that's why you work so much?
So you can afford it?
So I can afford it. [Groans] You said that.
Do you remember your first sexual experience?
My first sexual experience. . . I had an encounter with a girl when I was nine. She took off her blouse, and she actually had breasts. Maybe she was older. Maybe I was older. I put my hands on them and she giggled. She was standing in front of a mattress spring, and I pushed her. She bounced off the spring and we repeated that three or four times. I thought that I had been laid. I went right out and bought a pack of prophylactics. You used to carry them around in your wallet. You didn't know what they did, but. . .
You mean you didn't have a friend who knew all about those things?
That would be Cliffy, my closest friend. He looked like a cross between Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. He was a Jewish guy who wanted to turn Catholic. One of the toughest guys I ever knew. He had something we didn't see, like he knew something secret. He was wild. He was ahead sexually, too. He read Dostoyevsky at fourteen and told me how terrific it was. One thing he did, I will never forget, he tried to feel up my mother once. I saw that. He was about fourteen. I thought that was really odd.
What did your mother do?
She kind of discouraged him and laughed. She seemed to understand it. Maybe she was flattered. I don't know.
Do you still see him today?
He was on junk and finally died, I heard, at thirty. My other best friend died of drugs at nineteen. My two closest friends.
Did you ever shoot up?
No, I never did. That is when we started separating. They were going into other worlds. I would say my mother kept me alive. I didn't go for the needle at all. I never cared for drugs, because I saw what they did to most people. I thought that was the end of the road. I liked booze every once in a while. I was doing that when I was about thirteen the way most young guys do. You would get the guy on the street to buy you a bottle because he was older. Drinking and smoking grass were a part of my life as far back as I can remember. I thought everybody drank. I started smoking cigarettes around nine. I chewed tobacco when I was ten. I smoked a pipe at eleven. But it was Cliffy who was always doing something original, something I had never seen.
Such as getting off in my bathroom when we were older, after he had told me he wasn't on drugs anymore. Such as hijacking a public bus filled with passengers. Or stealing a garbage truck and pulling up in front of my house with it. He actually got me into trouble once when he kicked in a store window to get me some shoes. A cop caught him at it, and there was this embarrassing scene in front of a crowd. My grandmother got me out of it.
I remember once he got called up in front of the class. He made the teacher so mad that she started to grab and hit him. He was laughing because he was getting a quick feel. So she threw him out and turned to the rest of the class. Naturally I was laughing, so she threw me out too. Those were great times. I often refer to my life back then as a New York Huckleberry Finn, because it was always something else. We would make something out of anything. The time was ours. Were we going to scale a roof? Run as fast as we could around the block?
There was always something going on in that neighborhood. One time I remember going down to where the buses used to be to get some transfers, which we used to use as play money. I was about ten, and this strange kid came up to me with a funny look on his face. He said, "Sonny," which was my nickname "some strange guy just came up and peed in my mouth." I thought, That was a weird thing to do. "You'd better go up and tell your mother," I said. Things like that would happen every day.
Sounds like you might have ended up like your friend Cliffy.
I once had this job working for the owner of a fruit farm. My friends were outside playing, and I was separating the green from the red tomatoes. The owner came to me and he actually drew a picture of a countryside on a board. He diagramed the trees and the paths. He said, "There are two paths in life: the right one and the wrong one. You are on the wrong one." I thought it had something to do with the tomatoes. But it had to do with my friends outside. He said, "Stay with them, and you will wind up like them. Jobless and free."
Did you mind working when you were a kid?
Who wanted to work? But I didn't want to go to school. I had to work because it was just me and my mother, nobody else. My grandparents moved out of town when I was fifteen. Then my mother moved with them and they all lived together. I lived alone. I was seventeen. Today that's nothing, but this was twenty years ago.
Your mother died when she was forty-three. How old were you?
I was twenty-two. My mother's death was traumatic to my whole family. She had certain problems with her blood. She was in the hospital with some kind of anemia, and she was suffering so much. It wasn't expected. My grandfather died a year later. I think it was part of the reason why. He was a very strong man. Never sick a day in his life. It makes one a little more fragile when it happens. These are tough things to talk about.
What was your relationship with your mother at the time?
At the time we were having some difficulties communicating. It is always unfortunate when things aren't going well. Especially with your mother. It was the lowest point of my life. It makes one a little more fragile when it happens.
Were you alone at the time?
I was living with someone when my grandfather died. I used to deliver Show Business newspapers to newsstands once a week, on Thursdays. That was my job at the time. I was on the route, on Broadway and Forty-eighth Street, and I passed out. I had trouble seeing. The doctor looked at me, took my pulse, said my heart was all right, and said I should go to the outpatient clinic at Bellevue.
After those deaths did you become closer to your father?
No, as a matter of fact, I didn't talk to my father until years later. You know, Brando said something good in his interview with you about guilt.
He said guilt is a useless emotion.
Useless. It is. And when you finally come to terms with that, it gets a little easier. I think I'm beginning to. Because it took a long time before I realized I had it.
[After a long pause]
What are you thinking?
I was thinking about forgiveness and guilt. Forgiving oneself. We forgive others.
You've had to live with death at an early age. Do you fear it?
Not consciously. I don't go around thinking about it.
Do you think that you'll die young?
At one point in one's life you get a sense of your own mortality. You view death in a certain way. From that point on you look at your fellow man with a new understanding. I have some feelings for it now. They say it happens in your mid-thirties. Sometimes I have a fantasy of my corpse being carried around in a box, people mourning me. Saying, "We shouldn't have treated him so badly."
I had a bone spur in my left toe recently. I said to the doctor, "Well, it has to get better, right?" He said no. And I realized there's an age where everything doesn't automatically get better.... We talk like this, I'll smoke cigarette after cigarette.
We can change the subject.
If I die, you can write my epitaph: "He was just beginning to resolve some of his problems. In about ten or fifteen years he would have been happy. He had made such progress!"
Do you ever go back to your old neighborhood in the Bronx?
How can you go back there? It's not there anymore. The neighborhood is gone. It's over. That world is over.
What were some of the odd jobs you used to do?
I was a mail boy, a janitor, a shoe salesman; I worked in a fruit store, a drugstore, a supermarket; I used to move furniture that's the hardest work I ever had. The first thing you look at when you're a moving man is the books. Everybody has books, thousands of them. They put them in boxes. It is very deceptive; they have five thousand paperbacks in boxes. I'm the guy who would go to a moving job in a taxi. They'd say, "Al's a little late," and I'd come flying out of a taxi to lug pianos up the stairs for three dollars an hour. I used to move artwork, too. It's wonderful when you're carrying a very valuable sculpture and you walk into a wall. That happened to me a head came right off its shoulders. A major work of art and I heard the famous words: You pay for it.
I was also an usher. People would always ask me, "What time does the show start?" "What is the last show that went on?" They ask you all kinds of questions. "Is it good?" Finally, I figured, These people will listen to anything I say. You're the usher, right? The Rise of the House of Usher. So I bet another usher that I could get them to line up across the street. Then I told the people that because of the crowds the line was forming across the street, in front of Bloomingdale's.
And nobody protested?
No, they lined right up.
So you won the bet. Did you get paid?
I got fired. Another time I got fired in midstride another of my famous usher stories. I was an usher at another movie house, and I suddenly saw myself in a three-sided mirror. I had never seen my profile. I was about twenty-four at the time. I couldn't believe it. Who was this strange-looking person? I had never seen the back of my clothes or the back of my head. So I couldn't stop staring at myself. This manager saw me doing it. He didn't like me from the word go. He just didn't like ushers, I think. He said, "Pacino, what are you looking at?" I mumbled something, and he warned me not to do it again. But I did the same thing a little later as he was coming down the stairs, and he caught me at it and said, "You're fired!" He never stopped, never broke stride, just kept going downstairs. I felt this rush of happiness. I should have been very unhappy, but I wasn't. I went down to the locker room and I began giggling. A couple of my friends asked, "What happened?" I said I had just been fired. "Why?" I said, "Looking at myself too much."
What job did you hold the longest?
The longest stretch was with Commentary magazine. I did office work for a couple of years. I delivered things. I enjoyed working there.
Were you acting then too?
I was going to acting school. The Herbert Berghof Studio. That's when I got to meet Charlie Laughton. I was about eighteen and he was around twenty-nine. He was teaching an acting class. I thought there was something about him. I just felt connected to him. Charlie introduced me to other worlds, to certain aspects of life I wouldn't have come in contact with. He introduced me to writers, to the stuff that surrounds acting.
I still remember the time I had fifteen dollars and was sleeping in a storefront, and the night before I must have been a little high, because when I woke up the next morning, I didn't have a penny. I knew Charlie was with his family at the beach in Far Rockaway. It was two fifteen-cent fares you had to pay to get out there, and to get the thirty cents I had to promise this guy who worked with me in the moving company these empty bottles of Ballantine Ale, which he could get nickel deposits on. Then I got on the train and went all the way out to Rockaway. There was Charlie, with his kid and his wife by the water. And he saw me. There I was, trudging toward him, making my way through all the umbrellas, wearing my blacks my black shirt and my black pants. And he looked at me, and I said, "I don't have any money." He picked out a five, which was probably half the money he had in the world, and gave it to me. I went back through the crowd, up the stairs, and back home. I knew Charlie would take care of me.
We became family Charlie's wife and daughter. Charlie and I just sort of stuck. A great actor himself, but he never pursued it. In acting class he talked to me like I was a person, not a student. He was responsible for educating me, in a sense.
Would he be for you what Stella Adler was for Brando?
Yeah, he would be that.
Was he also a father figure to you?
I imagine he was. It went from father figure to brother to closest friend. He works with me on everything. I wouldn't have made it here without Charlie. Among many other things, he put me straight about my drinking. He said, "You're drinking. Look at it and recognize it." I didn't know it, and I didn't know that other people knew. It was a powerful moment in my life. Now I find that when I'm around people who do drugs or drink to excess, I become uncomfortable. I'm very sensitive to it and I pick it up.
Was it Laughton who first recognized your star potential?
Absolutely and it's an incredible story. I was a nineteen-year-old kid living in a tenement in the Bronx. Charlie was coming by as I came down the stairs of my tenement, and he just nailed me: "You're going to be a star." There, in the middle of the Bronx. Weird. And you've got to understand, he doesn't talk that way, I don't talk that way. Neither of us ever mentioned it since then.
Before enrolling at Berghof, didn't you try to get into Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio?
Yeah, I auditioned, got through the preliminaries, and was rejected. I said to myself, They don't know anything. I always took a healthy attitude then. There's a certain power, a strength, that comes when you're young. Four years later I auditioned again and was accepted. They even lent me fifty dollars to pay my rent, from the James Dean Memorial Fund. Dustin and I got in the same year. I kept hearing there was this actor, Dustin Hoffman, he's terrific.
Is it true that you've established a fund at the Actors Studio like the one you borrowed from?
Yeah; I don't talk about it.
How important was the Actors Studio for you?
The Actors Studio meant so much to me in my life. Lee Strasberg hasn't been given the credit he deserves. Brando doesn't give Lee any credit and the Actors Studio has had such a bad name, which is not representative of what it really did for me. Next to Charlie, it sort of launched me. It really did. That was a remarkable turning point in my life. It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting. It instilled confidence and gave me a place to work out, to connect with people. I could do anything Shakespeare, O'Neill it was a constantly active place where actors were coming in. It was a major part of my life. I'll be grateful to the Actors Studio forever. I'd like to marry that place.
Another major part of your life was your first starring movie role, The Panic in Needle Park. What did you think when you first saw yourself larger than life?
I was drunk when I saw the first screening, but I was surprised at my bounciness, that I was all over the place. I did say, though, "That's a talented actor, but he needs work. Help. And he needs to work. And learn. But there's talent there." In one scene we were supposed to be dealing on the corner, and there was a guy actually dealing heroin right there. I looked at him and he looked at me, and I got real confused. . . . I don't like to go on about myself I feel sometimes that it's not me that has something to offer, but, hopefully, my talent.
How selective were you choosing Panic as your first big role?
I turned down eleven films before I made my first one. I knew that it was time for me to get in movies. I didn't know what it would be. When The Panic in Needle Park came along, Marty Bregman pushed and helped get it together. Without him I don't know what I would have done. He is directly responsible for five movies a great influence on my career.
How did Bregman become your manager?
He saw me in an off-Broadway show and said that he was willing to back me with anything I wanted to do. I didn't quite know what he was talking about. Then he said that he would sponsor me. I still didn't know what he meant. As it turned out, he acted as a go-between for myself and the business. It was a very important relationship. He acted as an insulator. He got me to work. Encouraged me to do The Godfather. Serpico was completely his idea. He got me to do Dog Day.
Did you have a formal contract with him?
Yes, and it was expensive, but it was certainly worth it.
Are you with him now?
No, our relationship changed several years ago; then it just finally dissipated. He became a producer. It wasn't the same anymore. [Getting up] I'm going to stand and talk to you. Walk around a bit. Is it a competition thing, an interview? Does it become a battle in a way? Is there an angst between us? I am going to do this interview, and it's not going to be the way you want it. Or the way I want it. I am going to make some explosions happen here; make it so that there is a kind of cat-and-mouse thing that goes on. But it is probably impossible to strip my defenses. How could I do that with anybody?
Are you feeling very defensive?
I'm in a. . . certain kind of condition now.
Why don't we talk about it? It must have something to do with the fact that you've been filming Cruising in New York City and the set has been picketed and harassed. Gay activists have claimed the story is antihomosexual.
I feel I don't know what's going on. I don't understand it. It's the first time in my life I've ever been in this kind of position. I'm baffled. It's a tough film, there's no getting away from it.
You play a cop who tracks down a killer of homosexuals, and some of the protests have been about the fact that the film shows scenes on the sadomasochistic fringes of gay life, rather than the mainstream of homosexual life.
That's the point! When I first read the script, I didn't even know those fringes existed. But it's just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life.
What does the film seem to you to be about?
It's a film about ambivalence. I thought the script read partly like Pinter, partly like Hitchcock, a whodunit, an adventure story.
Apparently the gay community in New York sees it differently. Pamphlets were distributed calling the film "a rip-off" that uses gay male stereotypes as the backdrop for a story about a murderer of homosexuals.
How can they say that without seeing the movie?
They say more. They say, "Gay men are presented as one-dimensional sex-crazed lunatics, vulnerable victims of violence and death. This is not a film about how we live. It is a film about why we should be killed."
That is a very strong statement. It's very upsetting.
But how do you react to the charges?
Well, it makes me feel bad. It's actually hard for me to respond at all. When I read the screenplay, the thought of it being antigay never even came to me. It never dawned on me that it would provoke those kinds of feelings. I'm coming from a straight point of view, and maybe I'm not sensitive enough in that area. But they are sensitive to the situation, and I can't argue with that. I mean, if you pronounce my name Pakino, Pakano, Picini, or Pokono, like it is often done, I am sensitive to it, I read into it. The only thing I can say is that it isn't a movie yet. It has not been put together as a movie.
Do you think those protests will have an effect on the outcome of the film?
If the gay community feels the film shows them in a bad light, then it is good they are protesting, because anything that raises consciousness in this area is all right. But I hope that's not the case. When I saw The Deer Hunter, my only reaction to some of the war scenes in Vietnam was: War is tough; I don't want to be there. I was taken up in the horror of war. But I wasn't thinking that the film was racist, as many accused it of being. If I had been preconditioned to think it was racist, I probably would have read that into it too.
Then again, if the American Indian had protested, perhaps they wouldn't have gotten as raw a deal as they seem to have in films.
That's true, the Indians were the victims in that way. . . . So who is to know with this kind of film?
Is Cruising your most controversial project?
There is no second to it. I thought Dog Day was going to be, but nobody bothered us on the set. Nothing else even comes close. I don't like this trouble. I have never stayed in any political arenas. It's just not my thing. The sociopolitical aspects of the films I make are never the front-runner in my mind. It's always the story, the character. This picture is getting international attention, the media is coming up with stories, and it's not me they're talking about. They're talking about the issue. It's such a volatile subject. Still, there is something wrong. This film could be made without me.
Maybe, maybe not. The script was reportedly rejected by three studios before you signed on.
It is not my picture. It is not a film that I originated or got down with. This came to me.
True, but once you agreed it becomes an Al Pacino picture. Don't you feel a responsibility for some of the issues the movie raises?
You're turning this into an Al Pacino movie? Al Pacino is an actor in this movie. The way the press focuses attention on something like this is by throwing my name into it. Responsibilities are relative. My responsibility is to a character in a script, to a part I'm playing not to an issue I'm unqualified to discuss.
But aren't we all ultimately responsible for what we do? Isn't what you're saying something of a cop-out?
I don't think the film is antigay, but I can only repeat I'm responsible for giving the best performance I can. I took this role because the character is fascinating, a man who is ambiguous both morally and sexually; he's both an observer and a provocateur. It gave me an opportunity to paint a character impressionistically a character who is something of a blur. My communication with the public is as an actor. Although I'd never want to do anything to harm the gay community or the Italian-American community or the police community or any group I happen to represent on-screen I can only respond in my capacity as an actor.
Since you're halfway through the filming, what's your sense of the movie so far?
There's a power to it, a certain theatricality. I sensed it when I read it. I hope Billy Friedkin's energy comes off on the screen, because it lifts you. He's a lot like Coppola in that way.
How is that?
I remember that when I met with Francis in a restaurant to discuss doing Godfather II, I left absolutely filled with his inspiration; he just charged me with electricity. I wasn't going to do Godfather II. There's a funny story about how much they were going to pay me before Francis convinced me. It's about how I got that first big salary everybody talks about.
How did you get it?
They wanted to give me a hundred grand on the second picture, and even I knew that was. . . . They said, "How about a hundred and fifty?" I said, "Well, I don't think so." They said, "How about if Puzo writes the screenplay?" I said sure. Mario wrote a screenplay, I read it, and it was okay, but it wasn't. . . . So I said no. They went up to two. I said no. Then they went to two-fifty and three and three-fifty. Then they made a big jump and went to four-fifty. And I said no. Then they called me into the office in New York. There was a bottle of J&B on the table. We began drinking, talking, laughing, and the producer opened his drawer and he pulled out a tin box. I was sitting on the other side, and he pushed it over in my direction. He said, "What if I were to tell you that there was one million in cash there?" I said, "It doesn't mean anything it's an abstraction." It was the damnedest thing: I ended up kind of apologizing to the guy for not taking the million.
He was obviously making you an offer as if you were really the Mafia character you played. What made you change your mind?
Francis told me about the script. He was so wigged out by the prospect of doing it, he would inspire anybody. The hairs on my head stood up. You can feel that sometimes with a director. I usually say, If you feel that from a director, go with him.
Let's finish the story. You didn't get one million for it, you got six hundred thousand, and ten percent of the picture; is that correct?
I think so.
You didn't go to one million until Bobby Deerfield, right?
And what did you get for the first Godfather?
Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Grobel
Meet the Author
Lawrence Grobel is the New York Times bestselling coauthor with Montel Williams of Climbing Higher, as well as the author of the national bestseller Conversations with Capote and Conversations with Brando. A contributing editor at Playboy and Movieline's Hollywood Life, he has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Details, Entertainment Weekly, and many others. The winner of a PEN Special Achievement Award, he is also the author of The Art of the Interview. He teaches at UCLA.
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Having been a fan of Mr. Pacino's for many, many years, I was delighted to find this book. In my younger days, I had an Al Pacino t-shirt, some pics I had snagged out of magazines hanging on my wall, etc. As I matured, I ditched the shirts and pics, but I still watched his movies. However, I knew very little of his background or what he was 'about.' This 'conversation' not only brought me up to speed with Mr. Pacino's background, but gave me insight into him personally. I didn't waste my money ... but hey, any $$$ spent on Al Pacino isn't wasted. Time spent watching his movies isn't wasted either. Still a fan since 1971.