Al Pacino talks -- A rare interview with the enigmatic star on the eve of ''Godfather III''

”Sign it ‘Big Boy,”’ commands a very particular 10-year-old standing by Al Pacino’s table at the Old World restaurant in Westwood, Los Angeles; he wants an autograph, and he wants Pacino to sign as the character he played in Dick Tracy, so the actor grabs a napkin and complies. On another occasion, outside the chic Chaya Brasserie, a teenage girl shyly praises his work in Raging Bull; Pacino politely thanks her, not mentioning that the work in question was Robert De Niro’s. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Pacino has gone to hear the London Classical Players perform Beethoven’s Fourth on period instruments, a young man comes up and says, ”I bet my friend you’re not Al Pacino.” The actor shrugs and tells him he just lost a bet.

Pacino is one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, but no one seems quite sure who he is. In an era when stars of his magnitude are recognized everywhere they go, Pacino is getting picked out for a cartoonish supporting role he played with makeup disfiguring half his face, for a part he did not play, and for not being himself. Unlike Nicholson or Hoffman, he has no strong public persona apart from his characters. And even his roles, ranging from the mastery of the Godfather movies to the intensity of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon to embarrassing missteps like Revolution, send an enigmatic message. Instead of plotting his career along traditional points of stardom, Pacino seems to choose his parts according to some inner compass, often playing quirky roles that do little to enhance his fame — but that engage his fascination with the process of acting.

In fact, Pacino sometimes seems happiest when his acting projects are most obscure. For much of the 1980s he was absent from the screen while he labored in small theater workshops and endlessly polished a self-produced, self-financed film that has been shown only at small, private screenings. At times it seems that Pacino actively evades his public; the passionate actor is a reluctant star. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Local Stigmatic, the movie he’s been tinkering with for years, is about a man attacked by thugs simply because he is famous.

Still, the fame has been inescapable. Pacino’s intense stare has burned its way into our cultural consciousness. When John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever closes his door and looks at the poster on his wall, it is Pacino as Frank Serpico who looks back at Travolta grunting his macho war cry: ”Al Pa-cino!” When he turned 50 this year, Pacino received a satin jacket as a gift from one of his admirers. The card read, ”Bruce Springsteen.” Francis Coppola, who has directed the actor in all three Godfathers, attributes Pacino’s impact onscreen to his ability to project ”coldness when he wants to be cold, and heat when he wants to be hot.”

At the center of the Pacino mystique stands Michael Corleone, the Mafia chieftain and tragic hero of the Godfather pictures. It has been Pacino’s fortune — he might say his burden — to play the pivotal role in what many consider the greatest of modern movies. It’s a role he owned from the time Coppola first considered the project. ”When I read the book,” the director says, ”I visualized the character as having (Pacino’s) face.” The first two films have earned nine Oscars and about $800 million. More important, they have become a grand metaphor for modern life, what critic Pauline Kael called ”an epic vision of the corruption of America.”

With The Godfather Part III opening in 1800 theaters next week, Pacino is standing just short of the summit of a remarkable career. The movie has been plagued with problems, but if it delivers on the extravagant promise of the first two Godfathers, it will be a virtual coronation for Pacino. After so many shadowy years on the margins of Hollywood, he is clearly back in the forefront. He could even at long last win the Oscar that has eluded him through four Best Actor nominations and one for Best Supporting Actor. In the offing are other exciting projects: Next month he starts filming Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, a love story with Michelle Pfeiffer. But Pacino takes an ironic pleasure in not acting like a star. Asked whether he looks forward to the opening of Godfather III and his future projects, the actor says evenly, ”The last time I looked forward to anything was waiting for my Tom Mix spurs when I was a kid. I kept going to that mailbox and they finally came — on the day my great-grandmother died. Since then I stopped looking forward to anything.”

Sitting in his enormous suite in L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel, Pacino is pondering the origins of the third Godfather picture. He’s dressed entirely in black — black silk pants, black silk shirt, black silk jacket — but his mood is upbeat. After months of work and worry, he has just seen a rough version of the film on a VCR in his room and seems content with the results. ”I didn’t know if there would ever be a Godfather III,” he says. ”There was always a lot of talk, but Francis wasn’t interested and I would never have done it without him. Francis has the feel for the material.” After Coppola accepted Paramount’s offer, which granted him complete creative control, Pacino signed on in the summer of 1989, but he still had his doubts. ”I didn’t know if I could be that guy again,” he says. ”Seventeen years have gone by; a lot has happened. Michael’s not the most pleasant character.” The most fascinating aspect of the character in the earlier movies is how subtly he changes as he takes on the power of the Don. Pacino was intrigued by the script for Godfather III because it portrays an older, remorseful, and still evolving Michael Corleone. ”Francis gave him more colors as he got older and matured. Just to have come through and still be alive — a character like that would have to have reconciled himself to certain things.”

In a Burbank studio, Francis Coppola takes a break from the marathon editing of Godfather III to recall how the $55 million project got underway in January of 1989. Paramount wanted him to try to produce the movie in time for the 1990 holiday season, a tight deadline for a film that didn’t even have a script at that point. Coppola enlisted Mario Puzo, author of the original novel and cowriter, with Coppola, of both earlier movies. ”I worked out a concept,” he says. ”Then I met with Mario in Reno and talked it through.” They put together an initial script in March and were still rewriting it when shooting began in November 1989. The entire project moved at such a pace it sometimes threatened to fly apart.

”Having your back to the wall can make you do some great things that you otherwise wouldn’t have done,” Coppola says, propping his feet on the studio sofa. The last few months have been frantic as he rushed to finish the film, despite predictions that he would never meet his deadline. ”I would have enjoyed working on (the movie) more, but at the same time I felt it had a life of its own,” Coppola says. ”It was coming alive and it wanted to be born now and it had to be born now.”

Coppola knows what it’s like to have his back to the wall: After mortgaging his house to complete Apocalypse Now (1979), he lost his studio, Zoetrope, in the financial fiasco of 1982’s One From the Heart and further tarnished his reputation with the expensive disappointments The Cotton Club (1984) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). All that became an indirect part of Godfather III‘s evolution. As much as he resisted making the saga a trilogy, Coppola remained fascinated by the Corleone story; his own aesthetic drives and financial straits conspired to make finishing the Godfather cycle a kind of destiny.

Coppola is not noted for stress-free movie production, but the third Godfather was particularly harrowing. ”This is a big one, this is like King Lear,” Pacino said last spring while the movie was shooting in Rome, noting that he hadn’t had a day off in 10 weeks. Besides the grueling schedule and the multiple shoots in Rome, Sicily, New York, and Atlantic City, chaos dogged the project. On the day of her first scene, Winona Ryder, cast as Michael’s daughter, Mary, dropped out complaining she was exhausted from shooting three movies back to back. In a highly unpopular move, Coppola replaced her with his then-18-year-old daughter Sofia, whose only film experience was bit parts in her father’s movies, most notably as Michael’s infant godson during the baptism scene in the first Godfather. Many on the set and at Paramount protested the choice, but Pacino now defends Coppola. ”He thought that would serve us in the film,” Pacino says, ”because his vision of the part was that kind of innocence. He knew what he wanted. Casting is what a director does, it’s part of his expression. So you have to grant him that.”

Another unpopular bit of casting was the replacement of Robert Duvall, the Corleones’ consigliere in the earlier films, with a new character played by George Hamilton. Duvall asked Paramount for a reported $3.5 million to return, and after rounds of haggling refused to join the project. Pacino laments Duvall’s absence. ”The character he portrayed so subtly and vividly had such a place in those two pictures,” he says. ”I don’t want to make Bobby into a villain here, he must have had his reasons. But, yes, Duvall was missed.” Still, he was impressed by Hamilton. ”I never met a guy like him,” says Pacino. ”He’s what I would call an authentic high roller. He’s capable of doing much more than he’s been given a chance to.”

Another new member of the cast is Andy Garcia, playing the illegitimate son of Michael Corleone’s dead brother Sonny, who becomes Michael’s potential successor. Garcia, a star of Black Rain and The Untouchables, was in awe of Pacino on and off the set. ”I opened a lot of doors for him,” Garcia remembers. ”Even when the cameras weren’t rolling, I was still opening doors.” Gazing at Pacino, made up to look 60, Garcia found himself thinking, ”When I get older, that’s what I’m going to look like.”

Diane Keaton, who played Michael Corleone’s wife, Kay, in the first two Godfathers, is also back. She and Pacino had an on-and-off romance through much of the ’80s, and though the couple split soon after their work on the new film ended, Pacino remains an admirer. ”Diane is one of our foremost actresses,” he says. ”To see her go from that girl in Baby Boom to Godfather III is a transformation that’s exciting. In the first two films her character was youthful and always looked a bit out of it. But in III a new awareness has come to her. It allows Diane to use her talent more fully.” Then he slips effortlessly into discussing the characters Michael and Kay. ”Michael loved her when he met her and he loved her throughout his life and he loves her to this day, even though their relationship was surrounded by a lie. He not only loves her, he admires her.”

Many actors try to keep their private and professional lives separate. Pacino’s and Keaton’s have often been intertwined. ”Our relationship at times has been complicated,” he concedes, and he sees value in that. ”It’s generally more interesting to work with people you know — that’s why a lot of families act together. It’s like being a trapeze act: You depend on each other, and when you know each other’s moods and rhythms you are able to guide each other and get across.” Rumors flew during the filming of Godfather III that there was tension between them, and Pacino doesn’t deny it, but he says the tension was not an acting ploy. ”Everyone who has ever breathed has had these things (happen), but it wasn’t because we were preparing for our roles. That’s a misconception. There are actors who consciously, and unconsciously, choose to set up these kinds of juxtapositions to serve their roles, but I am not one of those actors.” He pauses to think about that; Pacino is a great one for mulling things over endlessly. ”Maybe I was,” he adds, ”but I certainly don’t feel I’m that way now.”

Pacino likes to think and talk — exhaustively — about his roles before filming begins. He has a soul mate in Coppola. ”When he theorizes,” marvels Pacino, ”all you have to do is listen for 10 minutes and you’ve been given a wealth of imaginative, stimulating insights and images. I’ve read where people compare him to the Don, but he’s more an emperorsario — maybe we’ve found a new word — than a Don. He’s intense, preoccupied, doesn’t miss a trick. He’s a maestro.” Coppola values the same traits in Pacino: ”I tend to have a running stream of dialogue with Al, telling him how I feel, what’s gone on before, more or less random thoughts, knowing he will seize on something that’s helpful and disregard what isn’t. Al is one of the most intelligent actors I’ve worked with.”

In the Godfather films, Pacino sees a sweep that is nothing short of Shakespearean. ”Francis views Michael as a prince,” he says. ”There is the King, who is the Don (Marlon Brando), and there are his sons and his kingdom. The Don’s life is threatened, he knows he is going to die. Which son will defend him? He loses one, Sonny, and the other one, Fredo, is inadequate. And then there’s the third one, who comes to his aid and takes over the kingdom, even though he never wanted it.”

But for all that grandeur, Pacino thinks, the movies speak to viewers in a very intimate way. He compares the situation of the Corleone brothers to that of second-generation immigrants in general. ”The first generation of Italian-Americans in this country brought with them the old cultural ways. The second generation sacrificed themselves for the third, which was supposed to achieve the American dream of power, success, and money. It has to do with holding on to your family, the old values versus the new, the old country and the new. It’s a family film, and it always has been. I think that explains its popularity.”

Pacino’s own troubled but tight family ties help explain his feelings for the story. The only child of Salvatore and Rose Pacino, of Sicilian descent, he was born in Harlem but moved with his divorced mother to the mean streets near the Bronx Zoo in 1942, at age 2. As a child, Al used to hang with kids who wouldn’t make it out of their teens. ”It was like Tom Sawyer in the Bronx during the ’40s and ’50s,’ he recalls. His best friend, Cliffy, fated to die of a drug overdose, was a Huck Finn figure to Al. ”Cliffy once hijacked a public bus. When he was 11 he stole a garbage truck and came and picked me up. Eleven! Can you imagine that?”

Young Al’s teachers were prescient enough to nickname him Marlon Brando and encourage him to attend Manhattan’s Performing Arts high school. That experience kindled his love of performing, but he wasn’t able to stay with it. With a sickly mother to help support, he dropped out at 17 and went to work as a janitor, furniture mover, movie theater usher, and mail-room worker. But he didn’t give up on acting. He talked his way into the Actors Studio (entering the same semester as Dustin Hoffman), where Lee Strasberg, the legendary founder, noticed the skinny Bronx kid with the intense stare. ”The Actors Studio was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting,” Pacino says. He specialized in junkies and psychos, and his wild eyes first impressed audiences Off Broadway in Israel Horovitz’s play The Indian Wants the Bronx (1968), then on Broadway in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (1969). A small role in Me, Natalie (1969) led to a lead in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), followed by The Godfather, which changed his life.

The movie earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, but his $35,000 salary didn’t get him out of hock. ”After I’d done the first Godfather, I never thought there’d be a second one,” he says. ”I was broke. After taxes I owed 15 grand, so I went up to Boston, my hunting ground, and hunted for stage parts.” That began his lifelong habit of shuttling between the worlds of film and theater, always picking parts that intrigued him. His role as a whistle-blowing cop in Serpico (1973) led to a Best Actor Oscar nomination and certified his bankability, but Pacino took pride in never accepting parts just for the money. When Paramount pursued him for the sequel to The Godfather, he recalls, he turned down an escalating series of offers that finally hit $1 million. ”It was the damnedest thing,” he says. ”I ended up apologizing to the guy for not taking the million.”

A change of art changed his mind: Coppola finally signed on with definite ideas about where to take his character. Says Pacino, ”When Francis told me about the script, the hairs on my head stood up.”

His Oscar nomination for Godfather II was soon followed by another for the bisexual bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Pacino’s performance in that role was electrifying, but he barely recalls it; the year was a semi-alcoholic blur for him. (He eventually turned to AA for help in curbing his drinking.) ”What happened to Dog Day and with me is a bit foggy right now,” he says, ”but it certainly became a popular picture.”

In the following years, his career took quirky turns. Despite his good performance, Bobby Deerfield (1977) crashed badly by saddling the story of a Grand Prix driver with a corny disease-of-the-week theme. His role as a populist lawyer in …And Justice for All earned him his last Oscar nomination in 1979, but other roles in the late ’70s and early ’80s were hardly conceived to be crowd-pleasers. On stage, he did Bertolt Brecht’s cerebral The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Jungle of Cities. He was critically pummeled for his Richard III on Broadway, but received a second Tony for The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and acclaim for his work in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

Pacino doesn’t apologize for being so determinedly uncommercial. His stage roles give him a chance to work on a complex part for months, slowly uncovering its possibilities through constant repetition. ”I did American Buffalo for four years, and I was always moving all over the stage, using my hands, doing pyrotechnics,” he recalls. ”Then once in Boston I did a performance and I realized that I hardly moved the whole time. I didn’t need to. But it took me all that time to get to that.”

The movies have provided some less happy moments. As a cop investigating leather-bar killings in Cruising (1980), he drew protest from segments of the gay community. ”If I were writing a book and it came to the Cruising page, I would have a blank,” he says. ”Cruising was an unhappy experience all around.” Pacino says he was so upset by the way the movie turned out, he donated part of his pay to charity. Another disappointment was the 1982 comedy flop Author! Author!, Horovitz’s story about a playwright stuck with his ex-wife’s kids. ”Go ahead, throw it in my face!” Pacino jokes. He followed that with Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface, playing a crazed Cuban drug lord. The film leaned heavily on Pacino’s trademark intensity and explosiveness and was dismissed by critics, yet it earned $44 million in theaters and, thanks to video, has undergone a modest critical revival. The same cannot be said of Revolution, a $28 million, 1985 disaster about America in 1776.

After that string, Pacino dropped out of sight for four years, acting in theater workshops and fiddling with his film of Heathcote Williams’ play The Local Stigmatic. The hour-long movie concerns a pair of cockney toughs (Pacino and Paul Guilfoyle) who attack a celebrity. Remote and difficult, the film is hardly intended for a mass audience. ”It’s not about entertainment or appealing to popularity,” says Pacino. ”It is what it is.”

Pacino admits that such projects have undermined his career. ”You find yourself getting involved in things and then two years have gone by,” he says. ”I’ve always walked that line where I’ve felt as though I neglected pursuing movie roles or stage roles. In trying to do both, I’ve neglected each.”

But the neglected movie career came roaring back in 1989 with Sea of Love. Pacino’s portrayal of a weary cop who isn’t sure whether to bed or arrest Ellen Barkin added a burnt-out quality and rueful humor to his intensity. He seemed to incorporate some of his own dilemmas into the part. ”Sea of Love was about a guy going through crises,” he says, ”which I thought was interesting — to play a cop who’s so caught up in his own survival he doesn’t realize that his needs are so great they take precedence over his logic.” Says Sea of Love director Harold Becker, ”Al’s more than a great actor, he’s the Human Condition walking around. Al doesn’t play a character, he becomes the character. When he’s sitting in a restaurant eating for a scene, he’s not acting — he’s eating!”

Pacino popped up with another surprise in 1990 with his outrageously hammy, movie-stealing turn as the mobster Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy. Though the part was conceived as a cameo, his portrayal of the gangster as a kind of hulking overgrown dwarf was far funnier and more memorable than anything else in the movie. ”Who could have suspected that a performance of this hilarity lurked behind (his) forbidding intensity all these years?” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson. ”It was a relief to play a cameo part and to feel free to play it,” Pacino says. If he were to do a Tracy sequel, he knows how he’d like to play Caprice: ”He’s now running from Tracy and he’s a headwaiter in a posh French restaurant.”

His successes in Sea of Love and Dick Tracy helped reacquaint audiences with Pacino’s depth and versatility. But neither had the richness or range of a truly great picture, one that could fully engage Pacino’s skills. For that possibility, we have to wait for his return as Michael Corleone, a man at the painful pinnacle of his power.

At the Burbank studio where Coppola has been editing Godfather III, the director, producer Fred Roos, and Pacino are sitting in a screening room watching a scene from the almost-finished movie. On the screen, Michael Corleone is alone, kneeling by the casket of an old Don, a man who had been his protector and surrogate father in Italy. As he quietly speaks to the old man, Michael slowly loses the steely composure that has masked his emotions ever since he became a Don himself. Finally, he breaks down and weeps. It’s a crucial scene, the kind that wins Oscars, and even in this rough, black-and-white working version, it’s a powerful moment.

When the lights come up, the three men sit quietly. Then Pacino speaks. He’s concerned that several lines of dialogue have been cut and thinks they should be restored, perhaps as a voice-over. Coppola is under intense pressure to get this movie locked; a delay of even a few days would mean missing the all-important Christmas Day release. But he listens to Pacino, and promises to reconsider.

”That’s the great thing about Francis,” Pacino says on the way to the parking lot. ”He listens.” And he should. By now, hearing Pacino discuss Michael Corleone — a character he has known most of his career — is like getting advice from the Don himself. To Pacino, the casket scene reveals the crux of Michael’s tragic nature. ”Michael can’t understand why this old man was so loved while he is feared,” he explains. ”Because Michael always wanted to do good with his life, but he never got that kind of response. He says, ‘Why? Why? Because I thought too much about things? Was it my heart? Or my mind? I wanted what you wanted.’ It’s so revealing,” Pacino muses. ”It touches a universal nerve.”

”We tried in the third one to deal with the cathartic themes of finally dealing with your life and coming to terms with your sins,” Coppola says. ”I’m making it from the point of view of a man in his 50s; I’m getting the inkling that what I do now counts more for what comes after me than for me.” For Pacino at 50, the part of an older, more rueful Michael Corleone may just be the role of his career. When he talks about Michael, it’s hard not to see Pacino reflected in the words. ”I’ve thought a lot about Michael as an enigma,” Pacino says, ”someone who makes you feel uneasy. He’s someone who is searching. It’s about destiny and someone who has resisted his destiny.”

The Los Angeles Times calls Godfather III ”the most anticipated film of the last decade,” and Pacino’s performance will be crucial to its reception. ”It’s a picture people seem to be rooting for,” he mildly observes, ”even in the industry.” If the picture succeeds, Pacino may receive a measure of respect and recognition to surpass even the triumphs of his early years. How does it all feel?

”It doesn’t do anything to me,” says Pacino. ”I’m just an actor.” After all this time, he maintains, playing Michael Corleone isn’t a challenge. ”A challenge is a role you find difficult,” he says. ”Doing a great role is an opportunity. It’s a gift to be able to play a part that can afford your acting talents to be freed.”

The Godfather Part III
  • Movie
  • 169 minutes
  • Francis Ford Coppola