The life of Al Pacino has been a rollercoaster one with a near-Darwinian tale of adapting and surviving.
Here he talks to Gabrielle Donnelly about fame, fortune, forgetfulness and his life in the fast lane.
A man once approached Al Pacino while he was walking through New York City. “He came up to me, right in my face, and said, ‘Are you Al Pacino?”’ A story-teller born, Al settles himself today over his coffee in the distinctly non-New York surroundings of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “I said, ‘Yeah’ and he says, Congratulations – you look like you ought to!’”
He laughs, and shakes his head. “You should follow me around sometimes,” he adds. “It’s funny!”
No doubt it is. On the other hand, the man on the New York street had a point – Al does look exactly like he should, and that, for an actor still prominent in American films who turned 76 in April, is about as common as a nest of hen’s teeth on Santa Monica Boulevard.
He’s lucky enough to have kept a thick thatch of hair, now cheerfully salt and pepper instead of black, which he wears in a jaunty sort of bad boy semi-mullet, all angles on top and curling rakishly over his collar at the ends.
He’s trim and fit and has bounded into the room with the energy of a man twenty years his junior. But his face, with the familiar dark Italian brows over the commanding nose and huge, all-seeing brown eyes, is criss-crossed these days with more lines than most of his film contemporaries would dare to dream of permitting.
But the surprise, for those of us who still think of him first and foremost as Michael Corleone on the screen and a range of Shakespeare and Mamet characters of varying degrees of tragedy on the stage, is that the vast majority of those lines are lines of laughter.
“I’m a lucky guy,” he shrugs. “I have a good life in so many ways. So many things I have to be grateful for, and when I look back at all of my life I don’t know that I’d do anything different.”
Al himself has been on excellent terms with the notion of survival for most of his life. The son of a stonemason father who walked out on the family when Al was just two, he grew up tough in the South Bronx apartment of his mother’s parents.
“You just say the South Bronx, that says it all,” he says now with more than a little pride.
“We lived in a walk-up, my grandmother, my mother and my grandfather, we didn’t have no money, and every day was an adventure. I had a lot of friends on the street – the best friends I ever had in my life – and I learned everything I know there.
“Growing up for me was like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn – there was always something up. I remember there was one time I was being chased along the tenement roof – it seemed someone was always chasing me in those days, which was kind of exciting and I leaped over this roof, there was the jump, and there was the big drop to the street, and I was halfway over, I wasn’t going to make it, and I just grabbed onto the ledge! I don’t even want to think about my doing that these days but I did it – I guess I had a lot of confidence back then!”
THE SEVENTIES? I CAN HARDLY REMEMBER THEM
When he was just sixteen, he left home and went to become an actor in Greenwich Village, living rough when he needed to, and studying at not one, but two legendary schools, HB Studio and the Actors’ Studio, to perfect his craft.
“I was lucky, because I was living in a great city at the time, and in those days the environment in Greenwich Village was all cafes and theatre. I was in a show, I did sixteen shows a week in the theatre, and then we’d pass around the hat – or in our case, this little straw basket – and that was how we survived and ate, and that was my upbringing.
“So by the time I was 25, I had beenthrough a lot of different experiences and lived in a lot of different places, which, like for all kids, you can do a little easier when you are younger. But I did know that acting is what I wanted to do, and I knew that at one point I would be OK doing it because I loved it so much.”
By the time he was 28, he was winning a coveted off-Broadway Obie Award for Best Actor, portraying a street punk in Israel Horowitz’s The Indian Wants The Bronx at the Astor Place Theatre. In the audience one night was manager and film producer Martin Bregman, who liked what he saw so much that he signed up the young actor.
Shepherded by Marty – as Al affectionately calls him – he moved sideways to film, signed on to play a heroin addict in Panic In Needle Park in 1971, and promptly caught the eye of director Francis Ford Coppola, who was casting a movie about a New York Italian Mafioso family, to be called The Godfather. “I became famous in a matter of minutes,” he says now, of that time. “Being as famous as that was not on my agenda, and it came as a real shock. I didn’t know what was going on – it seemed like the world was changing all around me, “OK, I lived through it, but it definitely complicated the 1970s for me. They say that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t really there. Well, I was all right in the Sixties for some reason.
But if you ask me about the Seventies, I have to say I can hardly remember them.
“I always think that is kind of a pity because it was a time of great inspiration for so many directors, and I was in some amazing movies which I consider myself lucky to have been part of. But to tell you the truth, I don’t really have much memory of actually making any of them.
“I saw something of mine on TV recently, which I hadn’t seen in 20 years, maybe it was Godfather 2, and it was very interesting to watch that movie because it’s a beautifully constructed movie that seems to withstand time. I enjoyed it. But I can’t say that it jogged any memories for me.”
Fast forward a few decades – and, oh, yes, a series of movies like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scent Of A Woman – for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor, and, increasingly these days, TV miniseries like Angels In America, You Don’t Know Jack and Phil Spector, along with the flourishing career on the stage where so much of his heart will always be – he is clearly comfortable with his level of fame.
He’s even talking about returning to the London stage next year in a new production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
“I have so many alternatives these days!” he nods, happily. ‘I’m going to do a play, I read books, I sometimes do seminars, I go off and do a huge work with orchestras and all that stuff – and as long as I am lucky enough to be able to do this, I’m going to take advantage of it.
And thank God, nothing has happened to stop me from doing that yet – I’m still standing!”
Ageing? He says that it’s a fact of life, and no more. “I’m the same person that’s been around for fifty years. You maybe get more tired. I used to play softball and one day I was playing and I hit the ball and I was running to first base, and I looked to the trees I was running past and realised that the trees weren’t going by as fast as they used to! But you keep evolving and that’s the hope. It’s how you live with what you have – you know?”
He doesn’t seem to be lacking in energy in his personal life.
Although never married, he has been linked with some of the film world’s most glamorous women – Jill Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, Marthe Keller, Debra Winger – and for several years now has shared his life happily with 35-year-old (yes, you read that correctly) Lucila Sola.
“It works,” is all that he will say about her, with a smile. “We have a lot of life together and we’re happy.”
He also has children, a 25-year-old daughter, Julie, from his relationship with acting coach Jan Tarrant, and 15-year-old twins, Anton and Olivia, from his relationship with actress Beverly D”Angelo.
“My daughter’s out on her own – she makes films and does her own thing, which is kind of good. I always wanted her to go into acting but she’s gravitated to writing so that’s what she does.
She lives in New York, down there near the Bowery, and I see her when I can.
GROWING UP FOR ME WAS LIKE
HUCKLEBERRY FINN – THERE
WAS ALWAYS SOMETHING UP
“My younger two live between their mother in Los Angeles and me in New York, they go back and forth and I manage to be with them a lot. They are all incredibly important to me and they inform me all the time.”
Ask him what he does in his off hours, and he looks faintly puzzled. “I don’t have any, uh, hobbies …” he ventures cautiously.
“I think I’m with Oscar Wilde on that one – every time I get the urge to have a hobby, I lie down till it passes. What is a hobby anyway? Something you do a lot of?”
He stops, and smiles. “Maybe my work’s my hobby,” he concludes, happily..