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"I always tell the truth," Tony Montana, the drug kingpin of Scarface says. "Even when I lie." 
 
The line may have been scripted by Oliver Stone, but it could very well describe Al Pacino, the actor who uttered those words in the 1983 cult favorite. Like the best theatrical artists, Pacino is a liar of sorts, adopting personas other than his own, but with the intention of expressing what Lee Strasberg, the acting guru, called the "emotional truth" of the character. But Pacino's most dramatic statement didn't come from any movie. During his early days of struggle when he alternated the occasional acting gig with dead end jobs so depressing they made him question his sanity, he made the following promise to a friend: "Either I act or I die."
 
The acting started early, not long after Alfred James Pacino was born on April 24, 1940 in East Harlem, N.Y. His stonemason father abandoned the family two years later. Overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising an only child, his mother moved with him to his grandparents' tenement apartment in the Bronx. It was here that the boy nicknamed "Sonny" found his first audience. After attending the movies with his mother, he would entertain his relatives with imitations of James Cagney, Ray Milland, and other stars he saw on the silver screen.
 
Short, frail, and a target for bullies, he also found that his gift for mimicry could help him survive on the mean streets of New York and at school. "Sonny"'s talents made him popular with his peers and they gave him a new, prophetic nickname: "The Actor."
 
One of his teachers was impressed enough with his performance in a school production of The King and I that she wrote a letter to his mother praising his talent. Encouraged, his mother enrolled him in Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts. But he was bored by academics, failed his classes, and, when his mother fell ill, dropped out to work assorted odd jobs, including a stint as an office boy at Commentary magazine.
 
Moving to Greenwich Village, Pacino met acting couch Charlie Laughton who would become his mentor, and told him "You're going to be a big star." Through Laughton, Pacino made his off-Broadway debut in a 1963 production of William Saroyan's Hello, Out There. Success was slow in coming, but three years later he would earn an Obie nomination for Why Is A Crooked Letter.
 
By then, Pacino had won admission to the prestigious Actor's Studio where he became acquainted with another struggling thespian, Robert DeNiro, and would establish both a professional and personal relationship with the legendary Lee Strasberg. The confidence Pacino gained at this time led him to focus exclusively on acting and no longer seek the kind of odd jobs - movie usher, furniture mover, etc - that he had long worked at to survive.

* * *

It was in the 1968 production of The Indian Wants the Bronx at New York's Astor Place Theater that Pacino truly established himself as an actor of note. As one of two vicious thugs who terrorize an elderly man, Pacino won the Obie as best actor, and acquired another mentor, Martin Bregman, an agent who would guide his career from that point on.
 
Although he made his film debut with a small role in 1969's Me, Natalie starring Patty Duke, it would be his Tony Award winning performance in the Broadway production of Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? the same year that would pave the way for his future success in the movies. Albert S. Ruddy, a producer with the TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" to his credit, saw the play and would remember Pacino's "terrifying performance." So would an obscure film director named Francis Ford Coppola. 
 
But first there was Panic In Needle Park, a 1971 drama with a screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne that Bregman, now a producer sponsoring projects designed for his main client, described as "Romeo and Juliet on junk." The gritty romance played the Cannes Film Festival but performed poorly at the box-office.
 
The Godfather, on the other hand, made box-office history.  Produced by Ruddy and directed by Coppola, the film based on Mario Puzo's runaway best-seller about a family whose business was built on bloodshed would rival the popularity of Gone With the Wind and emerge as one of the most successful attractions in cinema history. After Coppola convinced a skeptical Paramount to cast Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, he then fought to hire the unknown Pacino for what was essentially the title role.
 
"The man's a midget," Robert Evans, Paramount's perpetually suntanned vice president said of Pacino when Coppola insisted on screen testing the actor repeatedly despite less than satisfying results. Aware that the studio didn't want him, Pacino refused to learn his lines, leading Coppola to call him a "self-destructive bastard."

Self-destructive or not, Pacino won the part of Michael Corleone, the son who rises to the role of Godfather despite his initial resistance to the "family business." Brando's much mimicked performance garnered most of the attention, but it was Pacino's straight laced war veteran who transforms into a cold, calculating mobster that truly dominates the epic film. In The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called Pacino "an actor worthy to have Brando as his father."

Released in the spring of 1972, The Godfather revived a floundering film business, rehabilitated Brando's reputation, established Coppola as the new boy wonder of the cinema, won the Oscar for best picture, and put Al Pacino on the map.  

"I hope the perception is that I'm an actor," he would say. "I never intended to be a movie star."

As if to prove the point, he returned to the stage in a Boston production of David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel while The Godfather was still playing to mammoth crowds. Pacino had played the role of the misfit drafted to serve in Vietnam several years earlier, but now the media was watching his every move, as were the female fans who had become smitten by his dark intensity and bedroom eyes. 
 
But the movie offers were pouring in. First up was Scarecrow, an offbeat road movie in which he played a sailor who joins ex-con Gene Hackman for a series of misadventures that left most critics baffled. "The script is phony from word one," wrote Stanley Kaufmann in The New Republic. An equally unimpressed Judith Crist nonetheless found Pacino's performance "endearing." Too arty for most audiences, Scarecrow quickly vanished from theaters.
 
Serpico, however, was the film that truly established Pacino as a movie star.
 
In the wake of 1971's Oscar winning The French Connection, the New York based cop thriller had become a veritable genre marked by tough language and one hair raising car chase too many. Serpico, however, emphasized character as it told the true story of a lone detective's battle against corruption in the NYPD. Serpico's long hair and blue jeans marked him as a non-conformist, but not nearly as much as his refusal to accept payoffs. Under Sidney Lumet's direction, Pacino smoldered in a performance that also introduced what came to be one of his trademarks: the "volcanic tirade." Serpico was a hit upon its Christmas 1973 release, and in addition to winning the Golden Globe for best dramatic actor, Pacino was an Oscar nominee for the second year in a row, this time as best actor.
 
Having toppled both Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music as the biggest grossing film in history, The Godfather inevitably inspired a sequel, but few expected 1974's The Godfather Part II to equal, let alone surpass, the original film. Though it did not perform as well at the box-office, it was, arguably, more ambitious as it alternated between the story of the young Don Corleone's rise in Sicily with the downfall of his son, Michael, in 1950's America. With Francis Ford Coppola once more at the helm, it had a sweep and a melancholy only hinted at in the original. Pacino's Michael Corleone is colder now and more ruthless, but also more tragic. The Godfather Part II also surpassed the original at the Oscars where it picked up a total of six awards, double the honors bestowed upon the earlier film. Once again, Pacino was an Oscar nominee, and once again, his name was not announced when the envelope was opened.
 
At a time when gay characters were generally relegated to the sidelines in mainstream films, and few name actors were willing to play them, Pacino proved that he was "constantly striving to break through to something new" with his role in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon.

As a short-tempered thug who bungles a bank robbery meant to pay for his lover's sex change operation and holds the bank's employees hostage for 14 hours, Pacino's performance is charged with neurotic energy throughout. The film could be faulted for making its protagonist more likeable, more amusing, and, therefore, more human than the buttoned down representatives of law and order whom he opposes, but it crackles with Pacino's uninhibited performance, fueled by Frank Pierson's tough, insightful dialogue and Sidney Lumet's flavorful direction.

For the fourth year in a row, Pacino was in the running for an Oscar. Anticipating his loss to Jack Nicholson, the winner for what was, arguably, a less daring performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he was not in attendance when the golden statuettes were handed out, choosing instead to participate in a "workshop" production of The Local Stigmatic for Joseph Papp in New York. 
 
In 1977, he would return to Boston for a revival of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, winning the Tony Award for best dramatic actor. Two years later, he would be praised for his courage in tackling the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III, but many critics believed courage was the only quality apparent in his performance. 
 
Whether praised or panned, however, his stage work was proving more memorable than his films by this time. 1977's Bobby Deerfield cast him as a race car driver in love with a dying woman. The Sydney Pollock directed feature was Pacino's first certified bomb. He appeared to better advantage that year in a movie he wasn't actually in. In Saturday Night Fever, the film that propelled John Travolta to stardom and set off the disco craze, Pacino's almost Christ like image on the poster for Serpico is prominently displayed on the lead character's bedroom wall, an acknowledgment that he was now a star of iconic standing. 
...And Justice For All was a modest success in 1979, but though it earned Pacino his fifth Oscar nomination, the Norman Jewison directed film was too reliant on its star's trademark "volcanic fury" ("You're out of order! This whole trial is out of order!") for the drama in Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin's overly contrived screenplay. Pacino's talent might have been better served by Kramer vs. Kramer or Apocalypse Now,  two 1979 releases he had been invited to star in, but turned down.
 
Next, Pacino attached himself to a project that was doomed from the start. In Cruising, he returned to the police beat for the first time since Serpico as a detective going undercover in New York's gay bars to hunt down a serial killer targeting gay men. Director William Friedkin was returning to even more familiar turf in a film that seemed intent on blending elements from his breakthrough gay drama The Boys In The Band with the action oriented thrills of his Oscar winning The French Connection.
 
Controversy plagued the production as soon as filming commenced in Greenwich Village, and continued unabated with its release. The word from columnist Liz Smith was that Pacino hated the finished product which critics charged with perpetuating the popular image of gay men as promiscuous perverts obsessed with sadomasochism. Denounced by activists who feared the film's portrayal of a fringe aspect of the homosexual world would spark violence against gay men, Cruising was, in the words of the New York Daily News, "a depraved, mindless piece of garbage" that mercifully disappeared from theaters soon after its debut.
 
Although Pacino's early career included a brief stint as a stand-up comedian, he was not known for his comedic skills, and Author! Author! was not the perfect showcase for them. The 1982 release matched the actor with a director, Arthur Hiller, known more for being competent than inspired, and the result was a sweet but unimpressive comedy with Pacino miscast as a playwright saddled with the care of five children after his wife walks out on him. The actor was still being better served by stage work, appearing that year in an acclaimed New York production of David Mamet's American Buffalo
 
"I guess you find yourself repeating certain motifs," Pacino once observed of the actor's life.
 
The motif of Scarface brought back memories of The Godfather, but this modern recasting of Howard Hawks' legendary 1932 gangster film starring Paul Muni had a protagonist lacking the polish that gave Michael Corleone a superficial sheen of civility. Scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian DePalma, it gave its star the opportunity to deliver a powerhouse performance that would reverberate beyond the screen and become something of a landmark in pop culture.
 
Most critics would dismiss the story of the rise and fall of a Cuban gangster as bloody trash, and DePalma would be nominated for a Razzie as the year's worst director, but Roger Ebert, writing in The Chicago Sun-Times,was impressed, observing that the film "understands the criminal personality, with its links between laziness and ruthlessness, grandiosity and low self-esteem, pipe dreams and a chronic inability to be happy."  
 
A substantial success, Scarface didn't break any records, but it inspired quite a few as the film became revered by rap artists who identified with its unscrupulous "hero." In the bonus features included on the two-disc anniversary DVD released in 2003, Russell Simmons, chairman of the Def Jam Music Group, said that Scarface, like hip-hop, is about  "empowerment at all costs," and Pacino's Tony Montana is "the ultimate ghetto superstar." Today, the image of Pacino as Scarface has been reproduced on innumerable posters and prints, and is perhaps more familiar than even Michael Corleone or Serpico.                 
 
Momentum was not on his side, though, as his next project, Revolution,failed to merit a national release, having been withdrawn shortly after its Christmas 1985 opening in New York. An ambitious look at the American Revolutionary War, it was, in Vincent Canby's view, "a mess, but one that's so giddily misguided that it's sometimes a good deal of fun for all of the wrong reasons."
 
With Revolution not even making its way to the multiplex, there was a six year gap between Scarface and Sea of Love, leading critics and fans alike to hail the latter as a comeback. Sea of Love found him looking older, wearier, but returning to form as a New York detective hunting - what else? - a serial killer, this one targeting singles who seek love and companionship through newspaper classified ads. Pacino generated quite a few sparks in his love scenes with co-star Ellen Barkin, and the mystery was sufficiently satisfying to make the film a hit with audiences in a year otherwise dominated by Batman.              
 
The success of Tim Burton's film based on the Bob Kane comic book inspired Warren Beatty to don the bright yellow trenchcoat familiar to readers of Dick Tracy. The summer 1990 release was stuffed with stars, including Madonna and Dustin Hoffman, but it was Pacino's villainous Big Boy Caprice who dominated the film and won the lion's share of praise, as well as an Oscar nomination, his sixth overall and first in more than a decade. Pacino was keeping himself busy with film work at this time, and by year's end moviegoers once more saw the familiar logo of a hand grasping a cross to which are attached several dangling strings.
 
The Godfather Part III was a long time in coming. In the sixteen years since Part II, Paramount had explored the possibility of continuing the Corleone saga with or without the involvement of the original participants. Finally, Coppola and author Puzo agreed to collaborate on a third installment. Pacino was signed soon after.
 
Although it surprised the doubters by earning an Oscar nomination for best picture, The Godfather Part III earned generally good notices but still seemed like something of a bastard child. With a hairstyle that brought to mind Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, sad swollen eyes, and a gruff voice, Pacino's guilt ridden Michael Corleone, now a respectable businessman, bore little resemblance to the character we came to know in the two previous films. The actor acknowledged as much by saying "Nobody wants to see Michael have retribution, and feel guilty. That's not who he is."
 
Frankie and Johnny the next year was a change of pace with Pacino joining Michelle Pfeiffer under the direction of Garry Marshall, the godfather of TV's "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley," for a warm, comic romance based on a play by Terence McNally. As an ex-con who works as a cook at a Greek restaurant and falls in love with a pretty waitress, Pacino had never been so winningly likeable on screen.
 
Likeable is one thing that retired colonel Frank Slade is not. Blind, bitter, and suicidally depressed, a certain warmth emerges as he forms a bond with a college student who agrees to serve as his eyes to make some much needed cash. The film, of course, is Scent of a Woman which shocked Hollywood by winning the 1992 Golden Globe as best dramatic film in a year when all the buzz was being generated by Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (the Oscar winner that year) and The Crying Game
 
Despite winning praise for his performance (Pacino "soars through the story with show-stopping intensity," said Janet Maslin in The New York Times), some critics grumbled when this entertaining but relatively lightweight film proved to be the one for which Pacino would be honored with a long overdue Oscar as best actor, especially since he also pulled off the rare feat of being nominated as best supporting actor (for a superior understated performance in Glengarry Glen Ross) the same year. No matter. Al Pacino was now an Academy Award Winner, and deservedly so.
 
Pacino re-teamed with Brian DePalma for the gritty Carlito's Way the next year, playing a tough Puerto Rican hood whose efforts to go straight are vanquished by a seedy lawyer, but he was back on the side of law and order in 1995's Heat.
 
The actor who embodies New York was now with the LAPD in director Michael Mann's epic tale of cops and robbers that utilized 65 authentic Los Angeles locations. What's not to like about a film that pits Pacino's well-tailored cop against a master criminal played by a goateed Robert DeNiro?  The lengthy film, praised by Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times as "a sleek accomplished piece of work," has action to spare, but it's the characters - Pacino's eccentric detective, and DeNiro's bank robber whose veneer of cool conceals a lonely desperation - that make it riveting and worthy of multiple viewings.
 
1996's City Hall cast him as the Mayor of New York, but the man who portrayed earthly evil to perfection in The Godfather trilogy was more memorably cast as Satan himself in Taylor Hackford's eerie Devil's Advocate the next year. Top billed Keanu Reeves was so determined to work with Pacino that he gladly sacrificed some of his own multi-million dollar paycheck so the producers could meet Pacino's required fee. Pacino's commanding presence as the prince of darkness proves it was money well spent. His role as Lefty, a self-described "spoke in a wheel" in the world of organized crime, was cut from an entirely different cloth, but was equally impressive. Pacino evokes pity for a mobster who is befriended, then betrayed, by undercover detective Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp). 
 
In 1999, he reunited with Michael Mann for The Insider in which he squared off with Russell Crowe in a thought provoking drama that was as much an expose of tobacco companies as it was an indictment of television news, and played a football coach in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.
 
One of his best performances came in 2001's Insomnia, a clever and atmospheric cat and mouse thriller in which he was cast as a detective whose sterling reputation is about to be undone with the help of a killer chillingly portrayed by Robin Williams. By this time, Pacino could play a cop in his sleep, but sleep was one thing his character couldn't do. But was it the lack of nightfall in the tiny coastal village of Nightmute that kept him awake, or his guilty conscience? What could have been a mere genre piece takes on a tragic dimension worthy of Shakespeare thanks to Pacino's superb performance.
 
"I couldn't exist just doing films," he once said. "But on the other hand, there is the fame that comes with it, and the money."
 
However, fame and money seemed to be the only justification for his appearance in Simone (2001), The Recruit (2003) or Two for the Money (2005). In 2003, he even turned up, unbilled, in the notorious Gigli, a film whose status as a bomb was guaranteed thanks to the publicity surrounding the obnoxious off-screen romance between stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.
 
Theater, by way of television, provided an escape from such lightweight offerings, and Pacino won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of seedy lawyer Roy Cohn in HBO's epic 2003  production of Tony Kushner's Broadway triumph, Angels in America
 
Pacino will no doubt continue to take advantage of both the fame and money that comes with film work even when the projects prove less than challenging (he'll play a villain in Ocean's Thirteen, the next installment in George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's series of Rat Pack knock-offs) while continuing his commitment to the theater.  But whatever the role, he will, as Tony Montana said, "always tell the truth. Even when I lie." As his character in Heat said, "I don't know how to do anything else. I don't much want to either."
 

by Brian W. Fairbanks

 



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