The Profile Dossier: Al Pacino, Hollywood's favorite gangster
"You’re only as good as the chances you take."
Al Pacino may be the most beloved film villain in America. Over his 50-year acting career, Pacino has pursued roles as a gangster, mobster, violent drug lord, bank robber, and even the devil himself.
Pacino's iconic films include The Godfather, Serpico, Scarface, The Devil's Advocate, The Irishman, and Scent of a Woman.
A sign of a great actor is that they make their job look easy — and there's no one who makes it look easier than Pacino. His performance as Michael Corleone is widely regarded as one of the greatest screen performances in film history. Each of Pacino's films demonstrates his range and serves as a masterclass for aspiring actors.
Pacino's career as an actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter has spanned a whopping 50 years. He grew up an only child, and he lived with his mom and grandparents in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York.
Although he was a shy and introverted child, he found a love for film early in his life.
"My mother took me to the movies, and I would come home and act out all the parts," he says. "I guess I was sort of a lonely child, and it was a way of communicating with the adults around me."
Pacino describes his crew of friends at the time as “tough kids with high I.Q.s and tragic endings." He was smoking at nine, chewing tobacco at ten, and drinking hard liquor at thirteen.
Although Pacino was accepted to the High School of Performing arts, he struggled as a student, failed most of his classes, and eventually dropped out at age 16. He worked odd jobs to pay the bills until he eventually made his way to Greenwich Village to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.
His mom saw acting as a foolish profession. “Acting isn’t for our kind of people,” she told him. “Poor people don’t go into this.” Pacino said, “I didn’t know what she was talking about. On an unconscious level I did, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I’m a survivor. Survivors only hear what they want to hear.”
When Pacino was 21, he thought: "This is what I want to do with my life,'" he says. "And then nothing mattered, being famous, being rich, nothing. Only doing this."
He landed parts in off-Broadway productions, and it would be his performance in a little-known 1971 movie called The Panic in Needle Park that would jumpstart his career. His portrayal of a heroin addict caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who was casting for his upcoming film The Godfather. That's when a relatively unknown Pacino was chosen to play Michael Corleone, a career-defining role for the legendary actor.
“I was trying to create a character where you don’t know where you’re at with him,” Pacino said. “I knew it was a tough part to pull off. Michael’s so insular, so private.”
Pacino’s salary for The Godfather was only $35,000. Two years later, it increased to $500,000 plus 10% of the film's gross for Godfather II. For Godfather III, he argued for $7 million, but ultimately received $5 million.
"I feel like an outsider who got on the inside, so I’m inside out, if you know what I mean. Or outside in," he says.
Here's how this Hollywood outsider became one of the most legendary actors the world has ever seen.
On his legendary life and career: When Pacino was performing in an adaptation of Home Sweet Homicide at age 13, someone said to his mom, "Here's the next Brando." Pacino responded with, "Who's Brando?" In 1972, Marlon Brando and Pacino would team up to play Italian patriarch, Vito Corleone, and his youngest son, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather. In this masterful 2014 New Yorker profile, we learn intimate details of Pacino's decades-long acting career.
On his friendship with Robert de Niro: Pacino and Robert De Niro have spanned generations as acting royalty. The duo has been friends for more than 50 years — way before they were famous actors. In this longform Q&A, they riff about Scorsese, The Godfather, and five decades of Hollywood fame.
On finding the essence of a character: Pacino makes acting look effortless. With each role, he explains, he has to find the source of his expression. It's an inspired place that is not calculated, measured, or prepared for. When inhabiting a character, Pacino says he looks for the thing that moves him on an emotional level. How do you unlock that place? You do the performance over and over and over again. "I like repetition," he adds. "It keeps me green, it keeps me fresh."
On his humble beginnings: When interviewer Herby Moreau asks Pacino if he feels like he's a survivor in Hollywood, he responds with: "I feel like I'm a survivor everywhere. I come from a very poor background. I come from the South Bronx in New York. I come from a broken home. The most accurate description of me would be 'survivor.'" This is a great interview.
On Shakespeare's appeal: Throughout his career, Pacino has been greatly influenced by the works of Shakespeare. "The actor learns Shakespeare in another way because he learns it by having to do it," Pacino says. "He has to spend months with it. He approaches it in that way and understands it in that way." What a fascinating wide-ranging conversation.
On his most iconic characters: In this video, Pacino takes us behind the scenes and delves into the stories of how he learned to embody his most iconic characters, including the ones he portrayed in 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'The Godfather' and 'Scarface.' "You never know where you're going to get inspired," he says.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
You can outwork talent: Pacino was shy and introverted in his younger years, but he learned to play against his type. At age 21, he had a burning desire to be an actor. "Desire can sometimes trump talent," Pacino says. "You may not have as much talent as you think you have, but if you have the desire, the talent will find you."
Find the feelings: Pacino's performances are never forced. He makes them so believable because he seems so natural playing the role. That's because Pacino doesn't pretend, he becomes. The actor finds a sliver of himself in the characters he's about to embody, and he steps into their inner world. Acting, according to Pacino, is about “getting into a state that brings about freedom and expression and the unconscious.” "If you know what you're saying and why you're saying it, what you're talking about and who you're talking about and how you feel when you talk about it, then you don't have to act it," Pacino says. The best pieces of art, whether they are books, songs, or films, connect with their audience on a visceral, emotional level. Form an emotional connection with your reader or end user, and you'll find that your work will resonate much more deeply.
Consistency and repetition are the keys to success: Repetition, Pacino says, is what keeps him fresh. "It's in repetition that the creation comes, that the expression comes," he says. He once rehearsed a courtroom scene 85 times until he was happy with the result. By the time you get to the 85th rendition, he says, you've given up all expectations for perfection, and you're just doing it. Every rep gets you closer to the goal.
Life without risks is not a full life: If you're too scared to fail, it means you're not letting yourself live up to your full potential. Pacino is someone who has consistently taken chances throughout his career. "I think part of the adventure of it is to go into something and not be afraid to screw up because then you're reaching for something," he says. "What happens is that you learn to forgive yourself."
Master the art of nuance: Pacino understands that characters, like people, have layers. They have motivations, they follow incentives, and they oftentimes hold conflicting emotions. This basic understand has allowed him to bring a sense of nuance to his performances that other actors lack. Because no human clearly fits into the category of solely "good" or "bad," Pacino was able to break the Hollywood cliché of the hero always being the "good guy." For example, in The Godfather, Pacino portrays a violent mafia boss but his ruthlessness is born out of love and loyalty to protect his family. It reminds me of something Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: "In the best works of fiction, there's no mustache-twirling villain. I try to write shows where even the bad guy's got his reasons."
Understand the sacrifices of great success: If you could follow in the footsteps of someone who has achieved the upper echelons of success in your field, would you? Ask yourself: Am I willing to make the same sacrifices, the same missteps, and the same trade-offs? Remember that with the good also comes the bad. Pacino may be one of the most iconic actors that's ever lived, but he had a pretty tumultuous personal life. At age 81, Pacino has three children but he's never been married, a choice that likely stems from his early experience with his own parents, who divorced when he was only two years old. Pacino is self-aware enough to know that he's given up certain things along the way in order to fulfill his goals of excelling in his professional life. "The actor becomes an emotional athlete," he says. "The process is painful — my personal life suffers."
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"You’re only as good as the chances you take."
"Forget the career, do the work. If you feel what you are doing is on line and you’re going someplace and you have a vision and you stay with it, eventually things will happen."
"If you can identify with people, you can empathize with people and therefore you understand things."
"It turns out that time doesn’t heal the wound, but it blunts the edges ever so slightly."
"You need people who can tell you what you don’t want to hear."
'They say we die twice – once when the last breath leaves our body and once when the last person we know says our name."
"It’s easy to fool the eye, but it’s hard to fool the heart."
"All I am is what I am going after."