AL PACINO'S REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS (AND FLINGS) PAST
I was told that Al Pacino was not pleased with this 1973 interview in The Los Angeles Times. He felt it was too personal. With hindsight, I can see his point--but I'd still like to thank him for sharing. --GUY FLATLEY
"When I was younger, I’d walk down the street, see an attractive girl and start to follow her. Sometimes I’d catch up with her, we’d look at each other and before long I’d be making out. I hadn’t done that for a few years, because anyone who does that sort of thing has got to be crazy, right? But just recently I spotted this really beautiful girl and I decided to see how far I could get with her. We reached a stop light together, I looked over at her, gave her a big smile and said hello.
" ‘Hi ya, Michael!’ she said. It was then that I knew it was all over for me. I slunk off and tried to hide behind a building, but the girl followed me. ‘Come on out, Michael,’ she said. ‘No,’ I answered, ‘it’s all over.’ ‘What do you mean, it’s all over? It’s just begun!’ she said. ‘No, you’re making a big mistake,’ I said. ‘I’m not Michael Corleone –- I’m Fritz Weaver.’
"The short, dark and handsome man was telling the truth; he’s not Michael Corleone. But he’s not Fritz Weaver, either. He’s Al Pacino, and at 33 he’s carrying the cross of superstition which was hoisted on his shoulders soon after he riveted moviegoers with his Oscar-nominated performance as the sensitive, sweetly murderous Michael, favorite son of "The Godfather."
On a recent night at Downey’s bar, where blue-jeaned actors who don’t dig the glare of Sardi’s go to groove, Al Pacino Superstar –- not quite sinking in a gentle pool of vodka –- was asked to discuss some of his trials and tribulations. Wearing a wide-brimmed beach hat, sandals and a muted print shirt and sporting a thick black beard and mustache, he would have looked at home in the Montmartre of a French impressionist painting.
But Al Pacino, who is seldom at home outside the sooty city limits of New York, is strictly modern, and the hirsute look is for "Serpico," the movie in which he plays Frank Serpico, the real-life "hippie" cop who dropped out of the law-and-order game after blowing the whistle on his corrupt fellow-cops in the New York City Police Department. Lately, though, there have been rumors that Al has gone Hollywood modern, that he has become as petulant with the press as his idol and movie daddy Marlon Brando, that he jilted Jill Clayburgh –- his loyal sweetheart for over five years –- upon hearing the siren song of Tuesday Weld, that he scrapped with Gene Hackman and Jerry Schatzberg, his "Scarecrow" co-star and director, and that he made egomaniacal money demands on Paramount to play the moody Michael once more in "Godfather II."
Maybe so. Yet one is reluctant to rush rudely ahead in an effort to get to the bottom of the gossip, especially since one has been warned that the subject of Tuesday is taboo and that the reason Al designated Downey’s for the interview is that he treasures the secrecy of his own pad –- wherever that might be. It has also been hinted that Al is disenchanted with reporters, that he complains that his journalistic image has ranged from skin-deep to scurrilous. Which is why I am slightly dazed when Al willingly describes his sidewalk skirmish with the Michael-mad girl. I’m even more surprised when he goes on to talk about Tuesday Weld.
"That’s all over," Al assures me, stirring the ice in his vodka. "Just say that Tuesday Weld is my favorite drink."
"Yeah, sometimes when I walk into a bar, I really throw the bartender by ordering a Tuesday Weld. It’s something I invented –- a Brandy Alexander poured over an Oreo cookie. Tuesday and I used to laugh a lot about that."
Tuesday Weld and Jill Clayburgh were but two of the actresses who spotted Al’s potential as an off-screen performer. "It’s amazing what a cloistered life I lead," Al says with a perfectly straight face. "I don’t go to many parties, and when I’m working, who is it that I meet? Actresses. Every time I get started with an actress, I say, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t enter into this.’ Then I get that classic thing where they’ll say, ‘I’ll give up acting.’ And then I say, ‘What the devil do you mean? Don’t give up anything for me.’ "
Al shakes his head and sighs, like one who has just had a close escape from domesticity. "What I’d really like to do is meet a sculptress. You don’t know any sculptresses, do you? I’ved lived with women since I was 16, and they all seem to have been actresses."
One of Al’s more vivid old flames, Susan Tyrrell, recently looked back, more in awe than anger. "Al was like an animal," she reminisced, "like a stallion with his reins pulled too tight. He needs to have his freedom more than most performers. And, when Al is free, he flies."
Birds of all feathers seem deliriously eager to spread their wings and fly with Al. According to Sally Kirkland, a close chum of Al’s since their lean and hungry days off-off-Broadway in the early 60’s, Al came to a party which she, Susan Tyrrell and Candy Darling threw shortly after the sensational opening of "The Godfather."
"There were 500 people at the party," says Sally, "and every girl there came to look at Al Pacino, to try and get a shot at him. Let me tell you, women find Al fantastically sexy. It’s sort of incredible, when you think about it, that this little guy should be so sexy. But, believe me, it’s true."
It’s also true that Al steers away from the specifics of his love life and that he is more at ease tackling the topic of what it means to be an actor or, better still, what it meant to be a tough runt of a kid growing up absurd in the Bronx. In fact, Al has been reflecting more and more on those good old, bad old days, sifting through the memories of his not quite Catholic boyhood.
"My parents were Italian, and they had me baptized, but I was not raised in the Catholic tradition. I come from a broken home."
Al tugs at his beard and takes a slug of vodka. "My father lives in California now, and he’s on his fourth marriage. I guess I felt resentment toward him at times, times when I needed to expend some energy, so I got bitter about him. But, intellectually, I always knew that it wasn’t me that my father left. Yet something like that naturally leaves scars: it has to have colored my life.
"What I plan to do is write and direct a movie about the first 14 years of my life, a movie told from the eyes of one kid –- showing him learning about life, about sex, and eventually leaving the old neighborhood."
In real life, Al didn’t learn all that much about the old neighborhood until he started school. His mother and his grandfather both worked during the day, and his grandmother would not permit him to leave the house.
"I was very shy, and when I was about 3 years old my mother began taking me to the movies, night after night. The next day, all by myself, I would enact all the parts of the movie before a mirror. My grandmother would be there, but always off in another room. ‘Al likes to talk to himself,’ she used to say. ‘He’s doing OK.’ I was really all alone those first seven years of my life. In fact, I used to go steady with a broom, or maybe it was a mop."
"Acting was second nature to me. It was almost like I was born in the theater, the theater being movies. I had Al Jolson down pat and when I was 6, I could do the whole scene from ‘Lost Weekend’ where Ray Milland tries to remember where he hid the bottle. When I would do it for the grown-ups, they would laugh, and I could never understand why they were laughing. To me, it was serious.
"One day, the strangest, most subtle, thing happened. See if you can dig this: I was 5 or 6, and I was playing a character from some movie I had just seen. I was all alone, as usual, and suddenly I stopped. ‘This is wrong,’ I said to myself. ‘I’m too good, nobody’s this good!'"
When Al turned school age, things got both better and worse. From the beginning, he despised the regimentation, was openly rebellious to the authorities, and even spent time in a class for emotionally disturbed children. But at least the days of solitary fantasizing had come to an end.
"I had lots of friends once I started getting out on my own. And when I make my movie, I want to show the adventure, the humor, the strong relationships that existed in that community. The provincialism of the south Bronx was as small-town as ‘The Last Picture Show.’ "
The trouble Al eventually found himself in –- and still finds himself in, despite furtive retreats to church and fitful bouts with psychotherapy –- was the pain and confusion brought on by a break with his mother over Al’s determination to become an actor.
"When I was 14, a traveling theater came to the Bronx and performed ‘The Seagull’ in an old movie house. They probably weren’t any good, but I had never seen anything like it in my life. My life was changed that day.
"In the beginning, my mother did all she could to encourage my interest in the theater. She herself had an innate sense of theater and she even took me to see a couple of Broadway plays. I truly believe it was because of my mother that I never went the way of my friends –- I saw two close friends die from drugs. My mother was a well-read woman, hyper-sensitive, in analysis for years.
"I began running away from home when I was 11, and kept doing it for a long time, not because I was unhappy but for the adventure of it, for a good time. My mother always understood this; we had a good relationship when I was young, a full and loving relationship. But when I got to be 16, my mother had to stop working because of her health and I had to support her. It was then that she took a realistic look at my prospects and became very negative about my acting."
Al left home, skipped from one pitifully paying job to another, and –- along with his grandfather –- managed to keep the family this side of starvation. "I couldn’t hold a job for long. I kept telling my mother I’d soon be doing something big, that I’d met a person who was going to make me a real draftsman. I said that because I thought ‘draftsman’ sounded very important to me. But she never believed me."
Al cracks his knuckles, a nervous habit. "My mother died when she was 43. We weren’t getting along at the time, and it’s only been recently that I realize how deeply I miss her. Everything gets so aborted with me, because of my pride. I’ve done this sort of thing all my life, and I’m so tired of this abortion. I’m making a conscious effort to stop it."
Part of Al’s effort to prevent abortion, to make his life whole, was his decision to track down his father. "Jill and I went to see him when I was doing ‘The Godfather’ in California. I don’t profess to know my father, but he seemed OK to me –- I wasn’t disillusioned or anything. I felt he was a feeling person, that he felt a great deal for me. It was hard for me, though, to say ‘Pop’ to somebody; I had never said it to him before. I sort of wanted to call him by his first name, but I figured, ‘What the hell, why not call him Pop?’
"He looked at me like I was his son, not like I was Al Pacino the movie star. And after a while in this position, you really long for that. The thing I miss most is that thing of having people look me in the eye in a certain way, the way your mother looks at you, no matter what you’ve done. You can tell when people aren’t really seeing you, when they’re just seeing the image. I can’t tell you how many times at parties I’ll be sitting there in the dark talking to somebody and it’s wonderful -– until the lights go on and they see you’re Al Pacino and a new look comes into their eyes and suddenly everything is different.
"When I was with my father, I somehow felt the family, the blood tie, the bond that all of us have -– the reason we all identify so strongly with ‘The Godfather.’ I wrote to my father later and told him how I felt about him. It’s a funny thing, but when I was with my father, it brought my mother back to me."
Just before his mother died, Al was beginning to make his mark in tiny Greenwich Village showcases, setting off dramatic fireworks in raw and piercing plays in lofts and basements and churches, dazzling audiences with his diamond-in-the-rough intensity in experimental, out-of-the-way spots. He was also polishing his technique under the guidance of acting teacher, Charlie Laughton, a tough taskmaster.
"Charlie Laughton directed me in an off-off-Broadway production of Strindberg’s ‘The Creditors,’ and it was a catharsis for me. For the first time, I knew I had something going for me, a chance to use myself, my life. Charlie Laughton is probably the most important person in my life. He made me realize that acting is poetry, an art that employs the voice, the body, the spirit. It’s fantastic being an actor, and so few people know that."
Al orders another vodka and lights a cigarette. "I remember one day when I was just 21. I was running down a flight of stairs to look in the mailbox, and I jumped over the last few steps and quickly spun around and looked up to the top of the stairs where Charlie was standing. He looked back at me and said, ‘Al, you’re going to be a big star.’ That’s all he said and it was not at all the way Charlie usually spoke, it was not his nature. Yet, when he said it, I received it, I knew. I was always certain this would happen to me –- that I’d be a star –- even during the years of struggle. And that’s the truth."
It was a truth Al’s mother never grasped, and after her death Al began living a lie, a life outside the theater. "I bowed out when my mother died. I took all sorts of odd jobs; once I had a job which lasted 11 months, a job as a super in an Upper West Side apartment house. I taped an 8x10 glossy of myself on the door of my room in the basement, and when the girls saw there was a young super they’d get curious and come knocking. I did everything in that building, except work."
It was around this time that Al, who had occasionally set his sorrows afloat in a sea of booze, paid a visit to a buddy in a mental institution. His clothes, and his own emotions, were in tatters. "My coat was down to the floor and I was wandering around in the hallways when I met this very nice woman. We sat down and began talking and after a half hour, she said, ‘No hope for you; you have to be committed.’ I got out of there fast."
Al never was committed, but some time later he did seek help. "I went to a clinic a few times, till I found someone I could have a relationship with, someone I could just sit and talk with. I finally got to the point where I could say the things that were really on my mind, and the amazing part was that I didn’t disappear, that nobody killed me or said I was guilty. It was a tremendous relief, but the pressures still build from time to time."
In 1966, some of Al’s pressures were relieved when he got back on the theatrical track at the Actors Studio. "I auditioned on a lark and the main function the Studio performed for me was that, after having dropped out of that world for such a long time, they gave me confidence to be around people who did what I did –- act."
Al’s first taste of applause came in Israel Horowitz’s play, "The Indian Wants the Bronx." His triumph as the sadistic punk who savagely abuses an innocent intruder on his turf earned him off-Broadway’s Obie award. The next year, he graduated to Broadway and won a Tony for his chilling performance as a paranoid junkie in Don Petersen’s "Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?" Along the way, there was a bit part in a palid Patty Duke movie called "Me, Natalie," followed by more rewarding excursions to Boston, where he flexed his thespic muscles doing repertory with the Theater Company of Boston.
In 1969, he had his first starring role on film--as a heroin addict in love with a junkie, played by Kitty Winn--in Jerry Schatzberg’s "Panic in Needle Park." Critics admired his performance, but the film was so downbeat that it proved a huge disappointment at the box office. His next project turned out to be a slightly different story. So different that "The Godfather" became the highest grossing movie of all time, and the actor who flashed forth as Michael Corleone gained immediate entry into the galaxy of superstars.