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Al Pacino: born survivor

Gabrielle Donnelly / 21 April 2015

Al Pacino talks about how his life and career have been a near-Darwinian tale of adapting and surviving.

Actor Al Pacino

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 born storyteller, Al settles himself today over his coffee in the distinctly non-New York surroundings of California’s Beverly Hilton Hotel. ‘I said, “Yeah”. He said, “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 75 last April, is about as common in Hollywood as hen’s teeth. 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 back; he’s trim and fit, and has bounded into the room with the energy of a man 20 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 dream of permitting. 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 David Mamet characters of varying degrees of tragedy on the stage, is that the vast majority of them 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.’

A matter of survival

Which is a great deal more than can be said for the protagonist of his movie, Danny Collins, the story of a washed-up Seventies rock star, who attempts to correct the many mistakes of his life when he finds a 40-year-old letter written to him by John Lennon. Danny is loosely based on the story of British musician Steve Tilston.

‘It’s all about how you survive,’ he points out now. ‘And that’s why I liked this character Danny that I played, because when he was younger he was touted as the next Bob Dylan, and then, just as quickly, he was eviscerated as someone who was just a flash in the pan – people started putting down the songs that he wrote and he was thrown by that.

‘He was fortunate in that he was able to sing other people’s songs instead of his own, so he could still make a living, but that was a double-edged sword for him because he was unable to follow what he really felt was his calling, which was to write music as well as sing it. So you see how someone could go off on another track and have regrets. But what

I really liked about the character is that, no matter what happened to him, he was able to survive.’

New York, New York...

Al himself has been on excellent terms with the notion of survival for most of his life. The son of a stonemason 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 any 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 learnt everything I know there. Growing up for me was like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn – there was always something up.

‘One time I remember I was being chased along the tenement roof – it seemed someone was always chasing me in those days, which was kind of exciting, although we won’t go into exactly what I did to need to be chased. I leapt over this roof, and there was the drop and I was halfway over: I wasn’t going to make it. 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!’

Early days

When he was just 16, 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. ‘I was lucky, I was living in a great city at the time, and in those days the environment in Greenwich Village was all cafés and theatre. I was in a show; I did 16 shows a week, and then we’d pass around the hat – or in our case, this little straw basket – and that was how we survived and ate. So by the time I was 24, 25, I had been through a lot of different experiences and lived in a lot of different places. But I did know acting was what I wanted to do, and I knew that I would be OK doing it because I loved it so much.’

At 28, he won a coveted off-Broadway Obie Award for Best Actor, portraying a street punk. In the audience one night was manager and film producer Martin Bregman, who liked what he saw so much he signed the young actor up. Shepherded by Marty – as Al affectionately calls him – he moved into film. Playing a heroin addict in The Panic in Needle Park in 1971, he caught the eye of director Francis Ford Coppola, who was casting a film about an Italian Mafioso family, to be called The Godfather.

Overnight sensation

‘I became famous in a matter of minutes,’ he says. ‘Being as famous as that 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 Seventies 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 hardly remember them. Which 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 The Godfather II, and 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 through a series of films such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Scent of a Woman (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor), and TV mini-series and a range of stage roles, 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. Thank God, nothing has happened to stop me from doing that yet – I’m still standing!’

The ageing process

Ageing? He says that it’s a fact of life, and no more. ‘Although you do get more tired. A few years ago I was carrying my younger kids on my shoulders running up and down the park. I couldn’t do that these days, even if they were replaced by two- or three-year olds. But it’s how you live with what you have – you know?’

Last year he told an interviewer that he thought of himself as 40. ‘That’s when the clock stops. If I’m going to choose the happiest time to be, it’s 40. It’s a great age.’

He doesn’t seem to be, shall we say, 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 14-year-old twins, Anton and Olivia, from his relationship with actress Beverly D’Angelo.

"My daughter 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. 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.’

Ask him what he does in his spare time, and he looks faintly puzzled. ‘I don’t have any, uh, hobbies…’ he ventures cautiously. ‘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.

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