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Bronx Boy Makes Good


By Julie Kirgo

A L PACINO scares people a little. It's not that they really believe he's like Michael Corleone, the ever colder, ever tougher youngest son he plays in The Godfather. But on the other hand, well...he was pretty damned convincing--that cool of his, that hard growing cool, was really too scary to seem anything but genuine. So here he is in the flesh, people can't help saying things like, "When you shot those two guys..." and "God, you sure wrecked that brother-in-law of yours."

But then, drunks in bars used to pick fights with Bogart to prove that they were as tough as his screen image--it's the price one pays. And Pacino doesn't seem to mind playing to his own brand-new myth. How did he get the role of Michael?, someone asks. "Oh, I can't talk about that," he replies, voice swollen with meaning. How did he feel playing that murderous restaurant scene? "To kill two people is really an incredible thing, quite an experience"--deadpan. People laugh nervously, impressed. It doesn't seem to occur to them that Pacino wasn't born with those hard Corleone eyes, that even, noncommital Corleone voice. He is, in fact, a rather poetic-looking man, small and wiry, with Pierrot eyes and a voice colored by a Bronx accent just slight enough to be charming. Expressive hands, a warm grin--these, too, had to be brought under control before he could be a credible Michael.

Psychic, as well as physical, self-control was essential. For Pacino, it appears, is a man haunted every now and then by insecurity, something no Corleone would ever feel--or if he did, would certainly never admit. But Pacino admits; in fact, he almost seems to relish confessing: "The testing for the film was unbelievable: I had to go back three times. I went back the first time, and I knew I wasn't wanted. Even when I started, I felt I wasn't really wanted, and that's a difficult thing to work through." This, in spite of a dazzling record in the theater--he won an Obie for The Indian Wants the Bronx in 1968 ("I wound up in the hospital from that") and a Tony for Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? in 1969 ("I couldn't handle it")--and rave reviews for his performance in his first movie, Panic in Needle Park. "I don't know," he says a bit sheepishly, "I just see myself having a moment on the screen and somebody getting up and walking out."

HOW DID this tangle of insecurities give us Michael, then? The answer (natural talent aside) is plain old hard work, an "immersion of the self in the part" carried to an almost frightening extreme. "It was a very difficult role," Pacino says. "I felt Michael was a very private person and also a very reserved one. I found that I myself became very reserved...I watched other people, situations...I had to be there all the time...It was driving me crazy--I was up at five, six o'clock every morning going over where I was in the story, what had happened before, just how much to go. Then the fights started: the producers, the director, wanted more, you know, more assertion, and I said 'NO, I'm going someplace.' The impact the performance should have--it's that, the transition, which is what I worked for so hard."

This intensity, a total devotion to his role, tended to separate Pacino from his fellow actors: "I was always out of it. There were a lot of things going on"--he rolls his eyes--"I didn't get in on them though." None of them? "Well..." he grins and begins to talk about the practical jokes, apparently a regular (and relieving) feature of the filming of The Godfather. "Once there was a big fuss over my collar cause it was too big, and they said, oh have it tight. This went on for about half an hour, then finally, when we shot the scene, I was supposed to come around from behind a desk and I did, only I left my pants off." Wicked laughter. "Then my line was, 'Carlo, you grew up in Nevada--when we get there you're going to be my right-hand man,' but I said. 'Carlo, you grew up in Nevada'" long pause, then, in a voice which can only be described as spaced-out. "'What's it like, I mean, what was it?'".

Pacino himself grew up in the Bronx--what was that like? He grimaces and lights another of many cigarettes. "Well, that's it, you see." His parents were divorced, and he was often "home all day alone. My mother took me to the movies a lot, though; then the next day I'd act out the roles--that's how I'd live." Acting became, as he puts it, his "source of survival," ultimately rescuing him from the days when he was everything from a theater usher who impishly led a line of people to wait in front of Bloomingdale's (he was promptly fired) to a building superintendent with an eight-by-ten glossy of himself taped to his door and labelled "Super." Finally, he says, "I couldn't take it anymore. One day I was passing out circulars on a street corner, and I just stopped, went home, called a friend, and said. 'I've had it.'" Soon after, he auditioned for and was accepted by the Actors' Studio, and the rest is history--of a sort.

Now, says Pacino, "the struggle has changed for me--it's more artistic." Will there be more movies? He hadges a bit: "Movies are very boring--you spend most of the time trying to avoid people's small talk. Either you're small-talking or you're knitting, you're gambling, drinking--or depressed, like I was most of the time. But you have to go on, you have to come in with the goods...I've always preferred the theater--it's freer, more exciting." More rewarding, someone suggests. "Well, the drink after the show, yeah," Pacino snaps back, and laughs, then launches into an enthusiastic discussion of the potential he sees for a truly indigenous and exciting American theater: "The talent here, the neuroses here--they're great for the theater!" (Pacino himself is currently displaying his own prodigious talent, and possibly his neuroses, in the title role of David Rabe's mordantly compelling play. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, at the Theater Company of Boston.)

UT DOES HE, could he seriously mean no more movies? Has Hollywood's siren call failed to lure him? Not quite. "I have to do both, I think," he says solemnly. "It's part of what I do now." A little sadness; but it dissipates quickly enough, giving way to a new enthusiasm: "I'd like to direct a film someday. It would have to be one I wrote myself--I think it would be about my life."

Sounds interesting--a Horatio Alger story brought up to date and humanized (for Pacino really is a very human, nice guy): a lonely, cbscure, insecure little boy works like a fiend and as a result ends up a brilliant, famous, albeit still slightly insecure, actor. How must it feel? "A little scary," says Pacino. Can he handle it? "Yes," he says firmly, "now I'm prepared." And with the sudden resolve, even the most confirmed skeptic can see it: an intensity of purpose which, in this one respect, makes Al Pacino resemble--well, yes--Michael Corleone.

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