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Al Pacino - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Al Pacino - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Al Pacino

Personal details

Name: Al Pacino
Born: 25 April 1940 (Age: 75)
Where: New York, New York, USA
Height: 5' 6"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 2 BAFTAs, 3 Golden Globes

All about this star


It's those coal-black eyes, glistening with absolute conviction and (probably) malicious intent. Glaring out from millions of film-posters on millions of bedroom walls, they have at some point given us all the shivers. Because, cinematically speaking, we all know what those eyes have seen, we all know what terrors their owner has perpetrated. With just two of his many roles, Al Pacino has lodged himself in solidly our imaginations. As Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, we watched him evolve from a hopeful student innocent into an all-powerful, all-controlling tyrant. And in Scarface, we saw him grow from a sassy street-kid into a paranoid, murderous despot ("Say hello to my leedle friend!"). These characters were the ultimate anti-social anti-heroes, genuine threats to our way of life - genuine because Pacino, the consummate professional, made them so very real. Add to these roles his other classic performances, in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Insider, and you realise why the man is an undeniable and deserved screen icon.

Getting there wasn't easy. Alfredo James Pacino was born to a family of Italian immigrants in East Harlem, New York, on the 25th of April, 1940, his grandparents having crossed the Atlantic from Sicily. His father, Salvatore, was an insurance agent who split from Alfredo's mother Rose when the boy was just two - mother and child moving in with her parents in a dirt-poor area near the Bronx zoo. As an only child, he was zealously protected by his grandparents, hardly leaving the house till the age of seven. When he was older, his mother would take him to the cinema (he was terribly hurt when she died young in 1962) and he'd act out the plotlines to his grandma on his return. Shy and insular, he'd impress his school-mates with a fictional past he'd invented for himself, claiming for instance that he'd been raised in Texas.

Thankfully, his teachers spotted his talent, cast him in school plays and asked him to read from the Bible at assembly. He enjoyed this but did not consider acting as a profession till, at age 14, he saw Chekov's The Seagull performed at the Elsmere Theatre in the South Bronx. This led to him enrolling at the prestigious High School of the Performing Arts but, flunking everything but English, he eventually, at 17, dropped out.

Yet Pacino, like many of the characters he'd later play, was remorseless in his ambition. He worked his ass off to finance his further studies, toiling as a messenger-boy, a movie-usher, an apartment superintendant and as a mail-deliverer at Commentary magazine. He attended acting classes and gained experience in basement plays before joining the Herbert Berghof Studio, under the tutelage of the legendary Charles Laughton. No elitist wimp - in January 1961 he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon - he threw himself into the theatrical underground. Off-Broadway, he wrote, directed and acted, kept moving, and finally and crucially, in 1966, he came to the Actor's Studio to study the Method under Lee Strasberg (later to play Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part 2).

Pacino's stage career was a tough grind. In 1962, he'd done Jack And The Beanstalk at the Children's Theatre, then honed his craft in many a production, in 1963 making his off-Broadway debut when directed by Laughton in William Saroyan's Hello Out There, where he played a kid accused of rape and jailed. 1965 would see him directed by Laughton again, in August Strindberg's The Creditors. In 1966 alone he appeared in Tiger At The Gates, The Connection, Why Is A Crooked Letter (for which he'd win an off-Broadway Obie) and The Peace Creeps, playing in the latter alongside James Earl Jones. That year would also see him make a major breakthrough with The Indian Wants The Bronx at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre in Connecticut where he'd play Murph, a street punk tormenting an elderly Indian gent. When the production moved on to New York, Pacino would win an Obie award as Best Actor of the 1967-68 season - as expected of Strasberg's star pupil.

On he went, 1967 had seen him spend a season at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, performing in Awake And Sing and America, Hurrah. Now, after The Indian Wants at Astor Place in New York, he'd play young hoodlum Graham in The Local Stigmatic at the Actors' Playhouse, then star as Bickham, a sadistic psycho in a drug rehab centre, in Does The Tiger Wear A Necktie? at the Belasco. This was another storming performance and deservedly won him a Tony. 1970 would see him move on to direct and perform in Rats and also star in Tennessee Williams' Camino Real at the Lincoln Centre. In theatre, he was now big news.

Onscreen, his career was also moving fast. 1968 had seen him on TV in an episode of NYPD, playing a racist Southerner who's planted a bomb that killed two black girls and now finds himself pursued by black militants (the show would also feature Pacino's then girlfriend, actress Jill Clayburgh). The next year would bring a brief big screen appearance in Me, Natalie where he could be spied dancing with and then being an arse to Patty Duke at a party. But it was his ability to convincingly portray the intensity of street life, and in particular addiction - he'd spent much time researching in methadone centres - that really broke him in movies. The mortally depressing Panic In Needle Park, a tale of prostitution, incarceration and revenge where he was drug-driven to destruction along with Kitty Winn (soon to be seen as Ellen Burstyn's PA in The Exorcist) pushed him into the limelight. And then it really took off. With his very Italian combination of menacing contemplation and terrifyingly focused rage, he was chosen above Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Thoughtful, dignified, self-righteous and utterly ruthless, he was superb as Marlon Brando's initially reluctant heir, charged with the task of legitimising an ugly business.

Pacino found himself rightly Oscar-nominated for his efforts ands, aside from 1973's The Scarecrow, wherein he crosses the existential emptiness of America along with Gene Hackman, he would be nominated for his next three roles too. First, he was the incorruptible cop in Sidney Lumet's gritty Serpico: then Corleone once more, even whacking his own brother in Godfather Part 2 (poor, silly Fredo!): and finally there was 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, again with Lumet, where he played a bi-sexual, horribly botching a bank robbery he'd hoped would pay for his lover's sex-change operation.

Throughout this incredible spate of movie success, Pacino would continue to return to his first love - the stage. Indeed, he'd only make eight movies in the next 15 years. 1972 had seen him return to Boston for Richard III and The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel, both these productions serving him well. Reprising his Pavlo Hummel in New York in 1977, he'd pick up his second Tony. He'd also bring his Richard Crookback to New York, in 1979, and would famously use the play to spread the Shakespearean word when he made the documentary Looking For Richard. Another oft-repeated role would come in Brecht's The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui which Pacino would perform in Boston in 1975, then later in New York and London. 1976 would see him back in The Local Stigmatic, at New York's Public Theatre. 1979 would see him read Brecht's The Jungle Of The Cities at the Circle In The Square, then rehearse Othello at the Lincoln Centre and work through Hamlet with Joseph Papp. The next year he'd begin a long on-and-off run as Walter Cole in David Mamet's American Buffalo, between 1980 and '84 performing in New Haven, at New York's Circle In The Square and Booth Theatre, and in London.

When he did venture back into the movies, he usually chose only the most intense and controversial parts. He was Oscar-nominated again in 1979, as the battling attorney in Norman Jewison's And Justice For All, then played an undercover cop in a relentlessly sleazy gay underground in William Friedkin's Cruising. In 1983, he was a blistering Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's lurid drug-drama, Scarface. Then came his one generally accepted failure (with the possible exception of Godfather 3), 1985's Revolution. As an early-American epic, directed by Hugh Hudson (then on a role after Chariots Of Fire and Greystoke), it should have worked. But it was too long and too slow, and critics were merciless in their mockery of Pacino's inappropriate New York accent. Badly stung, he would not return to the Silver Screen for four years, concentrating instead on his stage-work, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and also acting in and producing a pet project - a short independent movie version of Heathcote Williams' The Local Stigmatic. Indeed, this tiny movie would become something of an obsession. In it, Pacino would reprise his stage performances as a crazed English gangster bent on absolute power - the play being concerned both with the nature of wickedness and the ways in which all of us are actors. For years, he would show it to small groups of friends and colleagues, tirelessly fascinated by their reaction.

Of course, as a major filmic player of some 20 years standing, Pacino would not be kept from the Silver Screen for long, returning with a bang with 1989's Sea Of Love, a superior thriller with Ellen Barkin. Then he was a hilariously evil Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, earning another Oscar nomination for his efforts. Next came Frankie And Johnny, a hugely popular romance, despite the critics' disbelief at Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer slaving in a greasy spoon. Then, finally, came the Oscar, for his performance as the romantic, predatory, abrasive and blind Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent Of A Woman, a remake of a 1975 Italian movie. He would be nominated for the eighth time the very same year, as a pushy real-estate salesman in Mamet's excellent Glengarry Glen Ross.

More excellence followed. Pacino was tremendous as the street-wise players in De Palma's Carlito's Way (alongside a fantastically coke-addled Sean Penn) and Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco ("Fugg-ED about it!"). But it also seemed that his close-to-overblown portrayal of Frank Slade had left its mark. In Michael Mann's Heat, he almost became a parody of himself as the explosive cop hunting down the ultra-cool Robert De Niro, and he carried the same over-expansive qualities into The Devil's Advocate (though, to be fair, he WAS the Devil - we're not SUPPOSED to like him).

In the meantime, Pacino had taken up directing with Looking For Richard. This was another project close to his heart, a documentary following the staging of a performance of Richard III. In it, he espouses the beauty and power of theatre, in particular attacking the notion that it's solely a middle-class pursuit. As a dyed-in-the-wool Harlem boy who's gained a lifetime of thrills from performance, he intended to take his message back to the people. Naturally, throughout the Nineties, he would still tread the boards. 1992 had seen him in a double-header, performing both in Chinese Coffee and as Herod Antipas in Oscar Wilde's Salome at the Circle In The Square. 1996 would then see him in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie at New Haven and, once again, the Circle, in 1999 taking the show to Los Angeles.

Having, in 1997, been honoured with a star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame (in 1994 he'd received a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and later took the Cecil B. De Mille award at the 2001 Golden Globes), Pacino justified the award with an intense but gratifyingly subdued portrayal of Sixty Minutes journalist Lowell Bergman, alongside Russell Crowe in Mann's The Insider. Then came Oliver Stone and Any Given Sunday, where Pacino somehow kept his cool as the desperate American Football coach, harassed by owner Cameron Diaz. Chinese Coffee saw him once more in the director's chair, bringing another theatre performance to cinematic life.

The new millennium would bring much tumult for Pacino. Long before he'd had a daughter, Julie Marie, during a relationship with acting coach Jan Tarrant. He'd had a long affair with actress Diane Keaton, a shorter one with Australian actress Linda Hobbs, and a brief fling with Penelope Ann Miller (his co-star in Carlito's Way and many years his junior). Now though, he seemed settled with long-time girlfriend Beverly D'Angelo, 15 years his junior and another actress (she'd appeared in National Lampoon's Vacation movies, as well as Every Which Way But Loose, and as Patsy Cline in The Coal Miner's Daughter). In 2001, the couple would have twins Olivia and Anton via IVF treatment but the next year they acrimoniously split. For a long year they'd battle over the kids, with Pacino paying $35,000 a month plus a further $18,000 a month on D'Angelo's New York apartment. She wanted to take the kids to LA, he was having none of it. It was one of the nastier celebrity tussles of recent years.

Having in 2000 been named, along with Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn, as co-president of the Actors' Studio, Pacino would still appear onstage. In 2002 he'd bring a revival of Arturo Ui to the Michael Schimmel Centre, setting a new record for off-Broadway ticket prices. 2003 would see him return to Salome at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with Dianne Wiest and David Strathairn for the Actors Studio, and appear off-Broadway in Oedipus Rex (he'd performed readings of this, again with Wiest and Strathairn, back in November, 2001). But the new century would be more marked by a fresh burst of cinematic prolificacy. 2002 alone would bring three pictures. First there'd be Insomnia, where he'd shine as a former star cop now under IA investigation, trying to cover his arse while pursuing killer Robin Williams across the frozen north. Then there'd be Simeone where he'd play a failing director whose current project is halted by his ex-wife, Catherine Keener, now a studio boss. Frustrated with treacherous human thespians, he uses state-of-the-art technology to create a cyber-actress, then suffers Frankenstein-style when his creation becomes a big star. The year would end with People I Know where he'd appear as a burned-out publicist representing Ryan O'Neal, a womanising actor now running for office. Being severely critical of New York's ruling politicians, the movie's release had been delayed for over a year due to Mayor Giuliani's popularity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

2003 would be wildly varied. It would begin with The Recruit where Pacino would play a gruff CIA instructor taking new kid Colin Farrell through his paces then using him to root out a double agent. Next would come the famously disastrous Gigli where he'd be yet another terrifying New York crime boss, efforts to save him from prosecution leading to the collision of hit-people Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (in real life the nation's top tabloid couple). Oddly, the movie was directed by Martin Brest who'd earlier helmed one of Pacino's great successes, Scent Of A Woman.Thankfully, matters would instantly improve with the major TV miniseries Angels In America, concerning the weak official response to the real horror of AIDS. Pacino would here be superb as Roy Cohn, personifying American hypocrisy as a gay Jew dying from AIDS-caused complications yet still ranting and raving at his gay nurse. The perfomance would earn him both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Come 2004, Pacino would be bringing Shakespeare to the screen yet again, this time when playing Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, keeping his anger under control as he demands his pound of Jeremy Irons' flesh. The next year would bring Two For The Money where he'd play a former drink, drugs and gambling addict now running a sports advice service for those liking a flutter. Exuberant and mesmerising, he was not too far from his Devil's Advocate character as he showed young hot-shot Matthew McConaughey the ropes. Following this, in 2006, would come 88 Minutes where he'd play a college professor moonlighting as a forensic scientist for the FBI. Receiving a mysterious call claiming a murder, possibly his own, will take place in, that's correct, 88 minutes, he must rapidly narrow down the suspects, among them problem student Leelee Sobieski, his ridiculously young ex-girlfriend Alicia Witt and a killer on Death Row.

Staying loyal to the theatre, 2006 would also see Pacino reprise Salome, this time in Los Angeles at the Wadsworth Theatre, with Jessica Chastain. Also in LA he'd appear in a workshop production of Orphans at the Greenway Court Theatre. This would concern two brothers, one of whom dominates the other, keeping him shut in and terrorizing him with terrible tales of the outside world. The dominant brother supports them both by stealing, but then kidnaps a middle-aged businessman, Pacino, who turns out to be a prominent gangster. They need his money, sure, but perhaps they need him more as a father figure. He may even be their nemesis. Such was the success of Orphans that Pacino would take it back to the Greenway in 2008, then in 2009 move it on to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

Onscreen, Pacino would keep his profile high in 2007 by joining the all-star cast of Ocean's Thirteen. Here he'd play an arch-swindler and voracious money-maker who joins Elliott Gould in a new casino ventures then dupes him out of his money. Gould has a heart attack and so, in revenge, his mates Clooney, Pitt, Damon and the rest of the gang go after Pacino, devising an elaborate plan that involves a fake earthquake. It was silly stuff, but Pacino was, of course, a convincing swine, with his former Sea Of Love co-star Ellen Barkin appearing as his assistant. There'd be a another big reunion in 2008 when he'd join Robert De Niro in Righteous Kill, directed by his 88 Minutes helmsman Jon Avnet. This would see the pair as cops, longtime friends and partners now on the verge of retirement. When a serial killer starts taking out bad guys - pimps, dealers etc - De Niro and Pacino are called in, but the intense De Niro quickly becomes a suspect. The brash and ebullient Pacino must now deal with his partner's possible guilt and also complications added by their both seeing Carla Gugino. Accused by critics of promoting vigilante justice and glorifying gun-use (its tag-line was "Most people respect the badge. Everybody respects the gun"), it was also spoiled by a lack of tension and some painfully unconvincing Tarantino-style dialogue. Heat it most certainly was not.

The list of movies Pacino has turned down is nearly as impressive as his filmography. There was Kramer Vs Kramer, Born On The 4th Of July, Apocalypse Now, Pretty Woman, Crimson Tide, even the part of Han Solo in Star Wars. But, in general, his choices have been good. Offscreen, he's had a harder time. He was once quoted as saying "The actor becomes an emotional athlete. The process is painful - my personal life suffers", and this does seem to have been the way for much of the time.

Given Pacino's leanings and his introduction to theatre back in the South Bronx, it would be very surprising if his son Anton was not so-named after Chekhov. With theatre in his blood, Pacino - without doubt one of the greatest actors of his generation - now has it in his blood-line. Is a new dynasty beginning? Fugg-ED about it.

Dominic Wills

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