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Arguably the most exciting actor of his generation, Al Pacino dropped out of The School of Performing Arts at the age of 17 to pursue a career on the boards in earnest, trading the South Bronx of his childhood for the bohemian life of Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and 60s. Having entertained family and friends from an early age with such on-target mimicry as Ray Milland looking for the hidden bottle in "The Lost Weekend", he studied at HB Studio and apprenticed at such avant-garde off-off-Broadway venues as Elaine Stewart's Cafe LaMaMa and Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre before training at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg and acquiring the "Method" acting intensity that propelled him to stardom. He first made his mark with an OBIE-winning performance as Murph, one of two men terrorizing an Indian (John Cazale) in Israel Horovitz's "The Indian Wants the Bronx" (1968), and the following year won his first Tony Award playing Bickham, a drug-addled psychotic, in Don Petersen's "Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie?"
After making his feature debut in "Me, Natalie" (1969), Pacino portrayed his first leading role (another drug addict) in "Panic in Needle Park" (1971), and it was his terrific performance in this quirky picture that helped director Francis Ford Coppola persuade an extremely skeptical Paramount to accept him as Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972). In retrospect, could anyone else have played what is tantamount to the greatest role of modern American cinema? Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro may have earned Oscars for their work as Vito Corleone in the original and its equally compelling sequel, "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), but it was Pacino's Michael that dominated the two movies, maturing from a cherubic war hero to the steely-eyed man who can coolly order executions, including that of his own brother Fredo (Cazale). He was the right actor at the right time to play the lonely tyrant, and his finely calibrated, dark volatility perfectly embodied the alienation and moral tumult of the decade.
Trading on the moody romanticism of his sad, sunken eyes, Pacino become a major star of the 70s, enjoying a four-year career roll practically unmatched in film history. In one searing performance after another, his brooding, anti-authoritarian, streetwise figures reflected the cynical mood of the times. Crossing to the other side of the law to portray the tightly-wound hippie cop of Sidney Lumet's "Serpico" (1973), he continued establishing his tragic, hair-trigger persona as Sonny, the bungling bisexual bank robber exposed to the glare of the media as he holds hostages in Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). Take Pacino out of either of these films, and the director's flavorful NYC atmosphere notwithstanding, it is much ado about nothing. Tucked amidst the career-making turns, there was also his underrated gem in "Scarecrow" (1973), a road movie co-starring Gene Hackman, which removed the actor from his typical inner city environs. His breakdown after hearing from the bitter wife he has abandoned that his son is dead (though the audience knows better) is one of his finest moments on screen.
Inevitably, Pacino had to make a false step after such an impressive string of well-written and forcefully rendered characterizations, and it came with "Bobby Deerfield" (1977), which cast him as a sports car racer involved in a maundering romance with Martha Keller. "...And Justice for All" (1979) seemed like a move back to terra firma, but its mix of sadness and satire didn't come off, with Pacino displaying lots of angry flash but little complexity or soul. "Cruising" (1980), meanwhile, elicited either scorn or outrage from audiences and critics alike for its ridiculous, simplistic and hateful story of an undercover cop who infiltrates New York's gay scene to find a killer and ends up being "corrupted". "Author! Author!" (1982), Pacino's first outright comedy, was a mildly enjoyable attempt to channel his intensity and energy in a new direction, and his performance in the remake of " Scarface" (1983) was, like the film, over-the-top but undeniably potent. Unfortunately, a case of incredible miscasting placed him in the dull, superficial saga of 1776, "Revolution" (1985). The nadir of his film career, it drove him from the screen for four years while he reassessed the situation.
Unlike many stage-trained actors who abandon the theater when their movie stardom ascends, Pacino has never been far from the footlights, often likening stage work to tightrope walking as he did in the Los Angeles Times (June 29, 1999): "When you walk the wire in a movie, it's not easy to walk, but it's painted on the floor. But when you walk it on the stage, it's 100 feet high without a net." He won his second Tony Award for "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" (1977), reprising the starring role he had played in a Boston production earlier in the decade, and has several times essayed the villainous "Richard III", not to mention portraying Marc Antony in a 1988 NYC production of "Julius Caesar". He also enjoyed a long association with David Mamet's " American Buffalo", playing Walter 'Teach, Cole from 1980-83 in a variety of venues, both off-Broadway and on, as well as on tour in the USA and Great Britain. Though asked to play the role in the 1996 film version, his loyalty to others previously connected to the project resulted in Dustin Hoffman assuming his signature role.
Pacino rediscovered his zest for film co-directing and producing "The Local Stigmatic", a pet project (adapted from a play he had once acted in) which he has occasionally showed privately and continues to tinker with to date. Harold Becker's sexy, urban thriller "Sea of Love" (1989), provided the perfect comeback role as a streetwise cop-on-the-edge who falls for a murder suspect (Ellen Barkin at her most sizzling). Aided by an excellent, witty script by Richard Price, Pacino brought great depth to his loner clutching at a second chance with the femme fatale, and his impassioned reaction when one particular twist seems to clearly indict Barkin ranks right up there with his best work for the screen. After amusingly parodying his previous gangster roles with an appropriately outlandish turn as Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy", he dusted off his Michael Corleone for "The Godfather, Part III" (both 1990), then poignantly played a short order cook recently released from prison opposite a game (but miscast) Michelle Pfeiffer in Garry Marshall's "Frankie and Johnny" (1991), although audiences did not flock to see the actor's softer side.
Pacino fared far better in the 1992 adaptation of Mamet's blistering "Glengarry Glen Ross", picking up a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination as the real estate office's dynamic hotshot. That same year, he finally copped the elusive Oscar (after eight nominations) for his bravura star turn as the unabashed, hoo-hahing blind veteran cutting loose on the town in "Scent of a Woman", a slight story ennobled by his winning portrayal. Similarly, his prison-sprung drug lord in "Carlito's Way" (1993) showed that his way with gutter-tough poetry and his talent for various ethnic characterizations could be as riveting as ever. Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995) paired Pacino's high-strung police detective opposite De Niro's professional thief, marking their first appearance on screen together, and though both received high marks from reviewers, the lion's share of the praise went to writer-director Mann. That year also saw him age himself to beautifully render the grandfather in "Two Bits", a Depression-era family drama too slow and delicate to realize its full potential.
Former NYC deputy mayor Ken Lipper scripted "City Hall" (1996), which cast childhood friend Pacino as a compassionate NYC mayor embroiled in a corruption scandal and teamed him for the first time with another Bronx native Danny Aiello. Though a descent into implausible melodrama compromised its compelling beginning, another project that year stands as one of the most intriguing of his career. Pacino had worked four years on "Looking for Richard" (1996) before finally unveiling it to great acclaim. Distilled down to two hours from more than 80, this documentary-style film about the actor-director's staging of "Richard III" explored the relevance of Shakespeare to people in every walk of life and proved there was a limited market for his inspired vision. He was back on Broadway as director and star of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" in 1996, his first visit to the NYC boards since his 1992 performances in "Salome" and "Chinese Coffee", the latter becoming his next pet project as filmmaker. He finished shooting it in 1997, but his modus operandi established on his two previous films has remained the same. As of 1999, it was still in post-production.
If the 80s had been inimical to Pacino's talents, the 90s were turning out to be his most productive decade yet. He delivered an atypical, introspective turn as a low-level gangster in Mike Newell's "Donnie Brascoe" (1997), a tremendous story of two men who grow to love one another. As far removed from Michael Corleone as you can get in the mob food chain, Pacino's world-weary Lefty is both tragic and pathetic, but most of all he is intensely human and real, inspiring our understanding if not our sympathy. The always fine Johnny Depp in the title role raised his acting level a notch in keeping with the high standards set by his co-star. If Pacino was back to his old scenery-chewing tricks as a lawyer who just happens to be Satan in "The Devil's Advocate" (also 1997), well, who better to watch go over-the-top than a master at pulling out the stops. A small man of immense power, he was at his intense best as rabble-rousing "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman in Mann's "The Insider" (1999), an ambitious Hollywood attempt to examine journalism, and then closed out the decade in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday", playing an aging football coach.
Pacino's next major role was as the sleep-deprived Detective Will Dormer in the crime thriller feature "Insomnia" (2002), writer-director Christopher Nolan's English-language remake of Erik Skojdbjaerg's 1997 Norwegian film, in which Pacino starred opposite Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. The film received wildly mixed reviews, but each of the actors were roundly praised for their performances. Less appreciated was the Hollywood send-up "Simone" (2002), with Pacino playing a nearly washed-up director who revitalizes his career by secretly creating a digital actress that perfectly executes his every command and becomes a major star. Not only was the movie's fable style tale a bit too wafer-thin, Pacino seemed a bit at sea with the material and gave one of his less impressive performances. Next up was 2003's "The Recruit," in which he played a manipulative CIA instructor who complicates the life of rising young agent Colin Farrell, and a supporting role in the dismal Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez mob comedy "Gigli" (2003), in which he reunited with his "Scent of a Woman" director Brest to play a federal prosecutor whose mentally disabled younger brother is kidnapped. Pacino's turn as Roy Cohn in HBO's acclaimed TV adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play "Angels In America" (2003) earned him a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television and an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
In 2004 Pacino was able to bring one of his favorite Shakespeare plays to the big screen with director Michael Radford, playing the bitter Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice"; although the anti-Semetic overtones of the play make it difficult to adapt in the social climate of modern times, Pacino effectively portrayed the moneylender's claim for his pound of flesh as driven by a realistic anger over the loss of his daughter to a Christian man, compounded by his shabby treatment by the people of ghettoized Venice. Pacino returned to his scenery-chewing style in “Two For the Money” (2005), playing Walter Abraham, a sports wagering consultant who takes a former college basketball star (Matthew McConaughey) under his wing after learning that he has a knack for predicting games.
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