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Al Pacino a Godfather of Acting

Producers of 1972’s “The Godfather” wouldn’t have expected Al Pacino’s role as Michael Corleone to launch a career that would later see him be named one of the top movie stars of all time. In fact, they often called him “that midget Pacino.” The movie was shot quickly because both Pacino and director Francis Ford Coppola were constantly afraid of being fired.

Al Pacino was born in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood on April 25, 1940. His parents divorced when he was 2, and Pacino was raised by his mother and grandparents. He became passionate about acting after seeing Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at the Elsmere Theatre in the South Bronx at age 14. Pacino was offered a place at the esteemed High School of the Performing Arts, but after failing almost all of his classes he dropped out at age 17. Still aspiring to become a performer, he worked a series of menial jobs – including messenger boy, busboy, janitor and postal clerk – to finance his acting studies.

Pacino acted in basement plays in New York‘s theatrical underground before joining the Herbert Berghof Studio, where he worked with legendary actor Charles Laughton. He enrolled for lessons at the Actor’s Institute in 1966 and studied under world-renowned coach Lee Strasberg, who taught him about the method acting technique. After working at the Children’s Theatre, Pacino made his off-Broadway debut in “Hello Out There.”By the end of the 1960s Pacino had won an Obie Award for “’The Indian Wants the Bronx” and a Tony Award for “Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie?”

Coppola offered Pacino the role of Michael Corleone after seeing his performance as a heroin addict in 1971’s “The Panic in Needle Park.” Studio heads had repeatedly rejected Pacino when he auditioned for the role, but Coppola fought for him. It was a fight worth having. Pacino earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, although he boycotted the Oscar ceremony in protest that costar Marlon Brando, who had less screen time, was nominated for Best Actor. Brando won, and “The Godfather” also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie’s legacy, however, extends beyond winning Best Picture. Both Entertainment Weekly and Empire magazine named “The Godfather” the best movie ever made, while the American Film Institute ranked it as the second greatest movie of all time in 2007. Pacino’s Oscar nomination was the first of four consecutive he received, an accomplishment he shares with only four other actors (one of them Brando).

Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone in 1974’s “The Godfather: Part II” was ranked 20th on Premiere magazine’s “100 Greatest Performances of All Time” list and made him one of only five actors to be nominated for an Oscar twice for playing the same role in two separate films. “The Godfather: Part II” won six Oscars, including Best Picture, making it the first sequel to win that award. His performance in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was ranked fourth on Premiere’s “100 Greatest Performances” list in addition to being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. His final Oscar nomination of the decade came for 1979’s “. . . And Justice for All.”

While the 1970s had been a triumphant period, the 1980s got off to a difficult start for Pacino. Members of the gay community protested William Friedkin’s “Cruising” – which starred Pacino as a NYPD officer who becomes deranged after infiltrating the gay underworld – when it was being filmed in summer 1979 and again when it was released the following February. As Nathan Lee put in the Village Voice nearly three decades later, “Despite the notoriety and marquee star, Friedkin’s downbeat, ambivalent, and flamboyantly pervy fag noir was a critical and box-office disappointment.”

Pacino rebounded in 1983 with “Scarface.” Premiere ranked his performance as Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who becomes a ruthless Miami drug lord, 74th on its “100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time” list. In his Great Movies review of “Scarface,” Roger Ebert called Montana “one of the seminal characters in modern American movies, a character who has inspired countless others.” The movie, he wrote, “rises or falls” on Pacino’s performance, “which is aggressive, over the top, teeth-gnashing, arm-waving, cocaine-snorting, scenery chewing – and brilliant, some say, while others find it unforgivably flamboyant.” Ebert was in the former category. “What a complete actor this man is. He can play big or small, loud or soft, tireless or exhausted, always as if it’s the only note he has. . . Pacino has an extraordinary range of styles, and a pitch-perfect ability to evoke them. There is no such thing as “the Al Pacino performance,” because there are too many different kinds of them.”

The disaster of 1985’s “Revolution” (budgeted at $28 million, it grossed only $358,574) led to Pacino taking a 4-year hiatus from films. He focused on stage acting and earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” Pacino returned to movies in 1989 in “Sea of Love” opposite Ellen Barkin. Playing Big Boy Caprice in 1990’s enormously successful “Dick Tracy” earned Pacino a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. His Oscar losing streak finally came to an end when he was named Best Actor for his performance in 1992’s “Scent of a Woman.” He was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year for his performance in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Pacino and Robert DeNiro had both starred in “The Godfather: Part II” but never had a scene together. 1995’s “Heat” was heavily promoted as the first film to feature them acting together, although they shared only two scenes totaling less than 10 minutes. Pacino’s 1996 documentary “Looking for Richard” earned him an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary award from the Directors Guild of America. In 2000, Pacino received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. On Oct. 20, 2006, the American Film Institute bestowed Pacino with its 35th lifetime achievement award. 

Even a film legend can choose bad roles, and Pacino is no exception. He was nominated for a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie (the Razzie Awards recognize the year’s worst achievements in film) for 2003’s “Gigli.” His performances in both 2007’s “88 Minutes” and 2008’s “Righteous Kill” earned him a Worst Actor nomination, and he “won” two Razzies for 2011’s “Jack and Jill.” Pacino enjoyed far greater critical acclaim during this time for his roles in made-for-television movies. He won a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award and an Emmy for HBO’s 2003 television movie “Angels in America.” Pacino again won a SAG Award and an Emmy for the 2010 HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack.” His most recent Emmy nomination came for playing the title role in the 2013 HBO movie “Phil Spector.”