AFI honors Pacino's storied career


Al Pacino is no stranger to accolades. Over his four-decades-long career, he has earned an Oscar, scored an Emmy, been lavished with Golden Globes and received numerous other honors and nominations. But tonight, Pacino will be honored not for a particular onscreen performance but for the entirety of his career when he becomes the American Film Institute's 35th recipient of the Life Achievement Award.

"We premiered (1996's) 'Looking for Richard' at the AFI Festival," AFI president and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg recalls, "and I'll never forget that he came running down that aisle. People were standing and roaring, and he was so enthusiastic, so excited. He has this connection with his fellow artists -- he just connects."

Audiences worldwide have responded to Pacino's intense connection to roles, ranking him among the most revered film actors in history. They've followed him through genres and characters, embracing him as a memorable criminal in films such as 1972's "The Godfather," its 1974 and 1990 sequels and 1983's "Scarface"; as Satan himself in 1997's "The Devil's Advocate"; and as good guys in 1999's "Any Given Sunday" and "The Insider."

The constant that Pacino brings to his projects is a shimmering intensity that makes his characters feel like intimate friends (or enemies) desperately searching for something better. "Al plays someone in the darkness, looking for the light," says Jon Avnet, who directed the actor in Sony's slated 2008 thriller "88 Minutes," "as opposed to someone who is in the light looking for the darkness."

It's precisely that omnipresent struggle that has made Pacino's performances resonate long after they've ended. The power of his war cries -- think "Attica, Attica!" from 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon" -- instantly translate his lines into the cultural vernacular. Says Taylor Hackford, who directed Pacino in "Devil's Advocate": "I still walk into film schools, both here and in Europe, and students recite Pacino's speech at the end of the film by heart."

The impression that Pacino has made on the directors with whom he's worked is just as great. While their personalities and styles run the gamut -- from Avnet and Hackford to James Foley and Oliver Stone -- all agree that Pacino is deserving of every acting award and regard him a team player who demands a director's commitment and input, then rewards them with jaw-dropping performances.

"It's not like you go lightly with Al," says Stone, who directed Pacino in "Any Given Sunday" and wrote the script for "Scarface." "Al is very much in the process; he's always reexamining, and he's challenging, which for a writer-director is a great asset. But he's a very fun person." He also is an egalitarian: "When we were filming 'Any Given Sunday,'" Stone says, "he would hang out on the sidelines, playing chess with the football guys, Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor. He's very smart."

Foley, who directed 1992's "Glengarry Glen Ross," didn't necessarily get a feel for Pacino's "fun" side during their first encounter. "Our mutual agent called and said, 'Would you like to meet Al Pacino? He's asked to meet you,'" Foley remembers with a laugh. "I said, 'Well, yeah. Where and when?' He said, 'He's sitting outside your house in a car, and he wondered if you were busy.' So, I went outside and invited him in," Foley continues, "and he had a copy of the script for 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' He sat in my kitchen, drank 8,000 cups of coffee and told me that he really liked (1986's) 'At Close Range' and asked if I'd be interested in working together. I was stunned."

Foley's encounter with Pacino might have been a little strange, but it was a cakewalk compared to Hackford's experience. The director engaged in a full courtship to convince Pacino to sign on as John Milton in "Devil's Advocate." "At first, I got a turndown, since the script was basically about the character of the young attorney, played by Keanu Reeves," Hackford says. "Milton was a terrific role, but Al didn't see it. But he's a theater lover, and he loves those great, classic roles, so I said, 'The devil is a classic role. Think about (Johann Wolfgang von) Goethe and (John) Milton, these famous writers who wrote about the devil.'"

Hackford requested that he and his writing partner, Tony Gilroy, have the chance to write a few more scenes for Pacino's character, which the actor promised to read. After sending them to Pacino and having another conversation, the actor was onboard. "At that moment, everything changed," Hackford says. "He had been the pretty girl we were trying to get into bed, but the minute he jumped into bed, he was extremely collaborative and helpful."

While Pacino might be famously shy with the public, his directors say he's generous about including them in conversations about his roles. During preproduction on "Glengarry," Foley remembers, "It was all about hanging out together at (restaurant) Joe Allen's in the afternoon. We would talk about other things, and we'd gossip, and then we'd always come around to his character and the movie. By the time official rehearsals began, we were on the same page."

That was true at least until the cameras began to roll, when part of Pacino's magic -- mystery -- began to unfold. "With Al, you say 'action' and then cross your fingers and see what comes out of him," Foley says. "He's very mindful of when to improvise and when not to, but like all good actors, he starts off the wall, which I encourage. I'm there to be their backup if they get lost. Whereas Jack Lemmon (Pacino's co-star in 'Glengarry') was all about, 'Whaddaya want me to do, sit down? Stand up?' Al was all about the morality lurking beneath. And when he does a take and snaps in, it's like watching a surfer on top of a wave. You cross your fingers that he won't fall off until the end, but Al would come sliding effortlessly into the sand again and again, and I'd say 'cut' and scream."

"People who only work with him in movies think he can't memorize lines," Foley continues, "but that's not what's happening in earlier takes. He's seeing what inspires him. He's an advocate of doing as many takes as possible, and he has an amazing memory, so he can come back the next day and say, 'I like Take 2 and Take 10,' and he's always right. There's a very thin membrane between his unconscious and his conscious, and some people don't get that he's doing that."

Avnet intuited the actor's process immediately. "He does something that few performers do, which is that he understands that so much of what you do when you create a character is deal with the unconscious. His method is a very elliptical one, and I think that's why we see him doing stuff no one can come close to. He spoils you for anything else."

If Pacino continues to surprise long after becoming an icon who could have chosen to coast on his accolades, his directors point to the actor's ability to engage with the role at hand rather than the applause that comes with it. In a celebrity-entranced culture, he skips the red-carpet premieres that are his right, eschewing the glitz for the grist.

Says Foley: "He's very wary of strangers, and he doesn't initiate small talk. There's absolutely no stardom about him. One time during 'Glengarry,' we had a location shoot, and during a break we were in his trailer hanging out and watching E! when the assistant director came and said we were ready. I went out first -- he was behind me," Foley remembers, "and there was this huge crowd of people who suddenly started roaring and clapping, and for a good second or two, I got really excited thinking, 'Someone's here!' And then I realized it was Al. Fame doesn't exist unless someone acknowledges that fame, and he just doesn't."

It's precisely that equilibrium that Hackford believes accounts for Pacino's longevity. "One of the great curses is that great American actors become American movie stars," he says. "They hit the role that makes them, and then everyone tries to get them to do the same thing again and again. That's a huge incentive to freeze and just keep doing the same thing, playing only the role that made you famous, and that's when people cease being actors," Hackford says. "Pacino's refused to do that. He risks it all every single time he goes out, and that's what makes him amazing."

"I think he's so obsessed with the work that the celebrity stuff doesn't register," Avnet adds. "If somebody says, 'How does it feel to be Al Pacino?' he says, 'Well, somebody's got to be him.'"

Today, that must feel mighty good.