Hollywood Flashback: Al Pacino's Big Debut Was 1971's 'Panic in Needle Park'

The Panic in the Needle - Photofest still -H 2020
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest

The actor, an Oscar nominee for 'The Irishman,' saw his life changed after his first starring role in 'Panic,' which Francis Ford Coppola used to convince Paramount execs that Pacino was the right man to play Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather.'

The film that gave Al Pacino — an Oscar nominee in this year's best supporting actor race for The Irishman — his first starring role was 1971's The Panic in Needle Park.

He wasn't the only participant in the film who went on to big things.

Park was produced by Dominick Dunne, who decades later would become famous for his writing in Vanity Fair. The screenplay came from his brother and sister-in-law, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, who in 2013 received a National Medal of the Arts "for her mastery of style in writing" from President Barack Obama. And it was the first film appearance by Raul Julia.

Park tells the stories of two heroin addicts (Pacino and Kitty Winn) who hang out in "Needle Park" near Manhattan's Broadway and 72nd Street subway station. In a 2009 interview, Didion said the neighborhood was then a "nasty part of town" and she was later amazed to see nearby apartments selling for $1.5 million. The area's grittiness helped with Park being chosen for competition at Cannes, and THR was thrilled with the selection.

"It's a particularly intelligent and courageous submission to represent us abroad," said the review. "A handsomely mounted and performed example of the best of this country's filmmaking."

While Pacino, then 31, wasn't honored at the festival, Winn was named best actress. (Cannes that year is probably best remembered for John Lennon and Yoko Ono each bringing a movie to the Directors' Fortnight section. His 18-minute film featured a balloon's silent ascent into the clouds; her 20-minute effort showed a fly walking on a nude woman's body. Neither received a particularly good response.)

Park was the film that changed Pacino's life. Director Jerry Schatzberg lent pre-release footage to Francis Ford Coppola, who used it to convince Paramount execs that Pacino was the right man to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather, for which he received a supporting actor Oscar nomination.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.