Pacino 'overwhelmed' by AFI honor


No expletives were deleted as the American Film Institute presented its 35th annual AFI Life Achievement Award to Al Pacino at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland as Robin Williams, who kicked off the evening, set the tone by offering a toast to "Al fucking Pacino!"

The intense actor, known for burrowing deeply into his roles, requesting endless takes and delivering explosive, unexpurgated performances, admitted that he was at a bit of a loss when Sean Penn called him to the stage to accept the trophy. He pleaded, "I don't have a character tonight."

But settling into the role of honoree, he thanked his mentor and acting coach Charlie Laughton and actress and acting coach Penelope Allen; the late Lee Strasberg; producer Marty Bregman, who offered early career guidance to the young actor; his longtime agent Rick Nicita; and the "great directors" he has worked with, making special mention of Francis Ford Coppola, who fought to cast Pacino in "The Godfather."

"I am so overwhelmed and grateful to this group and the AFI," Pacino said Thursday night. "There are things going on inside of me that I am trying to get out, but I need a character."

Williams, who co-starred with Pacino in "Insomnia," got the evening off to a raucous, roast-like note, with cracks like, "If you put Robert De Niro in a dryer, you'd get Al Pacino."

Sean Connery, last year's achievement award winner, offered his own words of praise, while Kirk Douglas earned sustained applause as he walked onstage to recount how he first discovered Pacino's talent when the star was still working as a young actor in New York in a production of "The Indian Wants the Bronx."

Jamie Foxx amused the crowd by describing how Pacino's spittle showered him during their scenes together in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," but that he swallowed some of Pacino's "mouth moisture" with the result that "next thing you know I won the Oscar!"

Leelee Sobieski, Chris O'Donnell, Gabrielle Anwar, Ed Harris, Winona Ryder, Geoffrey Wright, Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia all stepped forward to testify on the impact that Pacino has had on a generation of actors. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet, and Coppola were among those appearing in videotaped testimonials.

Stone recalled how critics derided "Scarface," which he wrote, even though it has since grown into something of a cult classic. And then George Lopez, outfitted as the movie's Cuban-born mobster Tony Montana, unleashed a profanity-ridden impersonation that should prove a challenge for Louis J. Horvitz, who directed the tribute for a June 19 broadcast on USA Network.

The evening began sedately enough. Sony Corp.'s Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees, dispensed with the obvious line immediately, saying, "Tonight, Al, we're going to make you an offer you can't refuse."

He went on to pay tribute to the recently deceased Jack Valenti, who not only had served on the AFI's board of trustees but who also penned the words that President Lyndon Johnson used when he created the AFI in a White House Rose Garden ceremony 40 years ago. "He is why we are here tonight," Stringer said of Valenti.

Calling her "one of the great women of American film," Stringer introduced AFI president and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg, who will soon be stepping down.

"It's been a wonderful life at AFI," Firstenberg said before presenting AFI Conservatory alumnus Gary Winick, the producer and director, with the annual Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal.