‘I don’t believe in God – I believe in Al Pacino’: How one of our greatest living actors kicked his boozy, brawling ways

As the star of ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Godfather’ turns 80, Martin Chilton looks back at his drunken early years and his ascent to Oscar-winning glory

Saturday 25 April 2020 07:51 BST
Pacino as cocaine addict Tony Montana in 1983’s ‘Scarface’, a decade after it looked like alcohol would kill off his career
Pacino as cocaine addict Tony Montana in 1983’s ‘Scarface’, a decade after it looked like alcohol would kill off his career (Universal Pictures)

Al Pacino spent much of the Seventies in a drunken haze. The Oscar-winning star of the Godfather trilogy, Serpico, Scarface and Scent of a Woman has been teetotal for more than four decades now, and is about to soberly celebrate his 80th birthday. But he drank so much in his younger days that his brain was, in his own words, “scrambled”.

He would down beers along with martini chasers, the alcohol serving as an antidote to his natural shyness, a way for him to cope with the intense burden of being in the public eye. Drinking was part of the culture of his trade at the time, he would later explain, recalling that even a thespian as eminent as Sir Laurence Olivier cited “the drink after the show” as his favourite part of acting.

But by the time Pacino was 31, alcohol had begun to threaten his burgeoning career. His film credits were limited to a small role in Me, Natalie and a well-received lead in The Panic in Needle Park when he was spotted by Francis Ford Coppola, who insisted Pacino was perfect for a main role in 1972’s The Godfather. Paramount Pictures were pushing for Robert Redford or Warren Beatty to play Michael Corleone, but the director stuck to his guns. “I couldn’t get Al out of my head,” he said. Pacino nearly blew it, though. On the day of his first screen test, he was hungover and had not memorised his lines. He tried to ad-lib the scene, infuriating Mario Puzo, the author of the crime novel on which the film was based. It took a lot of persuasion for Pacino to land the role.

In the end, he was superb as the mafia boss, narrowly missing out on an Oscar for Best Actor, which went instead to his co-star Marlon Brando, who played his father Vito Corleone. The sudden fame and acclaim pushed Pacino into drinking even more heavily. Three decades later, Pacino told television host Larry King that he knew he was in trouble when cocktails began to seem more attractive than acting.

A true crisis point came in London in 1974, following the success of Serpico, when Pacino was staying at The Dorchester hotel. A depressed Pacino was exhausted after six months of filming for The Godfather Part II, on locations in New York, Nevada, Miami and Sparagonga, Sicily. He had already signed up to play Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, a film directed by Sidney Lumet, which dramatised the story of an inept robber who holds up a bank in Brooklyn to get the money for his partner’s gender confirmation surgery.

Pacino began to have second thoughts about the role. After a pub crawl in London’s West End, he backed out of the movie. “It was during one of those episodes of drinking in London that I actually turned down Dog Day,” he told Larry King Live in 2007. “I said, ‘I don’t want to go rob a bank and do all of that stuff.’”

Lumet reluctantly accepted the actor’s change of heart and sent the screenplay to Dustin Hoffman. “I quit. Dustin was going to do it,” Pacino admitted. However, producer Martin Bregman pestered his friend to reconsider. “Bregman was on me, on me, on me,” recalled Pacino. “I said, ‘Marty, I don’t want to do this’. He said, ‘Could you stop drinking for a while and read the script?’ I didn’t drink for a couple of days and I read the script. It was clear. I said, ‘Why am I not doing this? I should be doing this.’ I was very lucky I had him there.”

King asked Pacino if he’d ever acted under the influence of drink. “I’ve done it. I did with John Cazale. I didn’t like that,” Pacino confessed. The late Cazale, who played the tragic Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, became friends with Pacino in the mid-1960s. They acted together in Public Theatre productions of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and The Local Stigmatic. Cazale also starred as the oddball, longhaired sidekick of Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

Pacino was boozing during the production of Dog Day Afternoon. The star actually credits this with helping inspire one of his most creative brainwaves about how to play Wortzik. After watching reels of the first day’s shoot, he sat up all night thinking about the character, “helped by drinking a half-gallon of white wine”. He decided he was hitting false notes with his portrayal of the bank robber – that it was wrong for his character to wear glasses. Pacino decided that Wortzik was the sort of man who, on the day of a big heist, would forget to take his spectacles, “because subconsciously he wants to be caught”.

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Pacino played dysfunctional bank robber Sonny Wortzik in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (Warner Bros)

Lumet agreed to re-shoot the scenes featuring Pacino in glasses, and the actor started to play the character with a vague squint. Dog Day Afternoon was a critical success. The real Wortzik (John Wojtowicz), who was serving time at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, even wrote to The New York Times declaring that Pacino deserved an Academy Award. In the end, he earned a Best Actor nod, one of eight nominations (The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II, And Justice for All, Dick Tracy, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Irishman) that sit alongside his sole triumph, a Best Actor award for 1993’s Scent of a Woman.

There are lots of reasons why people drink to excess, and the man born Alfredo James Pacino had his fair share. His childhood in the Bronx was extremely rough. Pacino’s father, Salvatore, abandoned the family when his son was just two. Salvatore ended up running a bar in Covina, California, called Pacino’s Lounge. Pacino called his father’s desertion “the missing link” of his life.

The consequences were dire. Money was tight for his single-parent mother Rose, who suffered from chronic depression. She even resorted to electric-shock therapy and eventually became addicted to barbiturates. She was only 43 when she died in 1962. “Poverty took her down,” Pacino said. His beloved maternal grandfather died a year after Rose. Pacino described this as the “darkest period” of his life. “I went through some stuff. I had therapy five days a week for 25 years,” he told The Hollywood Reporter’s podcast in December 2019.

Rose had done her best to encourage Pacino’s youthful acting ambitions. She regularly took him to the cinema and he remembered the treat of being taken to see Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. Pacino was often coaxed into acting at home. The writer John Lahr said that one of Pacino’s party pieces was imitating Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Pacino would throw open cupboard doors, pretending to search for a hidden stash of booze, just like the alcoholic writer in the film. “I never understood why they were laughing, because I didn’t think it was funny,” Pacino told Lahr. “But I knew it produced laughs.”

Outside the home, Pacino, who was always called “Sonny”, was running wild. He began smoking at nine and was drinking hard liquor by the time he was 13. He was part of a street gang called The Red Wings. There are stories about Pacino squaring up to adults, even attacking one with a stick. He also punched a stranger who insulted his mother. He suffered a concussion after one brawl. “I learnt defensive fighting at a young age,” Pacino told Lawrence Grobel in Al Pacino: The Authorised Biography.

School was unenjoyable for Pacino, who said he was a “dunderhead”. He was consigned to a class for emotionally disturbed kids for a couple of days. After leaving Herman Ridder Junior High School at 15, Pacino took on a plethora of jobs, including shoe shining, working in a supermarket and working as a busboy. The hardest job, he said, was moving furniture. Perhaps his most noteworthy employment was as an office boy in the mailroom of the magazine Commentary.

During these grim days, he was still burning with the desire to be an actor. In 1967, at 27, Pacino met Charlie Laughton in a bar in Greenwich Village. The meeting changed his life. Laughton was an acting teacher at the Herbert Berghof Studio and persuaded him to enrol. He became Pacino’s mentor, introducing him to great writers such as Joyce and Rimbaud. “In those knockabout years, you could not find me without a book,” said Pacino.

Even though he was always in bars at night, Pacino was working ferociously at his craft during the day, soaking up all he could at the Actors Studio. His first break was appearing in regional theatre in Boston. His Broadway debut came in 1969, the same year he made his film debut in Me, Natalie. Most importantly, he found his purpose. “Acting is what I’m meant to do,” Pacino told The New Yorker. “With this, everything suddenly coheres, and I understand myself.”

Pacino drew on all the experiences and turmoil in his life to become one of the most empathetic actors of the modern age. He has brought his own magic to portrayals of some of cinema’s most memorable characters, including mafia boss Corleone; the whistleblowing cop Frank Serpico; the drug lord Tony Montana in Scarface; bank robber Wortzik; the slick salesman Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino is a genuine Hollywood great. “I don’t believe in God; I believe in Al Pacino,” said Oscar winner Javier Bardem.

Pacino holds aloft the Best Actor Oscar he earned for his role in ‘Scent of a Woman’ (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

Yet winning his battle with booze must rank as one of the greatest achievements of a remarkable life. Pacino credits Laughton with making him “recognise” his addiction. “It was a powerful moment in my life… I wouldn’t have made it without Charlie,” Pacino told Playboy. He has been sober since 1977.

Despite his meltdown in London, he remained fond of the UK’s capital and returned to the city throughout his career. In 1984, he performed in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Duke of York Theatre. In 1996, he visited the Globe Theatre while he was making the documentary Looking for Richard III. That was the year, incidentally, that he was supposedly turned away from the Groucho Club after the receptionist mistook the actor, dressed in a large shabby overcoat, for one of Soho’s down-and-outs.

Pacino, who always wears sunglasses outdoors to stay unrecognised, has consistently complained about the “public attention” his career has brought. He has talked wistfully about not being able to do normal things like riding the subway or go out in public with his three children. The spotlight is unlikely to go away, however, something demonstrated by the global publicity inspired by the recent remarks of his ex-lover, Meital Dohan. The 40-year-old Israeli actor said in February that she was leaving the “elderly” Pacino because “the age gap is difficult”.

James Caan, who turned 80 in March, says that his Godfather co-star has always been “pretty complex”. He says Hollywood knew in 1972 that a special talent had appeared on the scene. “Although Pacino was the weird guy in the corner, I think we all knew at the time that the guy in the corner was mushrooming into probably one of the greatest talents of all time in our industry.”

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