The unmistakeable face of Al Pacino is the calling card of one of the most respected theatre and cinema actors of his generation. In his lifetime he has built a reputation as a dedicated actor who doesn’t compromise ‘the method’ – and amassed a reputation and numerous awards to prove it. So how did this famously private and modest man come to be a world famous movie icon?
Alfredo James Pacino was born in East Harlem on 25 April 1940. The only child of Salvatore and Rosa Pacino, he was two when he moved with his divorced mother to his grandparents’ apartment near the Bronx Zoo in 1942. “I come from the South Bronx – a true descendent of the melting pot,” says Pacino. “I grew up in a really mixed neighbourhood; it was a very integrated life.” At some periods in his childhood he shared three rooms in the apartment with nine family members – uncles and aunts who came and went. With so many people in a small space, relationships could be volatile. School too was rough. “Being an only child, I had difficulty with competition,” says Pacino “I wasn’t allowed out until I went to school at about six; that’s when I started to integrate with other kids. I was very shy. It wasn’t very pleasant going to school and having the feeling you might get beat up every day.” Life could be wild, especially with friends who were always getting into trouble. He started smoking at nine and drinking alcohol at thirteen.
His best friend at school, Cliffy, did wild things like stealing a bus with its passengers on board or breaking a shop window in the street so he could give Pacino a pair of shoes. Though Pacino loved him, they became distant when Cliffy started to take heroin. Cliffy was dead by the age of 30, another close friend dying from drugs at just 19. For the young Pacino, Rosa provided his security. “My mother kept a curfew when I had to be upstairs. I needed that; it gave me a sense of right and wrong, a sense of security,” he recalls. His mother also introduced him to movies. “She used to take me to the movies at a very young age; that’s how I started acting.” His grandfather too, was a powerful influence. “I guess he knew I was an actor, because I used to love to hear him tell me stories about what it was like in New York in East Harlem in the early 1900s,” he says. Sometimes he would spend nights on the roof of the apartment with him, “almost like a grandfather and grandson on a fishing boat, but we were in the South Bronx, up on a roof.” Pacino was not strong academically. High-spirited and disruptive in class, he played tricks on teachers and knocked books off shelves. He really wanted to be a baseball player, but acknowledges he just wasn’t good enough.
Then, one day, when he was 14, his teacher saw him acting in a play and wrote to his mother encouraging her to support him. Her view was that, “acting was for rich people”, and he should get a job. Interestingly, even at the beginning, people were comparing his style to that of Marlon Brando. He left high school after two years to support himself, but one thing he remembered was how ‘natural’ one teacher had said he acted. “I went around all the time trying to be natural. I didn’t know the difference between being natural and being real. What do I know from Stanislavsky? He’s Russian, I’m from the Bronx.” In interviews, Pacino is straightforward about his work. He doesn’t overcomplicate with theory. He is modest and diffident about his acting ability and his importance. Famously shy of giving interviews, he once explained to writer Lawrence Grobel that the reason he didn’t give interviews was that, “I just didn’t think I would be able to do it”. He is equally diffident about his work, saying:
“I don’t like to go on about myself – I feel sometimes that it’s not me that has something to offer, but, hopefully, my talent.”