Theatre yesterday and today



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Albert James Pacino was born on this day, seventy-seven years ago. Wow. I mean… that wasn’t supposed to happen. To me, he will always be thirty-two or thirty-four, looking the way he did as Michael Corleone in Godfather’s I & II. Pacino loves being an actor and constantly works, sometimes taking film projects that I would imagine don’t exactly turn out as well as he might have hoped. He continues to seek out every opportunity in the theatre as well, having just finished a run as a late-in-life Tennessee Williams in God Looked Away at the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California. But today, to celebrate his birthday, I would like to concentrate on his earliest days as an actor in the New York theatre, and how it laid the foundation for much of his brilliant work in films, once he became a sensation when The Godfather premiered in 1972.

Al Pacino, circa the 1960s.

Born in East Harlem in 1940, Pacino grew up in the South Bronx, raised by his mother and grandparents, following his parents’ separation when he was two years old. Shy, he began acting in his early teens and was even accepted at the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. Only he dropped out after his sophomore year (ironically) when they started teaching Stanislavsky’s acting principles, dubbed the Method. It was a technique he would come to embrace years later under the direct tutelage of Lee Strasberg, its foremost proponent. According to Pacino, the pressure to get a job surpassed the need to continue his education, which is how he found himself on the streets at seventeen.

“I come from the South Bronx — a true descendant of the melting pot. I grew up in a really mixed neighborhood; it was a very integrated life,” Pacino told Playboy Magazine in 1979. “There were certain tensions that usually had to do with one’s income situation. Being an only child, I had difficulty with competition. 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 at that age and having the feeling that you might get beat up any day. I think a lot of kids suffer from that kind of tension. I didn’t know how to protect myself very well, because I never learned it.”

When he was eighteen, he moved to Greenwich Village and survived on a series of odd jobs including being a messenger, shoe salesman, supermarket checker, shoe shiner, furniture mover, office boy, fresh-fruit polisher and newsboy. He auditioned for the Actors Studio and was rejected. But at the Herbert Berghof Studio, he met an acting teacher who would become his mentor and closest friend, Charlie Laughton. Pacino would later say, “I wouldn’t have made it here without Charlie.”

But there was something about the lure of the Actors Studio, and so Pacino auditioned again. This time he was accepted to study directly with Strasberg. For Pacino, it was everything. “It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting. It instilled confidence and gave me a place to work out, to connect with people … It was a major part of my life. I’ll be grateful to the Actors Studio forever. I’d like to marry that place.

Matthew Cowles, John Cazale and Pacino in The Indian Wants the Bronx (1968)

Though there were a couple of plays Pacino appeared in Off-Broadway in the 1960s, professionally these were some rough years. But when he was cast in a 1968 double bill of two one-act plays by Israel Horowitz, attention was paid. The opener, a tepid comedy It’s Called the Sugar Plum (which Pacino didn’t appear in), was brushed off by critics. But the second, The Indian Wants the Bronx, received ecstatic reviews (not only for Pacino, but for his close friend John Cazale as “the Indian). Cazale, as it is well known, would go on to play Fredo to Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather (they would also co-star together in Dog Day Afternoon). For The Indian Wants the Bronx, Pacino won the Obie award for Best Actor in an Off-Broadway production, which then led a short time later to his Broadway debut in Don Peterson’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?

Pacino at twenty-nine in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (1969)

Though it only ran a few weeks, enough Tony voters saw Pacino to award him that season’s Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role as a former drug addict trying to get on the straight and narrow. Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote: “Al Pacino as Bickham is magnificent — a lumbering, drug sodden psychotic with the mind of a bully and the soul of a poet.” It opened in February 1969, the very month I began going to the theatre, just before my twelfth birthday. So I missed Pacino’s debut, but was fortunate enough to see his next play one year later. Grandly produced by the Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, it was Tennessee Williams’s bizarre concoction, Camino Real. Pacino was Kilroy, described in the play as “having a golden heart the size of a baby’s head.” I loved him in it. His energy was hypnotic as he shuffled and dodged throughout the play like a boxer (which the character was). My thirteen year-old self even went backstage and got to meet him, which I wrote about in a column back in February (see below):

Once Pacino’s film career took off with The Godfather, he starred in five films over the next four years, before heading back to the stage. The vehicle he chose was a Broadway revival of a David Rabe play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which had been presented at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in 1971. But by 1977 — and with Vietnam in the rear view mirror— it was time to reassess the play. The reviews were terrific, and Pacino won a second Tony, this time for Best Actor; the beginning of a genuine commitment to the stage that would continue and often flourish for the next fifty years.

Pacino as Pavlov Hummel (1977).

I thought Pacino was sensational in Pavlo Hummel (hey — he beat out John Gielgud AND Ralph Richardson for that Tony!). I have always loved watching him live and have had many opportunities to do so. I particularly liked him in the the early 1980s in the first New York revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo in the role of Teach, which I originally saw in its Broadway premiere with Robert Duvall. I saw Pacino play it twice actually; once Off-Broadway in the now defunct Circle in the Square Theatre, and two years later when he repeated his Teach opposite different actors on Broadway. He was great both times. Fascinating to watch, unpredictably funny and squeezing out every bit of pathos he could find. I also greatly enjoyed his Erie Smith in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie in 1996, which was recently brought back to the forefront of my memory bank after having seen the dead-on-arrival Broadway revival last season, which starred an ineffectual Forest Whitaker as Erie. Pacino brought a seediness and neediness to the part that was heartbreaking, in what is virtually a 70-minute monologue.

Pacino as Erie Smith in Hughie (1996).

And by far his best part he played over the past decade was his Shylock in Dan Sullivan’s production of The Merchant of Venice in 2010. This was Pacino in rare form; restrained, dignified and terrifying. It was one of the best Shakespeare performances I’ve ever seen. He brought everything he had to it.

Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2010).

Due to the poor reviews that the Williams play God Looked Away received, it is unlikely New York will be seeing it any time soon. But it is very likely that Pacino will return — in something — anything. The guy just loves performing. As he told the writer and critic John Lahr, as recently as 2014 in the New Yorker: “Onstage, in the zone, you’re up in the sky with the theatre gods — love it, love it, love it.”

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: