BEVERLY HILLS, California — To many, he’s the greatest film actor of the past four decades; to others, his best work has been bled out on the stage. You might know him from “The Godfather” trilogy, “Scarface,” “Heat,” “Richard III” or simply as that old guy in “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Regardless, few have seen the side of Al Pacino that he recently showed a small audience of journalists and actors on the 20th Century Fox lot.
“Hi!” is how the seven-time Oscar nominee introduced himself. Wearing his trademark black, he took a director’s chair, left his microphone turned off, leaned in and added with sincerity, “This is unusual, to present an audience with something like this. It’s the first time for me, but I work best when people ask me questions.”
The occasion was the DVD release of “Babbleonia,” a compelling discussion between the 67-year-old actor and New York University film professor Richard Brown. Playing like “My Dinner With Andre” meets “Inside the Actors Studio,” the Pacino flick will be released next week in a box set alongside his similarly scholarly passion projects “Chinese Coffee,” “The Local Stigmatic” and “Looking for Richard.” If you want to be an actor — or are simply fascinated by what makes one tick — the films are like kneeling at the feet of a bearded wise man on a mountaintop.
“I had just heard about the Actors Studio when I was a teenager, but I had acted my whole life,” Pacino said, remembering the days when he came up alongside people like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. “I didn’t know of anything else but acting as something I wanted to do. … I really thought there was something here that I could live through, have a life through.”
During Pacino’s nearly 90-minute chat, he demonstrated two things that are rare among today’s actors: a larger-than-life ability to fill a room and a sheer joy at having a genuine exchange with others. Every question was answered, and Pacino kept asking for more.
“I was working with a lieutenant colonel who was teaching me the ways [of the Army],” Pacino said when asked about the origins of “hoo-ah,” the trademark line of his Oscar-winning “Scent of a Woman” performance. “We worked every day, and he’d teach me how to load and unload a .45 and all this stuff. Every time I did something right, he’d go, ‘Hoo-ah!’ Finally, I asked, ‘Where did you get that from?’ And he said, ‘When we were on the line, and you turned and snapped the rifle in the right way, [you'd say,] ‘Hoo-ah!’ So I just started doing it. It’s funny where things come from.”
The actor compared the phrase to another line he made famous with his Oscar-nominated role in “Dog Day Afternoon.” He recalled that he and assistant director Burtt Harris came up with the idea of shouting out a certain word to incite nearby onlookers. ” ‘Hoo-ah’ was like ‘Attica!’ — it wasn’t in the script,” he revealed. “I guess it’s a fun thing about films, when they land [famous catchphrases]. But a lot of them don’t land.”
One of the more intriguing parts of the evening came when Pacino dared the crowd to guess the movie whose deleted scene caused critics to accuse him of overacting.
“Movies are great, and I love them, and sometimes I even like working on them,” he joked. “But your performance really isn’t yours.
“I was in a movie once, which will go nameless, and I did a certain thing in this movie: I based my entire character on a scene of me snorting cocaine,” he continued. “And no, this isn’t ‘Scarface.’ There was just one little scene of me chipping cocaine, so that’s what I did. Well, they cut that scene out of the picture. They had their reasons for it, legitimate reasons I’m sure. But what happened is I based my character on the fact that he chipped cocaine, so my interpretation — my reactions to things — were colored by that. It’s like, ‘What’s that guy so nervous about?’ It would be the same as watching ‘The Godfather’ and never knowing about the gun in the toilet. I assume everybody knows that scene.”
Oh boy, do we ever. While the lucky few dozen soaked it all in, Pacino peppered his language with references to everything from Marlon Brando to Charlize Theron, ” … And Justice for All” to “The Devil’s Advocate,” and much more.
“I spent countless hours just trying to figure out where Michael Corleone goes and how he develops to try to figure him out,” Pacino recalled of his iconic “Godfather” character, urging the actors in attendance to do their homework. “He was a very difficult character to portray. I thought he was a great character, of course, but when they told me I had the role, I thought, ‘How am I gonna do this? This is the hardest part I’ve ever had.’ You see him come out of nowhere and become ultimately an enigma. At the end of that movie, you don’t know who he is.”
“Directors?” he answered, when asked about the people who’ve helped make his classics. “Well, you gotta have ‘em. There’s a big difference between Francis Coppola, who says, ‘What do you want to do?’ and Sidney Lumet, who says, ‘Go here and go there. Do this and do that.’ ”
Eager to offer his recollections of both the stage and screen, Pacino delivered enough gems to fill five articles. But for fans of the greatest heist flick of this generation, no Pacino remembrance would be complete without a few words about the scene that had him finally sitting down opposite another living legend.
“In ‘Heat,’ for the scene with Robert De Niro and me, that was completely scripted,” Pacino recalled. “There were no rehearsals. I just met him there. I know him very well — there was no rehearsing there.”
Earlier, Pacino had mulled over the oddity of film crews who applaud a successful stunt yet rarely acknowledge actors who pull off work more subtle but equally daring. So naturally, he was asked whether those fortunate few on the set of “Heat” realized they had just watched the making of an all-time classic scene.
“Well, I’m getting older and I can’t remember,” Pacino said, widening his eyes and flashing his famous grin. “I’d like to think that they did applaud. But I bet you they didn’t.”
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