Al Pacino’s Iconic Career
“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
“I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”
“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry, it just gets dirtier.”
The man who said all of those lines is one of the greatest actors of all time. Al Pacino has been on the big screen for nearly six decades, and his storied career includes box-office sensations like “The Godfather,” “Heat” and “Scent of a Woman,” and less lucrative but still captivating films like “Scarface,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.” Always bold, always memorable, Pacino is a man with few equals — including in the pocketbook.
With an estimated net worth of $165 million, he has come a long way from his humble New York City roots and impoverished early 20s. And for the 40-odd films in which he’s played a big or small part, there have been surprisingly few flops — although the ones that did certainly fell hard. Pacino has also found great success in stage roles and in television productions, picking up numerous awards along the way.
So let’s get to know the eminently quotable Al Pacino.
Born in New York’s Original Little Italy
If you happened upon East Harlem, New York in the 1930s and ‘40s, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for Italy. Back then it was actually known as Italian Harlem due to waves of immigrants who made it their home starting in the late 19th century. One of those families was the Pacinos.
Alfredo James Pacino was born April 25, 1940, the only son of Sicilian immigrants Salvatore and Rose. His parents split up when he was 2, with his father moving to California, so little Al was raised by his mother and grandparents in the Bronx. He first began to show an interest in acting in his early teens and eventually auditioned for and was accepted into the High School of Performing Arts. But Pacino couldn’t keep his grades up. He dropped out at 17.
In a 2015 interview with The Guardian, Pacino talked about his humble beginnings and the life lessons he learned from his grandfather, who instilled in him a joy to just work no matter the job.
Learning “The Method” of Acting
By his 19th birthday, Pacino was living in Greenwich Village and trying to turn his love for acting into something real. He took theater courses at the famed Herbert Berghof Studio and made it to Off Broadway by the early 1960s, with his first role being Young Man in the William Saroyan one-act play “Hello, Out There.”
But 1966 marked his big break, as he was accepted into the renowned Actors Studio to study under the godfather of method acting, Lee Strasberg. It was here that Pacino truly came into his own. Within three years he landed the lead role in the Broadway production of “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” for which he won his first Tony Award. That eventually led to his first film role in the comedy-drama “Me, Natalie.”
But before becoming a screen legend, he certainly had his low points.
Pacino Hits Bottom, Considers Suicide
Long before the fame and fortune Pacino was a struggling actor who had a tense relationship with his mother. She passed away in 1962 when he was 22, and they never fully reconciled their differences over his pursuit of an acting career instead of getting a regular old job. This reportedly sent Pacino into a tailspin in which he experienced extreme poverty and homelessness, was depressed enough to consider suicide and drank himself into a stupor most days.
He eventually picked himself up after rooming with another struggling actor, Martin Sheen. The two took any odd jobs they could find until their true passions started to turn into actual stage roles. And before long, they both became household names.
He Got Unlikely Help to Play Michael Corleone
“The Godfather” movies are without a doubt the most iconic of Pacino’s illustrious career (even if we wish the third one was never made). But the role of Michael Corleone could’ve gone to more famous actors of the time, such as Jack Nicholson — or, gasp, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford or Martin Sheen. It’s true, and you can watch some of the screen tests here. Even James Caan was forced to read for the part, and he eventually was cast in another role in the film.
Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote and directed the trilogy, has said he always envisioned Pacino as Michael Corleone while reading the Mario Puzo book on which the films are based. However, the studio executives did not agree. But after they finally signed off on Pacino, it actually took a serious moment of life imitating art in which a real mobster intervened to get Pacino off another project and onto “The Godfather.” As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Stranger Than Fiction
When Vito Corleone first comes to America in “The Godfather,” he uses the name of the Sicilian town from which he came as his surname. Well would you believe that Pacino’s actual maternal grandparents come from the real Corleone, Sicily?
“My grandparents came from a town in Sicily called Corleone. Fate? Yes, maybe — it’s very strange. But then life has so many twists and turns,” Pacino told The Guardian.
Roles He Didn’t Take
Sometimes the story of how a movie gets made is just as interesting, if not more so, than the final product. In Pacino’s case, his list of passed-up parts is nearly as incredible as his actual filmography. Mental Floss compiled 16 roles that Pacino was up for and ultimately decided against. There are some true surprises.
How about Pacino as Han Solo? He says he passed on it because he didn’t understand the script. Pacino could’ve been the lead in “Apocalypse Now” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Before it was an Eddie Murphy comedic vehicle, “Beverly Hills Cop” was supposed to be a serious crime thriller starring Pacino. He claims Bruce Willis would have no career if he hadn’t turned down “Die Hard.” Then there’s “Slap Shot,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Pretty Woman.”
But his biggest regret might just be losing out on the Terrence Malick masterpiece “Days of Heaven.”
Maybe the Money Does Matter
Pacino has said he doesn’t act for the money, but we all want to think we’re being compensated fairly for the value we add to something. In this case, Pacino reportedly wouldn’t work on “The Godfather: Part II” without changes to the script and a significant pay raise.
How much more money exactly? According to Variety, “there was no question ... he would be compensated more generously than he was for ‘The Godfather’ (for ‘II’ he got a reported $500,000 plus a percentage, a package described at the time [as] ‘a near-2,000 [percent] raise’).”
That might not sound like a huge sum, but adjusted for inflation it’s over $2.7 million.
Taking Heat for “Heat”
“Heat” is a notable Pacino film for several reasons, one of which is that for a long time it was the only film in which he and fellow screen legend Robert DeNiro appeared in a scene together. But it’s also known for Pacino’s over-the-top performance, which has been panned as a true example of overacting.
In 2007, Pacino talked about the role and how he approached it. He actually never named the movie, but it was quite obvious he was referring to “Heat.”
“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,” Pacino said. “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.”
Creative Use of His Brand Name
There’s no doubt many people would be thrilled with the opportunity to spend some quality time with Pacino — but how about forking over tens of thousands of dollars to do so?
During a speaking tour in the UK and Ireland in 2015, the actor was selling access to himself for $41,000 a pop. That princely sum would get you on Pacino’s private jet, a ticket to one of his appearances, a regular plane ticket to set up the whole thing, three nights in a five-star London hotel (with breakfasts), another ticket to another appearance and transportation between the airport, hotel, venues, etc.
Other, less luxurious options included 20 minutes with Pacino in his dressing room for about $4,000, lunch for $12,000 or a humble meet-and-greet with other fans for $1,000.
Lifelong Bachelor and Father of Three
Pacino has said he finds it strange that people call him a bachelor because he’s had several long-term relationships and even has children with two different women. However, he’s never officially married anyone.
He dated “Godfather” co-star Diane Keaton, an on-again off-again relationship that lasted for 10 years. Pacino has a daughter named Julie Marie with acting teacher Jan Tarrant, and twins Anton James and Olivia Rose with actress Beverly D’Angelo.
Pacino was with Tarrant for about two years, and Julie Marie was born in 1989. She is a film producer and director. D’Angelo and Pacino spent six years together, parting ways in 2003 two years after Anton and Olivia were born.
Until recently, Pacino had been linked to Argentinian actress Lucia Sola — who’s nearly 40 years younger than him — since 2009. They were apparently close enough for Sola’s daughter, Camila Morrone, to call Pacino her stepfather.
Three Legs of the EGOT
Pacino has won Emmys, Tonys and an Oscar, making him just a Grammy away from the elusive EGOT. We’re pretty sure that at this point he’s not going to make a star turn as a music man, even if he played Phil Spector in the HBO movie about the murderous music producer and a fictional rock star in “Danny Collins.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1992’s “Scent of a Woman” that the Academy bestowed upon him a Best Actor Oscar. His two Emmy wins were for “Angels in America” in 2004 and “You Don’t Know Jack” in 2010. And he won Tony awards for “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” in 1969 and “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” in 1977.
The ‘70s Are Now a Blur
Pacino has very little memory of the 1970s — the quintessential run in his film career. Two “Godfather” movies came out during the decade, along with “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Scarecrow” and several others. But Pacino remembers very little of it.
During the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, Pacino told The Daily Beast he is “very grateful that I was around, especially in the 70s, which were kind of a renaissance. But man, I have no memory of the 70s! You have to understand, I was in another world! I didn’t know what was going on. But I am glad it worked out.”
No Paychecks for “The Godfather”
If Pacino can’t remember the 1970s, perhaps it’s best to heavily scrutinize this 2015 interview in which the actor claims he actually owed “a studio” $15,000 after “The Godfather” finished filming and never saw a paycheck during production.
Asked what he purchased with his first paycheck, Pacino responded, “Well it’s funny because the first time I did ‘The Godfather’ and the film was over, I owed $15,000. I never saw a paycheck. I saw someone who served me with a summons because I owed a studio a certain amount of money. I do remember not having any money when I went to do the picture. I didn’t have any money, no money in the bank or anything. I just had the film, which was great, but I don’t remember a paycheck!”
Ponzi-Related Tax Troubles
Kenneth Starr — not the famous attorney, but the infamous money manager — ran a $33 million Ponzi scheme that involved a number of celebrity clients. Pacino claims he was one.
After receiving a $188,000 tab in 2011 for unpaid taxes in 2008 and ‘09, Pacino’s camp said it was all a misunderstanding related to Starr’s fraudulent activities and the actor would make good on his debts.
A Special Distinction
When you’ve done more than 40 movies in your career, there are bound to be some highs and lows. In this case, Pacino has starred in what many film buffs and critics say is the greatest Hollywood movie ever made (“The Godfather” parts I and II) and played a small role in what’s considered the worst Hollywood movie ever made (“Gigli”).
By box office standards, “Gigli” was also a considerable flop. It cost $54 million to produce and brought home a meager $7.3 million. “The Godfather,” meanwhile, was made on a $6 million budget and grossed well over $200 million.
It’s easy to look at Pacino’s body of work and pick away at the stale spots. There’s no doubt about his acting chops, but sometimes the stars don’t align. Nevertheless, Pacino told The Independent that he has no regrets about his career choices — even the disastrous “Godfather: Part III.”
“I feel like I’ve made what I would call mistakes,” he told the newspaper. “I picked the wrong movie, or I didn’t pursue a character, but everything you do is part of you and you get something from it. Having the idea and excitement of being in these situation and places, they are more than just memories, they inform your life.”
Almost Called it Quits
Pacino might not have any regrets about the films he’s done, but one in particular nearly put an end to his career.
Quad Cinema of New York City launched a 34-film retrospective of Pacino’s work in 2018, and he appeared at the screening of one of his less appreciated works: 1985’s “Revolution.” While Pacino still speaks highly of the film, it grossed only $350,000 at the box office and cost $28 million to produce. But what Pacino remembers the most is how difficult it was to take the criticism, which was partly responsible for a four-year hiatus from acting.
“I was thinking, ‘What is this? What did I do?’ So I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,’” Pacino said at the screening. “And I stopped and I don’t know that I would have gone back except I got broke.”
His Most Difficult Role
Every actor has their one true role, and it’s no surprise that for Al Pacino that role is Michael Corleone from the “Godfather” movies. And now that we know how close it was to never happening, it’s even more poignant that Pacino refers to it as his most difficult part.
“Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’ was and still is the most difficult role I’ve played,” Pacino told The Guardian. “I didn’t see him as a gangster; I felt his power was his enigmatic quality. Unfortunately the studio couldn’t see that at first and were thinking of firing me. It was during my early career, a major movie with Marlon Brando, and no one other than Francis [Ford Coppola] wanted me for the part.”