“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”–William Blake

You know Al Pacino’s slew of memorable roles spanning over decades, as well as his quote-worthy lines: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” and “Okay. You little cockroaches…come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I play with you; come on. Okay. You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend!” What line did I neglect to mention? Well, can you imagine people quoting your rendition of characters’ lines for decades to come? Or being described as one of the greatest actors in film history? Or being nominated eight times for an Oscar and winning one, and winning four Golden Globe Awards? Or having your hands imprinted at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre? I think it’s fair to say that Al Pacino himself couldn’t fathom these accolades when he was young.

Born in East Harlem in 1940, his parents divorced when he was two, after which he lived with his mother and her parents. To give you an idea of his childhood, he says he grew up “very poor,” smoked cigarettes and began drinking at the age of 9, and started smoking pot as a young teen. He was known to get into fights, and had a reputation as a troublemaker at school. But sometimes when his mother would return from work she would take him to the movies. “It was her way of getting out, and she would take me with her. I’d go home and act all the parts. It had a tremendous influence on my becoming an actor,” Pacino remembers. Indeed, one of his teachers at The High School of the Performing Arts told his mother to encourage him in theater based on her observations of Al’s skills at the age of twelve. Still, Pacino says he was “kind of bored with [high school],” and dropped out at the age of 17. This did not sit well with his mom, so he left home.

Thus began Al’s long series of low-paying jobs including being a messenger, a shoe salesman, a supermarket checker, a shoe shiner, a furniture mover, an office boy, a fresh-fruit polisher, a newsboy, a busboy, a janitor, a postal clerk, a stand-up comic, and he worked in the mail room for a magazine. He found opportunities to act in basement plays in New York’s theatrical underground, but was rejected from the Actors Studio when he was still a teenager. Many times he was unemployed, homeless, and sought refuge on the street, slept in theaters, or couch hopped at friends’ homes. At 19, he moved to Greenwich Village to pursue acting at The Herbert Berghof Studio where he applied himself to four years of the craft under the tutelage of acting teacher Charlie Laughton. He used his scant wages to fund his acting studies, and there were times when he had to borrow bus fare to get to his auditions. He suffered through a lengthy period of depression.“I’ve always been in the theater. I’ve always gone to it. That’s been my way to cope. Early on in my career, I remember running–fleeing–to the theater as a way of coping with all the meshugaas that was going on for me,” Pacino shared. In his early 20’s both his mother and his grandfather–who he was very close to–died.

But then Pacino was successfully admitted into the Actor’s Studio where he studied method acting under Lee Strausberg.“The Actors Studio meant so much to me in my life…That was a remarkable turning point in my life. It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting,” Al said. Pacino dedicated himself to performing in the theater for several years. “When I was younger, I would go to auditions to have the opportunity to audition, which would mean another chance to get up there and try out my stuff, or try out what I learned and see how it worked with an audience, because where are you gonna get an audience?” he said. His performances included a 1968 play titled The Indian Wants the Bronx in which he played a street punk. In the audience was Martin Bregman who went on to become Pacino’s manager. “Martin Bregman discovered me off Broadway. I was 26, 25. And he discovered me and became my manager. And that’s why I’m here. I owe it to Marty, I really do,” Pacino said. A year later, Pacino received a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?  

Next Pacino made his movie debut playing a minor supporting role in the independent feature Me, Natalie which helped lead to him signing with a talent agency, Creative Management Associates, the following year. Soon after, Pacino landed the lead role of Bobby, a heroine addict in the independent feature The Panic in Needle Park. Although the film was not immediately recognized, Al’s performance caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola. During the casting of The Godfather, the relatively unknown Pacino beat out Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Robert De Niro for the role of Michael Corleone. The studio execs were not thrilled with this decision, nor were some of the other cast members. Pacino’s diminutive stature triggered a slew of on-set teasing. “That midget Pacino” as they called him, was in constant fear of being fired–as was Coppola, and so the film was shot as quickly as possible, and has been described as a “hellish shoot.” But The Godfather turned out the be a breakthrough for both.

From there on out, you know the story. Pacino’s intense portrayals, his gravely voice, his explosive tirades, all wrapped up in his diminutive stature have been enthralling audiences for decades now. He’s known for his brave choices in films including Serpico, The Godfather trilogy, Scarface, Dog Day Afternoon, Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman, Carlito’s Way, and Any Given Sunday (among others). He’s flattered when people describe him as a legend: “I’m very flattered to hear that, that compliment. I don’t think of myself as anything but an actor struggling to find the next role and when I do get the role to try and see if I can find any way into it.”

Like Pacino’s character, Coach Tony D’Amato, asserts in Any Given Sunday each individual needs to fight for every single inch when in comes to playing the game. Al Pacino certainly fought for every opportunity he could get in his career. From the start, he regarded each audition as a chance to experiment with his acting techniques in front of an audience–and he continues to feel this way even all these years later. Here’s to you fighting for every inch of your career as well!

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