On-stage interview and Q&A

Live in Houston: It's Al Pacino! What to expect from the famed actor's one-night stand

Live in Houston: It's Al Pacino! What to expect from the famed actor's one-night stand

Events_Society for the Performing Arts_Al Pacino
Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts

So what can you expect if you plunk down your cash to attend Al Pacino: One Night Only, the special event set for Monday night at Jones Hall?

According to the Society for the Performing Arts, the H-Town entity sponsoring the show: "In an on-stage interview with clips (some never seen before), Mr. Pacino will give a rare glimpse into the creative process of one of our greatest actors. Sharing backstage tales from a lifetime in the world of theater and film and revealing the inner workings of his most personal work (watch for surprise readings) this one-night-only event will end with a question-and-answer session with the audience.”

All well and good, no doubt. But the question remains: What specifically can we expect? That is, what might the great man want to talk about?

After quizzing Pacino several times over the years at various movie promotional gatherings, I’d be willing to predict that, at some point during the evening, he’ll say something about his great empathy for Jerry Lewis. No, seriously.

 Well, after quizzing Pacino myself several times over the years at various movie promotional gatherings, I’d be willing to predict that, at some point during the evening, he’ll say something about his great empathy for Jerry Lewis. No, seriously.

Ask Pacino about how he goes about choosing roles – and why, at several points in his long career, he delayed making any choice at all – and he’ll likely point to an amusing scene in The Bellboy, the 1960 comedy in which Lewis played, in a bold stroke of casting, a bellboy at a posh Miami Beach hotel.  

In one especially memorable sequence, the bellboy is given the task of positioning hundreds of chairs in a ballroom for an upcoming event. So he takes the first chair in hand and… and… and can’t quite figure out where to put it.

As an actor, Pacino told me back while he was promoting The Devil’s Advocate, the quandary facing Lewis’ character is something he could relate to. Yes, he could take his pick of several plum roles. Trouble is, having too many options can be a mixed blessing.

“It's a piece of genius watching [Lewis] trying to figure it out, trying to decide where to put that first chair out of all those chairs,” Pacino said. “That's the way I feel when there's a lot of stuff to pick from.

“There was a period when I was out of it for a few years,” he added, referring to his extended sabbatical from movie work after the critical and commercial disaster of Revolution (1985). “Almost four years between movies. But for some reason during the last few years, I’ve been more interested, more active. Sometimes, you’re waiting and you’re not particularly excited about anything. But you’re still living in a workaday world, trying to develop yourself — trying to explore things, trying to go into areas where you haven’t been before.

“You have to decide, ‘Which one do I choose?’ And as you get older, and your time’s running out, you’re trying to figure out, ‘What am I going to do in this next year?’ There’s something to be said for not doing anything, and waiting for something inspired. But that doesn’t seem to happen enough. So you start to figure, like they say, you bring the body and the mind will follow. You hope that, if you go ahead and do the thing, somewhere along the line, you’ll get excited by it. Sometimes, the cart is leading the horse in that respect.”

Following his grandfather's work ethic

Even so, Pacino thinks the journey is worth the effort. Standing still, he has found, simply isn’t in his nature.

“It’s really all about being engaged in what you do,” he said. “I remember my grandfather was a plasterer. And the thing I’m left with about my grandfather, because he raised me, is his love of what he did. He went away and did that eight hours a day, and then he came home. And you got the feeling that, more than anything else, he wanted to go back there and do it again. I remember seeing him in the midst of his work, and noticing how focused he was.

“I’ve been doing this now for several years in movies. I have the same doubts I’ve always had. But I guess it’s about having a pursuit, and staying with a thing.”

Any advice for young actors? As Pacino told me at another press gathering: Don’t place too much importance on an audition, because you probably won’t get the part anyway.

But that doesn’t mean the audition itself is unimportant.

 Any advice for young actors? As Pacino told me at another press gathering: Don’t place too much importance on an audition, because you probably won’t get the part anyway.

 “'I remember, from early on, never expecting anything to come from an audition, because, otherwise, it would just be too disappointing,” Pacino said. “Like, I remember early on working on parts in plays. And I would go to an audition, and they would have their script there of the play they were doing, and I would say, ‘Could I do a monologue for you instead?’

“'Like, I remember going to an audition for this church group that would tour hospitals. And a lot of people in the group were singers. So I told them I was a monologist. And I did these monologues from The Connection, which was this Living Theatre thing about a dope addict, and I did Hamlet. And they had this bemused look on their faces afterwards, like they were thinking, ‘We're gonna take this guy to a hospital with us? He needs to go to a hospital!’

''But the thing is, I was able to have an audience to play out the monologues to. And I remember telling young actors later on, when I would speak to theater groups, to try and think of an audition as something you're never going to get -- but at least it's something where you'll find an audience.”

Starting at an early age

Pacino began finding his audience at an early age, while he and his mother shared a South Bronx apartment with her parents. Under the appreciative eye of his grandmother, Little Alfredo would take center stage in the living room, and act out scenes from movies he saw with his mom.

Later on, Pacino said, “I was a mimic in school. And I was the guy who read the Bible. You remember, in the auditorium, some guy would come in and read the Bible? Well, that was me. And I would over-read it, over-dramatize it, over-act it. And everybody thought that was something.”

His eighth-grade acting coach, ''this old woman named Mrs. Blanche Rothstein, she was very encouraging. And that's important. It's like that line from that play Orphans, about how you need an encouraging squeeze on the shoulders now and then. As I go on, I remember these things. I remember the other day, shaving, thinking for the first time that it was my mother, she also encouraged me. And I didn't realize it at the time. But as I think back, I see she did.”

So did many others. Pacino was advised to apply for admission to New York's High School for the Performing Arts. He did so, was accepted — and then flunked out at age 17. He fared much better at the Herbert Berghof Studio, where he studied under master acting coach Charlie Laughton, and in various off-Broadway theater companies. He made his theatrical breakthrough in the 1968 production of Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx, playing a vicious young hoodlum. The following year, he made his film debut as a bit player in a Patty Duke starring vehicle, Me, Natalie.

But it wasn't until 1971 that Pacino made his first big smash in movies, playing a mood-swinging heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg's grimly realistic Panic in Needle Park. That led to his star-making role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), which in turn led to Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Scarface (1983) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Scent of a Woman (1992) and Angels in America (2003) and The Son of No One (2011) and on and on and on.

And come Monday evening, the journey will bring him to Jones Hall here in Houston.