Eight times he was nominated. For The Godfather in 1973, at the age of 32. For Serpico one year later. For The Godfather Part II. For Dog Day Afternoon. For …And Justice for All. For Dick Tracy. And earlier this year, for both Glengarry Glen Ross (as Best Supporting Actor) and Scent of a Woman (as Best Actor). Time after time, Al Pacino held his breath, waited, and watched as someone else leapt to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to receive the highest honor his peers could bestow. And then, on the eighth go-round, two hours after losing to Unforgiven’s Gene Hackman for Best Supporting Actor, Pacino heard Jodie Foster call his name. The ferocious Frank Slade, a blind Army colonel with more than a little flair for the dramatic, had taken Pacino all the way to his first Academy Award. ”It’s something I never thought—I never expected to get an Oscar,” he now says humbly, stumbling to find the words for the experience. ”It was thrilling, of course, but at the same time so new I didn’t know what I was feeling.”
It all took at least 24 hours to even start sinking in. On March 30, the night after the Oscars, Pacino was standing on a Greenwich Village side street in the pouring rain. He was back at work as Carlito Brigante, a New York gangster (this time of Puerto Rican extraction) unexpectedly sprung from a 30- year prison hitch, in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way. Now soaked, freezing, and as focused on his art as ever, he was only slowly becoming aware that life really does change. The Carlito’s crew was wearing Scent of a Woman baseball caps they’d commissioned for the occasion. Strangers on the set shouted congratulations. And it all began to dawn on him: He’d won the Oscar. ”It wasn’t for a few days or even weeks that I started to feel the impact, and the joy of it,” he says. ”You feel what it must feel like to be a winner.”
”Most of the time this is a job, and once in a while something else happens and that’s what you sort of—at least that’s what I live for.” Pacino, 53, is sitting in his office’s unadorned study in a ritzy Manhattan high-rise, looking tired and disheveled and more like a beach bum than like a newly reminted movie legend. His face is hidden behind a three-day growth that’s grayer than the beard he sports in Carlito’s Way, which opens nationwide on Nov. 10. ”You get a sense of when the wave is there and you ride it,” he continues, beginning to sound like a surf philosopher. ”There’s beach and ocean—nothing else. If there’s a wave, get on it. If not, what’re you gonna do? You play in the sand for a while.”
Pacino’s eyes are more sunken than memory allows, his crow’s-feet are deeper, and his hair sweeps back from his face in nervously fingered arches. Everyone wants a piece of him now, and his schedule affords little time for sleep, much less primping. Casual and Carlitoesque in a T-shirt and pinstripe suit pants so wide and long they swamp his ankles, he exudes Pacino. The man young actors want to be. The man young men want to be. John Travolta said it 16 years ago in Saturday Night Fever with nothing more than a joyous chant of his name, and it still applies. Yet today, slouching in an upright armchair, shoulders forward, Pacino seems somewhere between an old man and a kid who’s been called to the principal’s office. The dark star who burned his way through three Godfather films can be found only in the subdued power of an occasional whisper.
”I knew I had a certain image early on with the Corleone thing—kind of a brooding image,” he says. ”I guess I am a bit of a brooder, but I also don’t think of myself that way.”
Pacino, in fact, would rather not think of himself at all. Adulation, he says, ”makes me feel at the same time flattered and somewhat uncomfortable, but I’ll forget about it as soon as we get off this subject. I never think about it. For me it’s always been the character—”the play’s the thing”—not my personality. When one overshadows the other, you become more a celebrity than an actor. I hope the perception is that I’m an actor.”
For a long time, he was nothing but an actor. While they were making 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, director Sidney Lumet was worried about Pacino: He wouldn’t let go of the character for a moment. ”If the day’s work demanded a lunatic, he was a lunatic all day long,” Lumet said. It was a reputation for intensity that stuck to the East Harlem- born disciple of Method acting and helped him survive the duds (Revolution, Author! Author!, Bobby Deerfield). For the most part, they were the films in which he strayed from the Pacino people love: the tragic, hair-trigger wild card on either side of the law, including the Pacino of 1973’s Serpico, 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, 1983’s Scarface, and, of course, the Godfather films. His dangerous, semicomeback performance in 1989’s Sea of Love—even the self-parody in 1990’s Dick Tracy—helped to burnish his pistol-tough image.
For Pacino, acting always meant seeing the world through his characters’ eyes, and he tried to leave them behind as quickly as possible. ”It’s almost a mantra, ‘I gotta get this out of me. This guy is going to leave my psyche.”’ But Carlito Brigante was different. ”I sort of liked Carlito—his style and delivery,” says Pacino. ”So he hung around awhile.”
And wonder of wonders, Carlito stayed with Pacino despite a markedly mellow approach to his craft during the 12-week shoot. ”When you’ve been doing a thing long enough, it gets easier to turn it on and turn it off,” he says, sounding suspiciously like someone at ease. ”You just walk into that character and when the shot is over, you step out of it. I can see how younger actors stay in character longer because you need to. You just need to.”
Or could it simply be that the newly peaceful actor and the supercooled kingpin he plays have an awful lot in common? In 1975, New York Supreme Court justice Edwin Torres—well known for his throw-away-the-key sentencing (”Your parole officer ain’t been born yet,” he once told a criminal)—began writing the novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours. By the time they were published, Torres had his new basketball buddy Al in mind. The onetime drug-lord hero of the $40 million adaptation is passionate but serene, stoically calm even when his life is threatened. Paired with director Brian De Palma for the first time since Scarface, Pacino pushed his gangster image into an unexpectedly gentle realm—the same place Pacino goes when his life is his own.
”As hard as it is to escape the spotlight, I’ve got to turn the light ! around to see what’s out there,” he says. Spending time with his 4-year-old daughter, Julie, helps. ”That’s my little girl,” he says dreamily, displaying a photo of a bright-eyed preschooler wearing a big smile and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt. Julie lives in New York State with her mother, with whom Pacino was involved briefly. (For more than two years his steady has been filmmaker Lyndall Hobbs.) When he speaks of his time with Julie, his voice softens. ”Having lunch with my daughter is a relaxing time—it’s all about her. Just that alone is a tremendous thing.”