''Sign it 'Big Boy,''' commands a very particular 10-year-old standing by Al Pacino's table at the Old World restaurant in Westwood, Los Angeles; he wants an autograph, and he wants Pacino to sign as the character he played in Dick Tracy, so the actor grabs a napkin and complies. On another occasion, outside the chic Chaya Brasserie, a teenage girl shyly praises his work in Raging Bull; Pacino politely thanks her, not mentioning that the work in question was Robert De Niro's. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Pacino has gone to hear the London Classical Players perform Beethoven's Fourth on period instruments, a young man comes up and says, ''I bet my friend you're not Al Pacino.'' The actor shrugs and tells him he just lost a bet.
Pacino is one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, but no one seems quite sure who he is. In an era when stars of his magnitude are recognized everywhere they go, Pacino is getting picked out for a cartoonish supporting role he played with makeup disfiguring half his face, for a part he did not play, and for not being himself. Unlike Nicholson or Hoffman, he has no strong public persona apart from his characters. And even his roles, ranging from the mastery of the Godfather movies to the intensity of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon to embarrassing missteps like Revolution, send an enigmatic message. Instead of plotting his career along traditional points of stardom, Pacino seems to choose his parts according to some inner compass, often playing quirky roles that do little to enhance his fame but that engage his fascination with the process of acting.
In fact, Pacino sometimes seems happiest when his acting projects are most obscure. For much of the 1980s he was absent from the screen while he labored in small theater workshops and endlessly polished a self-produced, self-financed film that has been shown only at small, private screenings. At times it seems that Pacino actively evades his public; the passionate actor is a reluctant star. Perhaps it's no coincidence that The Local Stigmatic, the movie he's been tinkering with for years, is about a man attacked by thugs simply because he is famous.
Still, the fame has been inescapable. Pacino's intense stare has burned its way into our cultural consciousness. When John Travolta's Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever closes his door and looks at the poster on his wall, it is Pacino as Frank Serpico who looks back at Travolta grunting his macho war cry: ''Al Pa-cino!'' When he turned 50 this year, Pacino received a satin jacket as a gift from one of his admirers. The card read, ''Bruce Springsteen.'' Francis Coppola, who has directed the actor in all three Godfathers, attributes Pacino's impact onscreen to his ability to project ''coldness when he wants to be cold, and heat when he wants to be hot.''
At the center of the Pacino mystique stands Michael Corleone, the Mafia chieftain and tragic hero of the Godfather pictures. It has been Pacino's fortune he might say his burden to play the pivotal role in what many consider the greatest of modern movies. It's a role he owned from the time Coppola first considered the project. ''When I read the book,'' the director says, ''I visualized the character as having (Pacino's) face.'' The first two films have earned nine Oscars and about $800 million. More important, they have become a grand metaphor for modern life, what critic Pauline Kael called ''an epic vision of the corruption of America.''
With The Godfather Part III opening in 1800 theaters next week, Pacino is standing just short of the summit of a remarkable career. The movie has been plagued with problems, but if it delivers on the extravagant promise of the first two Godfathers, it will be a virtual coronation for Pacino. After so many shadowy years on the margins of Hollywood, he is clearly back in the forefront. He could even at long last win the Oscar that has eluded him through four Best Actor nominations and one for Best Supporting Actor. In the offing are other exciting projects: Next month he starts filming Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, a love story with Michelle Pfeiffer. But Pacino takes an ironic pleasure in not acting like a star. Asked whether he looks forward to the opening of Godfather III and his future projects, the actor says evenly, ''The last time I looked forward to anything was waiting for my Tom Mix spurs when I was a kid. I kept going to that mailbox and they finally came on the day my great-grandmother died. Since then I stopped looking forward to anything.''
Sitting in his enormous suite in L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel, Pacino is pondering the origins of the third Godfather picture. He's dressed entirely in black black silk pants, black silk shirt, black silk jacket but his mood is upbeat. After months of work and worry, he has just seen a rough version of the film on a VCR in his room and seems content with the results. ''I didn't know if there would ever be a Godfather III,'' he says. ''There was always a lot of talk, but Francis wasn't interested and I would never have done it without him. Francis has the feel for the material.'' After Coppola accepted Paramount's offer, which granted him complete creative control, Pacino signed on in the summer of 1989, but he still had his doubts. ''I didn't know if I could be that guy again,'' he says. ''Seventeen years have gone by; a lot has happened. Michael's not the most pleasant character.'' The most fascinating aspect of the character in the earlier movies is how subtly he changes as he takes on the power of the Don. Pacino was intrigued by the script for Godfather III because it portrays an older, remorseful, and still evolving Michael Corleone. ''Francis gave him more colors as he got older and matured. Just to have come through and still be alive a character like that would have to have reconciled himself to certain things.''