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Like so many who pound the pavement, the journey for Al Pacino would be accompanied with as many bumps and cracks as the streets themselves. As a teen and into his early twenties, a young Pacino would have to support himself through employment in low-end jobs for meager pay and little hope for prosperity. His dreams of stage and screen came with the harsh realities that often found him homeless, borrowing money for bus fare to attend auditions, facing frequent rejection, and feeling unsettling despair.
His first significant disappointment came when he was denied admittance into the Actors Studio – a school he would one day be co-president of – as it was a major thoroughfare for young talent looking to make it big. For anyone of lesser fortitude, such a blow would have led to the abandonment of their dreams, but Pacino struggled on. When not working in jobs such as a busboy, janitor, or messenger, he performed in basement plays amidst the city’s theatrical-underbelly to keep his hopes alive.
In 1959, Al Pacino finally found the break he was looking for. He was accepted into the prestigious Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City, and he took his first steps towards his mastery of method acting. The emotional connection to character – taught according to originator Konstantin Stanislavsky – seemed a perfect fit to Pacino’s rugged sense of realism. As a child from a broken home and often labeled in school as a troublemaker, Pacino brought a unique brand of grittiness and authenticity to his characters. Although his first film appearance was in Me Natalie, directed by Fred Coe, he garnered great acclaim for his role as a heroin addict in The Panic in Needle Park. Soon after, he received the recognition he sought. He joined the Actors Studio and was able to further his craft under the tutelage of famed acting visionaries like Charles Laughton and Lee Strasberg.
Success and accolades followed with an Obie Award for The Indian Wants the Bronx and a Tony for his role in Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie? However, it was his riveting performance in The Panic in Needle Park that drew the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola for the role of Michael Corleone in the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. Several acting giants like Robert DeNiro, Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, and Jack Nicholson were considered for the job.
In fact, Francis Ford Coppola defied both his producers and casting directors in his choice of Al Pacino. Many at the time did not agree with Pacino’s assessment of the Michael Corleone character. Years later Pacino would assert, ‘I didn’t see him as a gangster; I felt his power was his enigmatic quality.’ These disagreements, several times, nearly led to Pacino being fired. The end result changed the gangster film genre forever, and Pacino’s performance became known as one of the greatest in film history. The depth and realism he brought to the Michael Corleone’s character catapulted his career to legendary status.
The boy from East Harlem, who took on the mighty juggernaut that is New York City, is still one of the most sought-after and well-respected actors of all time. Al Pacino’s road to stardom was by no means an easy one, but his characters and performances have astonished filmgoers for decades and will likely continue to delight fans for decades to come.