In a recent interview with The Irish Times, Al Pacino said, “I am here because I did The Godfather.” Known for his several distinguished performances, Pacino is now the living epitome of the phrase, “the man, the myth, the legend: whose illustrious career boasts various blockbusters and the prestigious Triple Crown of Acting.
While Pacino had already won a Tony Award preceding his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and was quite well-known in the theatre arena, he was yet to make a mark in Hollywood. The Mafia epic gave him the push he needed and left him feeling both acknowledged and exhausted.
Pacino was known as Sonny among his peers, interestingly foreshadowing the name of one of his characters in his later films. Born to Sicilian immigrants, Pacino defied his parents to leave home and work towards his acting career while taking up several odd jobs to support his dream. With his relentless ambition, grit and passion, which were later reflected in his roles, Pacino took up studying method acting under Lee Strassberg to whom he owes his talent. After performing in dramas and street plays, Pacino met Martin Bregman, his manager, who was instrumental in convincing Pacino to do various films like The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon etc.
After seeing Pacino’s brilliant performance as a heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, Francis Ford Coppola was determined to cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s eponymous 1972 bestselling novel, the film became a cultural phenomenon, culminating in an epic trilogy.
Staying faithful to the source material, the trilogy chronicled the escapades of Sicilian Mafioso paterfamilias as they battled among themselves to assert dominance, leading to intense bloodshed. The trilogy questioned and examined omnipresent tropes of gangster films, namely friendships, love, loyalty, betrayal, vengeance, family structure and bloodlust while redefining the gangster genre.
While Coppola has previously talked about how he could only imagine Pacino as the ruminative and understated youngest Corleone son of the titular Godfather, Pacino was in utter disbelief. Pacino admitted that he was quite taken aback when he received a phone call from Coppola with the latter propositioning him to take up such an integral role in the film. While Paramount Pictures was infamously and vehemently opposed to the idea of casting a newbie like Pacino in such an integral role, Coppola went ahead as he had with several other cast members, namely Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and James Caan.
While Pacino initially found the idea “outrageous”, he gradually came around and starred in this star-studded epic that turned out to be one of the greatest gangster films ever made in the history of cinema. However, Pacino found it quite difficult to deal with as a sudden surge of fame and acknowledgement had been thrust upon him. He said, “I felt like, all of a sudden, some veil was lifted and all eyes were on me. Of course, they were on others in the film. But The Godfather gave me a new identity that was hard for me to cope with.”
While the veteran actor boycotted the Academy Awards despite receiving a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category, he has debunked the myth surrounding his absence. While people have always hinted at his sheer displeasure at not being nominated for the Best Actor award, Pacino has cited the contemporary rebellious mindset of actors like him, Brando and Robert De Niro to revolt against the surge of megalomania in Hollywood.
Decades after the release of the film trilogy that saw Pacino in the centre, The Godfather continues to enthral audiences who cannot seem to get enough of the gloomy and sombre Mafioso families. Al Pacino is still “deeply honoured” to have been a part of such an epic narrative. He clarified, “It’s a piece of work that I was so fortunate to be in. But it’s taken me a lifetime to accept it and move on.”
The role of Michael Corleone is nothing like his other roles as Michael is way more introspective, cunning and witty- Michael has a subtly overbearing presence that has weighed down on Al Pacino for a long time till he came to embrace it and revel in the brilliance of (arguably) his best performance to date.