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The 7 Roles That Have Defined Al Pacino's Career So Far

By    |   Wednesday, 15 Apr 2015 04:53 PM

Al Pacino’s career has spanned stage, screen, and television, and he has inhabited a number of memorable roles from Scarface to the Shakespearean.

But there are a few roles in which he burst the limits of the material he had to work with that defined him as an actor.

1. Michael Corleone, "The Godfather: Parts I-III" (1972, 1974, 1990)

You can’t think of Pacino on the screen without thinking of Michael, the “good kid” of the Corleone crime family, the one in whom Don Vito had hopes of taking the family business legitimate. It was a role he didn’t want, and in that the studio executives agreed with him.
But director Francis Ford Coppola had seen Pacino play a drug addict in a little-known movie called “Panic in Needle Park,” Pacino’s second film role.

When Coppola imagined Michael Corleone,  he said “he saw Pacino’s face,” in behind-the-scenes footage. Film editor Marcia Lucas, who edited Pacino’s screen tests, told Coppola she thought Pacino “undresses you with his eyes,” which cemented Coppola’s determination that Michael was a role Pacino couldn’t refuse.

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Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated him as a supporting actor in “The Godfather” — for which Pacino boycotted the awards, saying he had more screen time than did Marlon Brando, who was up for leading actor — you have to ask if the movie’s about Don Vito’s decline or Michael’s rise to power.

Pacino took the lead in the “Godfather” movie sequels. Though fans and critics were less than enthusiastic about the sequels, Time noted in retrospect that the second movie “made enduring stars of its lead players,” including Pacino, who received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Actor for "The Godfather: Part II."

2. Frank Serpico, "Serpico" (1973)

In a rare turn on the other side of the law, Pacino stepped up as the titular corruption-fighting New York City cop in 1973’s “Serpico.” Pacino was so effective that, when the real Frank Serpico suddenly found himself a public hero after years of being a pariah among his fellow cops. Matthew Shaer, of New York magazine, couldn't help but match Pacino's performance to meeting the real Frank Serpico.

"Meeting Serpico can be a wonderfully disorienting experience. So perfectly did Pacino capture Serpico’s Brooklyn bonhomie — the off-kilter smile, the sharp laugh, the lengthy but genial soliloquies on the crooked paths of cosmic ­justice — that you can close your eyes while the real Serpico is talking and expect to find Pacino when you open them again," wrote Shaer.

Serpico, the movie character, is ranked No. 40 on the American Film Institute’s list of movie heroes. No. 39 is a dog named Lassie. “Good company,” the real Serpico told the New York Daily News.

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3. Sonny Wortzik, "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)

Pacino managed to turn a hostage-taking bank robber into a folk hero of sorts in “Dog Day Afternoon.” To raise money for his gay lover’s sex-change operation, Pacino’s Sonny and his not-too-swift friend Sal (played by John Cazale, who broke Pacino’s heart as Fredo in the “Godfather” movies) rob a bank, take hostages, and find themselves hostage to the media circus that springs up.

Though reviewers at the time gave little more than a nod to Pacino’s individual performance, Pacino received Best Actor awards from BAFTA, the Kansas City and Los Angeles film critics circles, and the Sam Sebastian Award. Premiere magazine ranked his portrayal of Wortzik as fourth in its “100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time.” 

But never mind all that. The real rave review came from John Wojtowicz, the real bank robber whose story inspired the movie (and whose looks inspired the filmmakers to offer the role to Pacino).

In an unpublished letter to The New York Times, printed in Jump Cut, about his dispute with the filmmakers over royalties, Wojtowicz said Pacino “made me laugh, cry, sweat, and feel uncomfortable at times all in one movie. His characterization was flawless.”

4. Tony Montana, "Scarface" (1983)

"What you lookin’ at?" In “Scarface,” millions of moviegoers were “lookin’ at” Pacino playing Tony Montana, a two-bit coked-up dishwasher reaching for the “heights” of the drug trade.

The movie was a “passion project” for Pacino, who played Tony ever more over the top, the deeper in over his head he got. It was good for a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.

“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? That’s a great expression, and I think that’s Tony Montana,” Pacino told MTV. “Reaching for something he can’t get but he keeps going. There is an element of hope in it, believe it or not.”

5. Johnny, “Frankie and Johnny” (1991)

Johnny’s a short-order cook just out of prison and wooing waitress Frankie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of many adaptations of the Terrence McNally off-Broadway play.

Once again, Pacino swung for the fence, contrasting with Pfeiffer’s reserve as Frankie wonders just what to make of Johnny. No awards, but Pacino’s penchant for busting boundaries caught critics’ attention.

“Pacino, on the other hand, gives an ebullient, seize-the-day performance,” wrote Malcolm L. Johnson in the Hartford Courant.

“Sporting a headband and energetically slicing, dicing, ricing, and flipping eggs, Pacino again shows some of the physicality of his ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ youth. His performance is as engaging and life-embracing as Pfeiffer's is downbeat and guarded.” 

6. Frank Slade, "Scent of a Woman" (1992)

The blinded, embittered, and completely crass Lt. Col. Frank Slade, U.S. Army (Ret.), powered Pacino into his first Oscar win for Best Actor in 1992, He also earned a Golden Globe for Best Actor, Drama.

Slade’s climactic speech in support of Chris O’Donnell’s character Charlie Simms before the private school’s honor board is much praised by fans for its stance on honor and integrity. However, Washington Post writer Hal Hinson reserved praise for Pacino for powering past the limitations imposed by his character’s blindness. “This first part of the film, as the characters establish themselves in our minds and the plot is being set up, is sublime. Especially Pacino,” Hinson wrote.

“Yes, the actor's face is frozen into a vacant stare, but his voice, his staccato barks and Southern-fried wheedlings, more than make up for it.”

7. Carlito “Charlie” Brigante, "Carlito's Way" (1993)

Playing yet another character trying to make it big, or at least make good, while his own ambitions and nature work against him – “trying to be better than he is” – Pacino plays a hustler released from prison and determined to go straight. The role earned him a David di Donatello Award (Italy) for Best Foreign Actor.

Though reviewers at the time had more to say about the atmosphere of the movie’s Spanish Harlem setting than about Pacino’s acting, Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Pacino brings vast entertainment value to a film that otherwise would not make great sense.”

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Al Pacino’s career has spanned stage, screen, and television, and he has inhabited a number of memorable roles from Scarface to the Shakespearean. But there are a few roles in which he burst the limits of the material he had to work with that defined him as an actor.
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