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Al Pacino, the serious funnyman

The secret to his success is that he’s a natural comedian who almost never does comedies

Nicholas Barber | May 26th 2015

What would it be like to be in “An Audience with Robert De Niro”, or Dustin Hoffman, or Martin Sheen, or Robert Duvall, or Gene Hackman? Enlightening and entertaining, I’m sure. But would it be as fun as “An Audience with Al Pacino”? Definitely not.

Last Friday at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, the party started even before Pacino took to the stage. Appropriately for a venue that specialises in rock and comedy gigs, the audience wasn’t sitting quietly as show time approached, but was swigging from plastic pint glasses and trading “Scent of a Woman” quotes at high volume. Then a montage of Pacino’s greatest hits was projected onto the backdrop, and cheers and whistles greeted every clip—none louder, of course, than the whoops for the inevitable “Scarface” catchphrase: “Say hello to my li’l frien’!” When the man himself strolled onstage, in a black suit and piratical jewellery, the audience leapt to its feet. In response, Pacino flashed a wolfish grin and delivered his opening line in that unmistakable yawp: “I think I’m home.”

Billed as “Pacino—One Night Only”, the two-hour question-and-answer session was hosted by the unflappable film critic Mark Kermode. For the first half of the show, the (thoughtful, well-researched) questions came from him. For the second half, the (flirtatious, funny) questions came from the audience. Pacino was winningly enthusiastic as he held forth on his devotion to theatre, the secrets of acting, and his autodidact’s passion for Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. But as charmed as we were by Pacino the student of dramaturgy, the Pacino who really bowled us over was the raffish joker who kept springing from his chair to deliver self-deprecating anecdotes with the swagger of a veteran Las Vegas stand-up.

Now 75, he remembers how he refused to put lifts in his shoes for “The Godfather” because they wouldn’t be comfortable: “I’m playin’ Michael Corleone; I’m walkin’ like a duck.” He claims to have handed movie stardom to Harrison Ford: “They offered me ‘Star Wars’. I read it. I didn’t get it. Harrison got it. Now look at him.” Impressively, Pacino was just as snappy as part of a double act, whether he was bouncing off Kermode or off one of his fans in the stalls. He recounted how he was inspired to direct his Richard III documentary, “Looking for Richard”, after the New York Times had slated his Broadway production of the play. Kermode, concerned, asked whether the review had hurt. Pacino roared back: “Hurt? I made a fuckin’ movie!” It’s hard to believe that De Niro would have been as quick-witted.

By the end of a rollicking evening, I felt as if I’d discovered the secret to Pacino’s success. One reason why he is so energising onscreen—and the reason why he can seem so hammy—is that he is a natural comedian who almost never does comedies. That’s why the montage that opened the show got such an uproarious response: it was a series of punch lines, each delivered with the brio and comic timing that Pacino demonstrated in the flesh at the Apollo. Never mind that the films themselves were dramas and thrillers, Pacino’s characters were invariably playing for laughs, kidding around, relishing the effect they were having on an audience. This zest for performance is there when Sonny whips up the crowd by shouting “Attica!” in “Dog Day Afternoon”. It’s there when the diabolical John Milton teases Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) in “Devil’s Advocate”, and when Bobby flirts with Helen (Kitty Winn) in “The Panic in Needle Park”. And, yes, it’s there when Tony Montana introduces his little friend in “Scarface”. It’s notable, too, that in two of Pacino’s most recent films, “The Humbling” and “Danny Collins” (which is released in Britain this week), he is playing an actor and a rock star, respectively. His characters love to show off almost as much as he does.

“I like it on stage,” he told us with an impish twinkle on Friday. “I’m at home here. As you can see.” 

Danny Collins out now in America, out May 29th in Britain

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