A cinema legend with roles in movies such as The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Heat Al Pacino has never been far from the theatre. It was where he first displayed his outstanding acting talent, with blistering performances that rivetted crowds. Over the years, however, his screen presence, while a draw for audiences, could overwhelm the roles he took on.
When he uttered his first line on stage in front of a paying audience, in a 1963 production of William Saroyan’s Hello Out There Pacino had such a shock he might never have gone on stage again.
“The audience laughed at my first line,” Pacino told Lawrence Grobel in Playboy in 1979. “It was a really funny line and they should have laughed, but I had never been in front of an audience doing that play and I didn’t know it was funny. I realized I didn’t know the part well.”
At the interval, Pacino went into the ally behind New York’s Caffe Cino and cried. The play’s director, Pacino’s mentor Charlie Laughton, reminded him that he had to do the line again, in a second performance that night, and for every night in the run. “It was a very important moment for me,” Pacino told The New Yorker. “I went back in there and finished the run.”
The play that really announced Pacino as a theatre actor of note was his legitimate New York debut in Israel Horowitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx. Performed Off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre on Lafayette Street in January 1968 the part of Murph won Pacino an Obie for Best Actor. Laughton would say that it was the play in which Pacino “Seized the power”.
Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, Belasco Theatre, February 1969
After 204 performances of Indian Pacino made his Broadway debut in February 1969 as Bickham a hot-headed student with a deep-seated resentment towards the father who abandoned him in Don Petersen’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? The play was set in the jail school for young prisoners on New York’s Riker’s Island. Associate Producer Jay Weston spoke to Variety in 2007.
“The director, Michael Schultz, and I were having trouble finding a young actor to play the key role of Bickham, to join Hal Holbrook and David Opatashu.We got a tip that there was this brilliant young actor appearing in an Off Broadway show who might be interesting. So Michael and I attended it that evening. We both were deeply moved by the intensity of his performance and went backstage afterwards.‘If you are interested in auditioning for this role,’ we told him, ‘here are the sides, and we will be at the Broadway theater all afternoon tomorrow.’”
Around 300 actors auditioned, including Jon Voight. Pacino shuffled in at 5pm wearing a long Army overcoat and a woolly hat. “He launched into the tirade where Bickham explains to the shrink why he is so bitter about his errant barber father. One minute in and I looked at Schultz, then whispered: ‘That’s our Bickham.’”
Pacino gave the producers and director moments of doubt during rehearsals. He would turn up late and his working practices had not developed fully yet. “But slowly the performance began to build into something special,” Weston said. “On opening night the buzz about the show was evident. I will never forget the moment when this young actor made his first appearance onstage. He has an appointment with the psychiatrist and slowly shuffles into his office. After a moment, he viciously kicks the door shut with his foot. The audience, startled, inhaled with a gasp, and the actor had them in the palm of his hand from that moment on.”
In his review in The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote, ‘’Al Pacino as Bickham is magnificent — a lumbering, drug-sodden psychotic with the mind of a bully and the soul of a poet.’’
Although the play closed after just over a month Pacino won the Tony Award for Best Actor, along with a Drama Desk Award and a Theatre World Award.
“It was a very important play for me,” Pacino said to Jason Zinoman in a 2010 interview with the New York Times. “Francis Ford Coppola saw it and contacted me and said he had a script that was a love story. It was a beautifully written story about a college professor who falls in love with a student that ruins his life. It was done in an abstract, surreal way and had a mythical character in it. I wonder why it didn’t get made. I spent four or five days with him in San Francisco working on it and got to know him. The next year he called me with a film. It was The Godfather.”
Camino Real, Vivian Beaumont Theater, January 1970
The play directly led to Pacino’s first lead role in film with The Panic in Needle Park (1971) but he was back on Broadway in January 1970 as Kilroy in a revival of Tenessee Williams’ 1953 play Camino Real.
Pacino’s movie career exploded in the years subsequently with The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1974) and The Godfather Part II (1974) all garnering him Academy Award nominations. Although he worked on stage in Boston, most notably in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, it was 1977 before Pacino returned to Broadway.
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Longacre Theatre, April 1977
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was written by David Rabe, and directed by David Wheeler. Pacino, who had appeared in the original production in Boston in 1972, played the title character, a young soldier preparing for Vietnam. Rabe had been in the Army himself and would write four plays centred around Vietnam between 1967 and 1975.
“This is not a loser,” Pacino said to Mel Gussow of the New York Times during the play’s run. “He has an incredible will to live. He has courage. I’m very positive about him. I’m exposing his hurt, his deprivation. He’s a man with so much against him. The deck is stacked, and he continues on. There’s a little bit of him in all of us.”
Walter Kerr’s largely positive review of the play and of Pacino’s performance in the New York Times touched on the fact that like it or not Pacino was not an actor embodying a role but was a big movie star on stage.
“But audiences have come to see a star. They haven’t come to see a nonentity, any more than they have at this late date really come to see The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. They’re there to see Al Pacino, larger than life courtesy of a handful of impressive film performances, charged with powers bestowed on him by celebrity, by penetrating close‐ups, by overwhelming soundtracks. Like most movie personalities, he is part myth and part familiar, and I wasn’t altogether surprised — as we got our first glimpse of Mr. Pacino uncoiling on a barracks cot — to hear someone sitting directly behind me murmur, in a male voice soft with adulation, “Al, baby.” Make no mistake about it, that’s ‘Al, baby’ up there.”
His performance brought Pacino another Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Actor.
Richard III, Cort Theatre, May 1979
Pavlo’s director David Wheeler was again at the helm in June 1979 when Richard III came to the Cort Theatre. Pacino had performed Richard III in Boston in 1973. Feeling that the production wasn’t working the company moved from the Loeb Theater to a church. Pacino told Lawrence Grobel, “The thing took off. Something happened. Three hundred people would come. The concept had community and consistency.”
Pacino felt that when he knew critics were in the audience he lost a certain spontaneity. With that in mind, he refused to have an opening night for Richard III. He told Grobel, “I knew that we were going to get hit. It was unavoidable. You figure, well if you spread it out, it would be easier. All it wound up being was instead of one opening night, four. I thought, ‘Well, gee, this isn’t working you know?’”
The production did get hit by the critics. Richard Eder wrote in the New York Times “It was a very odd production indeed of Richard III that opened last night, after extensive previews, at the Cort Theater. Not in the sense of innovation: it was fairly conventional, in fact. The oddness lay in the extreme imbalance between Mr. Pacino and the rest of the cast. There was something rather 19th century about it all: an extravagant, dominating leading player with a miscellaneous and seemingly improvised company assembled about him. David Wheeler is the director of record, but others were reportedly called in to help out. The stage bristles with cross-purposes, crossed purposes, dim purposes and Mr. Pacino’s purposes.”
“Yeah, I imagine it must have been true, what he said,” Pacino replied when Grobel read out the last line of that review to him. “It’s what it was. It had its flaws. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. The main thing was that people felt the connection with Shakespeare.”
The cast included Richard Bright, Dominic Chianese, Paul Guilfoyle and J.T. Walsh among numerous others. The production closed on 15th July after 25 previews and 33 performances as Pacino’s next movie William Freidkin’s Cruising, would begin filming on 16th July.
American Buffalo, Booth Theatre, October 1983
Pacino had played the role of small-time crook Walter ‘Teach’ Cole in David Mamet’s American Buffalo first in New Haven in 1980, then Off-Broadway at Circle in the Square downtown in 1982. In October 1983 he took the role to Broadway at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street.
In conversation with Leslie Bennetts of the New York Times, Pacino explained the value for him in repeating a role.
‘’I believe in going back to parts, very much. Actors have traditionally done things again. You try to build a repertory. Think of some of the great Shakespearean parts; how do you just do something like that once? You just can’t. And anyway, it never is the same thing. It’s like waking up in the morning; you don’t just say, ‘Okay, I did this for six months, so what’s the sense in doing it any more.’ Buffalo for me is like a faithful wife or something. It doesn’t ever change on you. It’s always there; it doesn’t let you down. You can let it down, but it doesn’t let you down.’’
The reviews were lukewarm, to begin with. In The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote of Pacino on the opening night, “The actor seems to have precisely thought out every move and line. A charismatic fellow under any circumstances, Mr. Pacino may not disappoint his fans with the energetic, fastidious star turn he is serving up at the Booth. Theatergoers hoping to see Mr. Mamet’s crackling drama, however, will find that Mr. Pacino’s calculated display of technique has doused much of its fire.”
On 7th November, ten days after opening, the show came down to a standing ovation. James Hayden, who played the drug-addicted Bobby in the three-hander headed back home to his apartment on Broadway and 69th Street. He was speaking on the telephone to his ex-wife at 4.30am when he suddenly stopped talking. His ex-wife called his physician who dialled 911. When police entered the 14th-floor apartment they discovered Hayden’s body fully clothed, slumped over the kitchen sink, telephone in hand. On the kitchen floor, they found a hypodermic needle and three or four glassine envelopes that they believed contained heroin.
The following night the show went on with understudy James Shepherd replacing Hayden. Pacino told reporters outside the theatre that Hayden’s death was, “A great loss to me personally, to the play, and the world and the theatre.” Pacino and Hayden had worked together on the play for three years and Pacino’s representatives were keen to assert their client had no knowledge Mr. Hayden had resumed using the drugs he had claimed he’d left in his past.
Hayden had recently filmed a part in Once Upon a Time in America alongside Robert De Niro. Arvin Brown, American Buffalo's director told the Associated Press the 29-year-old “Was about to become a big star.” He continued, “I’m as convinced of that as I’ve been convinced of anything since I directed Meryl Streep some years ago and had the same feeling about her for many of the same reasons. You get a sense about an acting temperament, and when you hit it, that’s what you mean by talent.”
Pacino would earn a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actor, losing out to Dustin Hoffman for Death of a Salesman.
Salome/Chinese Coffee, Circle in the Square Theatre, June 1992
It would be nine years before Pacino would be on a Broadway stage again. In the meantime on screen he had turned around a run of duds — even Scarface (1983) wasn’t universally well-received at the time — with Sea of Love (1989) and Dick Tracy (1990) for which he received his sixth Academy Award nomination. Scent of a Woman would be released in November, while he would go off to film Glengarry Glen Ross with James Foley after his Broadway engagement. Both would bring him Academy Award nominations, the former his first, and still only, Oscar.
With the Circle in the Square Theatre in serious financial trouble, Pacino took on the roles of King Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome and Harry Levine in Chinese Coffee by Ira Lewis. They played in repertory, with all the cast working for scale, as a $50 a ticket fundraiser for the theatre.
The plays were a contrast both in terms of casts and set. Chinese Coffee was a two-hander set in a sparse Lower Manhattan loft, while Salome had a cast of 24 with a vast bronze sculptural set. Zack Brown designed both sets.
Arvin Brown directed Chinese Coffee, a one-act two-hander where Pacino played opposite Charles Cioffi. Linda Winer in The Los Angeles Times called the production an “Extremely minor affair.”
“It’s basically a two-man character study — an artificial acting exercise whose appeal depends almost exclusively on one’s desire to watch such a fascinating actor chew on such an undeveloped character and make us pay attention, which, somehow, he does.”
Of Pacino’s performance Mel Gussow wrote in the New York Times: “Although it lasts only 90 minutes, it seems overextended. But it gives the actor impetus, and he embellishes his role with his savvy, humor and urban instincts. Fast on his feet and with his mouth, and filled with unpredictable shifts of mood, he plays this part as if he is darting through traffic against the lights. One never knows where he will find his next opening.”
In Salome Pacino portrayed Herod while the title role was played by Sheryl Lee, best known as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. The reviews were an odd mix of horrified and delighted.
In the Los Angeles Times, Linda Winer wrote, “The result is a truly weird, intense, goofy and mesmerizing performance by Pacino in a big, dead-serious production.” Winer summed up the performance by writing, “The accent is hopeless; the style, a travesty. And, yet, his intelligence, his need to act, overwhelms reasonable resistance and rivets the attention to him. Even when he’s wrong — and, boy, is he wrong here — he’s irresistible.”
Hughie, Circle in the Square Theatre, August 1996
Four years later Pacino made his Broadway directorial debut, also starring in Hughie by Eugene O’Neill. It was a play Pacino had been introduced to many years earlier by Charlie Laughton. Paul Benedict played opposite in the two-hander. The two had worked together for years on the Boston stage. “When I first met him he had this way of looking at me with wisdom and a sense of the future. I’d never been looked at like that before,” Pacino said of Benedict after he passed away in 2008.
Benhoosh Khalili asked Pacino in Backstage why he chose to both direct and act. “When you’re working as the actor, you usually don’t want the director around anyway. But the reason I directed this is because I had this idea of how to present it. I thought at the time, ‘Why should I go through the process of finding a director and then having to put my vision on to him or her?’ This way, I didn’t have to go through that. So I decided to take it on. I knew I had the support and help of the people around me.”
Set in the summer of 1928 in the lobby of a small second-rate hotel on a West Side street in midtown New York, between 3 and 4 in the morning, the play centres on Erie, in mourning and coming off a bender. The play lasted 55 minutes and ticket prices were as much as $55. The production received rave reviews.
“Pacino’s performance is a delicately nuanced, varied and mesmerizing turn,” wrote Aileen Jacobson in the Los Angeles Times.
“Although Hughie is essentially a monologue that runs less than an hour, it’s a full, richly eccentric and satisfying evening of theater. This is a star turn that serves America’s most grandly obsessed playwright and allows us to see what Mr. Pacino can do, as both the director and an actor, when he disciplines his sometimes raging talents.” Vincent Canby in the New York Times.
The show had been slated to run until the end of August but extended through to November, which was good news for the theatre, as the board of directors had declared it bankrupt during August.
Salome: The Reading, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, April 2003
Pacino returned to the role of Herod in this production directed by Estelle Parsons. It was presented as a reading which offered advantages over the 1992 version. “ It avoids the impossible responsibility of creating a set to match Wilde’s fantastical language,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. “And it means that the performers don’t have to address one another directly in words that are hard, to put it mildly, to justify as spontaneous conversation.” Although some critics felt it was more akin to a downtown experimental theatre than the Broadway stage.
Pacino wasn’t the only big name in the cast on this occasion being joined by fellow Oscar winners Marisa Tomei and Dianne Weist, along with David Strathairn. All four received above the title billing.
Charles Isherwood in Variety was not impressed by what he saw. “The performance could charitably be called eccentric, but it’s more to the point to say it’s simply dreadful. ‘When did Al Pacino turn into Jerry Lewis?’ asked my understandably stunned guest as we scurried up the aisle.”
With an average ticket price of $65.73 - the top price being $85 - and a seating capacity of 1,086 the production grossed $3,702,428 over its 18 previews and 40 performances.
The Merchant of Venice, Broadhurst Theatre, November 2010
It would be seven years before Pacino returned to Broadway, this time in a role that was universally acclaimed.
The production had transferred to Broadway following an eight-week summer run at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in the middle of Central Park. It was produced by the nonprofit Public Theater and tickets were free. Pacino had also played the role of Shylock in Michael Radford’s 2004 film version.
The positive critical reaction, as well as Pacino’s star billing, ensured Merchant’s weekly box-office grosses were consistently over $1 million during its run. The production recouped its $3.45 million investment after ten weeks of performances.
Ben Brantley in the New York Times praised the production for its high “level of clarity and subtlety, virtues that do not always walk hand in hand.”
Pacino received nominations for Outstanding Actor in a Play from Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and the Tony Awards.
Glengarry Glen Ross, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, December 2012
It was David Mamet that brought Pacino next to Broadway. After 48 previews Glengarry Glenn Ross opened on 8th December 2012. In the movie version Pacino had played Ricky Roma, the hotshot salesman everyone looked at it awe. Now, at 72 he would play Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levine, the part Jack Lemmon had played so memorably on screen. Bobby Cannavale played Roma with David Harbour, Richard Schiff and John C. McGinley also in the cast.
Pacino’s financial package made headlines in the business sections of newspapers. According to Bloomberg, Pacino’s salary was $125,000 per week, plus a 5% cut of the show’s profits. With the entire weekly wage bill $155,000 that left the rest of the cast to split $30,000.
The production did outstanding business, taking in more than $700,000 in its first four previews alone. Top tier tickets were $350, with the average ticket price $148.83. It would eventually gross $14,301,932. The Guardian noted that the film only took in $10.7M.
The reviews weren’t as kind.
Ben Brantley of The New York Times: “This performance places Shelly firmly and dominatingly at the center of Glengarry, which needs to be a tight ensemble piece. There’s not much the other actors can do to compete with or even balance Mr. Pacino’s grandstanding. “
David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter: “Allowing the play to be twisted from an ensemble piece into a platform for Al Pacino, an actor not averse to showboating, director Daniel Sullivan and his producers have done a disservice to the Pulitzer-winning work.”
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press: “Here [Pacino] works hard to be meek and chummy and desperate and mostly succeeds, though it’s hard not to think you’re watching Al Pacino working hard to be meek and chummy and desperate.”
Emma G Keller of The Guardian: “There are some fine performances on the drab set of the Schoenfeld Theatre, most notably from the TV stars in the cast. But Pacino’ s performance in the first half, as the washed-up salesman Shelley Levene, was just dreadful.”
China Doll, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, December 2015
Pacino’s most recent Broadway appearance was in another David Mamet play. “It’s a special gift to originate a role in the theatre,” Pacino said to Hollywood Reporter, “especially written by such a formidable writer, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time.”
“We’ve done four projects together and the opportunity to create a new character in the David Mamet canon was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So Dave gave me China Doll, a new play he had written for me and it blew me away… one of the most daunting and challenging roles I’ve been given to explore onstage.”
The character was a billionaire named Mickey Ross, who has just bought an aeroplane for his young fiancée as he prepares to skip off to London avoiding millions in sales taxes. On leaving his office he takes one last phone call. Christopher Denham co-starred as Mickey’s young assistant. The production was directed by Pam MacKinnon a Tony Award winner in 2013 for her direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Previews began 21st October, with the opening night being pushed back from 19th November to 4th December. Rumours of just how disastrous the show would be soon swept the theatre world. Michael Riedel in the New York Post eagerly scooped several of them up including Pacino reading his lines from teleprompters hidden round the set, from the character’s laptop or being fed them through a Bluetooth headset.
When China Doll finally opened the critics hated it.
Rex Reed writing in Observer savaged the show. “David Mamet’s ghastly China Doll is the worst thing I’ve seen on a professional New York stage since the ill-fated Moose Murders. On the disaster meter, it might be even worse. At least Eve Arden, the eagerly anticipated star, walked out of Moose Murders before the opening night, which also turned out to be the closing night.”
Alexis Soloski in The Guardian focused on the now common theme of the audience being unable to shake the fact that it’s not a character on stage — it’s Al Pacino. “…he often seems distracted, stuttering over his sentences. And when he works himself into high dudgeon, many of the lines feel as though they have quotation marks around them — that he is Al Pacino playing Al Pacino playing Mickey Ross, because that is what the crowd, who applaud loudly at his arrival, ostensibly want.”
Audiences though turned up. The production quickly recouped its $3.7M outlay, eventually grossing $12,630,661.
Whether you see him as “Al, baby” or an actor who finds his character by living through him there’s no question audiences want to see Pacino in the flesh on stage where he clearly loves to be.