Pacino fills stage, director's chair

Roles: Actor is happiest and, yes, he can be happy fusing theater and movies.

June 30, 1999|By Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Al Pacino, dressed all in black but for a fraying white V-neck T-shirt, runs both hands over his forehead and back through his unruly hair. It is rehearsal time on a recent afternoon at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles, and the legendary movie star is, for the moment, not himself.

"Forgot you ain't seen me before. Erie Smith's the name," he says, introducing the small-fry New York gambler and horse player who is the main character in Eugene O'Neill's one-act play "Hughie," which opened Sunday.

Pacino's face is deadpan, his voice guarded and low. Even out of costume, without the benefit of a set or proper lighting, the 59-year-old actor embodies O'Neill's hard-boiled huckster with a sentimental heart.

There's just one thing out of place: Pacino himself, who is traipsing around the theater, shuffling up and down the aisles, watching the play even as he acts it out. Pacino is both starring in and directing "Hughie," which marks his Los Angeles stage debut. It's a big job, but he appears unrattled.

"This is how I do it, as a director," he explains as his co-star, Paul Benedict, sits alone on the stage. "I'm out here in the audience now hearing the sound. I'm really supposed to be up there."

Pacino has worn these two hats before. The Taper production reprises the O'Neill play that he and Benedict got raves for in New York in 1996, and he directed then, too. But his comfort with such dichotomy, indeed, his enthusiastic embrace of it, has roots that run far deeper.

Pacino's life has long been about "straddling," as he puts it, the two worlds of theater and film (he has two big studio movies coming out this year, Michael Mann's "The Insider" and Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday") and the two coasts, New York ("I have a world there") and Los Angeles ("Most of my friends are here").

Twenty-seven years after "The Godfather" transformed him from a stage actor with two previous films to his name into a superstar, Pacino still struggles with how to divide his energies, often wondering whether by doing both movies and stage work he has given neither its due.

But in recent conversations, the intense, famously obsessive perfectionist also appeared to be finding some peace, if only a little, by uniting the two loves of his working life: He is currently editing his third self-financed feature film about, what else, a play.

"That seems to interest me for some reason: How can I get material that I feel has a certain vitality on stage to have the same thing on film?" he said when asked about "Chinese Coffee," his film-in-progress (based on Ira Lewis' play) about two middle-aged, impoverished bohemians whose friendship is tested when one of them writes a novel about the other. "It's a hybrid, one of what I call my experiments. And when it works, when a play is on film and it has the kind of thing a play has when it's clicking, I really enjoy it."

This is not the brooding Pacino of old, the one who paced too much (he once wore a groove in the carpet outside Francis Ford Coppola's office), drank too much (he swore off alcohol in 1977) and was known to say bleak things like: "There's no such thing as happiness, only concentration." This is not the Pacino who, angered by critic Pauline Kael's suggestion in 1973 that he was "indistinguishable from Dustin Hoffman," remarked acidly: "Was that after she had the shot glass removed from her throat?"

Out of character

This is also, notably, not the Pacino that fans may feel they know from his films. The actor has never revealed much about his personal life, arguing that overexposure would diminish an audience's ability to connect to his work. But that has made him perhaps more vulnerable to confusion with his best-known roles, the war-hero-turned-mob-heir Michael Corleone of "The Godfather" trilogy (1972, 1974 and 1990), the idealistic New York City cop of "Serpico" (1973), the pent-up bisexual bank robber of "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) and the bombastic blind veteran of "Scent of a Woman," for which he won an Oscar for best actor in 1992.

This Al Pacino, the one wearing the too-long black pants and untucked black button-down shirt, his hair standing nearly vertical atop his head, is more mellow, more contemplative, than any of those characters. As Stone, who got to know Pacino during six grueling months on the set of "Scarface" (which Stone wrote) in 1982, puts it: "He's cooled out. Al is sweetness and light. No, sweetness and dark. He's intense and volatile. But very, very, very sensitive."

The big brown eyes that a critic once called "the most famous eyes in movies" definitely sparkle in person, but they hold a surprising gentleness, a shyness, that makes it easier to forgive his tendency not to finish even the most promising-sounding sentences. Known for the explosiveness of his performances on stage and on screen, Pacino up close appears to be dangerous only in the abstract. Uncertain and elliptical, he threatens at times to analyze acting, and himself, to death.

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