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Al Pacino Tackles Each Role Like a Novice

AFI honoree arrives with desire intact

He half slides, half crawls into his booth, weary but cheerful, his ribbed black shirt and nutmeg silk scarf under a dark dinner jacket an artful balance of bohemian dishevelment and movie-star chic.

He’d been lurking at a more discreet table in the Polo Lounge patio, huddling with the producers of “Salomaybe?,” the film he’s been editing for months.

Now Al Pacino is out in the open.

“It’s very complex,” he says, “and I’ve been working on it for a year. Sometimes, you get sort of blocked.”

“Salomaybe?,” he explains, is in the vein of “Looking for Richard,” a look at his exploration of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.” It’s been edit some, shoot some, edit some more for a long time. “That’s what I do on Saturdays,” he says.

He’s written the film and is acting in it as well as directing, so there’s no one to fall back on. Another star might have written with a partner. Not Pacino.

“When you really don’t know what you’re doing, it’s hard to work with someone,” he says with a laugh. “It’s great fun. But I just wish I had more talent.”

It’s a rather self-effacing admission from somebody who’s about to receive one of filmdom’s highest honors, the AFI Life Achievement Award, placing him among such contemporaries as Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.

He’s quick to add, though, that there’s nothing new about feeling like a beginner, even when he’s acting. Maybe especially when he’s acting.

“I don’t really know anything about anything,” he says. “And I don’t know what to do. Absolutely, the canvas is empty.”

Pacino likes art metaphors and often alludes to painters and painting: Picasso and Modigliani, Van Gogh (his favorite) and Pollock.

“I will just sit here and stare at the canvas,” he says. “It’s nice when you have a model, you know? Then you say, ‘Well, I’ll paint the tree.’ Give it your interpretation, your vision of it. But, when you don’t have a tree, you just have that empty canvas, you wait. It’s what Picasso used to do. He used to sit at an empty canvas, sometimes 12 hours straight, just stare at it. I love that idea, that image.”

Given his love of the stage and his passion for the classics, one might assume the Gotham native was raised on a diet of Golden Age Broadway. In fact, this product of “a broken home” in the South Bronx says his earliest memories of performing involved imitating his mother’s Al Jolson records. “I would mimic him and do the whole show.”

Later, his mother, a single working mom, would bring him along when she sought escape at a picture show. Then, too, he would come home and play all the parts. “I would do it with every movie I saw,” he says. “Now, when I’m not working, I still do it.”

Pacino says he started doing standup, and insists he’s been trying to get back to comedy ever since. “It didn’t last long,” he says, “but I enjoyed it.” That sensibility helped lure him to join the “Ocean’s Thirteen” gang.

“It’s an entertainment,” says the star of such classics as “The Godfather” movies, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.” “I’ve not usually been in a movie like this. That was what was so interesting to me, and exciting. And (director) Stephen Soderbergh is just fun to be around because he’s so easy and he’s so in control of the whole thing. You feel so supported, taken care of.”

Along with the early comedy experiments came years of cafe theater from the mid-’50s into the early ’60s, the birth of Off Off Broadway. Today his experimental films carry echoes of those years.

“It was a very fertile period to be an actor in New York City, in the Village, because you could actually live and be an actor,” he recalls. “We would do 16 shows a week in the cafes, and you’d pass the hat around after each show, and that’s how we ate. I was a part of a traveling troupe when I was 16.

“It was a livelihood literally. But without any idea that it was going to be successful or not successful. It was about a way of life. It was a way of life that gets a little obscured as you become more well known.”

He’s made his peace with fame, though. When fans come by his booth at the Polo Lounge to pay their respects — “You’re the best I’ve ever watched, and I’m sure you’re a great man, too,” says one — he is gracious and patient.

He seems to mostly enjoy these fan encounters for the moments of humor they can provide. “I had a guy once say to me on the street, ‘Are you Al Pacino?'” he says. “And I turned around and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Congratulations. You look like you oughta.’ “

Despite a reputation for being press shy and remote, Pacino will remind you how accessible he’s been recently, including an October appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio” and as the subject of a series of conversations with author Lawrence Grobel that was published in book form last year.

While he seems comfortable in the role of movie star, his personal films seem to be his way of trying to carry his passion for stage acting, especially in its most stripped-down form, over to the bigscreen. Without that, it seems, moviemaking doesn’t necessarily excite him.

“Movies are a bit ephemeral to me,” he admits. “They have to do so much with commerce and all the stuff that goes into that. They’re very complicated and momentous to mount.”

He doesn’t go out of his way to complain about the scripts he’s sent, but he clearly has to go out of his way to find roles that engage him.

“I can almost state this is a fact,” he says. “The worse the script is, the more money you’re offered. Show me a bad script, and I will show you a big payday. Conversely, show me a really great script and forget it. You’re lucky if you don’t have to pay for it.”

Combine that with his I-don’t-know-anything philosophy, and Pacino can be downright baffled by some of what he reads.

“My agent was talking to me about a part the other day, and I said, ‘Well, would you do it?’ He said, ‘Excuse me? I said, ‘Would you play the part?’ He said, ‘Well, no, I’m not an actor.’ Well, I said, ‘Well, neither am I!'”

He is philosophical, though, about the need to keep working.

“There’s the two kinds of lives you have,” he explains: “The one is where you’re working because it’s good to work. You like working, it’s a way of life, you’ll meet people and learn things. And the other one is where you feel this need to do this thing because it’s something you want to express.

“And then, sometimes, you do nothing, right? And that’s very good sometimes. I mean, I went four years without working. So, I know what it’s like to do it and not to.”

That period, between the misguided period epic “Revolution” (1985) and “Sea of Love” (1989), is often referred to as Pacino’s lost years. In the wake of “Bobby Deerfield” (1977), “Cruising” (1980) and “Scarface” (1983) — Pacino had seemingly gone from invincible to vulnerable, and the controversy the latter two films generated only added fuel to his detractors.

While it appeared that he had gone into hiding, he had in fact shifted his priorities from acting in studio projects to small theater workshops, and tinkering with small, self-produced films like “The Local Stigmatic,” which has never been released theatrically but is part of a boxed set titled “Pacino: An Actor’s Vision” (which also includes his two directorial efforts, “Chinese Coffee” and “Looking for Richard”).

For Pacino, it has always taken the right part, and sometimes the right pitch from a director who really wants him, to get his juices flowing, whether it’s Francis Ford Coppola convincing him he could play Michael Corleone or Steven Soderbergh enticing him into “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

“Steven wanted me. That’s who he saw,” he says, “and that’s always good. I like that. Warren Beatty saw me in ‘Dick Tracy.’ He had asked me who I thought would be right for this role. And I went on with all these people. We met and we talked. And all along, he wanted me. But, finally, one day, I said, ‘Warren, do you want me in this part?’ And he had that smile, and I knew.

“You know, you say you don’t want to do anything, and then all of a sudden a part comes along, and you look at the mechanics of it, you look at the craft of it, you look at what you do every day with it, and there’s a certain appetite.”

That appetite seems to have seized him again with “Righteous Kills,” an indie pic in which he’ll reunite with longtime pal and “Heat” co-star Robert De Niro. The two will play cops pursuing a serial killer. Jon Avnet directs from a script by “Inside Man” scribe Russell Gewirtz.

“I’m starting to think as I get older the desire is almost probably more important than talent,” he says. “I’ve seen it, where people have this real need to do something, and then they do a thing. Maybe they’re not as gifted as somebody else who’s sort of blase about stuff, but they have this need. And they get it done.”

Does he still have that?

“Yeah. I still have desire, I think,” he laughs. “Last time I checked.”

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