Why Al Pacino, Barry Levinson Reunited to Depict Joe Paterno’s Fall From Grace

Al Pacino and Barry Levinson
Peter Yang for Variety

Few public figures have fallen as far and as fast as Joe Paterno did in 2011.

A college-football titan, he led Penn State’s team for 45 years, transforming a nascent athletic program into a gigantic money engine, an obscure regional school into a national brand, and central Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley from an economic backwater into a college sports capital. He also wielded rare intellectual authority: A graduate of Brown University, he once gave a lecture on the relationship between the “Aeneid” and football.

Two weeks after he earned his 409th victory, becoming the winningest Division I coach in college-football history, he was fired amid a child sex abuse scandal. He died two months later of lung cancer.

That Paterno’s final days resemble something from the classics isn’t lost on Al Pacino, who plays the coach in the new HBO biopic “Paterno,” and Barry Levinson, the film’s director. It’s what brought them to the story.

“He was the king of Happy Valley,” Levinson says. “If you talk about the king and the fall from grace, that’s an amazing Greek tragedy, right?”

Premiering April 7, “Paterno” reteams Pacino and Levinson, who have worked together off and on for decades, including on multiple HBO projects. In 2010’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” directed by Levinson, Pacino played assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian. In 2013’s “Phil Spector,” exec produced by Levinson, he played the record producer and convicted murderer.

“They take the material, they not only make it better, but they, in a sense, transcend it into poetry and great drama.”
HBO Films president Len Amato

Sitting together in a suite at the Montage in Beverly Hills, the two share an easy rapport as they talk about craft and collaborating. What they talk about most is Paterno, continuing a conversation that they’ve been having for years. HBO began developing the movie the year the Penn State coach died, with Pacino eyed for the lead from the beginning. The development path was winding — Anthony Scaramucci, of all people, has a co-executive producer credit. But after a false start with director Brian De Palma that saw HBO suspend pre-production over budget concerns, Pacino brought the project to Levinson.

“I could tell that he was fascinated,” Pacino says. “I could see he wanted to do this in some way. He wanted to try it, experiment with it. He said, ‘Al, I’ll take this thing, play with it a little bit. I’ll get back to you.’ So that’s what he did. But knowing Barry, I could see the duende in him got lit.”

For HBO, getting a priority project into the hands of Pacino and Levinson was a favorable outcome.

“They’re great artists,” says HBO Films president Len Amato. “They take the material, they not only make it better, but they, in a sense, transcend it into poetry and great drama.”

“Paterno” spans the two-week period between the coach’s 409th win and his cancer diagnosis. The narrative is driven by the indictment, shortly after the game, of former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky on multiple felony charges related to raping children. Two university officials would also be indicted. Paterno would not. But, as the film reveals, a man who had spent most of his adult life focused on winning football games — and reaping the rewards that come with success in that task — was ill equipped to deal with questions about what he knew about Sandusky, when he knew it and what he did about it.

“We understand the university,” Levinson says. “It was about a football program that brought in massive amounts of money. They’re going to try to cover something up, because it’s about money at the end of the day. That’s clear. There’s no ambiguity to that. Paterno is much more complicated and contradictory, and that’s why he’s interesting to me.”

Sandusky was charged in 2011 with 48 counts of sexual abuse of children that took place between 1994 and 2009. He was convicted a year later on 45 charges related to eight victims. Using his charitable foundation to develop personal relationships with young boys, Sandusky showered with victims, forced them to perform oral sex on him and anally raped them. Those he assaulted were as young as 8 years old. According to the initial indictment, Paterno first learned about the abuse in 2002, when an assistant coach, Mike McQueary, told him he saw Sandusky showering with a boy aged 10 to 12. Paterno reported the incident to university officials, who effectively cover-
ed it up. But a subsequent investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh found that Paterno concealed information about Sandusky assaulting children and that he may have encouraged university officials to cover up Sandusky’s crimes as early as 2001.

In the years since Paterno’s death, sentiment about him has fractured. Nationally he has been abandoned by institutions such as Brown and Nike, the abuse scandal having stripped his name’s prestige. But much of the Penn State community has rallied around his legacy. A settlement of a lawsuit by Pennsylvania state officials against the NCAA in 2015 reinstated more than 100 wins under Paterno that had been voided as part of the program’s penalization — reinstalling him as Division I’s most prolific football winner.

But Levinson and Pacino don’t treat Paterno as some culture-war issue about which there are two equally weighted opinions. There is deep ambiguity in the film about how culpable Paterno was, but not whether he was culpable. Pacino and Levinson’s Paterno, at the very least, willfully ignored obvious signs that Sandusky was a predator. A gut punch of a final scene implies, as do several other moments in the film, that Paterno did much worse than misread a few warning signs.

“It was clear in the films I looked at and the research I did that he was someone who you could say was focused on football,” Pacino says. He tells a story about how Paterno, as an assistant coach, spent nearly 10 years living in the spare room of a fellow assistant’s home, eschewing a social life so that he could concentrate on football until his colleague, who was married, told him to move out and start dating.

“The blinders go on with that focus,” Pacino says. “That’s one of the first things I thought about him.”

For Pacino, it’s what happened to Paterno when his attention was torn from the game and forced onto a subject that he had spent years looking past that made him an intriguing character.

“It’s denial, and then it’s sort of anger and self-righteousness,” he says. “Then there’s the period of doubt, and kind of concern and depression and looking for resolutions, looking kind of contrite. Sometimes he’s feeling all these things in one scene. I think that’s what Barry sort of encouraged.”

Barry Levinson directs Al Pacino as Joe Paterno in the HBO biopic. Pacino, chosen for the project from the start, went to Levinson when director Brian De Palma fell out. “I could tell that he was fascinated,” the actor says. “He said, ‘Al, I’ll take this thing, play with it a little bit. I’ll get back to you.’ So that’s what he did. But knowing Barry, I could see the duende in him got lit.”

Levinson points to a moment in the film drawn from Paterno family adviser Guido D’Elia’s account to reporter Joe Posnanski, in which Paterno, reading the grand jury presentment indicting Sandusky, turned to his son and asked, “What is sodomy, anyway?”

Says Levinson: “That’s the drama of it. There’s Joe Paterno, there’s the head of the family, and they can’t make sense out of it all.”

Pacino and Levinson are, like Hall of Fame teammates, happy to heap praise on each other. Levinson credits Pacino for being unafraid to experiment. Pacino credits Levinson for inspiring a trust that fosters experimentation. He contrasts that with an anecdote about a director who, as Pacino was giving what he felt was a transcendent, once-in-a-blue-moon take, yelled “Cut!” and complained that the actor was holding a fork in the wrong hand.

“There’s a shorthand that you only get from knowing each other forever,” says Greg Grunberg, who plays Paterno’s son Scott. “It’s two guys that love being on set together, and it makes it easy for other actors to take a chance, to try something.”

A huge chunk of the movie takes place in Paterno’s home, where he’s surrounded by his family and confidants, who pepper him with questions he is often unable to answer. These scenes show Paterno at his least imposing. Beneath heavy makeup, Pacino, who is 77, shuffles from room to room like the 84-year-old man with a hip injury that Paterno was in those weeks. Outside, the media and a crowd of supportive Penn State students — portrayed unsparingly as a mob of buffoons who
dismiss serial child rape because doing otherwise might challenge the university’s self-image — have become fixtures on the front lawn. When, after being fired, Paterno walks out his front door to speak to the crowd, he lacks the savvy to seize the moment.

In scenes at football facilities, Paterno seems occasionally out of touch but confident in his competence. In scenes at home, however, he appears enfeebled, even disoriented.

“This is a person that didn’t want to mess around with anything that he wasn’t absolutely sure of,” Pacino says. “But he could be sure of that game. He could be sure of how to deal with the team.”

It has been more than a decade since the actor has appeared in a commercially successful feature. For contemporary audiences, his collaborations with Levinson for HBO are likely what will define this stage of his career — one in which he has embraced playing controversial men who authored their own downfalls.

“You have these little pieces, these pieces that you try to put together for a character to see where it works,” Pacino says. “You find these things, and you put them together in your think tank. You consume that, and you allow it to become a part of you as you play a character. You then pull up the information as situations come up — and then the thing starts to come in like a monsoon.”