The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica have written a series of mini-biographies. Here is an excerpt from the Editors’ profile of Al Pacino. To learn more about him and others, please click here.
Fact or Fiction: Al Pacino played Shylock from The Merchant of Venice in both a feature film and a theater production. Fact: He directed and starred in a film about the stage production in which he starred.
After growing up in East Harlem and the Bronx, Pacino moved at age 19 to Greenwich Village, where he studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio and appeared in many Off-Broadway and out-of-town productions, including Hello, Out There (1963) and Why Is a Crooked Letter (1966). He took further acting lessons from Lee Strasberg and played a small part in the film Me, Natalie in 1969. The same year, he made his Broadway debut and won a Tony Award for his performance in the play Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie? Pacino’s first leading role in a film came with The Panic in Needle Park (1971), a grim tale of heroin addiction that became something of a cult classic.
Director Francis Ford Coppola cast Pacino in the film that would make him a star, The Godfather (1972). The saga of a family of gangsters and their fight to maintain power in changing times, The Godfather was a wildly popular film that won the Academy Award for best picture and earned Pacino numerous accolades—including his first of many Oscar nominations—for his intense performance as Michael Corleone, a gangster’s son who reluctantly takes over the “family business.” Pacino solidified his standing as one of Hollywood’s most dynamic stars in his next few films. In Scarecrow (1973), he teamed with Gene Hackman in a bittersweet story about two transients, and his roles in Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) displayed Pacino’s characteristic screen qualities of brooding seriousness and explosive rage. He also repeated the role of Michael Corleone for Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II (1974), a film that, like its predecessor, won the best picture Oscar.
Pacino’s next few films did not fare as well. Bobby Deerfield (1977) was notable as his first box-office failure since he had become a star. The dark comedy …And Justice for All (1979) featured some of Pacino’s most memorable scenes, but Cruising (1980) and the light comedy Author! Author! (1982) were critical and popular disasters.
In Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Pacino returned to the kind of combustible, high-intensity role that had made him famous. As gangster Tony Montana, Pacino gave a highly charged, unrestrained performance that, although loved by some and deplored by others, ranks among his most unforgettable. His next film, Revolution (1985), was an expensive flop, and Pacino did not appear in another film for four years.
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