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"It’s much easier for me to talk about these films now," Al Pacino tells us shortly before our cameras start to roll on our latest edition of Role Recall. "It used to be a lot harder." It’s understandable the 74-year-old screen don needed some time and separation from classic films like The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon to properly put them in perspective. The Method actor has routinely suffered for his art, enduring both emotional and physical distress on the sets of many of his most beloved movies.
The native New Yorker spent the whole shoot of his breakout film, The Godfather (1972), fearing that he was about to get fired. On the sequel two years later, he came down with pneumonia in Santa Domingo. He hardly slept, ate or showered on the set of 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. He burnt himself badly during a crucial shootout scene in 1983’s Scarface, and pulled a hamstring chasing old friend Robert De Niro around making 1995’s Heat.
Pacino didn’t suffer any injuries on the set of his latest project, the new drama The Humbling, but the film’s subject material could certainly touch a nerve. He plays Simon Axler, an aging actor coming to grips with the sunset of his career. (The film, directed by Barry Levinson, is based on a novel by Philip Roth).
Pacino, though, is no Axler; he continues to bring his signature intensity to the stage and screen. The eight-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) sat down with Yahoo Movies to share stories from the sets of seven of his classics, including where exactly his Scent of a Woman lieutenant colonel’s penchant for yelling “Hoo-ah!” came from. Watch the video above.
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola famously had to fight to cast the unknown Pacino in the lead role of Michael Corleone, and both director and actor feared for their jobs throughout production. It didn’t help that Pacino, who was mentored by fellow Method man Marlon Brando on-set, thought the movie was going to be terrible. He recalls a night of drinking with co-star Diane Keaton after filming the opening wedding scene: “We thought the movie was so bad, and that we were the worst things in it. [We thought] they were going to take the parts from us.” Of course, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The film became an international sensation, earned Pacino an Oscar nomination, and won Best Picture.
"I absorbed Frank Serpico — I channeled him," Pacino says about the real-life cop who went undercover to expose rampant corruption in the NYPD. The actor spent a good amount of time with his real-life subject, and at one point asked him why he didn’t just take the payouts alongside his fellow officers. "He said, ‘Well, if I took the money, who would I be when I listened to Beethoven?’ It was interesting stuff."
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Pacino initially balked at coming back for the sequel because Coppola had as well. Both returned of course, and while there may not have been as much pressure on the duo as in Part I, the role of Michael still took a toll on Pacino. “At that time, I wasn’t as used to movies as I am now,” he says. “I felt I always had to be in it. It wears you, because you’re up there 14 hours a day. Now I know about camper life. You get a camper! You get a camper that has cable. You go in there and watch CNN. You get your head clear, then you go back out again.”
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Pacino also initially turned down the role of Brooklyn bank robber Sonny Wortzik. Despite all the success he was having onscreen, he still saw himself as a stage performer. He was also drinking a lot at the time, and wasn’t sure he could handle another emotionally grueling role. It took the prodding of producer Martin Bregman, who was also Pacino’s manager at the time, to convince him. “I thought, ‘Well I’ve got to do this thing. I don’t want to, but I’ve got to do it.’” The role would earn Pacino his fourth Academy Award nomination in four consecutive years.
Director Brian De Palma enlisted Pacino to play Cuban drug lord Tony Montana in this oft-quoted shoot ‘em up. The actor recalls one painful incident working alongside his “little friend.” During the film’s most famous gun battle, Pacino had to fall back and pick up his machine gun. Only he grabbed the weapon’s piping-hot barrel that had just fired 30 rounds. “The skin just came right off my hand,” he says, adding that he had to be rushed to the hospital in full costume, still covered in fake blood. “This nurse comes in and says, ‘Oh, you’re the movie actor. You’re Al Pacino. I thought you were some scumbag coming in here.’”
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Pacino would finally win the Academy Award for playing the blind, retired army officer Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in this crowd-pleasing drama. And it’s impossible to think back on this film without hearing Slade’s favorite expression echo through your head. Pacino reveals the genesis of “Hoo-wah!,” saying it came from a real lieutenant colonel who taught him how to load and unload a .45 caliber handgun blind. “And every time I would say do something [right], he would go, ‘Hoo-wah!,” Pacino explains. “Oh, I gotta use that… That comes from heaven, that stuff.”
Though Pacino and his pal Robert De Niro co-starred in 1974’s The Godfather Part II, it wasn’t until two decades later that they actually shared screen time in Michael Mann’s fierce cops-and-robbers thriller. The pair didn’t rehearse their famous restaurant sit-down in order to bring some unfamiliarity to their dynamic. Also: Pacino hurt himself during the film’s climactic foot chase, pulling a hamstring. “Poor Bob had to run around all night by himself, being chased by an understudy,” says Pacino. He then adds with a laugh, “I just laid up in my camper. It was a worthwhile injury.”
The Humbling opens in limited engagement Friday, and in theaters nationwide and on VOD on Jan. 23.