Al Pacino is one of our greatest living actors, and likely our shoutiest great living actor. He has had more iconic roles than many other performers even audition for, from Scarface’s cocaine kingpin Tony Montana to Heat’s Lieutenant Vincent Hanna to The Devil’s Advocate’s Devil. But the role that he will almost certainly be remembered for above all is as Michael Corleone, the youngest son and eventual head of a Mafia family in The Godfather trilogy of films. As directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Pacino is the thread that ties all the movies and their sprawling plots together, the central character whose gradual degradation of soul becomes the tragedy of the series. But apparently, Pacino did not actually think that the original 1972 film The Godfather would be particularly good until one day on set, when he came across something unusual. As Al Pacino told The New York Times in an interview:
You remember the funeral scene for Marlon, when they put him down? It was over for the evening, the sun was going down. So, naturally, I’m happy ’cause I get to go home and have some drinks. I was on the way to my camper, saying, well, I was pretty good today. I had no lines, no obligations, that was fine. Every day without lines is a good day. So I’m going back to my camper. And there, sitting on a tombstone, is Francis Ford Coppola, weeping like a baby. Profusely crying. And I went up to him and I said, Francis, what’s wrong? What happened? He says, “They won’t give me another shot.” Meaning, they wouldn’t allow him to film another setup. And I thought: OK. I guess I’m in a good film here. Because he had this kind of passion and there it is.
For what it’s worth, Francis Ford Coppola would become known as a filmmaker of such passion that it nearly destroyed him (and definitely destroyed quite a few film studios). Just a few years later, Coppola was psychically crumbling under the effort of filming the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, which makes crying while sitting on a tombstone seem relatively chill. Al Pacino was also not alone in not thinking much of The Godfather prior to its release. While the has been so firmly established in the canon of great film for so long that it is difficult to think of it otherwise, the movie was originally developed by Paramount Pictures as a cheap gangster movie. The source material of the same name by Mario Puzo was popular, but something of a trashy airport novel, and gangster films mostly ranked somewhere around monster movies in terms of Hollywood respect. A miniseries about the arduous process of making the film, starring Miles Teller as producer Albert S. Ruddy, is currently in production.
The Godfather changed the course of Hollywood, and Al Pacino’s career along with it. He swiftly became one of the most sought-after actors in show business, and by the end of the 1970s, had four Academy Award nominations. His career largely slumped in the 1980s, with the exception of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, until a resurgence in the 1990s that got him his only Oscar win for Scent of a Woman. He also had a notable shift in his acting style, from the internal tension of his role as Michael Corleone to the more extroverted, explosive style seen in The Insider and Dick Tracy.
It is to Pacino’s credit that he is still such a dependably working actor, despite his decades of experience. And of course, he does seem to have a reasonable sense of humor about himself. Al Pacino also remains one of the increasingly few prestige actors not to be seduced into the MCU, although he has signaled that he is plenty open to it. After all, with all the Doctor Strange and Blade business happening, they’re sure to need a Mephisto soon, right?