Al Pacino is a ham. Onscreen and off. In movies, he has received great praise and criticism for his broad strokes in performing both fictional characters and real-life figures. His latest, portraying Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, is no different. There’s some buzz about another Oscar nomination in his future as well as reviews claiming that he’s just doing the shtick he does these days, for better or worse.
But Pacino is a total ham in real life, something he exhibited this week at a press conference for Critics Choice Association members following the Hollywood premiere of The Irishman. Joined by the director and co-star Robert De Niro, both of whom sort of rolled their eyes whenever Pacino began to respond to a question, the acting legend worked the room like a champion, proving that live events are something else entirely from cinematic performances.
Appropriately, one of Pacino’s most winning stories of the day pertained to stage acting. A journalist asked the two actors to speculate how The Irishman might have been different had they played the other’s role instead of their own. It’s a silly question to pose about film performance, but in theatre, it’s not uncommon for two lead actors to trade parts as a show goes on. Recent notable plays to do this have included True West, Old Times, and Frankenstein.
The what-if inquiry prompted Pacino to loudly offer an anecdote (or “parable,” as he called it) of his breakout moment while studying under Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio. Transcribed from the Irishman press conference:
“I was a young man at The Actor’s Studio. I was about 25 at the time. And I was too shy to do a scene there. I’d been there about six months, and I’d be sitting watching and then I’d go home. I didn’t know anyone there. Then I finally signed up to do a scene. Because at the Studio you have sessions…
“So, I’m there. And I’ve got the scene. I was going to do Hickey from Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The Iceman Cometh’ and Hamlet. I wrote it down. It was my turn, finally, to go up in front of the great Lee Strasberg at the hallowed Actor’s Studio with all these people who sit out there, and what you do is you do a scene and afterward they don’t criticize it, they discuss it with Lee as the moderator. Because it is for professionals. It’s not an acting school.
“Anyway, I went up there, and Lee Strasberg was sitting where he sat in the front, and first he said, ‘Al Pacino.’ He pronounced my name right. That never happened. I went to a public school and ‘Packetee…’ ‘Pacuno…’ ‘Pacanny….’ That sort of thing. I said, he pronounced my name right, he’s a great man. So I went up there and I did a monologue from ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ which I’d done all my life. And I did it, and it was over, and I turned around and I started ‘Hamlet’: ‘Oh, what a rogue…’
“Because he looked at the card and said, ‘Al Pacino. Hamlet? And Hickey from ‘The Iceman Cometh.’ Alright. Okay. Let’s still do it.’ And I got up there and I did Hickey. I did it all. Then I turned around and I did Hamlet. And he said to me… He stopped the class. Everything was quiet, and he said to me, ‘Alright, I want you to do Hickey as Hamlet and Hamlet as Hickey.’ What did I do? Immediately, I went into Hickey as Hamlet and Hamlet as Hickey, I did ’em both, and you know what he said? ‘We take in all kinds here.’
“And the audience was standing up cheering. So what happened is I did both parts relatively well, I guess. But the point is, well, that’s the point. I’ve been wanting to tell that story for years. Finally.”
It’s a good story. You can imagine young Pacino in 1967 performing the two monologues as the other characters acting them out. The funny thing is, despite the guy bringing the house down inside a room at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles in October 2019, this isn’t a story he’s never told before. In fact, it’s something he’s repeated for more than 40 years, and it’s become a sort of public record regarding his origins.
A simple Google search of Pacino and Hamlet and Hickey will bring you not only to a New York Times profile from 1977 and biographies published over the decades but also a New Yorker profile from 2014 and a Charlie Rose appearance from 2015. Of course, the other day, it seemed fresh as ever. Scorsese reacted as if he’d never heard the story before, and most of us in the room were unfamiliar.
Maybe it’s a story he’s been dying to tell again for years, but it’s only been four years. Anyway, watch The Irishman (in theaters on November 1st and on Netflix beginning November 27th). And watch it again imagining Pacino and De Niro in each other’s role.