Everyone knows this famous attention-grabbing scene. There he is delivering the kiss of death to Freddy in The Godfather Part 2.
But did you know actor Al Pacino is also sober? We’ll be sharing Al Pacino’s story today!
Alfredo James Pacino was born in 1940 in Harlem, New York City, to second-generation Italian Americans.
His mother’s parents actually came to the US from Corleone, the Sicilian village that would later become famous in the movie the Godfather. His father also hailed from Sicily.
His parents divorced when he was only two, and the young Al moved in with his mother to her parents’ house. He credits his maternal grandfather with playing the most important role in his life, effectively raising him like a father.
From a young age, he was fascinated with acting, spending hours imitating the actors he would see in the movies. Before long, the neighborhood started calling him “the actor.”
At 17, he dropped out of school to pursue his acting dreams. He worked odd jobs for three years, including janitor and busboy. In 1960 he went back to Sicily. Rumor has it he was so broke that he was forced to sell his body to an elderly Sicilian lady in exchange for shelter and food.
A couple of years later, he lost his mother, Rose. This loss had a devastating impact on him, only made worse by the passing of his beloved grandfather the following year.
In his own words, it was the darkest period of his life. To this day, the fact that his mother never got to see how successful he would become is something that deeply bothers him.
Pacino would struggle for the next few years, even to the point of living on the streets during the 1960s. In 1967, he got his big break. After being rejected previously, he was finally accepted to the Actors Studio in New York.
Famous alums of this prestigious institution include such superstars as Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brandon, Marilyn Monroe, and many more.
From there, Pacino went to Broadway and soon got his first movie role in 1971’s “The Panic in Needle Park,” where he played a junkie.
Ironically, it was around this time that his own addiction to alcohol started to become a serious problem. We’ll come to that in a second.
His Big Break
Pacino’s big break came in 1972’s the Godfather.
The film details the story of Vito Corleone, who emigrated from Sicily and builds the Corleone mafia family in New York. Marlon Brando famously played the role, and Pacino acted as his younger son, Michael Corleone.
The director, Francis Ford Coppola, felt that De Niro would be perfect for the role. Paramount Pictures preferred Warren Beaty or Robert Redford. But Coppola was adamant, and the part went to Pacino. That would be a career-making and career-defining moment for the young Al.
By that point, however, his drinking had gotten out of control. To make things worse, he was completely broke and convinced the movie would be a massive failure.
Pacino also knew that regardless of how the film fared at the box office, he wouldn’t get to see a dime of the paycheck – all the money went straight to servicing a debt to another acting studio.
In interviews, he stated that he was so drunk most of the time that he doesn’t remember much of what happened during the filming of the godfather. Or what happened during most of the 1970s, for that matter.
He traces part of the roots of his addiction to Hollywood’s drinking culture. In the acting scene, heavy drinking is far more socially accepted than in society, in general. This goes back to the early days of black-and-white movies when actors celebrated the day’s final scene with martinis.
By the 1970s, the drinking culture wasn’t as strong, but still, drinking was rife. Hollywood was definitely not the place to work if you were looking for sober role models.
Another reason that Pacino turned to drinking was to cope with the stress of acting. On set, he uses the classic “method acting” technique.
The technique is all about empathizing with your character rather than faking it. You have to actually feel what the character is going through, own it, and make it part of you. Depending on the character you’re playing, this can be deeply traumatic.
From street junkie to tragic crime boss, Pacino’s early roles were tough, and the toll they took on him added to his drinking problems.
In 1974, Pacino received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in Serpico. He has publicly admitted that he was so drunk and lost on that night he did not even have a speech prepared. He was so out of it he was hoping he would not win.
Fortunately for him, the prize went to another actor, sparing Pacino from a potentially embarrassing scene.
Astonishingly, despite all his drinking, 1975 was an even better professional year for the actor. His film Dog Day Afternoon, where he plays a failed bank robber, generated over 50 million dollars at the box office from a budget of 3 million.
The world did not know how close Pacino had come to rejecting the role. He was so drunk when he first read the script that he wanted nothing to do with the film.
The film’s producers pleaded with him to reread it when he was sober. He didn’t drink for a couple of days, and upon re-reading the script, he asked himself why on earth he had turned down the role.
So things went on for most of the 1970s. A burgeoning acting career accompanied by ever worse drinking.
How did he stop? In interviews, Pacino stated that his close friend and mentor, Charlie Laughton, who taught him at the Actors Studio, had the most significant influence on him.
Laughton had struggled with his own drinking problems in the past and begged Pacino to stop. Not stop forever, but just to give it a pause and reevaluate his life from a sobriety standpoint. And that’s exactly what he did.
But unlike many of the celebrities we’ve covered in the past, Pacino did not stop overnight. He describes the experience as gradual and with some help from Alcoholics Anonymous. He had his last drink in 1977, and today, he says he doesn’t miss it one bit.
You know the rest of the story. He’s one of the most decorated actors of all time, with an astonishing nine Academy Award nominations, five Baftas, three Emmys, two Grammys, 13 Golden Globes, and many more, not to mention a net worth of $120 million.
He is the proud father of three children, and to this day, spends most of his time in his native New York.
His upcoming film “Sniff,” where he stars alongside Morgan Freeman and Danny DeVito, is expected in theaters by the end of 2022.