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Everything Al Pacino Would Be Is Right There in ‘The Godfather’

The film’s 50th anniversary is a perfect time to marvel all over again at how a rising young actor improbably brought one of cinema’s great antiheroes to life, shaping the rest of his career in the process

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Al Pacino got paid $35,000 to play Michael Corelone in The Godfather. “About fifteen thousand I owed in legal fees,” he later estimated. There were plenty of more famous actors considered for the part: Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson. (Marlon Brando nixed the idea of Burt Reynolds, supposedly saying, “He is the epitome of something that makes me want to throw up.”) Even when Pacino was cast — it was only his second leading role — he was nearly fired a couple weeks into the shoot. “They kept seeing the rushes, you know, or the footage that was shot,” he later said, “and they kept looking at it and thinking, ‘What is he doing?’”

You’ve probably heard these stories. Everything about The Godfather’s making — much like the movie itself — has been canonized, immortalized, examined and explored. Sometimes, a movie’s greatness can only be measured by all the things that nearly went wrong and by the certainty from those involved that the whole thing was going to be a massive trainwreck. (There’s even going to be a miniseries about the behind-the-scenes drama, The Offer, coming in April.) But with the film preparing for its 50th anniversary — and a theatrical re-release happening this Friday — it’s a perfect excuse to wax poetic all over again about one of the all-time great movies. 

Like Casablanca or Citizen Kane, The Godfather is an indisputable classic — sure, it may not be your personal favorite, or even your favorite of that particular actor’s or director’s, but only a fool denies its cultural importance or lasting legacy. Massively quotable, endlessly referenced and parodied, the film remains incredibly entertaining and compelling, filled with incredible actors. That it was the launching pad for Pacino now seems remarkable — for younger generations, the notion that there was a time when he wasn’t major beggars belief. And yet, for all the terrific work he did in subsequent years — and the self-parodying excesses that followed as well — you could argue that everything that epitomizes Pacino is right there in The Godfather and its sequels. His brilliance and his intensity, his depth of feeling and his volcanic exuberance — Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy contains all of Pacino. Those films are as much the actor’s achievement as it is the filmmaker’s.

Born in New York City in 1940, Pacino was very young when his parents got divorced. “My father lives in California now, and he’s on his fourth marriage,” Pacino said shortly after The Godfather’s success. “I guess I felt resentment toward him at times, times when I needed to expend some energy, so I got bitter about him. But, intellectually, I always knew that it wasn’t me that my father left. Yet something like that naturally leaves scars: It has to have colored my life.” Thankfully for the boy, movies were an escape. “I was very shy, and when I was about three years old my mother began taking me to the movies, night after night,” he recalled. “The next day, all by myself, I would enact all the parts of the movie before a mirror. My grandmother would be there, but always off in another room. ‘Al likes to talk to himself,’ she used to say. ‘He’s doing okay.’ I was really all alone those first seven years of my life. In fact, I used to go steady with a broom, or maybe it was a mop.”

After a few years working in theater, he started getting hired for TV shows and films. The 1971 romantic tragedy The Panic in Needle Park was his first lead role, which helped him get cast as Michael, the soft-spoken Corleone, the one who insists to his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) at the beginning of the picture that, don’t worry, he’s not involved in the family’s brutal business. “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me,” he assures her.

Coppola was himself an up-and-comer at the time, suffering through a series of flops early in his career before reluctantly agreeing to take on Mario Puzo’s bestseller. He wanted Pacino, although the initial screen test wasn’t promising. “At the time I didn’t care if I got the part or not,” Pacino told biographer Lawrence Grobel. “The less you want things, the more they come to you. If it’s meant to be, it will be. Every time I’ve stuffed or forced something, it hasn’t been right.” 

For those who only know the later Pacino — the one taken to screaming his head off on camera — the performance he gives in The Godfather might be astonishing. The Michael we meet in the opening is well-mannered, reserved. He hardly seems as colorful as his older brother Sonny (James Caan) or his father Vito (Brando), who speaks in a hushed way that suggests just how immense his power must be. You might not even realize, because The Godfather opens with Vito, that he’s not actually the film’s main character. Indeed, one of The Godfather’s accomplishments is its misdirections, how it encourages you to focus on other individuals in the same way that members of Michael’s own family overlook him. But over the course of its three hours, the film eventually becomes Michael’s story, examining how he takes up the mantle of leadership and why he’s the only one who can. 

Although the film is understandably celebrated for its warped portrait of the American Dream, it can also be viewed as a quintessential fable about a son who loves his family but wants to forge his own path, only to recognize that there’s no escaping his birthright. Michael is smart and even-tempered, calm in moments of high anxiety, and similarly the Pacino of The Godfather is composed and controlled, so reserved that it’s almost scary. Like Pacino auditioning for the role, Michael doesn’t necessarily care if he’s the new Don — which makes him darkly perfect for the job once it becomes his. Here’s a young man who just wanted to have a quiet life with Kay but ends up discovering how easy it is to kill and lie to the woman he loves. It’s both inspiring and heartbreaking to see Michael rise to power, becoming a monster in the process. 

It seems fitting, then, that Pacino would be bypassed for a Best Actor Oscar nomination, receiving a Best Supporting Actor nod instead, while Brando was slotted in the lead category. Pacino actually boycotted the ceremony in protest, believing rightly that he was The Godfather’s lead actor. But Brando was the bigger name and, as happens so often even today, studios sometimes campaign for their actors based on their star power rather than if they were actually in the lead role. Brando was more famous than Pacino, and ironically his own protest of the Oscars, sending Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the statuette on his behalf, ended up overshadowing Pacino’s.

Pacino would go on to have a fairly fabulous 1970s, Oscar-nominated for Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and …And Justice for All, films that showcased his ability to portray characters whose burning passions could erupt at any moment. In keeping with a decade of films that celebrated rebels and antiheroes, Pacino seemed drawn to individuals who felt stifled by mainstream society — they wanted to break free, they wanted to tear shit up. “Being an outsider is part of being an artist,” he said a few years ago. “You try to conform. But some of us just can’t. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I still don’t.” 

In the midst of that run, he returned to Michael for The Godfather: Part II, a film in which he was unquestionably the lead and was Oscar-nominated as such. Your preference for the original or the sequel probably goes hand-in-hand with which Pacino performance you favor. It’s a toss-up — both are terrific — but two years removed from The Godfather, Pacino had harnessed a ferocity that he brought to the role for Part II, revealing how the first film’s “happy ending” had played out. There’s no hope of redemption for this man — no way that he can save his soul — and Pacino communicates almost telepathically how Michael has been morally disfigured by his ascension to godfather. 

Film critic Michael Sragow put it as well as anyone has about the shimmering despair of Pacino’s performance: “In Part II [Michael] is as haunted by his father’s ghost as Hamlet is. He’s learned everything from his old man except the things that can’t be learned, and he can’t hide his inadequacy. And in many ways, Michael is a victim of history. By the time he becomes Don, there’s not much family feeling left in the Five Families; the mob has adopted business practices as impersonal as those of the CIA, and not even lionhearted Vito, had he lived, could have reversed that trend. But if Michael’s role is that of an antihero, Pacino’s ability to invest it with tension is heroic; he gives a dynamic interpretation of depression and listlessness.” 

Michael occasionally explodes in the way Pacino sometimes would during this period — and would more often later in his career — but in Part II, the outbursts are stunningly hollow because Michael’s power is. Still controlled, Pacino showed how empty fury could be, how it only isolated Michael further from everyone around him. Michael’s crown was heavy, and it had long ago lost its luster. “[The first film] has that great story, but Part II has more to say about things,” Pacino told Esquire in 2015. “That’s what makes it different.”

In the ensuing years, as Pacino became a bigger name, provoking myriad “Best Actor of His Generation” discussions, he kept going bigger, too. Just look at the hypnotically overblown Scarface, which might be the most 1980s film with its vision of the cocaine-fueled crime lord Tony Montana as a metaphor for the decade’s greed and gluttony. Was it satire or just shameless? A bit of both, and that goes double for Pacino’s performance, which reimagined Michael Corleone as a coked-up immigrant with a penchant for automatic weapons, another American Dream going to hell. “You’re always afraid that you may go over the line into caricature,” Pacino told Grobel about his portrayal of Tony. “I hope I haven’t.”

He took a few years off after the failure of 1985’s Revolution, focusing on theater before returning to the big screen for the romantic thriller Sea of Love. But a cultural shift had taken place, viewing Pacino’s lionized, hyper-vivid portrayals as clichéd and hammy. This feeling wasn’t helped by his turn as the hyperbolic mob boss Big Boy Caprice in 1990’s Dick Tracy, which encouraged him (and several other prominent actors of his era, like Dustin Hoffman) to be deeply cartoon-y. But the real fall from grace, at least in the minds of the public, occurred later that year when Pacino reprised his role as Michael in The Godfather: Part III, which committed the grave sin of not being as good as the first two installments. 

Carrying huge expectations, the film wasn’t as confidently, elegantly perfect, a criticism that extended to Pacino’s performance. Now an older man facing health issues — not to mention the weight of the choices he’s made — Michael spends Part III trying to make the family business legitimate, although the carefully layered performance he gave in the earlier films was absent. The entirety of his work in the film — more anguished than it was given credit for at the time — was reduced to one line reading. Soon, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” became a meme in the way things became memes pre-internet. In other words, It was made fun of on Saturday Night Live and in an episode of Seinfeld, where George even mimics Pacino’s hand motions. 

The first two Godfather films were parodied endlessly, too, but there was always a sense that the referencing came from a deep love for those masterpieces. Pacino wasn’t subjected to the same public scorn that Coppola’s daughter Sofia faced when she, at the last minute, replaced Winona Ryder in a key role, but nonetheless Part III’s failures to live up to what came before were most visible in his merely-good portrayal. 

Not surprisingly, Pacino didn’t see it that way. In 2020, when Coppola released a radical new cut, entitled The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, the actor talked about his approach to the character. “In Godfather III, he’s a guy trying to keep everything going,” Pacino explained. “He had a natural ability for business and manipulation and a Machiavellian gift that made him the boss of a crime family, even though I never felt he was comfortable being a stereotypical gangster. Now came an opportunity for redemption from the church, as well as this new outlet for his skills that would give his family the respectability he wanted. And then he’s constantly thwarted. … And then, to lose his daughter, which Francis smartly set at the opera? Godfather II had tragic undertones, but of all the ways to lose your daughter, to do it in the arena of assassinations that he was part of, then lose his daughter because of him … it’s operatic and he’s completely broken.”

The Godfather trilogy tells a very American story — that of the ambitious young man who becomes the patriarch, only to discover that all his ambitions have only left him sadder and more alone — and Part III lacked the tragic beauty of Part II. It was a little more pathetic and stark and desperate, a fitting end to someone who thought redemption could be so easily procured through influence and money. Much like Citizen Kane or, years after Part III, There Will Be Blood, Coppola’s capper was a cautionary tale that argued that so-called great men don’t often have great sendoffs — their moral and personal failings end up winning out eventually. But viewed during Pacino’s hammy era — a period that would continue through Scent of a Woman (an embarrassing Oscar win), The Devil’s Advocate, Any Given Sunday and even parts of HeatPart III felt like confirmation of a once-great actor’s descent into caricature. Just like Michael, his best days were clearly behind him.

It’s now been more than 30 years since Part III opened, and since then there are plenty of good Al Pacino performances worth celebrating. His turn in Glengarry Glen Ross, which came out the same year as Scent of a Woman, should have won him his elusive Academy Award. Donnie Brasco and The Insider are both superb — so are Insomnia and The Irishman, which found Pacino perhaps having another go at sticking the landing of a complicated man, this time Jimmy Hoffa, as he meets his fate. It’s a stellar, moving performance, and it’s hard not to wonder if Pacino, then close to 80, understood more about aging and regret than he did back during Part III. The Irishman also earned Pacino his first Oscar nomination since the Scent of a Woman/Glengarry year. It felt like proof that the old Pacino wasn’t gone after all.

Coppola’s reconceived The Death of Michael Corleone, which came out a year after The Irishman, didn’t lift Part III to the rarified level of the earlier films in the series, but in some ways it cemented what he’d tried to do as Hoffa. In the three Godfather films, Pacino chronicled the life of a powerful man who will never be powerful enough to stop what’s coming to him, and in the process the actor suggested how much fury and precision could go into a character, revisited over time, reexamined but never forgiven for his actions

Of the great American antiheroes, Michael Corleone is the one probably least deserving of being romanticized, which isn’t to say that Pacino didn’t sympathize with the man’s plight. It’s just that, while Pacino has often played tormented men, Michael’s tragedy is of his own making, and the trilogy recognizes that. Of all of Pacino’s great performances, his depiction of Michael as a promising young man seduced by temptation may end up being his finest hour. “Michael never thought of himself as a gangster, ever,” Pacino once said. “Never. Not as a child, not while he was one, and not afterward: That was not the image he had of himself. So anyone who says to me that I played a gangster, I say, ‘Not Michael.’” 

Pacino may have agreed with Michael’s perspective, but if that’s the case, then both men are fooling themselves. There is nothing sadder than living your whole life in denial about your fundamental essence. And as we prepare to celebrate The Godfather’s 50th anniversary, I’d argue we obsessively revisit these movies not just because of their themes and their characters but because of the warning they present. Becoming a monster is one thing — convincing yourself that you’re not may be even more hideous. Pacino is our guide into Michael’s delusion, from which there is no escape.