As the star of ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Godfather’ turns 80, Martin Chilton looks back at his drunken early years and his ascent to Oscar-winning glory

Al Pacino spent much of the Seventies in a drunken haze. The Oscar-winning star of the Godfather trilogy, Serpico, Scarface and Scent of a Woman has been teetotal for more than four decades now, and is about to soberly celebrate his 80th birthday. But he drank so much in his younger days that his brain was, in his own words, scrambled.
He would down beers along with martini chasers, the alcohol serving as an antidote to his natural shyness, a way for him to cope with the intense burden of being in the public eye. Drinking was part of the culture of his trade at the time, he would later explain, recalling that even a thespian as eminent as Sir Laurence Olivier cited the drink after the show as his favourite part of acting.
But by the time Pacino was 31, alcohol had begun to threaten his burgeoning career. His film credits were limited to a small role in Me, Natalie and a well-received lead in The Panic in Needle Park when he was spotted by Francis Ford Coppola, who insisted Pacino was perfect for a main role in 1972s The Godfather. Paramount Pictures were pushing for Robert Redford or Warren Beatty to play Michael Corleone, but the director stuck to his guns. I couldnt get Al out of my head, he said. Pacino nearly blew it, though. On the day of his first screen test, he was hungover and had not memorised his lines. He tried to ad-lib the scene, infuriating Mario Puzo, the author of the crime novel on which the film was based. It took a lot of persuasion for Pacino to land the role.
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In the end, he was superb as the mafia boss, narrowly missing out on an Oscar for Best Actor, which went instead to his co-star Marlon Brando, who played his father Vito Corleone. The sudden fame and acclaim pushed Pacino into drinking even more heavily. Three decades later, Pacino told television host Larry King that he knew he was in trouble when cocktails began to seem more attractive than acting.
A true crisis point came in London in 1974, following the success of Serpico, when Pacino was staying at The Dorchester hotel. A depressed Pacino was exhausted after six months of filming for The Godfather Part II, on locations in New York, Nevada, Miami and Sparagonga, Sicily. He had already signed up to play Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, a film directed by Sidney Lumet, which dramatised the story of an inept robber who holds up a bank in Brooklyn to get the money for his partners gender confirmation surgery.
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Pacino began to have second thoughts about the role. After a pub crawl in Londons West End, he backed out of the movie. It was during one of those episodes of drinking in London that I actually turned down Dog Day, he told Larry King Live in 2007. I said, I dont want to go rob a bank and do all of that stuff.
Lumet reluctantly accepted the actors change of heart and sent the screenplay to Dustin Hoffman. I quit. Dustin was going to do it, Pacino admitted. However, producer Martin Bregman pestered his friend to reconsider. Bregman was on me, on me, on me, recalled Pacino. I said, Marty, I dont want to do this. He said, Could you stop drinking for a while and read the script? I didnt drink for a couple of days and I read the script. It was clear. I said, Why am I not doing this? I should be doing this. I was very lucky I had him there.
King asked Pacino if hed ever acted under the influence of drink. Ive done it. I did with John Cazale. I didnt like that, Pacino confessed. The late Cazale, who played the tragic Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, became friends with Pacino in the mid-1960s. They acted together in Public Theatre productions of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and The Local Stigmatic. Cazale also starred as the oddball, longhaired sidekick of Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.
Pacino was boozing during the production of Dog Day Afternoon. The star actually credits this with helping inspire one of his most creative brainwaves about how to play Wortzik. After watching reels of the first days shoot, he sat up all night thinking about the character, helped by drinking a half-gallon of white wine. He decided he was hitting false notes with his portrayal of the bank robber  that it was wrong for his character to wear glasses. Pacino decided that Wortzik was the sort of man who, on the day of a big heist, would forget to take his spectacles, because subconsciously he wants to be caught.
Pacino played dysfunctional bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon (Warner Bros)
Lumet agreed to re-shoot the scenes featuring Pacino in glasses, and the actor started to play the character with a vague squint. Dog Day Afternoon was a critical success. The real Wortzik (John Wojtowicz), who was serving time at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, even wrote to The New York Times declaring that Pacino deserved an Academy Award. In the end, he earned a Best Actor nod, one of eight nominations (The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II, And Justice for All, Dick Tracy, Glengarry Glen Ross,The Irishman) that sit alongside his sole triumph, a Best Actor award for 1993s Scent of a Woman.
There are lots of reasons why people drink to excess, and the man born Alfredo James Pacino had his fair share. His childhood in the Bronx was extremely rough. Pacinos father, Salvatore, abandoned the family when his son was just two. Salvatore ended up running a bar in Covina, California, called Pacinos Lounge. Pacino called his fathers desertion the missing link of his life.
The consequences were dire. Money was tight for his single-parent mother Rose, who suffered from chronic depression. She even resorted to electric-shock therapy and eventually became addicted to barbiturates. She was only 43 when she died in 1962. Poverty took her down, Pacino said. His beloved maternal grandfather died a year after Rose. Pacino described this as the darkest period of his life. I went through some stuff. I had therapy five days a week for 25 years, he told The Hollywood Reporters podcast in December 2019.
Rose had done her best to encourage Pacinos youthful acting ambitions. She regularly took him to the cinema and he remembered the treat of being taken to see Tennessee Williamss Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. Pacino was often coaxed into acting at home. The writer John Lahr said that one of Pacinos party pieces was imitating Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Pacino would throw open cupboard doors, pretending to search for a hidden stash of booze, just like the alcoholic writer in the film. I never understood why they were laughing, because I didnt think it was funny, Pacino told Lahr. But I knew it produced laughs.
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1/10 10. Scarecrow (1973)
A forgotten gem in Pacinos filmography, Scarecrow offers a bristling display of the actors full-range of talents. Here, director Jerry Schatzberg pairs him up with Gene Hackman for an odd-couple comedy about two drifters who travel from California to Pittsburgh to start a car wash business. Theyre at odds, but harmonious. Hackman plays the brutish lothario, while Pacino is the wounded clown. Hes jittery, but sweet and sensitive in ways he rarely got to explore in later roles. A traumatic event in the final act then destroys what scraps of innocence he still has left. The subsequent breakdown, which leaves him screaming and thrashing in waters of a public fountain, is a devastating spectacle. While the film was honoured at the Cannes Film Festival, its since largely drifted out of view. Its a shame. Scarecrow is a heartfelt eulogy to masculinity lost to the cavernous jaws of the American dream.
2/10 9. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Its one of the great ensembles of Hollywood cinema: Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce and Ed Harris all of them locked in a vicious, bestial battle for corporate supremacy as the employees of a real estate agency. David Mamets screenplay, based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, drips with linguistic poisons. And Pacino has a divine gift for delivering them. An insult as workaday as you stupid f***in c*** might seem like a cheap shot but, coming out of Pacinos mouth, its like an arrow to the head. As Ricky Roma, the offices top closer, the actor gets to play the most oil-slicked, crafty character of the entire film. His charisma is palpable, but so is his insatiable greed. No wonder he was the only cast member to earn an Oscar nomination.
3/10 8. Scarface (1983)
Its a stark indictment of Hollywoods diversity phobia that Pacino, an Italian-American, was cast by Brian De Palma as a Latinx immigrant not once, but twice (more on Carlitos Way later). But the actors take on Tony Montana, a Miami drug dealer who climbs to the top and immediately loses the plot, is the stuff of legend. Cocaine flows through this mans veins. His delusions have cemented into gilded kitsch. He thinks of a firearm as his little friend. Pacino delivers Tony in the same erratic cadence as Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, but his exorbitance here is justified. Tony isnt a man; hes a symbol of total moral corruption. The fact hes since been adopted as an entrepreneurial cult hero is telling so is the fact that the decades consumerist worship was so absurd that many critics failed to realise that De Palma was operating firmly in the role of satirist.
4/10 7. The Irishman (2019)
If the past couple of decades have seen Pacino dip into self-parody, The Irishman was his chance to reassert himself as one of the greats. The same was true of co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci even director Martin Scorsese went out and proved hes still the undisputed master of the gangster genre. Its a deeply reflective, muted film that works both as a throwback to the golden era of these mens careers and a critical reexamination of their own legacies. Pacino, playing union president Jimmy Hoffa, reignites his firebrand charisma only to immediately ground it in a complex web of righteousness and moral indignation. It might not be the showiest performance of his career, but its a sublime return to form.
5/10 6. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Carlitos Way never deserved its reputation as Scarfaces little sibling. Yes, the surface similarities are there theyre both De Palma-directed stories that star Pacino as a Latinx criminal-type. But theyre tonally alien to each other. Scarface is the parody of masculinity, while Carlitos Way tackles the idea with far more sincerity. Its main character, Carlito Brigante, has vowed to go straight, but finds that the past is near-impossible to escape. And so Pacinos approach here is to go softer and more understated, underpinned by a sense of tragic inevitability. Carlitos clearly uncomfortable with this new skin hes crafted for himself. When his newfound dedication to morality backfires, audiences are sure to come away with a bitter taste in their mouth.
6/10 5. Panic in Needle Park (1971)
When Panic in Needle Park was first released, few paid attention to Pacinos nervy, heated performance as a New York drug addict. It was the second film he ever did, but it was also his co-star Kitty Winns screen debut audiences fell hard for her raw vulnerability and for the way fear flickered in her eyes like a trapped moth. She won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Its a shame she never enjoyed a career like Pacinos. But Panic in the Needle Park is not only an important Pacino performance, its a mesmerising one the actor here appears as a fully formed talent. Co-written by Joan Didion, the film navigates all the highs and lows of the addiction cycle, and Pacino readily embraces each emotional swing. He can express love in its purest form and at its most curdled. The films director, Schatzberg, would work with him again in Scarecrow, while it also landed him his career-changing role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
7/10 4. Serpico (1973)
Pacinos greatest performances are all concentrated in a single run of films, kicked off by 1971s Panic in Needle Park and concluding with 1975s Dog Day Afternoon. Tucked in-between the first two Godfathers is Sidney Lumets compelling cop-drama Serpico a chance for Pacino to hop the moral fence and explore life as the good guy. It also gave him an opportunity to grow out a luscious head of hippie hair and a hefty beard. The film is based on the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, a whistleblower who exposed rampant corruption in law enforcement and suffered greatly for it. But Pacino was able to bring the same qualities here as he did to his usual rogues gallery. Franks sanity is stretched on the rack until its at the maximum point of tension. But the anger here is righteous, at least.
8/10 3. The Godfather (1972)
The studio never wanted Pacino to play Michael Corleone. To them, he was far too screwy and intense still the drug addict from Panic in Needle Park. What the Godfather needed was the strong jawline and starry charisma of a Robert Redford or a Warren Beatty. But Francis Ford Coppola recognised something in Pacino, which he described as, this striking magnetic quality, this smouldering ambience. Only he could faithfully portray a man robbed of his innocence by the invisible, but undeniable pull of familial duty. Michael is committed to living a normal, American life outside of the mob, but finds himself drawn back into the endless cycle of violence his family perpetuates. As Pacinos face hardens and grows colder, Michael comes to the realisation that not only can he not escape the sins of his father there is nothing to do but embrace them.
9/10 2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
One of the quintessential Pacino scenes sees him pace and up down the sidewalk outside of a city bank like a caged tiger. Hes playing Sonny Wortzik, a bank robber up against the wall. The police have him surrounded. The media can taste blood. He knows that things will end badly. All he can do now is try to take some small control of the situation. And so he starts to cry Attica! Attica! Attica!, riling the crowd up by reminding them of the brute force law enforcement used in a riot at the Attica prison a year earlier. Pacino is filled with a kind of transcendent hysteria here. He spits the words out like hes exorcising a malevolent spirit from his body. Lumets film (his second collaboration with Pacino after Panic in Needle Park) is a captivating, sensory slice of 1970s New York. Pacino brings both texture and depth to that world.
10/10 1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Michael Corleone is, undeniably, the greatest role of the actors career. What makes the difference between his performance in the first and second Godfather films (the third is probably best left unmentioned) is the extent of his transformation. He starts to fall in Part I, but becomes unrecognisable by Part II. Hes a man now willing to murder his own family in order to keep its sanctity. When he gives his brother Fredo (John Cazale) the kiss of death, his emotions shift so quickly between raptorial fury theres a moment you think he might just crush Fredo with his own hands and a profound sense of loss. Its one of Hollywood s great tragic arcs. And Pacino commits like his life depends on it those eyes were so used to seeing filled with fiery rage are now also flecked with deep guilt and regret. Pacino was nominated for an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, but lost the award to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto. It still remains one of the Academys most outrageous blunders.
1/10 10. Scarecrow (1973)
A forgotten gem in Pacinos filmography, Scarecrow offers a bristling display of the actors full-range of talents. Here, director Jerry Schatzberg pairs him up with Gene Hackman for an odd-couple comedy about two drifters who travel from California to Pittsburgh to start a car wash business. Theyre at odds, but harmonious. Hackman plays the brutish lothario, while Pacino is the wounded clown. Hes jittery, but sweet and sensitive in ways he rarely got to explore in later roles. A traumatic event in the final act then destroys what scraps of innocence he still has left. The subsequent breakdown, which leaves him screaming and thrashing in waters of a public fountain, is a devastating spectacle. While the film was honoured at the Cannes Film Festival, its since largely drifted out of view. Its a shame. Scarecrow is a heartfelt eulogy to masculinity lost to the cavernous jaws of the American dream.
2/10 9. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Its one of the great ensembles of Hollywood cinema: Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce and Ed Harris all of them locked in a vicious, bestial battle for corporate supremacy as the employees of a real estate agency. David Mamets screenplay, based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, drips with linguistic poisons. And Pacino has a divine gift for delivering them. An insult as workaday as you stupid f***in c*** might seem like a cheap shot but, coming out of Pacinos mouth, its like an arrow to the head. As Ricky Roma, the offices top closer, the actor gets to play the most oil-slicked, crafty character of the entire film. His charisma is palpable, but so is his insatiable greed. No wonder he was the only cast member to earn an Oscar nomination.
3/10 8. Scarface (1983)
Its a stark indictment of Hollywoods diversity phobia that Pacino, an Italian-American, was cast by Brian De Palma as a Latinx immigrant not once, but twice (more on Carlitos Way later). But the actors take on Tony Montana, a Miami drug dealer who climbs to the top and immediately loses the plot, is the stuff of legend. Cocaine flows through this mans veins. His delusions have cemented into gilded kitsch. He thinks of a firearm as his little friend. Pacino delivers Tony in the same erratic cadence as Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, but his exorbitance here is justified. Tony isnt a man; hes a symbol of total moral corruption. The fact hes since been adopted as an entrepreneurial cult hero is telling so is the fact that the decades consumerist worship was so absurd that many critics failed to realise that De Palma was operating firmly in the role of satirist.
4/10 7. The Irishman (2019)
If the past couple of decades have seen Pacino dip into self-parody, The Irishman was his chance to reassert himself as one of the greats. The same was true of co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci even director Martin Scorsese went out and proved hes still the undisputed master of the gangster genre. Its a deeply reflective, muted film that works both as a throwback to the golden era of these mens careers and a critical reexamination of their own legacies. Pacino, playing union president Jimmy Hoffa, reignites his firebrand charisma only to immediately ground it in a complex web of righteousness and moral indignation. It might not be the showiest performance of his career, but its a sublime return to form.
5/10 6. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Carlitos Way never deserved its reputation as Scarfaces little sibling. Yes, the surface similarities are there theyre both De Palma-directed stories that star Pacino as a Latinx criminal-type. But theyre tonally alien to each other. Scarface is the parody of masculinity, while Carlitos Way tackles the idea with far more sincerity. Its main character, Carlito Brigante, has vowed to go straight, but finds that the past is near-impossible to escape. And so Pacinos approach here is to go softer and more understated, underpinned by a sense of tragic inevitability. Carlitos clearly uncomfortable with this new skin hes crafted for himself. When his newfound dedication to morality backfires, audiences are sure to come away with a bitter taste in their mouth.
6/10 5. Panic in Needle Park (1971)
When Panic in Needle Park was first released, few paid attention to Pacinos nervy, heated performance as a New York drug addict. It was the second film he ever did, but it was also his co-star Kitty Winns screen debut audiences fell hard for her raw vulnerability and for the way fear flickered in her eyes like a trapped moth. She won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Its a shame she never enjoyed a career like Pacinos. But Panic in the Needle Park is not only an important Pacino performance, its a mesmerising one the actor here appears as a fully formed talent. Co-written by Joan Didion, the film navigates all the highs and lows of the addiction cycle, and Pacino readily embraces each emotional swing. He can express love in its purest form and at its most curdled. The films director, Schatzberg, would work with him again in Scarecrow, while it also landed him his career-changing role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
7/10 4. Serpico (1973)
Pacinos greatest performances are all concentrated in a single run of films, kicked off by 1971s Panic in Needle Park and concluding with 1975s Dog Day Afternoon. Tucked in-between the first two Godfathers is Sidney Lumets compelling cop-drama Serpico a chance for Pacino to hop the moral fence and explore life as the good guy. It also gave him an opportunity to grow out a luscious head of hippie hair and a hefty beard. The film is based on the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, a whistleblower who exposed rampant corruption in law enforcement and suffered greatly for it. But Pacino was able to bring the same qualities here as he did to his usual rogues gallery. Franks sanity is stretched on the rack until its at the maximum point of tension. But the anger here is righteous, at least.
8/10 3. The Godfather (1972)
The studio never wanted Pacino to play Michael Corleone. To them, he was far too screwy and intense still the drug addict from Panic in Needle Park. What the Godfather needed was the strong jawline and starry charisma of a Robert Redford or a Warren Beatty. But Francis Ford Coppola recognised something in Pacino, which he described as, this striking magnetic quality, this smouldering ambience. Only he could faithfully portray a man robbed of his innocence by the invisible, but undeniable pull of familial duty. Michael is committed to living a normal, American life outside of the mob, but finds himself drawn back into the endless cycle of violence his family perpetuates. As Pacinos face hardens and grows colder, Michael comes to the realisation that not only can he not escape the sins of his father there is nothing to do but embrace them.
9/10 2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
One of the quintessential Pacino scenes sees him pace and up down the sidewalk outside of a city bank like a caged tiger. Hes playing Sonny Wortzik, a bank robber up against the wall. The police have him surrounded. The media can taste blood. He knows that things will end badly. All he can do now is try to take some small control of the situation. And so he starts to cry Attica! Attica! Attica!, riling the crowd up by reminding them of the brute force law enforcement used in a riot at the Attica prison a year earlier. Pacino is filled with a kind of transcendent hysteria here. He spits the words out like hes exorcising a malevolent spirit from his body. Lumets film (his second collaboration with Pacino after Panic in Needle Park) is a captivating, sensory slice of 1970s New York. Pacino brings both texture and depth to that world.
10/10 1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Michael Corleone is, undeniably, the greatest role of the actors career. What makes the difference between his performance in the first and second Godfather films (the third is probably best left unmentioned) is the extent of his transformation. He starts to fall in Part I, but becomes unrecognisable by Part II. Hes a man now willing to murder his own family in order to keep its sanctity. When he gives his brother Fredo (John Cazale) the kiss of death, his emotions shift so quickly between raptorial fury theres a moment you think he might just crush Fredo with his own hands and a profound sense of loss. Its one of Hollywood s great tragic arcs. And Pacino commits like his life depends on it those eyes were so used to seeing filled with fiery rage are now also flecked with deep guilt and regret. Pacino was nominated for an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, but lost the award to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto. It still remains one of the Academys most outrageous blunders.
Outside the home, Pacino, who was always called Sonny, was running wild. He began smoking at nine and was drinking hard liquor by the time he was 13. He was part of a street gang called The Red Wings. There are stories about Pacino squaring up to adults, even attacking one with a stick. He also punched a stranger who insulted his mother. He suffered a concussion after one brawl. I learnt defensive fighting at a young age, Pacino told Lawrence Grobel in Al Pacino: The Authorised Biography.
School was unenjoyable for Pacino, who said he was a dunderhead. He was consigned to a class for emotionally disturbed kids for a couple of days. After leaving Herman Ridder Junior High School at 15, Pacino took on a plethora of jobs, including shoe shining, working in a supermarket and working as a busboy. The hardest job, he said, was moving furniture. Perhaps his most noteworthy employment was as an office boy in the mailroom of the magazine Commentary.
During these grim days, he was still burning with the desire to be an actor. In 1967, at 27, Pacino met Charlie Laughton in a bar in Greenwich Village. The meeting changed his life. Laughton was an acting teacher at the Herbert Berghof Studio and persuaded him to enrol. He became Pacinos mentor, introducing him to great writers such as Joyce and Rimbaud. In those knockabout years, you could not find me without a book, said Pacino.
Even though he was always in bars at night, Pacino was working ferociously at his craft during the day, soaking up all he could at the Actors Studio. His first break was appearing in regional theatre in Boston. His Broadway debut came in 1969, the same year he made his film debut in Me, Natalie. Most importantly, he found his purpose. Acting is what Im meant to do, Pacino told TheNew Yorker. With this, everything suddenly coheres, and I understand myself.
Pacino drew on all the experiences and turmoil in his life to become one of the most empathetic actors of the modern age. He has brought his own magic to portrayals of some of cinemas most memorable characters, including mafia boss Corleone; the whistleblowing cop Frank Serpico; the drug lord Tony Montana in Scarface; bank robber Wortzik; the slick salesman Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino is a genuine Hollywood great. I dont believe in God; I believe in Al Pacino, said Oscar winner Javier Bardem.
Pacino holds aloft the Best Actor Oscar he earned for his role in Scent of a Woman (AFP/Getty)
Yet winning his battle with booze must rank as one of the greatest achievements of a remarkable life. Pacino credits Laughton with making him recognise his addiction. It was a powerful moment in my life I wouldnt have made it without Charlie, Pacino told Playboy. He has been sober since 1977.
Despite his meltdown in London, he remained fond of the UKs capital and returned to the city throughout his career. In 1984, he performed in David Mamets American Buffalo at the Duke of York Theatre. In 1996, he visited the Globe Theatre while he was making the documentary Looking for Richard III. That was the year, incidentally, that he was supposedly turned away from the Groucho Club after the receptionist mistook the actor, dressed in a large shabby overcoat, for one of Sohos down-and-outs.
Pacino, who always wears sunglasses outdoors to stay unrecognised, has consistently complained about the public attention his career has brought. He has talked wistfully about not being able to do normal things like riding the subway or go out in public with his three children. The spotlight is unlikely to go away, however, something demonstrated by the global publicity inspired by the recent remarks of his ex-lover, Meital Dohan. The 40-year-old Israeli actor said in February that she was leaving the elderly Pacino because the age gap is difficult.
James Caan, who turned 80 in March, says that his Godfather co-star has always been pretty complex. He says Hollywood knew in 1972 that a special talent had appeared on the scene. Although Pacino was the weird guy in the corner, I think we all knew at the time that the guy in the corner was mushrooming into probably one of the greatest talents of all time in our industry.