Aging Rocker Role in 'Danny Collins' Prompts Pacino's 'Godfather' Memories

Al Pacino. Acting Icon. And now… pop star?

The legendary actor whose fierce, one-of-a-kind performances turned films like "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," Scarface," "Donnie Brasco" and, of course, "The Godfather" trilogy into all-time classics adds another perfectly realized character -- and one of his most warm and charming turns -- to his filmography with his latest film "Danny Collins." In the movie, Pacino plays an aged but still-popular, still-performing pop star who -- after discovering a long-lost letter penned to him early his promising career by John Lennon, enthusiastically urging him to stay true to his music -- turns his back on decades of selling out to find a new lease on life, as well as a connection with the son he never knew.

Making his directorial debut with the fictional story spun out of the real life discovery of a Lennon letter to musician Steve Tilston 34 years after it was sent, screenwriter Dan Fogleman ("Crazy, Stupid, Love," "The Guilt Trip," "Last Vegas") crafted a role for Pacino that the actor brings to life with aplomb. In a roundtable discussion with the press, the fun of the gig couldn't help but prompt Pacino to share some nostalgic memories about films and show biz moments that were just as exciting for him -- including his own encounter with Lennon.

This was a role that, even with the rock star element, was tailored specifically for you by Dan Fogelman.

Al Pacino: Dan wanted me to be in the picture. He saw me in the part, and that's always kind of -- to me, it's always surprising. But it's good to know a director wants you. I started that way with "The Godfather." Francis [Ford Coppola] wanted me. That was it -- I was unknown at the time, and even against everyone's outrage that he would want someone like me in that part… but he just stuck with it. Even I didn't think I had [a chance]: "Francis, it's okay..." But that was what he saw.

So much a part of directing, too, if you think of it, is casting. [He got] the people he wanted -- Marlon [Brando], myself, [Robert] Duvall and Jimmy Caan -- for that group. They rejected everybody. Then they rejected me and Marlon -- that was the big rejection. Then finally they accepted Marlon, but there was no way I was gonna be in it. So Francis really did stick by it, and eventually… and I don't know what I mean by all of that! I've just been going back, thinking about things, but basically, when a director wants you… it's encouraging, for one thing. We need all the encouragement we can get when we're doing one of these things. I had never done a part like this, for one.

At first glance at the role, what excited you about it, and what challenged or terrified you about it?

Well, I'm usually relatively terrified, in a way. By anything you do, because it's such a presumption. I seem to have the stand-by guide, which is the text. If I relate to it, if I really like it, or feel I'm somehow connected to it… especially now in these later years, I think, "Am I right for this? Am I connected to it? Is there something that I can say in it? Does it cover some aspect of my own insight in my life, my perception of things? Where I am right now -- my looks, my state of being?" You try to connect with that.

And with the singing: I had never sung, not really -- and the odd thing here is that I was in musical comedies as a kid. As a matter of fact, [legendary Broadway producer] Hal Prince hired me in the beginning when I was very young. He hired me to be in "Zorba the Greek," to play the Alan Bates role. Herschel Bernardi played Zorba, and I played the other guy. And he hired me! I remember, I was unknown. He saw me in a play, one of the first plays I did professionally in New York, but I had worked a lot in the theatre outside of New York in the provinces -- the whole birth of off-off-Broadway; that was all part of that. So I had a lot of experience, but I was still only 26 years old, and he hired me.

I remember saying, "Wow, Hal Prince… and me," but I remember, it was going away for 18 months. "How am I going to wait for 18 months?" and it wasn't for much money, and I said, "Well, it's great that I'm going to be with Hal Prince" -- who I love, by the way, and was so generous and sweet to me. But… I said, "Do you think you can write a scene or two in there for me?" [Hal said,] "Huh?" I said, "Well, I could use another song and a couple of scenes." He actually said, "Who the eff do you think you are?!" I said, "I'm an actor. I'm gonna be in this for 18 months watching Herschel Bernardi singing. That's good for a couple nights, but I gotta play a part. That's what I'm here for." And they were really appalled that I would actually say that, because why would I want that? I should just count my lucky stars that they want me. And I said, "Yes, I understand that. But what about the part? I think it would be better for the show." He said… Anyway, I wasn't long for that world. I was gone.

Dan Fogelman said you could recognize in the writing that he wrote it for you. What was it that made that obvious?

Well, probably I heard that he wrote it for me, maybe! But when I read it, I thought, for one thing, I really liked it. I thought this was a very sensitive person who has a real heart -- this kid has got a heart -- and he can write. No doubt about it. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." I mean, he can write. And this is his first picture [as director]. But I think I saw the vulnerability in this character that he had in the script. It was there. This is a real story, too, to start with, and it stirred Dan and made him imagine the rest of the script. The idea is there: this is a kid who, when he's starting out, is being touted as the next Bob Dylan at this age -- 20, 21. And his next song is a complete disaster and he's vilified, eviscerated. How do you cope with that at that age -- as a sensitive person? How do you deal with it?

I love the fact that he dealt with it as survivors do. He just said, "Okay, I can dance. I have some charm. I'm kind of good looking. I can get through a thing. I know how to do that, I know how to put over a song. Maybe I'm not the greatest singer in the world, but I know how to put over a song." That he went to those kind of things, and the mini-tragedy of it is he never looked back to his writing. He just left it. It scared him. He felt the impact of that shock. I enjoyed that in the character, that he had that survivor's ability. There's something cool about it, and something that ingratiates you to him. And I found him a very ingratiating character to play, so I enjoyed that fact. He was also -- even though he was kind of childish and self-centered in his ways -- there was a generosity to him, a size to him.

The film has the wonderful hook of the lost John Lennon letter to a promising newcomer, which happened in real life. Did your path ever intersect with John Lennon's?

The only time I saw John Lennon -- I saw Orson Welles the same way -- we were passing, and I was so grateful to have seen John Lennon -- and smiling at me -- in Central Park. I was walking, there was John Lennon, and I looked at that face and I knew I knew him. And he smiled in recognition of me, and I smiled back. That was all that happened. It was enough. It was great. I loved it. That he would recognize me, I was really surprised. But this was around… not long before he died -- it was around 1980. It was really sweet.

Dan said you told him this was the first time you cried at one of your movies. Just because none of the others have had the emotional impact, or… ?

Well, I cried at a few that were, you know… I didn't cry for the right reasons! [Laughs] I went home and cried. This one touched me. This one touched me in a way, without giving the film away, that these two men have met -- this parent and a child -- in this kind of way not really knowing each other, and somehow it shed light on that moment. You can have that moment with two people that have been together their whole life, and then they have that moment, but this juxtaposition just brought it out more how much we need each other. It doesn't matter -- father/son, daughter, friend, acquaintance -- it's the need for that in that moment that we all face, that we all have. It just brought it to me -- boom! -- it just hit me. I don't know how you felt about it, but I know it caught me off guard. I didn't cry, but I did tear up. I welled up. It made me feel something. It really made me feel.

You and Bobby Cannavale have a special bond, both on and off screen, so how much more did it mean to you that it was him in that role, playing your son?

Oh, Bobby! Bobby is… when you work on the stage with someone like that, you just merge in some way. The trust is there -- you always need the trust -- but the knowledge, understanding, the love is there! It's just there. Because that's what we do together. We're like tightrope walkers. We depend on each other. You can't help it. We perform. And so I felt that connection with Bobby. So it helps to have that.

Do you have to manage when people see you as an icon to get them to see you as a fellow actor?

Yeah. Well, you simply have to. When you get over the initial… thing… I mean, these are pros you're working with, so they're formidable actors. And before you know it, you're sort of throwing the ball back and forth. So there's no time to feel any other way but the way -- because you're interfacing in such a way that you're close. But I am aware of it, so I try not to put the foot on the gas to be over-friendly, because that can be a presumption. "I'm just an actor with you. Don't worry, we've got time" -- to myself, I say. And I think they sense it. And it works. We're all in the same boat.

Your chemistry certainly worked with Annette Bening, here. What was exciting about working with her?

She's sort of like, everywhere you go, you see a lioness. There she is in the cage, and you say, "Wow" -- but you don't get in the cage with her. But in this business, you get in the cage with her! I'm in the cage with a lioness! She is amazing. And she was so rich and full of energy and full of thought, sensitivity and all visceral and… wow. Just when you think [you've got it], she keeps going. You'd finish a take and she'd say, "Let's do it again! Let's go another way!" This is the kind of spirit… completely devoted to it. Oh, I'd love to work with her again. She's just that kind of person.

Did you ever write to anyone you respected or appreciated when you were younger?

Well, imagine Marlon. Holy smokes! Whoa! Marlon was… I couldn't believe it. But you have to play the part, and he was totally great with everybody. Marlon was always joking around and doing different things. And it was interesting with "Godfather" -- we all had a dinner once at Patsy's in Harlem. We first got together as a family. Francis had this dinner, and the most interesting thing that happened is that at the dinner, everybody went into their role. I sort of became a little bit… reluctant, a little moody. And after a while, we retreated into our characters'… Jimmy was up and Bob was involved. We sort of took our position. Diane Keaton was there. Marlon was at the head of the table. It's funny how that happened. It was a very clever idea by Francis to put us together that way.

"Danny Collins" is now playing in select theaters, now; it opens nationwide April 10.

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