Long before Al Pacino was Al Pacino, he was a struggling New York actor, entrenched in the downtown theatre scene and grinding away at odd jobs to pay the bills. One of the first stops on his road to becoming a Tony-, Oscar-, and Emmy-winning icon was the Actors Studio.
“If you were a young actor, that’s where you wanted to go,” says Pacino. The longtime actor admits that his profession began almost as a lark. He began acting in school as a way to get out of his more boring classes. “I never thought this was going to happen. I just kept doing it, and then finally one day, a long time ago, I thought, ’I can express myself here.'" He also adds that acting “saved my life.”
Pacino loves the Studio so much that he now serves as a co-president of the Actors Studio alongside Ellen Burstyn. The Actors Studio is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a screening of the Oscar-winning film Dog Day Afternoon, followed by a live interview with Pacino. The event will take place October 27 at New York City’s United Palace. VIP tickets include premium seating and a backstage meet-and-greet with Pacino following the screening.
The Studio was founded in 1947 by three members of the Group Theatre: Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis. It was founded as an artistic home for actors, writers, and directors to work on their craft without the commercial pressures of success. Legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg came on board as director in 1951. The mid-century membership roster is not only a who’s who of Hollywood celebrities, but also contains names that seemed to re-define the American actor. The era shifted from the Mid-Atlantic accented patter of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to the more natural and effortless deliveries of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Other Actors Studio members included Eli Wallach, Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft, and, of course, Pacino.
“By the time I went there, it had become very popular,” say Pacino. Membership to the Studio is free, but an audition is required, and Pacino admits that even he had to audition twice before he was accepted in 1966: “It was a glorious feeling. I’d hardly ever felt anything like that.” For the young Pacino, the Studio became an artistic home in a city that was challenging for young actors, where “you’re fortunate if you don’t have to pay to perform.”
Pacino talks with reverence of the Studio, as an artistic institution where his creative work led to self-discovery. “I could try things out that I knew I would never have a chance to do in the professional world,” He says. “I got to play roles I didn’t dream I would ever play without the pressure of having to succeed, or having to do something in such a way that it’s applauded. It was all about developing, finding out, and searching.”
One such role was King Oedipus in the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, which Pacino did at the Studio with a young Dianne Wiest and Estelle Parsons. “I would never think of doing Oedipus,” he says. “In order to do Oedipus, I’d have to go downtown and find a theatre to do it in, and you’d have to limit the performances.”
The 75th anniversary event and Pacino’s participation stem from his admiration for the Studio and his deep love for his craft. “I love performing for audiences. I love the excitement of it," he says. "Live theatre is different than anything else, because once you start—your adrenaline, the energy, the sense of a room, the excitement of that.”
Pacino does laugh a bit at the idea of a benefit for actors, “I think people are saying to themselves, ‘What the hell’s this Actors Studio? A bunch of actors go in there to work and I’m going to pay for it?’” But the Studio—beyond its community of actors, writers, and directors—also provides financial support to its members through various memorial funds. And what it also does is teach young actors to dig into the material and try some unconventional approaches, like how a young Pacino spoke up when he starred as Hamlet opposite Meryl Streep in the 1970s.
“I don’t think Hamlet was my role, I have to be honest. Hamlet speaks to the ghost, and I remember saying to [director] Joseph Papp, ‘I’m not interested in speaking to my father right now as the ghost. I want to save that. I’m interested in speaking to my father before he became a ghost.’ Shortly after that, I was fired,” Pacino says with a giggle.
“But that wouldn’t happen if I were at the Actors Studio,” Pacino says of his artistic home, where exploration is always encouraged.
For tickets and more information about the 75th anniversary screening of Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino, click here.