Al Pacino charms and rambles at Ruth Eckerd

The Godfather, Serpico and company, live and in person

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click to enlarge Al Pacino charms and rambles at Ruth Eckerd - Photos by Kevin Tighe
Photos by Kevin Tighe
Al Pacino charms and rambles at Ruth Eckerd

Al Pacino entertained a just-above three-quarter-filled room in Ruth Eckerd Hall Tuesday night with his wily anecdotes and self-deprecating humor.

The animated celeb earnestly portrayed himself as a sweetly charming eccentric genius, even when he played the part of teacher to his less theater-centric fans.

The evening began with an introduction from Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Robert Freedman, followed by a video montage of Pacino’s films and plays. It included famous scenes from The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Tony Montana’s “Say hello to my little friend” eruption in Scarface and the underrated And Justice for All freak-out, “This court is out of order!”

Afterward, the theater went black and Pacino emerged from a spotlight center stage, waving to the audience and grinning ear to ear.

St. Petersburg Times movie critic Steve Persall led the discussion about Pacino’s career. The presentation included scenes from some of the star’s less-popular work: the obscure and ominous celeb-stalker flick The Local Stigmatic (1990) and his upcoming release, Wilde Salome, another meta-exploration in the vein of his Richard III foray, Looking for Richard, that’s scheduled to premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

The Academy Award winner also mentioned upcoming roles as Phil Spector in an upcoming HBO movie and John Gotti Sr. (with John Travolta) in Gotti: Three Generations.

The lights in the house remained on during the speaking portions, which perhaps spoke a little to Pacino’s stalker paranoia, a topic he hinted at and joked about more than once.

The penultimate performance of the event, a scene from Orpheus Descending, fell flat. Portraying both Val and Lady, Pacino was unconvincing and went on a bit long, even for Tennessee Williams enthusiasts.

Pacino sunk into his plush chair next to Persall. As he settled in, his demeanor resembled that of an awkward tween. He slouched and played with his partially unbuttoned vest. His martial arts-style headband with disheveled hair teased above it added just the right touch.

A couple of key points weren’t touched upon.

First: Why were audiences charged the equivalent of utility bill ($99, $150) for the privilege to hear Pacino speak?

And, Why is he even on this tour?

No one asked. Persall didn’t, nor did the few audience members who made it to the mic during a limited Q&A.

Perhaps, fans were too starstruck at seeing Pacino in person to question the proceedings. Katie Pedretty, our media cohort at Ruth Eckerd Hall, said she was not informed of the actor’s motivations in going on tour, nor was the venue made aware of any charities that might be receiving proceeds from the show's ticket sales.

However, Pacino did mention the Actor’s Fund at the Actors Studio, the institution formed by the late Lee Strasberg, of which he’s “co-president” alongside Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn. Perhaps he’s discreetly giving his money to the fund, which would provide a palatable explanation for last night’s entry fee.

So, was seeing the 71-year-old actor live in the fleshy flesh worth shelling out a C-note or more?

Yes and no. For super fans, movie buffs and theater enthusiasts, it was a rare and fascinating treat, offering a more intimate understanding of Pacino’s animated and eccentric genius — and the acting process overall.

It’s common knowledge that Pacino immerses himself in his roles, but the audience got a firsthand glimpse of his empathic nature, whether he was speaking about his directors, characters or peers. Pacino’s passion commands respect; there’s a lovable and visceral quality about him that we don't get too often in today’s detached social-media world.

The most effective feature of the night — one we could not have gone without — was the projection screen, which allowed us to see all of his many gapes, glints and gazes.

Throughout the night, Al’s colorful and well-nuanced stories amused the crowd when he didn’t lose them completely. We got to learn about how Pacino’s parents divorced when he was 2 and that his initial leanings toward theatrics involved him reenacting scenes from movies he'd seen with his mother the night before. He got laughs from his Army-vet dad when he was 6 with a pretend drunken outburst inspired by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.

We also learned that he was reluctant to go against type as the more subdued Corleone brother, Michael, in The Godfather. “Sonny is the role!” he exclaimed. Pacino also shared that all three leading actors — he, Marlon Brando and James Caan — were rejected for their roles before ultimately being cast.

He spoke reverently of directors Michael Mann (Heat) and Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico). He revealed that the assistant director of Dog Day Afternoon gave him the suggestion to ad-lib “Attica!"

An embarrassing anecdote involved a co-star reading and chuckling over a review that had nabbed him as the sole exception in an otherwise flawless production (of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing). He said he read the damning passage just as he was being cued to appear onstage.

It was during these more human moments that the actor “lit up the stage” — one of Pacino’s favorite metaphors of the night.

For Al Pacino fans, it was indeed an illuminating night.

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