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A night with an acting icon: Steve Persall on sharing the stage with Al Pacino

Steve Persall moderated Tuesday’s evening with Al Pacino at Ruth Eckerd Hall, where the actor lit up the stage.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Steve Persall moderated Tuesday’s evening with Al Pacino at Ruth Eckerd Hall, where the actor lit up the stage.

Actors often speak about "coming alive" on stage, a phrase that always seemed like a sound byte cliche until Tuesday night when I witnessed it happening.

The scene was center stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall but the backstory was backstage, two hours before show time. I'd been asked to moderate an evening with Al Pacino, spending time onstage conversing with the revered actor in front of nearly 1,600 fans. His fans, of course; not mine.

The audience caught Pacino at his moment of resurrection, stepping to center stage in the dark then suddenly bathed in spotlights and a spontaneous standing ovation. After a few seconds I joined him at our chairs but it wasn't the same Al Pacino with whom I'd shared two minutes of small talk at sound check and sneaked glances at backstage.

That Al Pacino seemed shorter, with the tired shuffle of someone who has traveled too much lately. More like Pacino in Insomnia than Serpico. Very cordial and quiet, with a hint of shyness in new surroundings. Most of Pacino's preshow time was spent in a dressing room, except for a browse past the catered buffet, pointing to what an assistant should bring back.

The Al Pacino later greeted on stage had a big grin, firmer handshake and a gleam in his eyes that momentarily threw me off. Pacino was suddenly alive, on a stage with an audience to please and more than enough energy to do it.

People in the theater seats got a terrific show. I got schooled in theatrical alchemy by a master.

I'm certain my colleague John Fleming understands such transformations as a theater critic, the high-wire effect that I now realize Pacino was saving up for. We don't get that feeling in movies, months after the acting fact, with awkward moments edited out.

Everyone seemed to enjoy Pacino's appearance, his anecdotes from making The Godfather and memories of the late Sidney Lumet, who directed him in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and came up with the idea to set Scarface in Miami's Cuban boatlift culture of the 1980s.

My apologies to folks lined up for the Q&A who didn't get to ask a question. The show was designated for 110 minutes; it ran 10 minutes later and would've been longer had Pacino not forgotten his eyeglasses backstage, cutting short a dramatic reading finale. To quote Vito Corleone: "There just wasn't enough time."

The best memory I'll take away from Tuesday — it's a twofer; one visual and the other comical, both occurring in a matter of seconds, midway through the audience Q&A.

Someone mentioned the famous "Attica! Attica!" chant from Dog Day Afternoon. "There's a great story about that," Pacino said. Then true to free-form he began spinning another, about a different movie.

Finishing that one, he leaped to center stage and momentarily eclipsed the spotlights, creating a flashy silhouette suitable for a Bob Fosse flick. I nearly swooned before Pacino's voice snapped me back to his "Attica" anecdote. He couldn't find the right word.

"They had a difficult time at, at, that prison, what do they call it?

Behind him, I hesitantly said: "Attica?"

"That's it!" Pacino said, pointing at me and laughing about drawing that particular blank. He probably won't forget it again. Me either.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.

A night with an acting icon: Steve Persall on sharing the stage with Al Pacino 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 9:49pm]
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