They made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
In a single evening, they told me, I could have a sit-down chat with the original Teflon don Michael Corleone, the cruder mobster Tony Montana and the honest lawyer/cop tag team of Arthur Kirkland and Frank Serpico.
Each of those characters has been chiseled in film lore with coiled-spring verve by one of the world's most revered actors, Al Pacino.
My real-life chat with Pacino won't be private. There could be a couple thousand eavesdroppers. A few will join in, asking what they have always wondered about this 71-year-old stage and screen icon, an Oscar, Emmy and Tony winner who seemingly adds to his legacy each week. All that's required is a ticket to "Al Pacino: One Night Only" — his lone Florida show — Tuesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
I'd buy one, but I already have the best seat in the house, next to Pacino onstage during an Inside the Actors Studio-style conversation. Sharing a stage in any capacity with a legend like Pacino is something to even tell other people's grandchildren about.
It's also unnerving. The last thing I want is Pacino's piercing eyes aimed at me like I'm Fredo, the Corleone who typically and spectacularly failed. Fredo has popped into my head as much as the late comedian Chris Farley, with his Saturday Night Live sketches about a painfully unprepared talk show host irking celebrities like Paul McCartney:
"Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was cool."
I'm pretty sure the evening won't sink to that level of discourse.
Reports from earlier tour dates are that Pacino takes a conversational flamethrower to places he visits, fully engaging the audience, and appearing more animated than some expected. The man can and will tell stories. Don't expect a stuffy artiste: At one show, Pacino obliged an audience member's request for a Scent of a Woman "Hooah!" before she finished asking. This is going to be fun.
Prepping for Pacino is a pleasure, a chance to revisit performances still feeling fresh as originality becomes extinct: a junkie struggling through a Panic in Needle Park, a fool for love in Frankie and Johnny, a comic book villain in Dick Tracy, and too many ethical dilemmas on both sides of the law to list. Pacino's Mount Rushmore of roles — The Godfather trilogy, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Scarface — were already committed to memory.
Researching Pacino's career also brings stirring revelations, which seems an odd thing to say about someone we believe we know after so many memorable performances. That's normal, and true about actors who aren't as fascinating, which is to say most of them.
The surprises — and several talking points — might have escaped me if not for a request from Pacino's camp to get familiar with his work as a director. His three relatively obscure films will certainly figure into our conversation. (I will see a screening of Pacino's fourth, Wilde Salome, before the show.)
It would be embarrassing to admit that I'd seen only one of Pacino's previous directorical creations, 1996's backstage documentary Looking for Richard, except that hardly anyone else saw the other two films either. Chinese Coffee (2000) played at a few festivals and art houses. The Local Stigmatic (1990) didn't make it that far, becoming a kind of Holy Grail for Pacinophiles; some consider it their favorite performance in his canon.
Taken as a whole, available in the DVD box set Pacino: An Actor's Vision, these movies and accompanying extras offer tantalizing clues to what makes this actor tick.
Possibly closest to his heart and creative wheelhouse is Looking for Richard, in which Pacino seeks to enlighten others on the joys of William Shakespeare. The notion of producing an off-stage version of Richard III leads to illuminating discussions among players such as Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder about the meaning and merits of the Bard's words today. The play's the thing, but Pacino revels in the arduous journey of shaping it for an audience.
The movie also contains puckish moments, as when Pacino interviews people on the street about their Shakespearean impressions. He isn't offended when a young woman says Hamlet "sucked"; nor is he deterred from cajoling her to try again. There's a zealous realism in Pacino's passion for the stage, actors in general and endangered species of classics.
The other two gems are contemporary stage adaptations, each initially striking Pacino's fancy through New York's famed Actors Studio, still his home away from home and, judging from DVD commentaries, a subject he enjoys discussing.
Chinese Coffee features Pacino and the late Jerry Orbach as friends whose symbiotic bond is demolished in a single night. Like the even more obscure The Local Stigmatic, it dredges murky themes of fame, jealousy and the process of creating art (although the latter film's "artists" are sociopaths working in shades of bruise).
Through these films, we understand Pacino's creative ardors and ambitions, what turns that inner key to get his motor revving and his mouth running.
If not, there's always: "Remember when you were in The Godfather? That was cool."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.