Al Pacino Was Probably More Surprised by His Joe Paterno Than You Were

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Al Pacino has a favorite story he likes to tell. Early in his career, the actor was preparing to play Frank Serpico—the cop who exposed corruption in the New York Police Department—in Sidney Lumets 1973 biopic. But Pacino couldnt understand why the real-life Serpico would risk so much personally and professionally when he genuinely enjoyed being on patrol. So Pacino sat down with Serpico himself in Montauk and asked him, point-blank, “Why didnt you just take the money for a while”—i.e. the bribes Serpico was offered—“and give it to charity?”

“He looked me straight in the eye,” Pacino remembered, “and he said, Hell, if I did that, who would I be when I listened to Beethoven?”

Wow!” the actor exclaimed with Pacino-esque verve, recalling his response to Serpico. “I know what to do now.”

Forty-five years later, the Academy Award-winning actor has found himself playing a string of characters arguably on the other end of the moral spectrum in a series of HBO films—like Jack Kevorkian (You Dont Know Jack) and Phil Spector (Phil Spector). Pacino is a little more reluctant to meet these figures in the flesh. “One of the reasons,” he joked, “is the people I play are usually in prison.”

When Pacino signed on to play Joe Paterno in his most recent HBO collaboration though, he didnt even have that option. The movie centers on Paternos final months, when he was fired from Penn State after 61 years of employment—after it was determined he did not do enough to stop assistant coach Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing young boys. Soon after, Paterno died of complications from lung cancer. An odyssey of the conscious, Paterno relies on Pacinos ability to telegraph the complex inner workings of the football coach as he denied culpability, ruminated over events on and off the field, and struggled to determine his involvement in Sanduskys crimes. Since he never met Paterno, Pacino said there was a certain “dimension missing”—the kind that Serpico was able to fill in for him. Without that element, the actor said, “you have to come up with something on your own, and do a revisionist [take on the person].”

Paterno never gave a lengthy interview after he was fired, one that attempted to explain his permissiveness of Sandusky. He did admit in a statement, however, that his inaction with Sandusky was “one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Said Pacino, “As far as I can see, there was something that haunted [Paterno]—and haunted him without him being aware of it. Sometimes people are a certain way because there are things that are [weighing on their unconscious]. I dont see Joe lying on a couch somewhere and throwing this out to a psychiatrist.”


Archival Paterno videos proved an invaluable acting resource for Pacino. “With todays world and all this access thats available to you on the Internet, youre all but in somebodys living room,” he said. “I studied those videos like I did with Kevorkian and Spector—I just sat with myself, the script, and all the footage.”

Though he lamented the lack of rehearsals on film sets these days—and likened starting a project in 2018 to “jumping onto a moving train”—Pacino did go into Paterno with an above-average understanding of the subject material. About 20 years ago, he had spoken to a slew of football coaches while preparing to play a fictional veteran coach in 1999s Any Given Sunday. “The demands of football coaching are intense . . . Ive talked to a lot of coaches, and when you see what they have to deal with, its daunting.” Essentially, their job is to “handle a lot of grown-up men who need guidance;” Pacino noted that “there was a real delight [Paterno] had in watching these [players] mature.”

In the film, scripted by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, Paterno states that he was simply so singularly focused on those demands that he did not notice what was happening on the periphery of Penn States football program. At one point, after intense questioning from family members who dont understand how he could possibly not have known about Sanduskys abuse, Paterno responds in exasperation, “Look, Im not a detective. I see what I see.”

As Paterno, Pacino expertly winds through the complicated internal emotions of a man who devoted his life to leading young men into adulthood only to realize, in slow horror, that while concentrated on that mission, he actually allowed a predator into his midst.

The actor felt like Paterno began to be haunted by a nagging feeling—“not that he knew [about Sanduskys behavior], but he sensed that he did look away, perhaps,” said Pacino. His character had to process that realization, and the guilt it inspired.

“Now, this is the interpretation I had from the script,” Pacino was quick to point out. “It is not the real Paterno, who I cant vouch for, but I can vouch for the one who I was painting . . . What I saw was someone trying to figure out how he was going to handle this [crisis] . . . He loses ground, he gets defiant, he goes through all the various stages of withdrawal, and at the same time, somewhere way back in the mind, he knows the inevitable is coming.”

“I did a lot of probing in my own mind about it,” said Pacino, who also exchanged lengthy e-mails with director and frequent collaborator Barry Levinson about the character, the script, and Paternos possible culpability. Pacino and Levinson have worked together on and off since the 1979 courtroom drama …And Justice for All, which Levinson co-wrote, and the inherent trust Pacino has in Levinson is why he felt comfortable taking on a television movie at all—despite missing the leisurely pace of pre-production on films like Francis Ford Coppolas The Godfather.

“Its just easy to be around Barry. I like talking to him about anything, but especially work. So I felt confident going in that he was a person I could share with,” said Pacino, noting that he had another longtime colleague alongside him—Academy Award-winning Dick Tracy makeup artist John Caglione Jr. Caglione hand-sculpted six different noses for the character before he and Pacino decided on the right aesthetic. Each morning sans rehearsal, talking to Caglione in the makeup chair took on more importance than ever for Pacino. “Youre talking about the character with the makeup artist, youre interfacing with each other and youre making a character . . . Youre always trying to find some way to fill that gap [of not knowing the real person]. And thats a great way to do it.”

Five decades into his career, Pacino said that his acting has taken on a new form. After decades, Pacino said he now tries to absorb as much information as he can about a character—“and let the unconscious do the rest.”

Pacino likens his process to a painter who is so engrossed in his work up close that he is sometimes surprised to step away from the painting and see what he has created. For instance, with Paterno, the actor did not realize until he watched the movie that “the character I was playing was subconsciously guilty, and had been for a long time without being aware of it, without knowing he had done something.”

Even though media and the production process have changed, what Pacino enjoys about acting hasnt—not since the day he asked Serpico questions on a dock in Montauk. “I like the privacy of acting, believe it or not,” he said—“the time youre alone with the character.”

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.

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