Attempting 'richard Iii' Has Made Al Pacino the Toast of Broadway—burnt Toast, That Is
07/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
The first time he ventured the role of the hunchback Richard III, Shakespeare's most grotesque villain, Al Pacino recalls, "Things kept coming out of me. I took my hump on and off at will. I put a little stuffing on my back. I did a turkey Richard. I'd change my accent—English, Japanese. I did Richard as many different people—Lee Strasberg, George C. Scott, my grandmother." That was in Boston in 1973. Now the kid from the South Bronx, who has become America's most audacious character actor, is having another go as the murderous English king on Broadway. For most of the New York critics, if not the legion of Pacino fans, he is still a turkey Richard.
It must be said that the definitive performance of the role on Broadway was Laurence Olivier's in 1946, and reviewers already began clobbering Pacino in Philadelphia ("too small for his hump," declared Variety). As poor Richard headed toward the Great White Way, cast-mate Max Wright reports Pacino "was in a paralyzing depression. He was eating a box of Entenmann's chocolate doughnuts a day. He says he had no pants that fit him." He stopped smoking and took a crash course with a voice teacher. Then, a week before the opening, Al snapped out of it. "He was constantly up and workmanly," says Wright, "in a sort of overdrive." The 5'7", 39-year-old Pacino took Napoleonic control of the production. He called in two extra directors, allowed two actors to be fired and spread the critics over four days to improve his odds and decrease the pressure. More important, he allowed no reviews to be printed until five weeks into the nine-week run; by then so many advance tickets had been sold that the show was reviewer-proof.
With all that, even softie New York Post critic Clive Barnes, though awed by Pacino, admitted it was "an awful Shakespearean production." Yet for Al, it was clearly love's labor: He could have commanded a minimum of $9,000 a week, but has been collecting only a token $2,000. No one could have blamed an actor with credits like both Godfathers, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon for wanting to flee the chaos—or at least sign up for a seven-figure disaster movie as consolation.
Not Pacino. Instead, he has been working intense 12-hour days for three and a half months on Richard. Says co-producer Gerald Schoenfeld: "He is generally so tight after a performance that he goes out and walks for several hours."
His frequent companion of late has not been Swiss actress Marthe Keller, 36, Al's co-star in his last movie, Bobby Deerfield, and his lady for more than two years, but Maureen Springer, 30. She is co-owner of a chic Manhattan beauty salon and an aspiring actress. ("Acting isn't so tough," she says. "You have to know the right people.") Pacino, who will star in William Friedkin's Cruising, which begins filming this month after Richard closes, has reportedly suggested Maureen for the role of his onscreen girlfriend. (He plays a straight cop in the script, which is about the homosexual scene.)
Meanwhile, Keller has just returned to Manhattan after a rave run in Chekhov's Three Sisters in Paris and has added a Dior wedding dress to her wardrobe. "Well, a girl doesn't know when she'll need one," she's explained. To paraphrase the line in Richard III, this could be the summer of Pacino's discontent.