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Al Pacino Plays Aging Rock Star in "Danny Collins"

03/25/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2015

christoher plummer andpacino all phootos from Bleeker Street

Last night, Friday, at the AMC 15 Theatre in Century City I attended a showing of Al Pacino's new film, DANNY COLLINS, from Bleeker Street Media. Pictures, which is getting a limited release starting today. I happened to be seated next to an old friend, and I made the ego-driven mistake of mentioning that I had actually discovered Al and put him into his first Broadway show. After the screening we caucused in the lobby and smiled at each other as we shook our heads in wonder at the excellence of what we had just seen. All in all, we decided that we really liked the movie a great deal. In fact I told old acquaintance Harris Katelman, who was entering the theatre, that I thought it was Pacino's best performance in years and one of the fjnest pictures I had seen thus far this year. (And my Huffington readers may recall that I wrote a lauditory review of Al's The Humbling just a few months ago.)

danny's family
Dannys' famaily in the film.

annette bening is superb
Annette Bening is delightful.

After a stop at the best Chinese restaurant on the west side of the city right next to the AMC movie house (Meizhou Dongpo, which was featuring several new dishes which they wanted me to try - Diced Beef in Black Pepper Sauce and Shrimp with fresh tomato sauce), I staggered home to view Charlie Rose as I do every night..... and there was an hour-long interview with Pacino. I fixed a stiff glass of Pernod (drizzled with water atop some ice) and watched the skilled, respectful, well-prepared Rose interact with the actor. Al was more open, more direct, yes more honest... than I had ever seen him before. He brought many new anecdotes and stories, and was utterly beguiling as an actor and as a man. What he did was augment a tale of which I am inordinately proud and which has never been told until now.

But first for Danny Collins. The picture opens with a rather amusing title: "The following is based on a kind of true story a little bit." It seems that in the early '70s, a young rock star had given an interview which was read by John Lennon and Yoko. Lennon sent a letter to him with some pertinent career advice, and gave his phone number at the bottom. The letter never was delivered....a greedy manager held it and then sold it to a Beatles collector. Forty years later the rock star's manager bought it back from the collector and gave it to the original recipient. (In the end credits for the film, we see the actual musician, Steve Tilston, tell the 1971 story and show the real letter.) In the film, Danny Collins (Pacino) is celebrating his 74th birthday with the usual drugs, sex and alcohol. We open with a huge rock concert where Danny sings his signature song, Hey Baby Doll, which sounds suspiciously like Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline. (Filmed at an actual Greek concert with Pacino.) His manager Frank Grubman, the superb Christopher Plummer, gives him a birthday present of such a letter to him from Lennon of 40 years ago (while Lennon's "Imagine" plays on the soundtrack). Danny is shocked and decides to try and change his life, to follow the advice in the letter - be true to your art and yourself. He chooses to go to New Jersey (New Jersey?) to see an adult son, Tom, he has never met, played by Bobby Cannavale. The son's wife, Samantha, is a pregnant Jennifer Garner and they have a delighful hyperactive daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). A true revelation was Annette Bening as the no-nonsence but assured, witty manager, Mary Sinclair, of the small Hilton hoel in Jersey where Danny resides while working on his family. "We have good patter," he tells her, and it's true. 'Nuff said. The noted screenwriter Dan Fogelman ("Crazy Stupid Love," Last Vegas," "The Guilty Trip") directed his first film with a sure hand. The producers were Jessie Nelson and Namitt Mankad, along with Denise Di Novi and Shivari Rawat, while the new Bleeker Street distributes. Kudos to all. A warm, adult film which will be remembered at award time.

It was this very week in late March of 1968 that I went to a small off-off-Broadway theater in an abandoned building in downtown Manhattan to see a play there called "An Indian Takes the Bronx." Last night Al told Charlie Rose that his appearance in this Israel Horowitz play changed his ife. Here is how. I was in the midst of producing my first Broadway show, a work by Philadelphia schoolteacher-playwright Don Petersen called DOES A TIGER WEAR A NECKTIE? The title coms from a common expression: "Does a bear s--t in the woods, does a tiger wear a necktie?" I had become involved in it because my upstairs neighbor was Philip Rose, one of the original producers of Lorraine Hansbury's classic "Raisin in the Sun," (which starred a young Sidney Poitier). Philip asked me to read the play and then I came aboard as co-producer. I was involved at the time with CBS Films in setting up my production of the Billie Holiday movie, "Lady Sings The Blues," so I gave a copy of the play to the top honchos of that company.... they loved it, coming aboard for most of the financing in return for the screen rights. A playboy heir of the A&P grocery fortune, Huntington Hartford, came in for the rest. We had set Hal Holbrook as the schoolteacher of a class of rebellious youths of both sexes in the East River's Rikers Island prison school. (Rikers is much in the news these days. Nothing has changed.) David Opatashu was playing the school psychiatrist and the acclaimed black director Michael Schultz was with me on it. All that was missing was the lead white male role of the student, Bickham, around whom most of the action revolves. That night in 1968 I went backstage with Schultz and handed the young Pacino a few pages of "sides," some scenes from the Bickham role. Told him we were doing auditions the next day at the Barrymore Theatre and suggested he come in and read for us. The next day, we had read some 150 actors....good people like Jon Voight and every other young rising actor around, to no avail. At about 5 pm a figure wearing a long olive army coat and a hat pulled tight over his ears shuffled on stage holding a can of beer. "I'm a little drunk, he said, "but I'd like to try it." As he began to do the Bickham scene, Michael and I looked at each in surprise and smiled...the power, the intensity, the anger was all there. He was flawless and superb. We have our Bickham," I whispered to Schultz.

I vividly recall one event on opening night. At the start of the play, the surly Bickham character has to come to the psychiatrist's office for an evaluation. When Al as Bickham walked into the office and without looking back viciously slammed the door shut with his foot, the audience collectively inhaled with a whimper of fear.....and I knew we had them. Like all producers, we waited at Sardi's back room for the press agent to bring the next day's papers with the revues.The New York Times came out about midnight. It was a decent review from critic Brooks Atkinson, with a special hurrah for young Pacino. The play ran a respectable few months and we made plans for the CBS film version. Academy Award-winner Frank Pierson ("Cool Hand Luke") did a magnificent screenplay, and we were fortunate enough to sign Arthur Hiller to direct. Of course Pacino was on board as one of the leads. In May the Tony Awards were broadcast and Al Pacino won for the best new actor of the year, making my heart sing when he thanked me for giving him the role.

Then disaster struck. CBS Films was suddenly shut down....and our picture went down the drain.
Al was stuck, broke and no job.He came to me for help. I introduced him to a director/photographer named Jerry Schatzberg who was doing a small independent film, "Panic in Needle Park," and Al had the role. I happened to know Francis Coppola from my days as Production VP of Palomar/ABC Pictures, where I had hired him right off of a UCLA small film he had done to direct The Hostages, a kidnapping story about UN kids. Francis had then called me and said that he had been offered the chance to direct the musical, Finian's Rainbow, at Warners, a big, big deal. I let him out of his contract and then hired Billy Friedkin off of a Sonny and Cher ABC movie..., but the picture never got made. Francis was getting ready to make a small gangster movie at Paramount called "The Godfather," where I had just set up my Lady Sings The Blues thanks to the late Frank Yablans. (See my "Jaywalking in L.A." HuffPost for that full story.) I told Francis, who was casting in New York, that I thought Pacino might be a good choice for the role of Sonny in his film, the brash son of Don Corleone. He told me to have Al come over to a casting session.

Three weeks later, my doorbell at Central Park West rang and Al slid his way into my office, asking if he could borrow 25 cents for the bus ride uptown to Harlem (where he was living with actress Jill Clayburgh.) "Oh, by the way, I got the role of Michael." "No," I replied, "You were meant for Sonny." Pacino shrugged and said, "I guess he thought I would make a better Michael." Needless to say, Al did make a fabulous Michael....although the studio head Bob Evans kept trying to fire him; Francis fought back and won. We were both shooting our pictures on the Paramount lot at the same time, and I recall one night when Francis was using the studio's main administration building as the hospital set for the scene where the dirty cops come to kill the Godfather, while I was shooting a musical number down the street on a big stage set. Fortunately, both pictures turned out to be rather successful, and Al Pacino became a star of the first magnitude, with 8 Oscar nominations and one win for Scent of a Woman.
So go see DANNY COLLINS this week to experience a great actor at the peak of his considerable talents.

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