12/19/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Al Pacino at Height of Powers in "The Humbling!"

all photos from Millenium

Last night at a screening room in Beverly HiIls I attended a preview showing of Al Pacino's new film, THE HUMBLING, from Millennium Pictures, which is getting a limited Oscar release prior to its general showing in the new year. I was seated next to an old friend and made the 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 and a little befuddlement at what we had just seen. All in all, we decided that we liked the movie a good deal but that it was weird and puzzling at the same time.

Al Pacino plasy an aging actor.

It is the story of Simon Axler (Al Pacino), a famed stage actor who becomes depressed and then suicidal when he suddenly and inexplicably loses his gift. In an attempt to get his 'mojo' back, he enters into an affair with a lusty lesbian woman, Pegeen, half his age (an excellent Greta Gerwig). Before long, the relationship causes chaos as people from the romantic duo's past resurface. Barry Levinson directed the screenplay by Buck Henry and Miichal Zebede based on Philip Roth's last novel. I read that the 74-year old Al optioned the book himself and then brought Barry in. They enlisted Buck Henry to write it. (I wonder what he has been doing; it's been a long time since The Graduate.) They made the movie for peanuts, $2 million, and shot it in 20 days 'in increments' over the course of 3 months, mostly at Barry's house in Connecticut. I was pleased to see the wonderful Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest in it, along with Charles Grodin, and then a name from my past, Dan Hedaya, playing Greta's father. I once produced a movie with James Brolin called "Night of the Juggler," a chase movie throughout New York, with Brolin after Dan Hedaya, who has kidnapped his daughter. Mandy Patenkin had his first role in that film as a madcap taxi driver; I think I spotted him in an unbilled small part in this Pacino film.

Greta and Al.

It was this very week in 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." 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. 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.

Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest plays Greta's mother

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.
If you read the headlines from New York this week, Rikers is back in the news and our story is more pertinent than ever. But Al was stuck, broke and no job. He came to me for help. 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 of last week 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.

Director Barry Lwvinson and Pacino at the premiere of "The Humbling"

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.

Over the years I have run into him from time to time. Once he was hosting a birthday dinner for Diane Keaton at the old Dominick's and I was there with Dinah Shore; Al came by to say hello. And a few yesrs ago my friend Penny McTaggart and I went o a screening of a small vanity picture about Richard III which Al had directed and starred in. Afterwards, we went to the theatre lobby for the reception and we saw Al off in a corner smoking a cigar. He beckoned us over and when we got there he put his arms around me and said to her: "I would not be here tonight if it weren't for him" Praise enough. So go see THE HUMBLING when it comes out to experience a great actor at the peak of his considerable talents.

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