03/28/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Al Pacino Plays Phil Spector in HBO Film

Al Pacino at the Venice Film Festival

On Sunday I attended a concert by musician Herb Alpert inaugurating the stunning Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre located in the Herb Alpert Educational Village in Santa Monica. It was an illustrious invited audience of people who had contributed to the creation of this astonishing educational complex dedicated to furthering the cause of education in America -- which is a roundabout way to get into this story of actor Al Pacino playing Phil Spector in that much-discussed (and very weird) HBO film. You see, I was coincidentally seated in the theatre next to legendary filmmakers Roger Corman and wife Julie... and remarked that Roger had produced a 1985 B-movie, Barbarian Queen, which has become a cult favorite; it starred the Amazonian 6 foot tall blond bombshell, Lana Clarkson... whose death was explored in the David Mamet-written and directed HBO film playing that very evening. I remarked to the Cormans that I had casually met Phil Spector many years ago... and actually knew Al Pacino very well some time ago and was responsible for the start of his illustrious career.

Lana Clarkson in early film publicity photo

I have very mixed feelings about the Mamet film... thought it was truncated (91 minutes), disturbing, prejudiced... and featured two stunning performances by Pacino and Helen Mirren. She played Linda Kenney Baden, the defense attorney brought in to augment the work of the original attorney, who took a million dollar fee and then returned to New York, leaving Spector's fate in her hands. The inconclusive film ends just as the trial is beginning, and we learn from a coda that he had a hung jury. In a second trial, Spector was found guilty of second degree murder and is serving a long sentence for murder. Did he shoot her... or did she kill herself? Or was it an unfortunate accident? I don't know if we will ever find out the truth... but both sides of the coin are presented in the exposition leading up to... the end. Or the end of the movie, anyway. The question arises of why there was no blood on Spector's white jacket if he had been holding the gun. The other day, a reporter in the L.A. Times made a point which was not mentioned in the Mamet film: "Clarkson died with her purse strap on her shoulder." She went on to surmise that no woman would shoulder her purse if she had been planning to commit suicide... or have sex with the incoherent Spector. Who knows?

No question that Pacino is a brilliant actor. He can chew up the scenery with the best of them, and then pedal down and bring in nuances of character, which are breathtaking. I first saw him perform in 1968 when he starred off-Broadway in Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx at the Astor Place Theatre, playing Murphy, a street punk. It was staged in a double bill with Horovitz's It's Called the Sugar Plum, which starred a young actress named Jill Clayburgh, with whom Al was romantically involved at the time. Years later I selected Jill to play Mary Hemingway (opposite Jon Voight as Ernest) in a film about the writer's life, which died a-borning. But the night that I first saw Al, I was with my director Michael Schultz, from the Negro Ensemble Company, for we were preparing to open a new play on Broadway by Don Petersen. Called Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, I was co-producing it with my upstairs neighbor, Philip Rose, who had done Raisin in the Sun. Phil had come to me when his original financing ran out, and I enlisted the quixotic A&P heir, Huntington Hartford, to put up a substantial sum... and then obtained the final financing and a film sale to CBS Films.

After viewing Pacino, the director and I went backstage and I handed the young actor two pages of 'sides' featuring the character of the prison inmate, Bickham. I said we were holding auditions the next day at the Belasco theatre, and we would love him to read for the role. The next day, about 5 p.m., after we had read a hundred actors, Pacino stumbled on stage wearing a long olive army overcoat with a wool cap pulled over his head. He was holding a can of beer. "I'm a little drunk but would like to read for this." He began to do the lines and a few minutes into it, I turned to my director and whispered, "He's our Bickham!" On Feb. 25, 1969, Pacino made his Broadway debut in our play. It co-starred Hal Holbrook as the teacher and David Opatushu as the psychiatrist. The moment Al shambled on stage and kicked the door of the doctor's office shut, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. The show ran for 39 performances but Pacino received rave reviews. Jack Kroll in Newsweek said: "Pacino had the choreography of a hood, with a poetic soul." He won the Tony Award on April 20 (thanking me for giving him the role). He was supposed to play the role in the CBS film of the play, but three weeks before we began production the studio closed down its film division. (Arthur Hiller had been signed to direct, and the screenplay was by Award-winner Frank Pierson.) Al was out of work and I called my friend, Francis Coppola, who was casting a Paramount film called The Godfather, to recommend Al for the role of the brother, Sonny. Three weeks later my doorbell rang on Central Park West. It was Al, who asked me for a quarter to take the bus uptown to meet Jill, and said he had been cast in the role of Michael. The magic began.

Many years later, I was dining at the old Dominick's with my love, Dinah Shore, just before she died, when we saw a birthday party in the far corner for Diane Keaton (who was then involved with Al). He spotted me and ran over to the table, embraced me and said to Dinah: "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here tonight."

That's the last time I have seen him in person.

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