When Al Pacino was up for the lead role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, according to Hollywood folklore, the studio balked at casting him. Not just because he was a relative unknown (Paramount wanted Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, or Ryan O’Neal, depending on who you believe), but also because Pacino was so far from their traditional image of a marquee idol. Short, bug-eyed, and intense, the young Method actor had made an impression on Broadway and in the 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park, an uncompromising look at heroin addiction that had drawn Francis Ford Coppola’s eye.
But producers weren’t that interested in Pacino. He was too strange-looking, too “anemic.” Coppola fought to hire him, later saying, “His intelligence is what I noted first … this striking magnetic quality, this smoldering ambiance.” The rest, of course, was history. Almost 50 years after Pacino began his Hollywood career, it’s being celebrated with a retrospective at New York’s Quad Cinema that delves into the hits, the flops, and his evolution from smoldering new talent to A-list star to beloved, oft-satirized, larger-than-life legend.
The arc of Pacino’s career is a fascinating mirror of the film industry’s own growths and regressions from the 1970s onward, as the freewheeling New Hollywood movement exploded into the commercial mainstream, then ossified into something broader and more blockbuster-focused. Pacino has been a bankable star, a washed-up ham, a luminary, and a living punchline—and he’s still consistently working at the age of 77. Going through his entire filmography is a rewarding trip through American cinema’s highs and lows; here are some (hardly comprehensive) highlights from either end.