When Al Pacino met Robert De Niro

Two giants of the acting world have been looking back on five decades of friendship after reuniting on screen for the epic gangster movie, The Irishman, out last week on Netfilx.

When Al Pacino met Robert De Niro back in 1968, both men were up-and-coming young actors, whose careers were about to boom in the early ’70s.

Today, Pacino, 79, and De Niro, 76, have a host of industry awards between them and are classed as Hollywood “royalty”. They reunited on the set of The Irishman, the latest crime film produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses.

Their first film together was Heat in 1995, followed by Righteous Kill in 2008. Although they both appeared in The Godfather Part II in 1974, they were never in the same scenes. Their roles in The Irishman, which premiered in September at New York Film Festival, have received great reviews from the critics.

© ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Early life
Pacino was born in 1940 in East Harlem, New York, growing up in the Bronx. De Niro was born in 1943 in Manhattan, New York City, spending most of his youth in Little Italy.

Well-known for being a method actor, Pacino attended Herman Ridder Junior High School, followed by the High School of Performing Arts in New York.

His acting career began in plays in small theatres around New York and he joined the Herbert Berghof Studio, but he was often unemployed and had to sleep on friends’ settees. He was then accepted by the Actors’ Studio and later described it as being a “remarkable turning point” in his life.

De Niro attended Elisabeth Irwin High School and later went to private school, but he didn’t graduate – he preferred to hang out with his friends! He made his acting debut at ten as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Fascinated by the cinema, he dropped out of school at 16 to study at various theatre schools, culminating at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio.

How they met
During the 1960s, both actors were honing their skills and won some interesting roles. De Niro’s first film role was in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding Party in 1963, when he was 20.

Pacino’s career progressed along a different path and he appeared in many stage productions throughout the 1960s, climaxing with his Broadway debut in Don Petersen’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? He was known as a firebrand actor, with a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker.

Pacino first met De Niro in 1968 – Pacino hadn’t yet embarked on his film career, while De Niro was appearing in avant-garde movies. Pacino said they met up from time to time afterwards, as similar things were happening in their careers and the camaraderie got them together.

Career highlights
Both actors’ careers seemed to blossom at the same time and they scored major breakthroughs in the early 1970s, as a result of the new wave of Italian-American movies in Hollywood. Pacino starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic gangster movie, The Godfather, in 1972.

Although they both had leading roles in the Godfather sequel in 1974, they didn’t appear on screen together. Pacino played mobster Michael Corleone, while De Niro played a younger version of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone.

Pacino had won the role after auditioning against stiff competition from established film stars, such as Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. He was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Both stars rocketed to big-screen success from the early ’70s onwards, starring in some of the most iconic films in the history of cinema.

Pacino went on to star in Dog Day Afternoon in 1975, Scarface in 1983, The Godfather Part III in 1990, Carlito’s Way in 1993, Heat (with De Niro) in 1995, Donnie Brasco in 1997, The Devil’s Advocate in 1997, Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007 and many more.

After starring in The Godfather, De Niro starred in Taxi Driver in 1976, The Deer Hunter in 1978, Raging Bull in 1980, The Untouchables in 1987, Goodfellas in 1990, Cape Fear in 1991, Casino in 1995, Jackie Brown in 1997 and Meet the Parents in 2000, when he moved into comedy, playing retired CIA agent Jack Byrnes.

Close relationship
From the moment the two actors met, Pacino recalled thinking that De Niro would “go far”. He believed De Niro had a “certain charisma” and “that look”. He was correct in his prediction. Their shared love of acting has ensured their good friendship has continued throughout their lives.

In a recent interview, Pacino said of De Niro, “We’re really close.” He said although they weren’t able to see each other very often, when they did get together, they had shared things and “helped each other throughout life”. He believes their off-screen friendship has “fed into” their acting careers.

The Irishman
De Niro was instrumental in getting their latest film, The Irishman, into production. The film tells the story of truck driver Frank Sheeran (De Niro) who becomes a hitman involved with mobster Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci. Bufalino’s crime family included the powerful Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

De Niro had read the 2004 book and was fascinated by the lead character. The book was based on the memories of the real-life figure, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. After De Niro first discussed the book with Scorsese, the movie was in development for more than ten years.

Veteran of classic mobster films such as Mean Streets, Casino and Goodfellas, Scorsese produced and directed The Irishman in the same genre. Following the premiere, it was hailed a masterpiece by the critics.

Amazing special effects digitally transform the cast into young men, which enables the film to span several decades of the main characters’ lives, with no need to take on younger actors to portray them in their youth.

The film is a landmark in that it reunites a number of iconic actors who have made some of the biggest cult movies in the history of cinema.

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