Looking for Pacino

Al Pacino looks me directly in the eye when he talks to me.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he and I are about the same height. Or both lack height, that is. We both stand around 5 feet, 6 inches. That, sadly for me, is where the similarity ends.

When I was acting in a play called Tony N' Tina's Wedding (search) in New York City several years ago, a few of my fellow castmates and I tossed around ideas for a movie we were going to make called Looking for Pacino

Named loosely for the Pacino-directed Looking for Richard (search), it was about three unemployed actors so obsessed with their favorite screen star, each would take on the persona of their favorite Pacino character and then stalk the real Pacino. 

I was always Michael Corleone of The Godfather, Pat was Tony Montana of Scarface and Rocco was Vincent Hanna, the gritty cop in the Pacino/Robert De Niro flick, Heat

"You straightened my brother out?" "You Cock-a-roash." "Gimme all you got!"

You get the idea.

We never did write that movie, and like so many other faces come and gone, I never really saw much of those guys after ending my run in the play. But I did get to meet Pacino twice, while covering the Tribeca Film Festival (search) for Fox Magazine and Foxnews.com the past two years.

What struck me most about the legendary actor is how giving he is. Even as festival co-founder De Niro dashes up the red carpet with barely a wave, Pacino stops at every camera, every microphone, every notepad. If not for his publicist, he might still be out there.

"Get me in front of the cameras and I can't stop," Pacino says apologetically as his publicist pulls him away. He was about to be late for a Q&A session at a festival screening of his latest self-directed film, Chinese Coffee (search), starring Pacino and Law and Order star Jerry Orbach.

Pacino cancelled that night's Broadway performance of Salome (search), in which he stars, to make the appearance.

After the film, a woman from the audience approached a microphone to talk to Pacino, who sat onstage taking questions under a blue spotlight. Her body shook as she tried to say something. Eventually the words came out of her mouth as quickly as the tears streamed down her face. 

"It was so incredible. Thank you," she said. Pacino smiled broadly, and with that creased face and those sharp green eyes we've all seen so many times on the silver screen, he embraced her.

"I'm glad I'm not alone, because it [the piece] had the same affect on me the first time I saw it at the Actor's Studio," he said. The rest of the Q&A had a similar give and take, as would any theater filled with Corleones, Montanas and Hannas.

It's not surprising then, that Pacino was voted the greatest actor of all time (search) in a recent United Kingdom poll. His Heat and Godfather II co-star, De Niro, was voted number two.

Recalling the year Pacino and De Niro presented a Best Picture Oscar (search) together, I asked him if he too felt the Earth move the way I do, whenever he and De Niro are in the same room. 

"I never really thought about it," he said. "I've known Bobby since he was this big," gesturing a small boy. "Bob's a great artist, and a great fellow," he said, noting the Tribeca Film Festival and all it stands for, with its mission of reviving the lower Manhattan spirit and economy after September 11.

In only its second year of existence, the TFF is a force to be reckoned with, boasting film entries from all over the world, a giant family street festival, an MTV-sponsored concert and some of the world's biggest stars.

Pacino, a native New Yorker, wouldn't be anywhere else. In his final words of the evening, he gave some inspiration to the crowd full of aspiring filmmakers, actors and fans.

"What you have to do is find a way to make it for yourself," he said. "Despite all the obstacles and all the people saying you can't do it -- you can find a way if you truly have something to say."

Actors, for the most part, usually have something to say. De Niro is unique among them, because inexplicably, he shuns the media spotlight. Friends say he's shy, although he's probably seen his share of love and hate from members of the fourth estate, and keeps his distance in order to keep his sanity.

Take A.O. Scott's recent article in The New York Times. In a piece titled "Seen This Guy Lately?" (search) about De Niro's pal Pacino, Scott praises Pacino in a backhanded sort of way. 

"His [Pacino's] reputation as one of our finest actors survives in spite of the mediocrity of so many of his projects," Scott writes. He goes on to dissect and analyze Pacino the actor and Pacino the person.

What film critics like Scott, and his Times colleague Elvis Mitchell, don't quite get is that the average filmgoer doesn't take movies as seriously as they do. Being a film critic, however, is serious business. After all, it puts food on their tables, and their love for words and essay structure is something to be cherished, particularly Mitchell's, albeit with a dictionary close by.

For most of us, though, a movie is just a movie. It's an event we go to to help take our minds off of the reality of our own lives and the world around us. Rarely do today's mainstream films speak to social conditions as effectively as they did in the early days of the medium. 

Hollywood movies, for the most part, are pure entertainment. But that's not really a bad thing. In them we find reasons to make them our own, like the words to our favorite songs.

When I was a wrestler in high school it was a movie called Vision Quest that inspired me to take to the mat, much like The Insider (search) inspires the TV news producer in me today. And I can watch them over and over again whenever the need to relive the glory days arises, or to help reinvigorate what I do today.

Movies are so much more than their box-office receipts. They are more than the nuances of filmmaking or the motivation of their origins, and more than just their reviews.

They inspire. They distract. They entertain. And that's why movies are important.

Pacino is one of the ambassadors to our dreams. Thanks, Al.

Mike Straka is the project manager for FOX News' Internet operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on FOX Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC) and as a reporter and columnist for FOXnews.com. 

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