NEW YORK — At 72, Al Pacino may be gray-haired and a little worn, but he remains, like a dancer, always on his toes, and still enamored of the "crazy, crazy, crazy thing" that is acting. "You're always looking for what's going to feed you, what's going to feed the spirit and get you going," says the screen icon.
And Mr. Pacino is still getting going.
"Sometimes I'm tempted to say, 'Why am I still doing this?'" he says in a recent interview at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. "Then, after I don't do it for a while, I say: 'Oh, now I know why I still do it.'"
If Mr. Pacino is feeling nostalgic about his early days as a Bronx-born aspiring thespian knocking around in 1960s downtown New York theaters and cafes, it's partly because his recent work reflects on his beginnings. Not many know that Mr. Pacino started out as a comedian.
Mr. Pacino, funny guy, has certainly been glimpsed before. But after a career better known for gangsters, crooks and Shakespearean villains, Mr. Pacino has lately been exercising his comedy chops. After finishing a revival run on Broadway of "Glengarry Glen Ross" in which he played up the laughs as the desperate, over-the-hill salesman Shelley, Mr. Pacino stars in the crime comedy "Stand Up Guys," which opens Friday.
In it, he plays a former gangster, Val, released from prison after 28 years and taken around town to celebrate by his old friend, Doc (Christopher Walken), who does it remorsefully knowing that their boss wants Val killed by sunup. Their pal Richard (Alan Arkin) joins in the romp.
As he showed in "Scent of a Woman," Mr. Pacino is good company for a last-hurrah. Part of his enduring appeal, after all, is his pulsating zest for life. Whether firing a machine gun at the hip ("Scarface"), pursuing a story ("The Insider") or whipping a crowd into a protest ("Dog Day Afternoon"), Mr. Pacino is the great agitator of American movies. Critics will make claims of overacting, but no one ever slept through an Al Pacino performance.
"Some actors aren't connected and they don't invest," says "Stand Up Guys" director Fisher Stevens, a veteran New York actor and documentary producer. "Al is committed to everything he does, even if it's just playing poker. He does everything that way."
Mr. Pacino and Mr. Walken hadn't worked together before (except for separate scenes in — get ready for it — the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez film "Gigli"), but they've been friends for decades, going back to the Actors Studio, where the long-involved Mr. Pacino is currently co-president. Reading through the parts, the two decided to switch roles in "Stand Up Guys."
While Mr. Pacino's "Godfather, Part II" co-star and cinematic counterpart Robert De Niro has focused on comedy late in his career, Mr. Pacino has been more scattershot. His most notable work in recent years was playing Shylock in an acclaimed 2010 production of "The Merchant of Venice" and an Emmy-winning turn as Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack." In March, Mr. Pacino will return to HBO in another high-profile biopic, this time on Phil Spector.
His fondness for broad comedy, though, helps explain the most inscrutable credit in Mr. Pacino's filmography: the 2011 Adam Sandler film "Jack and Jill," in which he, among other things, rapped a pseudo Dunkin' Donuts ad as "Dunkaccino."
"What happened to me is in life, I started to get used to other things besides myself doing something funny or coming up with jokes, and I started to get into what is the playwright and what the playwrights say and that the play is the thing, like Hamlet says," says Mr. Pacino. "I became more or less sort of serious about things."
It's ironic that the greatest accomplishment of an actor so well known for his bigness was a performance of utter control: Michael Corleone. The strain of that titanic performance — the maturation of an armchair despot through the "Godfather" films — left a mark on Mr. Pacino.
"That character was so consuming," says Mr. Pacino. "Part of the reason why was because of its restraint, because of what is demanded of it in that style. The innards of that character, what his psyche was going through. To portray that probably affected me in some way."