Early life and education
Pacino was born in East Harlem, New York City to Italian American parents Rose and Salvatore Pacino, who divorced when he was two years old. When he was two, his mother moved to the South Bronx near the Bronx Zoo, to live with her parents, Kate and James Gerardi, who originated from Corleone, Sicily. His father moved to Covina, California, and worked as an insurance salesman and restaurateur. Pacino attended the School of Performing Arts in New York. During his teenage years ‘Sonny’, as he was known to his friends, aimed to become a baseball player, though he was also nicknamed ‘The Actor’. Pacino flunked nearly all of his classes except English and dropped out of school at 17. His mother disagreed with his decision; they had an argument and he left home. He worked at a string of low-paying jobs, including messenger boy, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk, in order to finance his acting studies.
He started smoking at age nine, drinking and casual marijuana use at age thirteen, but never took hard drugs. His two closest friends died young of drug abuse, at the ages of 19 and 30. Growing up in a deprived area, he got into occasional fights, and was something of a minor troublemaker at school.
He acted in basement plays in New York’s theatrical underground but was rejected for the Actors Studio while still a teenager. Pacino then joined the Herbert Berghof Studio (HB Studio), where he met acting teacher Charlie Laughton, who became his mentor and best friend. During this period, he was frequently unemployed and homeless, and sometimes had to sleep on the street, in theaters, or at friends’ houses. In 1962, his mother died at the age of 43. The following year, his grandfather, James Gerardi, one of the most influential people in his life, also died.
Actors Studio training
After having spent four years at HB Studio’s Pacino successfully auditioned at the Actors Studio. The
Actors Studio is a membership organization for professional actors, theatre directors and playwrights in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. Pacino studied “method acting” under acting coach Lee Strasberg, who later appeared with Pacino in the films The Godfather Part II and in…And Justice for All. During later interviews he spoke about Strasberg and the Studio’s effect on his career. “The Actors Studio meant so much to me in my life. Lee Strasberg hasn’t been given the credit he deserves… Next to Charlie, it sort of launched me. It really did. That was a remarkable turning point in my life. It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting.” During another interview he added, “It was exciting to work for him [Lee Strasberg] because he was so interesting when he talked about a scene or talked about people. One would just want to hear him talk, because things he would say, you’d never heard before… He had such a great understanding… he loved actors so much.”
Pacino is currently co-president, along with Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel, of the Actors Studio.
In 1967, Pacino spent a season at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, performing in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! (his first major paycheck: $125 a week); and in Jean-Claude Van Itallie’s America, Hurrah, where he met actress Jill Clayburgh while working on this play. They went on to have a five-year romance and moved together back to New York City.
In 1968, Pacino starred in Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx at the Astor Place Theater, playing Murph, a street punk.