Al Pacino opens playbook on Joe Paterno in HBO film
Los Angeles — There was a time when the idea of Al Pacino doing television seemed as unlikely as the pope hosting “Saturday Night Live.” But as the small screen became more prestigious, and movie studios grew less enamored of urban dramas driven by characters desperately in need of a nap, Pacino was one of the many actors who broadened their horizons.
“Paterno,” premiering Saturday, marks the 77-year-old actor’s fourth collaboration with HBO in 15 years, a partnership that has paid off with two Emmy wins (“Angels in America” and “You Don’t Know Jack”) and a third nomination (“Phil Spector”).
But from Pacino’s perspective, HBO gives him the opportunity to go deep on real-life figures more complex and challenging than any member of the Avengers.
In his latest film, Pacino tackles Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State coach, during the two weeks before he was fired. The film, co-starring Riley Keough and Kathy Baker, focuses on Paterno’s reaction — or lack thereof — as allegations of sexual abuse leveled at his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, came to a boil.
Pacino doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. He spends most of the film staring wide-eyed behind oversized glasses at either football footage or family members debating his future as if he’s not even in the room.
“At the beginning of the movie, he’s at the height of what he is, in terms of recognition as a legend,” said director Barry Levinson, who has had his fair share of success in both feature films (“Rain Man”) and TV (“Homicide: Life on the Street”). “Within two weeks, the world crashes down around him in the scandal, and he finds out the fact that he will die — and does die shortly thereafter. It’s a complicated piece.”
Sandusky’s guilt is never in doubt. The big questions are: How much did Paterno know and when did he know it?
In a chilling scene, Paterno’s wife (Baker) reminds her husband that Sandusky used to play with their kids in the swimming pool. It’s a memory that doesn’t register with him.
“At one point in the movie he says to his son, ‘I didn’t see it,’ said Pacino, who played a fictional NFL coach in 1999’s “Any Given Sunday.” “I think that meant a lot to Joe. As a savant, he saw football. I mean, this was an educated man. I think it meant a lot that he didn’t see something, and he needed to see it.”
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