There's no plaque to honor the encounter - and neither of its central participants can pinpoint the exact date it occurred - but somewhere on a stretch of 14th St in Manhattan's East Village is the spot where, in the late 1960s, two rookie actors named Robert De Niro and Al Pacino first crossed paths.
They were up-and-comers enjoying early tastes of steady work and visibility and they knew each other by name and reputation. They compared resumés, sized each other up (Pacino still remembers De Niro as having "an unusual look and a certain energy") and each walked away wondering what the future held for himself and the man he had just met.
A half-century later, they amble into a suite at a luxury hotel on the River Thames to talk about their new film, The Irishman, with so many of those uncertainties put to rest long ago. Whatever can be achieved as an actor, De Niro and Pacino have pretty much done it, surpassing even the outsized aspirations they had as young men. They have provided cinema with some of its most transfixing and explosive protagonists, in landmark films like — let's just get these out of the way — Taxi Driver, Scarface, Raging Bull and the Godfather series.
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In doing so, their trajectories have become unexpectedly intertwined. They are not only peers and occasional collaborators but genuine friends, who occasionally find time to check in, contemplate possible projects and push each other's buttons.
"We get together and talk, compare notes," De Niro explains. "Not quite miss each other. We might miss each other."
Perhaps most surprising of all is that at a moment when they could easily rest on their laurels — and have sometimes been accused of doing just that — Pacino, 79, and De Niro, 76, continue to care immensely about their craft.
The Irishman, which opened theatrically last Friday and will be released on Netflix on Wednesday, is directed by Martin Scorsese. It puts the two actors on screen together for only the third time. The film, a crime drama of sweeping scope and ambition, is retrospective by design and decidedly conscious of the fact that eventually, everything ends.
That is a theme with deep resonance for Pacino, who plays Jimmy Hoffa, the unmanageable president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and for De Niro, who is a producer of the film and plays its title character, Frank Sheeran, a Teamsters official and mobster who claimed credit for Hoffa's murder.
Both actors are mindful of their legacies, too. In The Irishman they are giving performances that are as vital as ever. Only now, if they have nothing more to prove to audiences, they find motivation in surpassing their own benchmarks and keeping pace with each other.
In the rare instances when they get to work side by side, Pacino says, "it takes the edge off. And puts the other edge on."
They both came of age in post-World War II New York, Pacino in the South Bronx and De Niro in Greenwich Village and Little Italy. Both were children of divorce who were drawn into the city's acting schools — the Actors Studio, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and HB Studio — and were enthralled by these institutions' influential alumni, like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley.
Acting let them steep themselves in the lives of others and surprise themselves with their spontaneity. Explaining their divergent approaches in an email, Scorsese says, "I suppose I could say that Al tends to go toward fluidity and music while Bob likes to locate states of mind and being, settling in. But that's just a matter of their instincts and personal orientations, I think. They're both tremendous artists with powerful 'instruments,' as an acting teacher might put it."
Nothing transformed their lives like Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies. Pacino's place in the pantheon was secured with the original 1972 film and his quietly captivating portrayal of Michael Corleone — a part that De Niro, among many other actors, had vied for.
Not that he regarded Pacino as his rival: "You're not competitive," says De Niro, who had also eyed the role of reckless Sonny Corleone that went to James Caan.
"If a person gets a part and they're great in it, that's fine," he explains. "It's when an actor is not good for it and they're chosen for the wrong reasons, then you are regretful and not even jealous. You say, 'Well, okay, there you go.' That's just what it is."
De Niro won his first Academy Award for The Godfather Part II, released two years later, in which he played the young incarnation of Vito Corleone. ("I said I want Bob to be my dad," Pacino jokes.)
Getting them to appear on screen together seemed for years like an unattainable feat, although not for lack of trying: They nearly co-starred in The Pope of Greenwich Village (Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke did instead); in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (De Niro did, Pacino didn't); and in James Foley's film version of Glengarry Glen Ross (Pacino yes, De Niro no). Asked why any of these pairings didn't coalesce, they could only shrug their shoulders and cite the vagaries of time.
They did finally collide, fleetingly but spectacularly, in Michael Mann's 1995 crime drama, Heat, about a resourceful thief (De Niro) and the dogged police investigator (Pacino) on his trail. Mann explained in an interview that he sought the actors not only for their cinematic cachet but also because they personified the idea of men who could be both parallel and wildly dissimilar.
"There's a thesis and an antithesis and they have some characteristics in common. The ones that aren't in common are polar opposites," Mann says of the actors. "Al learns his dialogue two weeks ahead of time — it's a free-form, psychological absorption. Bob is determined to be completely in the moment."
The result, Mann says, is that "they both have a total artistic immersion — the way they get to that is radically different".
Thirteen years elapsed before De Niro and Pacino would reunite, in Righteous Kill, a garden-variety buddy-cop drama that neither remembers especially fondly. "We did it," De Niro says humbly. "We did it."
Even then, the wheels were turning slowly on The Irishman, a film that emerged from De Niro's fascination with Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses. The book, which De Niro discovered while researching another potential project with Scorsese, chronicles Sheeran's rise through a Pennsylvania crime family as it supposedly intersects with the sagas of Hoffa and the Kennedy family.
The Irishman is the ninth feature film De Niro has made with Scorsese but the first Pacino has shot for the director. Even though they were acquainted — Pacino sought out Scorsese many years ago to direct an unrealised project in which he would have played Modigliani — Scorsese still wanted some advance intelligence on his less-familiar star.
De Niro recalls, "Marty said, 'What's Al like?' I said, 'He's a sweetheart. You'll see.'" (Pacino does not mind the description. "You see me smiling," he says.)
Beyond the chance to work with Scorsese and each other, De Niro and Pacino saw The Irishman as an opportunity to once again invest themselves in real-life figures and pore over documents and recordings of these men as they constructed their characters from the inside out.
They acknowledge that they were drawn in by the elegiac tone of The Irishman, which follows its characters — the ones who survive, anyway — into senescence and leaves them, largely in solitude, to wonder how history will remember them.
Scorsese says it was appropriate and inevitable that he and his leading men would want to explore this mournful subject matter. "I think we all share that need to look back — me, Bob, Al, Joe, the characters they're playing. But that's the age we're at. We just wanted to give form to it in the cinema."
But the actors found it a delicate task to explain why this facet of the film appealed to them and for obvious reasons: Who wants to admit that he is nearer to the end of things than to the beginning? Mann says, "Does one walk around thinking, 'Oh, I'm an elder statesman now'? Or do you still secretly think, 'Who am I going to be when I grow up?'"
With some hesitation, De Niro says he and Pacino had to reckon with the existential questions that The Irishman raises.
"We're at a point where we're getting closer to seeing" — he makes an oscillating, over-the-hill hand gesture as he seeks the right words — "I don't want to say the end, but the horizon," De Niro says. "The beginning of the tip around and to the other side."
Pacino says he saw these ideas more clearly after the movie was finished; to whatever extent they came through in his performance, he says, was the result of Scorsese's direction and the movie's long gestation process.
"I don't think 10 years ago, he makes a film like this," Pacino says. "He's accessed — it's a new word I'm using, but I like it — he's accessed something I can't even put my finger on, that I was surprised I was feeling. What is this that we're in? What are we doing, the flailing around?"
In The Irishman, Sheeran and Hoffa's proximity eventually leads them to form a tender friendship — at least, before the blood-spattered climax — but De Niro and Pacino explain that the duties of promoting the movie did not quite replicate this relationship.
Even on a globe-trotting publicity tour like this one, with all the premieres and red carpets and after-parties, "We don't even see each other that much," says Pacino.
De Niro adds, "Everybody does their thing, comes back, works, hangs out a little bit." There was no need to check in, because they'd eventually run into each other again.
In a voice that was teasing but also authentically affectionate, Pacino adds, "It's just nice to know that he's there."
- © 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES
Who: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese
What: The Irishman
When: In cinemas now, on Netflix from Wednesday