De Niro and Pacino have always connected - just rarely on screen

LONDON • There is no plaque to honour the encounter and neither of its central participants can pinpoint the exact date it occurred, but somewhere on a stretch of 14th Street 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 resumes, sized each other up and each walked away wondering what the future held for himself and the man he had just met.

A half-century later, they ambled 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 outsize aspirations they had as young men. They have provided cinema with some of its most transfixing and explosive protagonists, in landmark films like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Scarface (1983) and The Godfather series (1972 to 1990).

In doing so, their trajectories have become unexpectedly intertwined. They are not only peers and occasional collaborators but also 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 explained. "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 opens theatrically in the United States tomorrow and will be released on Nov 27 on Netflix, is directed by Martin Scorsese, and 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.

Robert De Niro (far left) and Al Pacino have known each other since the 1960s, but The Irishman is only the third time they appear on screen together.
Robert De Niro (left) and Al Pacino have known each other since the 1960s, but The Irishman is only the third time they appear on screen together. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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, and 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 said, "it takes the edge off. And puts the other edge on".

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.

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. Getting them to appear on screen together seemed for years like an unattainable feat, although not for lack of trying.

They did finally collide, fleetingly but spectacularly, in director Michael Mann's 1995 crime drama, Heat, about a resourceful thief (De Niro) and the dogged police investigator (Pacino) on his trail. Thirteen years elapsed before De Niro and Pacino would reunite, in Righteous Kill (2008), a garden-variety buddy-cop drama that neither remembers especially fondly.

"We did it," De Niro said humbly. "We did it."

The Irishman is the ninth feature film De Niro has made with Scorsese but the first Pacino has shot for the director.

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 acknowledged 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.

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 explained 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, Pacino said, "we don't even see each other that much".


• The Irishman will be released on Netflix on Nov 27.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2019, with the headline 'De Niro and Pacino have always connected - just rarely on screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe