December 13, 1999 12:00 PM

Long before he played Serpico—even before the real New York City cop Frank Serpico himself first refused a bribe—Al Pacino knew what it meant to stay straight. As a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood in The Bronx, “he was working as a [movie] usher,” recalls his longtime friend and acting coach Charlie Laughton, 70. “They did something where the ticket taker wouldn’t tear the ticket and they would resell the ticket. Everybody but Al was on the take. It was,” adds Laughton, “unthinkable for him.”

That’s Pacino, all decency amid the dinginess, a street-smart Shakespearean who has made some of the movies’ most memorable heroes out of a succession of hoods, creeps and losers. From the moment of his metamorphosis from Ivy League war hero to cold-blooded killer in 1972’s The Godfather, if he’s the bad guy, the audience roots against the good guys. When he tries to rob a bank as Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), he’s so lovably inept that it’s understandable one of his hostages would refuse to leave. When he munches scenery with near-comic passion in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), he makes the audience Satan-worshippers. “He has a two-hour face,” says friend and fellow actor Chazz Palminteri of the 5’7″ actor. “You could see him on every frame for two hours in a movie and still love him.”

Eight Academy Award nominations and one win (for 1992’s Scent of a Woman) after his first prominent role, as a junkie in 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park, Pacino is back as two more conflicted characters: a 60 Minutes producer who sees his ideals shattered in The Insider, and a football coach who puts the game ahead of his life in Any Given Sunday, due Dec. 22.

In reality, though, the 59-year-old Pacino, who is so shy that he recently appeared on The Rosie O’Donnell Show only on condition that no audience be present for the taping, keeps that famous range of emotions well bottled up. “He’s sort of the opposite of his characters,” says Laughton. “He’s very gentle and compassionate.” As Pacino once put it to Vanity Fair, “the characters would say these things that I could never say, things I’ve always wanted to say, and that was very liberating for me.”

That need for freedom began early. Living in an apartment with his mother, Rose, and her parents, James and Kate Gerardi (his father, Salvatore, left young Alfredo and his mother when Al, an only child, was about 2), Pacino was often taken to movies (among the first was 1945’s The Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland). Young Al would then reenact scenes while visiting with his dad (although the pair later didn’t speak for years). “So I’d get a sort of acceptance, people would like you for doing it,” Pacino told Rolling Stone.

Growing up, says childhood neighbor and lifelong friend Ken Lipper, a onetime New York City deputy mayor who wrote Pacino’s 1996 film City Hall, Pacino was the athletic, much-admired leader of a gang of boys called the Red Wings. “He’s much more reclusive now,” says Lipper, but then “he was extroverted. We’d get into fights with other neighborhoods, protecting our turf…. People looked at him as special.” At home, says Lipper, “he was really close to his mother and his grandparents. [His mother] was a very loving lady to him. He was poor, but he was not deprived of affection.”

Nor was he deprived of attention, especially when he would pull such stunts as feigning blindness as a gag. “He used to walk down 174th Street asking people for help or begging for money,” says Lipper, laughing. “People would give him pennies. When I saw him playing that role in Scent of a Woman, I knew it was his destiny. He was always acting, just for fun.”

Pacino won a place at New York City’s prestigious High School for the Performing Arts, though he dropped out at 16. Moving to Greenwich Village and working odd jobs, he got a gig as a stagehand at the experimental Living Theater. But even as Pacino honed his skills in acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, where he met Laughton, and the New York Actors’ Studio, where he studied with famed teacher Lee Strasberg—acting coach to Pacino’s fellow Method actors Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman—he was devastated by the 1962 death of his mother at age 43 after a long illness. “It makes one a little more fragile,” he told Playboy. “These are tough things to talk about.”

In 1967, at the age of 27, Pacino finally started to earn his first major paychecks as an actor—$125 a week-in a Boston production of Awake and Sing. Actor Paul Benedict (Bentley on The Jeffersons) met him via Boston acting circles. “Word was getting around town about this young kid who had stolen the show,” says Benedict, who later became friends with Pacino in New York City, where the pair spent many a beery night winding down after performing Off-Broadway. Pacino then set up housekeeping with actress Jill Clayburgh, at the time a starlet on Search for Tomorrow; the relationship lasted for five years. Her dad would send the couple some money each month to help. “I never saw her on the show once,” Pacino told Esquire. “But I helped her rehearse. That was worth something, wasn’t it?”

Pacino first became a hot ticket in a play about young hoods, The Indian Wants the Bronx, which won him a 1968 Off-Broadway award and a manager, Martin Bregman. His stage roles got him an audition for The Panic in Needle Park, a film about down-and-out junkies in Manhattan. “We read a lot of people for the lead role,” says Dominick Dunne, the writer who was then a film producer working on Panic. “It came down to two unknowns—Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Rob knelt on the ground, he was actually on his knees, begging me not to give it to [Pacino].” The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, didn’t want Pacino to get the role either—”too ethnic” was the verdict, Dunne says—but relented. The next studio Pacino would deal with, Paramount Pictures, was equally unimpressed. “[Director] Francis [Ford Coppola] tested Al four times for The Godfather and Paramount kept saying no,” recalls Needle Park director Jerry Schatzberg. “And then we sent them 20 minutes of footage from Needle Park, and Al got the part.” Pacino recently told The New York Times that Coppola “wanted me to play that part like nobody has ever wanted me to play a part, ever. He wanted me to do it so much more than I wanted to.”

As Michael Corleone, Pacino was an instant sensation, but he never got comfortable with the attention. “I never intended to be a movie star,” he told the Los Angeles Times. By way of example, he told Playboy about once paying cash for a white BMW, only to start worrying on the ride back to Manhattan that it was too flashy. He parked it on the street in front of his apartment, and when he came down later after having a cup of coffee, the car was gone. He just laughed it off.

He has been no less comfortable with the idea of becoming a husband. Among the never-married Pacino’s leading ladies in life have been several of his leading ladies onscreen—Diane Keaton around the time they were shooting 1990’s The Godfather III, Marthe Keller from the 1977 flop Bobby Deerfield and later, briefly, Penelope Ann Miller of Carlito’s Way (1993)—which raised eyebrows because he was still dating his girlfriend of several years, Australian film director Lyndall Hobbs. A brief romance, with onetime acting teacher Jan Tarrant, produced Pacino’s only child, 10-year-old daughter Julie. “He has a take on marriage,” explains Pacino’s writer friend Lawrence Grobel. “His father left when he was young. He doesn’t want to get involved in a bad marriage. And he can be a difficult man sometimes, and I think he’s aware of that. To unravel why Al has never married is like onions; there’s layers and layers of stuff.”

It was only as an adult that Pacino finally reconciled with his father (“It was just time,” says Grobel. “His father found him and Al just went with it”), but Laughton was always like family. Pacino speaks to his old acting coach almost daily, and it was Laughton who convinced Pacino he had a booze problem in the late 1970s. “I took him around to AA meetings for a few weeks, and a couple of months later he stopped,” Laughton says. Pacino hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since, and, despite having smoked since childhood, he also gave up cigarettes a decade ago.

Pacino had some career stumbles in the 1980s (Revolution was crowned by PEOPLE as “the worst movie of 1985”), and he turned down Richard Gere’s part in Pretty Woman, but in recent years he has had much to hoo-ah about, including the sweet Scent of that 1992 Oscar. For over two years his lady love has been actress Beverly D’Angelo, 48 (Chevy Chase’s wife in the Vacation movies), whom he met on a flight from L.A. to New York. “She’s a sweet lady,” says his friend, actor Jerry Orbach, who has sampled some of D’Angelo’s cooking at Pacino’s book-stuffed country home in Sneden’s Landing, a celebrity enclave about 25 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. “When the two of them get together, it’s like Italian-American hour.” Pacino, who also has a large office-apartment in midtown Manhattan, invites friends, including neighbors Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, over to the country house for Sunday afternoon soft-ball (“He’s an extraordinary shortstop,” says Sunday costar Matthew Modine) and Friday night poker, all stoked with lots of cappuccino (which Pacino pours a shot at a time; he hates cold Java). “There are usually about 10 to 15 people,” says Benedict, not to mention four or five mixed-breed dogs. “There is lots of eating and reading. He likes to keep rereading and mulling over these plays. I know he’s very interested in Othello.”

He relishes equally another classic role: doting dad. Although he doesn’t live with Julie, he sees his daughter frequently. “Oh, boy, he really, really, really loves her,” Laughton says. “I think he would have liked to have had a lot of children. I think he could have five or six around the house, and it would be fine.” “When he’s out in California,” says Grobel, “he’ll bring her out for a while, sometimes with a friend so she’ll have a friend around. He’s a very proud, caring, loving and involved father.” More and more the onscreen fire contrasts with Pacino’s placid lifestyle. “It does look to me like I’m a little more accepting of things,” he told the Los Angeles Times in June. “Pretty soon you just count whatever blessings you’ve got. I’ve found that happiness is cool.”

Kyle Smith

Jennifer Longley and Olivia Abel in New York and Kelly Carter and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles