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Michael Coveney: My evening with Al Pacino... and Emma Freud

Hollywood legend Al Pacino

Al Pacino breezed into the London Palladium last night for a chat with Emma Freud and a quick run through of his career. It was a strange, one-off occasion, presented by Indian entrepreneurs and rubber-stamped with a good will message in the programme from His Royal Highness Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah Bin Saud Bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi.

Al Saudi, in short, was publicly high-fiving Al Pacino. Emma went further, saying that she wanted to lick Al's face (Al Pacino's face, that is) and hoped that, in two hours' time, she would be Mrs Pacino, which must have come as a surprise to Richard Curtis, her current partner.

The Palladium has hosted many great American stars in its time: Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr, Ethel Merman, Shirley MacLaine... they all sang and danced a bit, but none of them slouched as well as Al, who didn't sing or dance at all. Whenever he got on a stage, he said, he got the urge to act: "I love your country and I thank you for coming."

The warm feeling was mutual, especially as far as Emma was concerned. She was hyperventilating beyond the call of duty. Luckily for her, the evening remained on a cool level of communication; even when mouthing pieties and good manners, Pacino was charm itself.

Very different from the last time he stepped on a London stage, back in 1984, when he unleashed a torrent of four-letter word fury as a hoodlum in a Chicago junk store in David Mamet's American Buffalo. And on Broadway three years ago he was a sensational Shylock, watchful, wary but stoked up ready to explode. No-one does volcanic energy like Pacino. You could never confuse him with Dustin Hoffman, for instance. Pacino play Tootsie? You'd have to be joking.

He grew up in the South Bronx where he started smoking at nine years old, drinking at 13. You could hardly blame him: his mother left home when he was three which I suspect explains why he's never married himself, though he does have one grown up daughter from a previous relationship and a pair of younger twins with the actress Beverly D'Angelo.

But Al - who's 73 and hasn't had a drink for 25 years (big round of applause; he'd had enough already) - doesn't really do family any more than he does cute. What he does do is obsession. He played around with American Buffalo for ten years. He went in search of Richard III for even longer, finally making a superb documentary film.

I even bumped into him - literally, as it happens; he was coming through my row - at a theatre in Montreal when he turned up to see a Robert Lepage production of Coriolanus that was "shot" on the stage through an oblong shutter frame. He went backstage afterwards and sat talking to Lepage for five hours. Soon, we'll see his film about Oscar Wilde, whose Salome he has performed on stage and whose Ballad of Reading Gaol is one of his favourite texts.

He talked reverentially of his theatre mentors, Lee Strasberg and "Charlie" Laughton, his early days in Greenwich Village and the theatre of Jack Gelber (The Connection) and Julian Beck and Judith Malina (the Living Theatre). Emma didn't really want to know about any of that. "Who was the best kisser?" she asked, implying that she might want to put in for that job herself.

Al was thrown, but only for a second. "Michelle Pfeiffer's a good kisser," he said. "And Ellen Barkin: wow!" That was the end of that, so Emma asked if it was true that he'd turned down Lennie, Pretty Woman and Die Hard. He grinned sheepishly for another second and said, not missing a beat, "I gave that boy a career." and we presumed he meant Bruce Willis.

"Would you have liked Robert De Niro's career?" asked Emma, flailing slightly. "No, I like mine more." Then we had more film clips and some questions from the audience that made Emma look like Torquemada in the Spanish Inquisition. It was a jolly nice evening, but Al doesn't really do nice any more than he does family or cute. He's back on track next year when he plans to play Iago. And, as usual, he's bound to make that look as normal as breathing.