"I don't have a character to play," said the Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner, best known as Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" trilogy. "You're supposed to have something to say."
And he was surprisingly funny.
Pacino brought down the house when he recalled performing a scene for the first time for legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg — who would appear with him in 1974's "The Godfather Part II" — at the Actors Studio in New York. Strasberg wasn't impressed. "He turned to the class and said, 'You see, we take all kinds here.' And they did take all kinds."
With a theater and film career spanning four decades, the 67-year-old Pacino joins Sean Connery, James Cagney, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Poitier, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean in the ranks of Life Achievement Award recipients.
The two-hour-plus presentation at the Kodak was funny, nostalgic, heartfelt and raunchy. Even some jabs at Paris Hilton made it into the show. An edited version of the evening will air at 9 p.m. June 19 on USA.
Robin Williams, who costarred with Pacino in "Insomnia," got the festivities off to a fast and furiously funny start. "If you put Robert De Niro in a dryer, you get Al Pacino," he roared. "I'd like to raise a glass to you, but that would be 11 months [of sobriety] out the window!"
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
Jamie Foxx, who appeared with Pacino in "Any Given Sunday," talked about how the actor becomes so intense during scenes that saliva flies out of his mouth. "I've tasted the wetness," Foxx said. "This is the greatest actor in the world, but I needed a squeegee."
On a more serious note, he said to Pacino: "When God made you, he took his time. And then he took a 30-minute break and said, 'That's a good one.' "
A robust 90-year-old Kirk Douglas, the 1991 AFI recipient, was met with a rousing standing ovation. Douglas recalled seeing Pacino off-Broadway in the 1960s in "The Indian Wants the Bronx."
"This young actor came on stage and it was magic," said Douglas, who went backstage to meet Pacino after that performance. "I said, 'Mr. Pacino, you're going to be a star.' That was 45 years ago. What took you so long, Al?"
Andy Garcia, who appeared with Pacino in "The Godfather Part III" as well as the just-released "Ocean's Thirteen," acknowledged that "Al inspired me to act and, more importantly, to dream. The depth of your artistry is why we are here. You continue to inspire actors. Simultaneously, at any moment, you are a great poet and a clown."
Sean Penn, who appeared with Pacino in "Carlito's Way," presented the actor with the AFI honor.
"I'm still here," Pacino said to the crowd. "I'm still standing. I love you all."