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Al Pacino Weighs in on Playing Joe Paterno

by on January 12, 2018 11:22 AM

HBO's "Paterno," starring Al Pacino as late Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, will debut on the premium cable network this spring, and on Thursday the actor and director Barry Levinson discussed the film and the coach's legacy at the Television Critics Association meetings in Pasadena, Calif.

The movie takes place in the weeks following former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's November 2011 arrest on child sexual abuse charges and is framed by flashbacks, according to

Pacino indicated he didn't know much about Paterno before filming and took his cues from the script. He said he also watched Amir Bar Lev's 2014 documentary "Happy Valley," about the Sandusky scandal and it's aftermath.

“I don’t know anything about Joe Paterno,” Pacino said. “I know about the character I played in the movie. And that character was as close to a savant as I’d ever played.” 

The movie does not take a definitive position on whether Paterno did enough when he received a report about Sandusky or the extent of Paterno's knowledge about abuse by the former assistant coach, Pacino and Levinson said. 

“I think the film has to deal with the complexity of it all, rather than say he did this or he didn’t do that. … The questioning of it is part of the fabric of the piece,” Levinson said. “It truly is a tragedy.”

Levinson added on HBO's Medium account that the film doesn't "follow an agenda" and leaves the viewer to decide.

“Joe Paterno was known as an honorable man, an educator, a humanitarian — so trying to make sense out of what happened is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the story,” Levinson said. “What did he understand? What did he not understand?”

Al Pacino stars as Joe Paterno in HBO's Paterno, scheduled for a spring 2018 release. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Pacino seems to have come away with mixed feelings about Paterno's role.

“The question isn’t just what he knew, it’s what he did about it,” Pacino said, according to IndieWire. “I think he knew there were complaints. He knew there were rumors. […] I don’t think he was very fond of Sandusky, for whatever reasons — I think there were other reasons.”

But, he said, “He did act upon it. He did say he thought someone should look into this. [But] a guy like Paterno — he’s like an emperor, he’s like a king. He didn’t take up with it because it was out of his control. And I think this is a character who’s used to control.”

Pacino worked with makeup artist John Caglione Jr. to "come close to the sense of the character," according to Deadline, and in a brief clip in an HBO preview for its 2018 lineup released in December the actor seemed to have a close approximation of Paterno's weathered voice of later years.

The film co-stars Riley Keough as Sara Ganim, the former Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter who was the first to report on a grand jury's investigation of Sandusky. Ganim, now a CNN correspondent, was an adviser on the movie.

"Paterno" also co-stars Kathy Baker as Sue Paterno, Greg Grunberg and Larry Mitchell as sons Scott and Jay Paterno, and Annie Parisse as daughter Mary Kay Paterno-Hort.

An official release date has not yet been announced.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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