An Iconic Story: The Early Life of Al Pacino

The making of an Italian-American star, from his real-life Corleone roots to his rise from poverty.

The following article, written by Jerry Finzi, appears on Grand Voyage Italy

Al Pacino’s Family Roots in Corleone, Sicily

Coming from a broken home, Al Pacino was raised by his mother and her parents. As it turns out, his maternal grandparents–John and Kate Gerardi–emigrated to America from Corleone, Sicily, the very town that fictitious Vito Corleone hailed from and borrowed its name.

Less than 40 miles from Palermo, Corleone had a genuine reputation as a Mafia town and spawned its share of kingpins (the reason the town was immortalized by Mario Puzo in his book, The Godfather, and Coppola in his Godfather trilogy).

Pacino is quoted as saying, “In America, most everybody who’s Italian is half-Italian–except me. I’m all Italian. I’m mostly Sicilian, and I have a little bit of Neapolitan in me. You get your full dose with me.”

His grandparents didn’t get rich when they came to America, however. Pacino’s early life was a struggle with the family being poor. Pacino’s parents divorced when he was a toddler and his mother raised him with the help of her parents in the Bronx. He became a high school drop-out and worked at a variety of odd jobs–messenger, janitor, clerk, and busboy. He was even homeless for a while in the 1960s.

Both Pacino’s mother and grandfather supported his efforts to become an actor. He spent endless hours watching old movies on their black and white television, often acting out the parts for his grandparents. His first significant role was in 1968, portraying a young punk in the play The Indian Wants the Bronx. 

I remember meeting Pacino on the streets of Manhattan one night back in the early seventies. He was leaning on a car outside of an upper west side restaurant along with a very tall British actor, Paul Benedict, who had a role as the neighbor on the Jeffersons sitcom. The height difference was obvious between the two. I am a short man, but as Pacino stood up, I thought he was standing off the curb–he wasn’t.

He is a great actor, and he has something in common with my wife, Lisa. Lisa’s grandfather, Giuseppe Friia, was also from the town of Corleone.

Small town. Small island. Small world.

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