Based on the true story of former NYPD officer Frank Serpico, Al Pacino starred as a cop who pays the price for trying to expose corruption within the New York City police force. Filmed and released in between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)—and equally esteemed—the film, directed by Sidney Lumet, earned Pacino his second of eight (and counting) Oscar nominations.
1. DINO DE LAURENTIIS BOUGHT THE FILM RIGHTS AFTER READING 20 PAGES OF A BIOGRAPHY.
Author Peter Maas had only written the first 20 pages of his biography of Frank Serpico, but producer Dino De Laurentiis was intrigued enough by the concept to ask to read them. He paid “close to $500,000” for the rights, based just on those 20 pages. Maas was shocked.
2. PAUL NEWMAN AND ROBERT REDFORD COULD HAVE STARRED.
Director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) had the first crack at working on the film, and author John Gregory Dunne (The Panic in Needle Park, A Star Is Born) was approached to write the screenplay. But Dunne didn’t think there was a story to tell after reading Maas’s book. With an idea floating around of Newman playing NYPD Detective David Durk (changed to the fictional Bob Blair in the final version) and Redford playing Serpico, Peckinpah and Paul Newman had dinner to talk about the project. Peckinpah said he didn’t care for Redford, and that was the end of that.
3. JOHN G. AVILDSEN WAS THE FIRST DIRECTOR.
According to John Avildsen (who directed Rocky in 1976), producer Martin Bregman fired him after he refused to cast Bregman's then-girlfriend, and later wife, Cornelia Sharpe as Leslie Lane. Avildsen thought Sharpe “couldn’t act to save her life.” So Sidney Lumet took over directing duties (and did cast Sharpe in the role).
4. THE ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY WAS 240 PAGES LONG.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) wrote a 240-page draft of the script, which was then cut in half by co-writer Norman Wexler. Because Salt was better at dialogue, Lumet mixed and matched. "So we basically ended up shooting Waldo Salt's language and Norman Wexler's structure" for the entire film, the director said.
5. PACINO HUNG OUT WITH SERPICO BEFORE FILMING.
Pacino invited Serpico to be his guest in Montauk, at a house Pacino had rented. When the actor asked the former cop why he did what he did, Serpico said, “I guess I would have to say it would be because ... if I didn't, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?" Pacino loved that response, and said he “enjoyed” being with him, and that he had “mischief in his eyes.”
6. SERPICO WAS ASKED TO STAY AWAY FROM THE SET.
The recently retired cop sat in on script conferences and contributed ideas, but both Pacino and Bregman thought Serpico would be a distraction once it came time to start shooting. When he heard he wasn’t allowed on set, Lumet said Serpico’s feelings were hurt.
7. IT WAS FILMED IN REVERSE ORDER.
Because Serpico gradually grew a thick beard and long hair, Pacino’s hair and beard were trimmed before each scene. Filming began right after the Fourth of July, so defoliated trees and visible breath had to be simulated for the winter scenes.
8. THE PARTY SCENE WAS FILMED IN PLAYWRIGHT SIDNEY KINGSLEY’S APARTMENT.
Back in 1935, Kingsley hired Sidney Lumet, who was 11 years old at the time, to appear as one of original Dead End Kids in his Dead End on Broadway.
9. THERE WERE 107 SPEAKING PARTS, AND IT WAS FILMED IN 104 LOCATIONS.
10. THERE WERE SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE MOVIE AND REALITY.
Serpico carried a revolver, lived on Perry Street, and was married three times. Pacino’s Serpico had a 9mm automatic, and lived at 5-7 Minetta Street. The real Serpico also claimed his wardrobe was better than Pacino’s in the film.
11. THE NEW YORK POLICE DEPARTMENT COOPERATED WITH THE FILMMAKERS.
Lumet shot in four fully operational station houses without any problems. The two officers assigned directly to the movie “actively helped” once they realized Serpico was going for authenticity. Pacino didn’t seek out much help from them; he went out with some police officers one night but only lasted “about five minutes” before saying, "I can’t do that stuff."
12. PACINO GOT SO DEEP INTO CHARACTER, HE TRIED TO ARREST SOMEONE.
Pacino, ever the Method actor, would carry his emotions off-camera—staying happy, or angry, depending on the scene. While filming the movie, Pacino grew incensed when a truck was blowing its exhaust all over his face. He yelled at the truck driver to pull over because he was under arrest. “I pulled out my Serpico badge,” Pacino recalled. "It was a fantasy for a moment. I was going to put him under citizen’s arrest, but then I realized what I was doing.”
13. WOODIE KING JR. WENT FROM STREET THUG TO LESLIE’S FRIEND AFTER BREAKING HIS LEG.
King Jr. (later the director of Death of a Prophet) broke his leg filming a chase scene, and was subsequently recast as a young street thug. Two months later he came back as Larry in the party scene.
14. LUMET WAS EXHAUSTED BY THE END.
Because they started in July, and the film was scheduled for a Christmas opening, Lumet had an “insanely short time” to shoot Serpico. “I think I was more tired after finishing Serpico than almost any movie I've ever done,” the director once remarked. The movie ended up debuting even earlier than expected, on December 5, 1973.
15. THERE WAS A TV SHOW.
David Birney played Serpico in the one-season NBC series, which premiered in 1976. Only 14 episodes were broadcast before it was canceled due to poor ratings.
16. SERPICO DIDN'T SEE THE MOVIE IN ITS ENTIRETY UNTIL 2010.
And that was at the request of a reporter from The New York Times. Watching Pacino as himself on the verge of death, Serpico looked away from the screen, not able to relive that experience.
17. PACINO DIDN’T THINK HE GOT THE TRUE ESSENCE OF THE CHARACTER.
Pacino said he saw a “maverick, eclectic person” in Serpico’s eyes. “I felt I would like to express what I saw in his face, but I was unable to do it,” Pacino told Lawrence Grobel.