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The trick, it seems, is to always approach it like you did when you were a kid.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to longevity in a ruthlessly competitive, youth-oriented business: talent, shrewd decision-making, professionalism, luck. Al Pacino works them all -- has forever, in the way movie lifespans go -- and he can also claim deep reserves of that most mysterious and precious commodity, star power.

But comfortably into his 60s and working as hard as ever, Pacino's main strength seems to be an enthusiasm for and sense of wonder about the magic of acting that is positively youthful. Although a theatre actor since his teens, Pacino was a latecomer to movies; he was past 30 when his third picture, The Godfather, made him a celluloid name. And perhaps that's why the excitement hasn't dimmed through numerous accomplishments, stretches of setbacks and a long return to professional grace. There is always lost time to make up for, and perhaps something new still to try.

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"That's always there, it's a given," Pacino, who can effortlessly manage to look both sharp (tailored, slate-grey Armani suit over deep black T-shirt) and disheveled (thick dark hair mopping out in multiple directions, Insomnia eyes), says with all the intense engagement his gravel-pit voice can project. "You do research because you never know what you're going to get from it. And you're always going to get something, and it's always going to stimulate. You're looking for stimuli all the time."

Ask Pacino to get specific about what made the juices bubble for his latest film project, The Recruit (opening Friday), however, and he shifts down into neither-confirm-nor-deny mode. That could be partly Pacino -- he's as reluctant to talk about certain aspects of his life as he is eager to share his passion for the work -- but may have more to do with the nature of this particular project.

In The Recruit, Pacino plays a veteran talent scout for the CIA, Walter Burke. Sporting a Devil's Advocate goatee and a sardonic glee about his own manipulative prowess, Pacino's Burke talks Colin Farrell's computer whiz James Clayton into trying out for the CIA, sees him through undercover training and guides his first, troubling undercover assignment. All while messing with the kid's head like only Scarface, Michael Corleone, Scent of a Woman's Colonel Slade and Glengarry Glen Ross's Ricky Roma could.

"I enjoyed playing someone who's very good at something, who has secrets and who has been through things," Pacino says, careful not to give away any vital secrets. "I like playing someone who has got another agenda there, too."

According to the Irish actor Farrell, Pacino wasn't just good at what he does; he was inspiring.

"What was great to see was that, after so many years and doing such fine work, being the actor that he is and having done the roles and been part of the films that he's been part of, Al still doesn't sit back and rest on his laurels," Farrell observes. "He still is obsessed with getting it right and doing it as honestly and as truthfully as he can. And he still beats himself up if he thinks he's not getting it. And even if he is not getting it, he's doing better work than most actors, y'know?"

"Well, with movies you need that impetus," Pacino says with a shrug. "You're doing what, one or two minutes a day [of usable footage] You want to know why you're there. Sometimes, I finish a movie and I don't know what the hell it's about. I forget, I only know what that day was about."

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There was some of that on The Recruit. Pacino makes no secret of the fact that the film's script, which is officially credited to three different writers, was worked on by himself, other cast members and director Roger Donaldson ( No Way Out) during its Toronto production last winter.

There were other good reasons for not committing to the project. For one, Pacino is older than he appears, and he's been working non-stop for several years: Insomnia and Simone hit theatres in 2002; this year, there will also be People I Know, in which he plays a New York publicist, and Gigli, which reteams Pacino with Martin Brest, the director who guided him to his only Oscar-winning performance in Scent of a Woman; and on television, Pacino will be seen as the closeted government counsel Roy Cohn in Mike Nichols's mammoth HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's prize-winning play Angels in America.

Oh, and in 2001, he became a daddy again. Of twins (their mother is actress Beverly D'Angelo; the never-married Pacino also has an adult daughter). Days off and weekends were spent jetting back to the States to see what he likes to call "the babes."

But ready or not, The Recruit was Pacino's first chance in his long career to play a spy.

So he responded like any James Bond-loving kid would.

"I wasn't that anxious to go to work because I just had done a couple of pictures, so I didn't particularly want to do something and I wanted to be home with the babies and stuff," he admits. "But at the same time I saw that it was different than the movies I've done before. And they wanted me. It's always a big thing when you're wanted. It helps! You say, 'Do you want me to be in it?' You'll always have that as an actor, if somebody wants you."

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Starry-eyed as that attitude may sound, in Pacino's case it's the outgrowth of hard experience rather than a willful effort to recapture innocence. It's instructive to remember that nobody involved with The Godfather production other than director Francis Ford Coppola wanted the diminutive, no-name actor from the Bronx in the movie, despite his Strasberg-trained Method and the Obie and Tony awards he had already won (for the record, Pacino's two prior films were Me, Natalie and The Panic in Needle Park).

But Pacino's portrayal of conflicted Mafia scion Michael Corleone made him an icon for the early 1970s counterculture generation, and his reprise of the role two years later in The Godfather: Part II proved to all that Pacino possessed Shakespearean depths of tragic grandeur. Many years later, he'd play the role a third time in a lesser Coppola effort. But even today, Pacino's appreciation for the director who had such faith in him is evident when he discusses the twin masterpieces.

"Two was my favorite, but one was really the most solid," the actor allows. "That was the original one and it had the best story. Its pillars were the story in it, it had a real good structure, so it was strong. Godfather II is not as strong that way, but it is a more personal film for Francis, see."

Other key, seventies film roles such as police corruption whistle-blower Frank Serpico and the sexually confused bank robber of Dog Day Afternoon cemented Pacino's stardom. But in the latter part of the decade, things began to drift. Bobby Deerfield, . . . And Justice for All and Author! Author! simply didn't have the impact of earlier films, and Cruising got one of the few actors who'd successfully played gay at a time when it was considered career suicide accused of homophobia.

Pacino's outrageous portrayal of coked-up drug kingpin Tony Montana in 1983's Scarface revived his popularity, but his next movie, Revolution, almost killed his career. Pacino did not make another movie for four years.

But as the 1990s unfolded, Pacino registered so many memorable movie performances ( Scent of a Woman, Glengarry Glen Ross, Carlito's Way, Heat, Donnie Brasco, The Insider) in so many different keys, shades and tones that he achieved master status, and inevitable clinkers along the way could no longer tarnish it.

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Now, Pacino admits, the trick is not to let that status impede growth. Of course, he's learned valuable lessons over the years. The one he seems to cherish most is the importance of mutual respect in any company.

"If I'm not getting along with my co-actors, I don't know that I can function, it's the hardest thing to do," reveals the actor, who recently headlined Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for scale (even thought tickets to the show were $100 U.S., an off-Broadway benchmark). "So even if you are with people that you normally wouldn't be with, people that you don't quite see eye-to-eye with in the work ethic or philosophy of life or whatever, you still have to find a way to make that common bond in order to work. You are up there on the wire together and you've gotta support each other. So you try to avoid, at all costs, conflict with your fellow actors . . . and I have, unfortunately, had in the past just a couple of incidents when it was difficult."

Then there's the constant struggle not to rely on rote, proven tricks. Pacino has an amusing solution for that one: a short-term memory that he tries to help fritz out following any given job.

"I think that, even unconsciously, there are certain things you automatically do," he admits. "I mean, I've played so many cops, so how much research can I do? So now it's a bit shorthand, if I go in there, about the actual mechanics. Although you forget; I mean, I've done a lot of movies with guns. I don't know anything about a gun. I don't know how to load a gun, open a gun. But when I make the movie I know all about it. As soon as the movie's over, it's gone. I don't own a gun in life, but in the movies I handle them, so while I'm playing it for some reason I know everything about it. At least I think I do."

Maybe that is a sign of age. But it's also evidence of how the work revitalizes Pacino. And every time, he tries to put that vitality right back into it.

"You always try to find the personal hook, what it is you can identify with," he says of each job. "Can I at least think that I'm saying something about this character or this state of being or this philosophy the movie has? That at least gives you impetus. Sometimes you don't make it, but that's what I'm always thinking about, consciously or unconsciously, with film roles."

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