Al Pacino Steps Into JoePa’s Black Shoes and Conflicted Character in ‘Paterno’

Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

On Oct. 29, 2011, Joe Paterno won his 409th football game as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Eleven days later, he was fired. Two and a half months after that, he died of lung cancer at age 85.

Paterno was the emperor at Penn State, a football icon and powerful public face of the institution. But it was his inaction years earlier that caused his empire and legacy — statue and all — to rapidly crumble. What did Paterno know about former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing young boys, and did Paterno’s focus on football and his image keep him from doing more to stop it?

Those questions are explored in director Barry Levinson’s movie Paterno, in which Al Pacino portrays the embattled coach in his final months as he struggles to reconcile himself with what he did or didn’t know and what he did or didn’t do.

“I think he knew there were complaints. He knew there were rumors,” Pacino theorizes. “But he didn’t take up with it because it was out of his control, and I think this is a character who is used to control. And now going into this area, he was tentative about it because he was unsure of himself. And I don’t think that fit Joe, being unsure. It was something I don’t think he felt comfortable with.”

That’s little solace to victims who might have been spared if Paterno had taken more action. “It is truly a tragedy, and a tragedy in all things,” says Levinson. “In terms of what happened with the victims, in terms of what happened with Paterno, whether you think he did or he didn’t [know], it is ultimately a tragedy.”

Paterno premieres on HBO Saturday, April 7, at 8pm ET/PT and streams on HBO GO.

About Ryan Berenz 1961 Articles
Devotee of Star Wars. Builder of LEGO. Observer of televised sports. Member of the Television Critics Association. Graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Connoisseur of beer. Consumer of cheese. Father of two. Husband of one. Scourge of the Alaskan Bush People. Font of Simpsons knowledge. Son of a Stonecutter.