Carlito's Way at 30: 'Back in those days it was coke, alcohol, a lot of parties'

Actor Luis Guzmán and producer Michael Bregman look back at Brian De Palma's under-appreciated Al Pacino movie

John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Al Pacino in 1993's Carlito's Way, which turns 30 in 2023. (Alamy)
John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Al Pacino in 1993's Carlito's Way, which turns 30 in 2023. (Alamy)

Back in 1993, Luis Guzman was a comparatively inexperienced performer with only a few small credits to his name. Now, of course, he’s one of our most celebrated character actors, but it took a little bit of getting used to when he found himself in the rehearsal room with Al Pacino.

After shaking the legend’s hand, “I was embarrassed because my hands were cold and sweaty,” Guzman tells Yahoo UK. “I think after the second day of rehearsal, I was feeling a little insecure, so I called up one of my friends who knew Al. He said, ‘Don’t worry about this, you grew up in this s***, live that. The next day, I showed up and I was like, ‘I’m the baddest mother***er out here.’”

It was Pacino who had worked for several years to bring Carlito to the big screen. Based on the books by former State Supreme Court judge Edwin Torres, the star had finally managed to get the greenlight on the film about Carlito Brigante, whose dream of going straight is blighted by his criminal past into which he finds himself again inexorably drawn.

Al Pacino in 1993's Carlito's Way. (Alamy)
Al Pacino in 1993's Carlito's Way. (Alamy)

“To my recollection Al Pacino and Eddie Torres both worked out at the same gym,” explains Michael Bregman, who produced the film alongside his father Martin. “He told Al he had a book, Al read it and I guess Al ran off and tried to make it a bunch of times, but it didn’t work out. And then he gave it to my dad who gave it to me.”

The cast was rounded out by Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo (who had to be convinced to do it, even though Benicio Del Toro was super-keen), Viggo Mortensen and Guzman as Carlito’s bodyguard Pachanga, while Sean Penn shocked people thanks to his balding perm as crooked lawyer Dave Kleinfeld.

“Within four minutes of the last shot and the gate being checked, he had walked into the hair and make-up trailer and shaved his own head,” laughs Bregman of Penn. “The AD almost had a heart attack.”

Sean Penn transformed himself for Carlito's Way. (Alamy)
Sean Penn transformed himself for Carlito's Way. (Alamy)

Brian De Palma, who of course had previous with Pacino having directed him in Scarface, was a comparatively late addition to the fold, with Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) initially attached.

“Abel had just done King of New York,” remembers Bregman. “That movie is stupendous. He’d shown up to meet my dad and I because he’d wanted to do a film about [porn star] John Holmes starring Christopher Walken.”

“He seemed like the right fit [for Carlito’s Way], but the temperament was not going to work at Universal Pictures,” he continues. “Abel’s an outlier and he has a certain way of working. It was a terrible parting of the ways because we’d become friends in the midst of it and then he wasn’t doing the movie and he went bats*** crazy. Then a year or so later we were pals again.”

Guzman recalls being “directed but not really” by Brian De Palma. The director had laughed during his audition, with the star not knowing whether that was a good thing until he arrived back home afterwards to find a message on his answering machine telling him he had the part. On-set, early in his career and keen to impress, the actor would ask the helmer whether he was on the right track and was normally rewarded with little more than a grunt. “He was a man of very few words,” says Guzman.

But for the actor, who had grown up Latino on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Carlito’s Way felt authentic to his blue-collar upbringing and former career as a social worker.

“Back in those days it was coke, alcohol, a lot of parties. A lot of girls,” he remembers. “We used to go clubbing and then you come back to the neighbourhood and there were these little social clubs. In the back of the social club there was always a pool table. That’s where s*** always started. That’s where I would find the people who exemplified the Pachangas of the world. Those guys were my reference.”

He continues, “The club scenes in Carlito, they were spot on. We had 300 of the best club dancers in New York City. In the holding area, it was like a party going on the whole time. People would bring their boom boxes. Instead of sitting around, it was fifty, sixty couples just dancing.”

Bregman recalls shooting in a pre-Guiliani New York that still reflected the grimier Big Apple of the 1970s when the film was set.

Al Pacino with Brian De Palma on the set of Carlito's Way. (Alamy)
Al Pacino with Brian De Palma on the set of Carlito's Way. (Alamy)

“We were lucky,” he says. “It still hadn’t metamorphosised and you could drop into the barrio and stuff structurally still existed. Subway stations in the outer boroughs still looked they did [20 years previously].”

One thing they did have to build into the schedule was time off for Al Pacino to attend the Academy Awards.

“In those days, the Oscars were on a Monday, so he had to have Monday and Tuesday off,” says Bregman. “He was Best Actor nominee for Scent of a Woman, but also Best Supporting Actor nominee for Glengarry Glen Ross and his quip over his shoulder on the way out the door was, ‘If I win both, I ain’t coming back!’”

With a classy cast, the lure of a gangster narrative and the reteaming of Scarface’s director and star, everyone was convinced Carlito’s Way would be a hit. But while it got good notices, it didn’t make much money at the box office during its theatrical run.

Actor Al Pacino holds up the the Oscar he won as best actor for his role in
Al Pacino holds up the Best Actor Oscar he won for his role in Scent of a Woman in 1993. (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith)

“It was a little disappointing because like Scarface it enjoyed its success posthumously,” admits Bregman. “I thought Carlito was going to go through the roof. But we were a long movie, so that knocks out that [extra cinema] showtime.”

Nevertheless, 30 years on we’re getting a new 4K restoration and the film continues to have legs. “Everyone loves the movie,” says Bregman. “It was part of my professional life and it was part of my social life. I just hung up the phone with Eddie Torres yesterday.”

“For 20 years, my name was Pachanga, nobody knew what my name was,” adds Guzman. “Everybody loves a good gangster movie. I think Carlito’s Way, for whatever reason, it put a lot of Latinos on the forefront and everybody just loved my character. I was over the moon to be a part of it.”

Carlito’s Way is out now in 4K UHD from Arrow Video, with brand new audio commentaries and interviews, a fold-out poster and collector’s booklet.

Read more: Nostalgia