ROBERT DE NIRO
Born in New York’s lower Manhattan in 1943, De Niro came from an Italian-Irish background with his part-Italian father, Robert Sr. and part-Irish mother, Virginia - both artists.
He was largely raised by his mother in a loft apartment in Greenwich Village after his parents had separated. The ‘refuge’, as it was dubbed at the time, was often filled with bohemian friends of Virginia’s, including members of the Warhol ‘circle’. The area was not the chic and trendy area it is today, with most of the spaces being used as warehouses and studios. It was, however, the place to be if you were involved in the art scene.
As a toddler, De Niro went to a kindergarten run by the Ethical Culture Movement. It influenced him greatly throughout his life and when he married Diahnne Abbott in 1976, he did so at the group’s New York headquarters.
When De Niro was growing up, his father would often take him to the movies. When he returned home he would impress his mother with his imitations of the actors of the day, such as Robert Mitchum and Montgomery Clift. Aged 10, he appeared as the Cowardly Lion in a local production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Seeing that De Niro had the aspiration and ability to perform, Virginia enrolled him in New York’s High School of Music and Art. A restless and rebellious teenager, De Niro dropped out without graduating, preferring to hang out with a local street gang instead.
Thankfully, he decided there was more to life than roaming the streets of Little Italy and he started sneaking into acting workshops at the famous Stella Adler Conservatory. Adler was a teacher and acting coach to a variety of actors including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel and Candice Bergen. Her ‘rival’, the Actor’s Studio, was run by Lee Strasberg, a Ukrainian who taught his version of the Method – a system of mental exercises and games for actors to help build up their character.
De Niro spent the 1960s fine-tuning his technique in these performing sessions, getting a few roles in off-Broadway productions and travelling America performing Neil Simon-style comedies in dinner theatres. Although the pay was next to nothing, De Niro did not see this work as beneath him and his persistence and ambition would keep him from quitting.
New York’s small film industry meant that when De Niro auditioned for film roles he would often see the same faces turn up each time, such as Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and later Harvey Keitel. Director Brian de Palma was to give De Niro his first break with a small role in ‘The Wedding Party’ (filmed in 1963 but not released until 1969). They collaborated again on ‘Greetings’ (1968) and the sequel, ‘Hi Mom!’ (1970), but perhaps the most memorable film they did together was to come later, with 1987’s Oscar-winning film ‘The Untouchables’.
De Palma was also responsible for introducing De Niro to fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese at a Christmas party in 1972. Coming from the same area, they quickly hit it off and found they saw a lot of things the same way. At parties they would sit and talk about movies and technique for hours on end.
In 1973, De Niro played Bruce Pearson, a major league baseball catcher with a rare blood disease in ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ (1973). In preparation for his role, De Niro watched thousands of hours of baseball on TV, and developed his expertise in squirting tobacco juice and saliva through his front teeth! His then girlfriend, Diahnne, would see De Niro come home still in character. She sometimes would have a problem recognising the real De Niro at all.
‘Mean Streets’ (1973) was the first of many films where De Niro and Scorsese would collaborate. His Italian looks and background earned him many roles in violent gangster movies. Indeed his appearance as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppolla’s ‘The Godfather: Part II’ (1974) is perhaps one of the most famous, with De Niro winning his first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting role. De Niro perfected a Sicilian accent, astonishing his voice coaches in Italy who did not think it would be possible. He also had a dentist fit a prosthetic mould to fill out his cheeks, and put on weight so that he could look more like a young Marlon Brando. He and Marlon Brando are the only actors to have both won Oscars for playing the same character (Brando won his in 1972).
“Are you talkin’ to me? ARE YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?”; this line from ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) is one of the most memorable of De Niro’s entire career, and he is said to have made it up when he was meticulously researching his role in front of the mirror. De Niro enjoyed improvising and it was not uncommon for him to encourage other members of the cast to do the same.
In order to get into the mindset of nihilistic war veteran Travis Bickle, De Niro spent many days at a US army base in Italy when he had time off from working with Bernardo Bertolucci on ‘Novecento’ (1976). After observing how the guys there dressed, walked, and held a gun, he went back to New York and took pistol lessons. He also got a chauffeur’s licence and drove cabs around New York for a while. De Niro’s philosophy has always been that if he chooses to play a certain character then he has to ‘earn the right’ to play him, generally through intense suffering and transformation, both physically and mentally.
In ‘Taxi Driver’, De Niro played opposite Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), a young Jodie Foster (Iris), and Harvey Keitel (Matthew). The wonderful score was written by Bernard Herrmann, who sadly died soon after recording the music to the film.
The 1970s and 80s were a time when many Hollywood celebrities were taking cocaine. De Niro, Scorsese, Robin Williams and good friend John Belushi were among them all. Sadly, Belushi was to die in 1982 of a drugs overdose at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. The parties stretched from New York to LA, with De Niro seen on some occasions at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. In 1976, De Niro married Diahnne Abbot, an African-American model/actress, and although they had a son together (Raphael), the relationship ended only a few years later.
During these same years, however, De Niro entered his most extraordinary period of work, landing roles in ‘The Last Tycoon’ (1975, earning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor); ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978, which grossed $27.4 million and was the winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture); and ‘Raging Bull’ (1980), for which he would famously put on sixty pounds to play real-life retired boxer Jake La Motta.
The idea for the movie came to De Niro after reading La Motta’s chilling autobiography a few years earlier. After some persuasion, Scorsese would direct the film, pulling in New Jersey restaurant owner Joe Pesci, who at the time had not appeared in a film for a while. Pesci would go on to star alongside De Niro in five pictures: ‘Once upon a Time in America’ (1984), ‘Goodfellas’ (1990), ‘A Bronx Tale’ (1993), ‘Casino’ (1995) and ‘The Good Shepherd’ (2006).
Scorsese shot the film in black and white because it dulled down the colour of the blood in so many of the scenes, making it look less nauseating to the audience. In the book, Jake La Motta states that when he reflects back on his life he sees it as a black and white movie, which is maybe another reason for Scorsese to choose this style of filming. ‘Raging Bull’ led De Niro on to ‘True Confessions’ (1981), ‘The King of Comedy’ (1983) and ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984). The latter is a Sergio Leone tale of the lives of a small group of New York City Jewish gangsters living in the 1920s, who reunite forty years on. De Niro plays the lead role as David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, with co-star James Woods as firm friend, Max.
In 1987, De Niro played the chilling character of Louis Cyphre in ‘Angel Heart’, a thrilling film ‘that scares you to your very soul’ - so ran the tagline at the time. Set in Cuba, De Niro stars alongside Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling, all of whom made this film so great. In 1990, De Niro once again worked with Scorsese, this time in the outstanding mafia film, ‘Goodfellas’. He then starred as the menacing Max Cady in Scorsese’s remake of ‘Cape Fear’ (1991) opposite Nick Nolte.
De Niro then founded his own production company, Tribeca (after the downtown area he grew up in), and made his directorial debut in ‘A Bronx Tale’ (1993). A few years later he accepted the 1997 Municipal Art Society’s Jacqueline Onassis Medal for his efforts to revive TriBeCa, where he opened a couple of restaurants and established a thriving film centre. During the 1990s, De Niro worked at a high pace, often making three films per year. In 1995, the public got a rare opportunity to see De Niro and Al Pacino appear in the same film. ‘Heat’ is an LA crime saga, which focuses on the lives of two men on opposite sides of the law - one a detective (Pacino); the other a thief (De Niro).
De Niro has always kept his private life to himself. He rarely gives an interview, and if the press makes statements about him, he seldom bothers to defend himself, or give his side of the story. What is known is that De Niro has twin sons with actress Toukie Smith. After a brief relationship with supermodel Naomi Campbell, De Niro married in 1997 for the second time to Grace Hightower, with whom he had a son, Elliot. Although divorced in 2002, they renewed their wedding vows and they are still together to this day.
The noughties were particularly lucrative for De Niro – he earned a reputed $20 million for ‘Analyze That’. He has also produced a number of well-received movies such as ‘The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle’ (2000), ‘About a Boy’ (2002) and ‘Stage Beauty’ (2004). He was also successful in acting in and producing comedy films, such as ‘Meet the Parents’ (2000) and the sequel, ‘Meet the Fockers’ (2004).
Other recent projects include 2005 horror film ‘Hide and Seek’, featuring Dakota Fanning, the animation ‘Arthur and the Invisibles’ (2006), and spy movie ‘The Good Shepherd’, which he starred in and directed. The film’s high profile cast, including Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci and John Turturro, was a testament to how highly regarded De Niro is in the industry.
De Niro’s portrayal of the character of Captain Shakespeare in ‘Stardust’, a 2007 Paramount Pictures fantasy film, continued to cement his popularity with fans. The movie also featured many A-listers and performed well at the box office, paving the way for work on 2008 releases ‘Righteous Kill’ and ‘What Just Happened’. He picked up a Hollywood Film Festival Best Actor award for his contribution in 2009 comedy ‘Everybody’s Fine’ and went on to have a role in director Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 action film ‘Machete’.
The same year also saw De Niro appear in the drama ‘Stone’ alongside Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich and ‘Little Fockers’, another instalment of the popular comedy franchise featuring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. 2011 saw him star in techno-thriller ‘Limitless’, which featured Bradley Cooper in the lead role. More recently he appeared opposite Sylvester Stallone in 'Grudge Match'.
It is said De Niro’s influences for comedy come from ex-vaudeville comics, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. However, he once said, “the talent is in the choices”. Indeed, De Niro has made a lot of good decisions over the years, earning him a number of awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Revered throughout Europe, De Niro has even received a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in honour of his outstanding contribution to cinema.
These rewards seem proof enough that De Niro is a legend of his generation and deserves to be applauded for his contribution to cinema.