Born: 17 August 1943
Where: New York City, New York, USA
Awards: 2 Oscars, 1 Golden Globe
Over the course of nearly forty years, Robert De Niro has established himself as one of the most respected and iconic screen actors in history. This is a position he’s achieved both through the relentless perfectionism of his approach to his work, and the ferocity with which he protects his private life. Apart from the very occasional tabloid snippet, we hear nothing about the man, only ever seeing him when he’s playing someone else — which is, of course, exactly how he wants it to be.
Robert De Niro was born in New York, New York on August 17th, 1943. His ancestry — strangely, given his tight cinematic connection with the Mafia — is more Irish than Italian. His parents were both respected artists. His father, Robert Snr, was a painter, sculptor and poet, an abstract expressionist by style. His mother, Virginia Admiral was also a painter. The couple, who’d met as Hans Hoffman’s Provincetown painting class, divorced when young Robert was only two, the boy being raised by his mother. Robert Snr continued with his art, Virginia eventually opened a typesetting and printing business. A biography, released in 2004 by John Baxter, claimed that Robert Sr was in fact gay and spent only a few months with Virginia before separating, later enjoying affairs with the poet Robert Duncan, as well as Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock. Robert Jr, as ever, would make no comment.
Despite the divorce, Robert still saw his father regularly, often being taken to the movies. On his return home, he’d act out the film he’d just seen, learning to imitate the great actors of the day (he later made his mother swear never to let the press know which ones). The house, something of an artistic refuge, was usually peopled by renowned painters, poets and critics.
Robert Jr caught the acting bug early, appearing as The Cowardly Lion in a local production of The Wizard Of Oz at the age of 10. So keen was he (even as a boy he was intensely focused) that, at 13, his mother, recognising his desire and ability, sent him to a progressive private school, New York’s High School Of Music And Art. But Robert wasn’t quite ready. He dropped out and spent his time roaming the streets of Little Italy with a no-mark street gang, picking up the nickname Bobby Milk for his deathly white complexion. His father openly disapproved of his new "friends" and the pair fell out, though the rift wasn’t permanent. When De Niro’s father took off for a couple of years in Paris only to slip into depression and destitution, it was Robert Jr, aged only 18, who flew over there to bring him home.
Robert Jr didn’t stay off the rails for long, and soon threw himself back into laborious study. He attended the famous Stella Adler Conservatory and worked too under Lee Strasberg, learning the legendary Method. By the age of 16, he was touring in a production of Chekov’s The Bear. Soon he was criss-crossing the South, performing Neil Simon-style comedies in dinner theatres, and would spend well over a decade honing his craft in theatre workshops and off-Broadway productions. In the meantime, he tried to break into the movies, promoting himself with his usual strict attention to detail. He’d arrive at auditions with photographs of himself in 25 different guises.
De Niro’s first important break came through his relationship with the young director Brian De Palma. De Palma cast him in The Wedding Party — filmed in 1963 but not released till 1969, the same year De Niro made an appearance on Sesame Street — then, a few years later, in Greetings and Hi Mom!. The pair would reunite, as major players, with 1987’s Oscar-winning The Untouchables. Now De Niro’s career began to take off. He appeared, alongside Shelley Winters and Bruce Dern, as one of the notorious Barker gang, in Bloody Mama, then revealed the depth of his work ethic by paying his own passage to Italy to research a small role in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
1973 was the year De Niro broke. This saw his first collaboration with the man who’d mark his career more than anyone else — director Martin Scorsese. The movie was Mean Streets and De Niro shone as a dangerously irresponsible shyster and hooligan. But, perhaps even more importantly at the time, there was Bang The Drum Slowly, a remake of a 1956 Paul Newman movie, wherein De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a major league baseball catcher struck down by Hodgkins Disease, who tries to make it through one final season. Having returned to the South with a tape-recorder, strenuously researching his part, his performance was startlingly good, showing a wide range and genuine sensitivity, and winning him a New York Film Critics Award.
Now De Niro entered his most extraordinary period of work, landing himself an exceptional series of roles (he’s said that "The talent is in the choices"). First he played the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2, taking the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts (he and Brando are the only actors to have both won Oscars for the same role). Then he was back with Scorsese as the unforgettable moralist vigilante Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He played Monroe Stahr, the big-time Hollywood producer looking for love in The Last Tycoon, and starred in Bertolucci’s sprawling epic 1900. There was a brief downturn as he and Scorsese attempted to recreate the old-time musical in New York, New York (De Niro learned the saxophone for the role), but he bounced back immediately as the morose and disciplined hero of Michael Cimino’s magnificent The Deer Hunter. Having been Oscar-nominated for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter (he’d later also be nominated for Cape Fear and Awakenings), he finally took Best Actor for his depiction of the brutish, confused and all-too-human boxer Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a role for which he famously put on 60 pounds.
Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, De Niro continued to enhance his reputation with a wild variety of classic movies. He was fantastic as Rupert Pupkin, the lunatic funnyman kidnapping Jerry Lewis in King Of Comedy, explosive as a baseball-bat-wielding Al Capone in The Untouchables, smooth and venomous as Louis Cyphre (surely not The Devil?) in Angel Heart. Then there were excellent oddities like The Mission, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the ludicrously under-rated comedy Midnight Run ("I’ll give you FIST-ophobia!"). And the great roles kept coming. He scored again with Scorsese in the monumental Goodfellas, as the menacing Max Cady in Cape Fear, and as the Joe Pesci-persecuted Ace Rothstein in Casino (though he did turn down the role of Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ). He played samurai-like criminals in both Heat and Ronin, and made a touchingly confused and bereft monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
De Niro has been twice married, first in 1976 to actress and singer Diahnne Abbott. He adopted Drena, Abbott’s daughter from a previous marriage, but the couple also had a son of their own — Raphael, named after the hotel in Rome where he was conceived. Drena is also an actress and appeared in the De Niro movies Showtime, Wag The Dog and City By The Sea. Robert and Diahnne were divorced in 1988 and, seven years later, De Niro had twin sons with his then-girlfriend, actress and restaurateur Toukie Smith. These boys, named Aaron and Julian, were born of a surrogate mother, via in vitro fecundation, with Smith later rather cruelly remarking that De Niro had been no more than "a sperm donor". In 1997, De Niro was married once more, this time to ex-flight attendant Grace Hightower, with whom he had a further son, Elliot. It would be a tempestuous marriage, with the couple filing for divorce in 1999, and again in 2001 when they also began a bitter custody battle over Elliot. Thankfully, the relationship would calm over time and they’d renew their vows in 2004. Other celebrity girlfriends have included Naomi Campbell and Ashley Judd but, as mentioned, De Niro keeps his private life deadly quiet.
De Niro ended the Nineties with Flawless and a superb performance as a super-conservative security guard who suffers a stroke and has to endure speech therapy with a transvestite, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And the new millennium brought even greater success. He made a comically ferocious Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky And Bullwinkle. He was merciless (as well as an alcoholic racist) in training Cuba Gooding Jr to be the first African American navy diver in Men Of Honour. Then he was hilarious in Meet The Parents (for which he was Golden Globe-nominated) , playing Jack Byrnes, formerly a psychological profiler for the CIA, who takes a mighty disliking to his daughter’s boyfriend (Ben Stiller as Gaylord Focker). Desperate to catch Stiller out, he’s a picture of suspicion and repressed rage ("I will take you down to China-town").
After this came 15 Minutes where he played a celebrity-hungry New York homicide cop chasing Eastern European killers who video their crimes in the belief that they can sell the tapes to TV and become rich and notorious — their main trarget being De Niro himself. In a couple of scenes, he even took the opportunity to parody his earlier starring role in Taxi Driver, most notably when he’s practising a marriage proposition in the mirror. Next came The Score, where he played old-hand thief Nick Wells who’s persuaded into one last job by Montreal crime lord Marlon Brando. It was a fraught production, with Brando refusing to wear trousers so director Frank Oz had to shoot him from the waist up, then refusing to attend at all if Oz was behind the camera. Eventually, De Niro himself took to directing Brando’s scenes.
2002 brought a rush of activity. First came Showtime, yet another comedy. This was a spoof of buddy-cop movies, where tough veteran De Niro is paired with maverick, big-mouthed rookie Eddie Murphy on a reality-based TV cop show. The show’s producer was played by Rene Russo, who’d also starred with De Niro in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle. Next came City By The Sea where he played a cop tortured by the fact that his own father was a child-killer. Now his son, a drug addict, has accidentally killed a dealer and De Niro is assigned to the case. Unsure of his son’s guilt and with his integrity thus under attack, he finds his past and present combining to make life unbearable. Following this, there be a return to an earlier hit with Analyze That. Here his neurotic mob boss would be released from Sing Sing into the house custody of Billy Crystal and his reluctant wife Lisa Kudrow. Naturally, strife enters their harmonic lives, with Crystal being drawn into a heist plot and De Niro having to combat a rival gang, led by Cathy Moriarty (earlier his wife in Raging Bull). Though brightly played, the movie came nowhere near replicating the success of the original.
2004 would be another big year. Having in 2003 been diagnosed with prostate cancer, from which he made a full recovery after surgery, he moved on to Godsend, which would see him playing a doctor who persuades recently bereaved Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos to let him implant one of their dead son’s cells into her womb so they can have the same child all over again — things beginning to get weird when the new boy reaches the age when the first one died. The movie was based on an interesting premise but was badly executed, something of an embarrassment for De Niro who had only signed on to play a cameo, then was persuaded to stay on for an extra week’s filming — a situation that allowed him to be promoted as the film’s star. He’d make amends with the huge success of Meet The Fockers, the sequel to Meet The Parents, where his crazily suspicious and uptight Jack Byrnes would travel to Florida to visit Ben Stiller’s impossibly liberated parents, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. Though a simple retread of the original, Meet The Fockers would suprprise many with its outrageous popularity, breaking Christmas and New Year records at the US box office.
Also released (though only in Spain) at the end of 2004, was The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder and concerning religious intrigue in Spanish-held Peru. Here a bridge has collapsed, people have died and priest Gabriel Byrne has written a paper on the lives of the dead to discover whether they all deserved such punishment from God. Of course, it’s bang out of order to so question the actions of the Almighty, so Byrne is put on trial for his life by archbishop and grand inquisitor De Niro. It was a seriously artistic venture, with a cast featuring Kathy Bates, Geraldine Chaplin, F. Murray Abraham and, co-starring with De Niro for the first time since Copland, his old sparring buddy Harvey Keitel.
2005 would bring an oddity, Hide And Seek, a very rare horror outing for De Niro. Here he’d play a noted psychologist who cannot reach his young daughter, Dakota Fanning, when her mother dies. He seeks help from colleague Famke Janssen but nothing, it seems can prevent the girl descending into a madness that sees her obeying the evil commands of her imaginary friend. It was hoped that this would be followed by The Good Shepherd, De Niro’s second attempt at directing (his first was A Bronx Tale back in 1993), which would cover 40 years of the CIA. In production for 10 years, the project had undergone terrible delays, the last of which saw De Niro’s former co-star Leonardo DiCaprio drop out.
De Niro’s earnings are now vast, having received $20 million for Analyze That. He runs his own production company, TriBeCa, producing such movies as About A Boy, Entropy, Witness to The Mob, Panther and Thunderheart, as well as acting as executive producer on many of the movies in which he’s starred. Attempting to put something back into New York post-9/11 he organised the first annual TriBeCa film festival in 2002, then applied to build a $150 million movie studio on the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (he was turned down in favour of property developers). He’s also a restaurateur, co-owning the likes of Nobu and Layla in New York, Ago in West Hollywood and Rubicon in San Francisco, the last of which he co-owns with Robin Williams and Francis Ford Coppola. His favourite though is his TriBeCa Grill, in New York, which he frequently patronises and on the walls of which hang paintings by his father.
In 1998, De Niro was caught up in an investigation into prostitution in Paris, where he was filming Ronin. Outraged, he denied any involvement in the matter and swore never again to return to France. Nonetheless, he is revered all over Europe and even received a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival, in honour of his outstanding contribution to cinema. Rest assured that worldwide respect for him will only grow stronger.