“You talkin’ to me?” The famous line in Taxi Driver that will go down in history as one of the greatest movie quotes came from the great Robert De Niro. Initially known for his tough guy roles as the embodiment of masculinity, De Niro successfully transitioned into other genres of acting, something that type-cast actors struggle to do.
Whether it is The Godfather, Goodfellas or Meet The Parents, everyone has seen a De Niro classic movie and understood what is so great about the actor. We go behind his harsh exterior and reveal who he really is.
A true New Yorker
Born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, Robert was the only child of painters Virginia Admiral and Robert De Niro Sr. On his father’s side he is of Irish and Italian descent which is why his roles in Italian-American gangster movies haven’t been so alien to the actor.
At the age of two, his parents divorced as his father came out as gay. Nonetheless, he had a very close relationship with both his parents who lived in walking distance from each other in New York.
The dream team
Perhaps one of the most iconic and successful partnerships in the movie business is De Niro and American-Italian filmmaker Martin Scorsese. In their success, De Niro won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull followed by nominations in psychological thrillers Taxi Driver and Cape Fear, both created by Scorsese.
In addition to this, De Niro won other nominations for The Deer Hunter, Awakenings and the 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook.
A very private man
Robert De Niro is known as one of the Hollywood originals and doesn’t enjoy the invasive side of fame. Due to this, he rarely ever does interviews so it was surprising when he agreed to an Esquire interview in the 90s. Most of the article focused on how guarded De Niro is and how there are very few public details about him.
When the interview was initially agreed upon, the interviewer was presented with a list of off-limit topics including politics, religion, his family and his personal interests.
A roller coaster start
De Niro actually had an early start in show business and discovered a love of acting at the young age of 10. From this, he went onto portray The Cowardly Lion in a local production of The Wizard of Oz.
However, instead of pursuing acting from then on, De Niro got wrapped up in the streets of New York and ended up joining a gang. Many of his experiences playing a gangster on the silver screen are inspired from his childhood.
Rocky love life
De Niro married his first wife Diahnne Abbott in 1976, they had one son together before divorcing in 1988. In 1995, De Niro had twins with his long term lover, model Toukie Smith, delivered via a surrogate mother. Two years later in 1997, De Niro married his second wife, Grace Hightower and they had one son together before renewing their vows in 1999.
However, a year later De Niro filed for divorce and their custody battle over their son got quite bitter. In a turn of events, their divorce was never finalized and they got through their troubles and welcomed their second child in 2011.
When De Niro was involved in gangs as an adolescent in New York, he had a gangster name that the Italian gang knew him by. They called him Bobby Milk, comparing milk to his pale complexion.
With his mother’s Irish and English background, De Niro didn’t look like the rest of his Italian gang, even though his father came from Italian heritage. In comparison to the others in the gang, De Niro was quite a restrained and modest troublemaker.
Fighting with France
De Niro ran into some trouble in France in 1998 which made him turn against the country. He was accused and taken in by police over allegedly being involved in a trafficking ring.
He vehemently denied all claims and was so furious about the situation that he told the country to take back the Legion of Honour which he was awarded in 1997. He added “I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.”
World record in weight gain
Some movies require severe transformations and De Niro knew exactly what this felt like. For his role in the 1980s movie Raging Bull, De Niro had to gain over 60 pounds which earned him the World Record for Most Weight Gained for a Movie.
De Niro held this record until seven years later in 1987 when Vincent D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds for his role in Metal Jacket. That world record made in the 80s still stands today.
Proving everyone wrong
Many of De Niro and Scorsese’s movies are based on Italian-American gangsters and the actor’s background won him a lot of these roles. However, De Niro didn’t have an Italian accent when he was being considered and many of the Italian acting coaches didn’t believe he could perfect the accent.
However, De Niro proved them all wrong and developed a convincing Sicilian accent and went on to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Vito Corleone.
Acting to restaurants
Like many actors today, De Niro used his money and influence to invest in other industries and businesses. De Niro got increasingly involved in restaurants, starting with co-owning the Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco with Bay area residents Francis Ford Coppola and the late Robin Williams.
Also, De Niro co-founded the first Nobu restaurant which now boasts a portfolio of 39 restaurants and eight luxury hotels across five continents. The business is set to hit $1 billion estimation in the next few years.
He’s big on politics
De Niro has been a big supporter of the Democratic Party his whole life. In 1998 he ended up lobbying congress against impeaching President Bill Clinton and supported Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election and John Kerry in the 2004 election.
He supported and had a close relationship with Barack Obama who ended up awarding the actor with a Medal of Freedom in 2016 before he left office. De Niro has spoken against President Trump numerous times.
In 2003, Robert De Niro’s spokesperson announced that the actor had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in December of that year. His doctors revealed the cancer was caught early from a routine check up and due to this everyone was optimistic he would be ok.
Following treatment, Robert went into remission and set to make a full recovery from the cancer. Today, De Niro is now 15 years cancer-free.
Bad guy to funny guy
After starring as a gangster in films including Goodfellas and The Godfather, De Niro changed up his career and began starring in comedies. De Niro reportedly earned around $20 million for starring in Analyze that before going into acting and producing the Meet The Parents movies.
De Niro played a main part in Meet The Parents, Meet The Fockers and Little Fockers which became some of his most successful movies. Meet The Fockers was the most successful, grossing $516 million at the box office.
Getting into the part
When De Niro was starring as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he wanted to get into the part as much as possible. To do this, Robert ended up getting a taxicab driver’s license and spent many weekends driving around New York City picking up fares.
De Niro took the job really seriously and even took on 12-hour shifts, dropping off and picking people up around the city. Surprisingly, the actor didn’t get recognized while doing his job.
Rebuilding after 9/11
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, De Niro wanted to do something to help rebuild lower Manhattan, the place he grew up, in the wake of the tragic events.
Together with Producer Jane Rosenthal and philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, they founded the Tribeca Film Festival, a showcase for independent films in order to “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan”. The first festival in 2002 featured Scorsese’s handpicked “Best Of New York” series which drew in an audience of 150,000.
He loved Mr. Jinx
Who can forget Jack’s obsession with the cat Mr. Jinx in Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers? The scenes where Greg tried to dupe the family into thinking he had found Mr. Jinx after he ran away had audiences in fits. Well, it turns out that De Niro’s feelings towards the cat were almost exactly the same as his character Jack.
He would play with the cats in between scenes and kept kibble in his pockets. He even asked the director to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.
A method actor
De Niro has done some crazy transformations for his roles including gaining over 60 pounds in Raging Bull and paying a dentist $5,000 to deform and shave his teeth for his role in Cape Fear.
De Niro spends hours studying his roles and getting them down to a tee before getting in front of the camera. Comedian Sandra Bernhard said of the actor “He never breaks character,” adding “He is totally concentrated, totally absorbed in the role.”
His favorite actress
As one of the all time greats, Robert De Niro has had his pick of working with some of the best actors. From Marlon Brando, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta to Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt, De Niro has experienced working with almost everyone but when it came to naming his favorite, it was none of these legends.
His actress of choice is none other than the incredible Meryl Streep who he has starred opposite in films including The Deer Hunter, Marvin’s Room and Falling in Love.
No slowing down
In 2011, De Niro starred in plenty of different films, all with different genres. Showing of his incredibly versatility as an actor, his first release was an action film Killer Elite followed by the film adaptation of the novel The Dark Fields which was named Limitless where he starred with Bradley Cooper.
At the end of the year, he took on a slower role in Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve with an all star cast. Just the following year he earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Silver Lining’s Playbook.