“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.
Despite growing up American-Italian and mixing with the gangster community, De Niro didn’t get his Italian passport until years later in 2006 when it was granted by the Prime Minister.
The acquisition of his passport was significant due to the Italian Republic’s strong opposition of the American-Italian community and the way they are usually portrayed on TV in the U.S. However, De Niro was considered to be one of the few figures that represented Italians in a respectful manner.
Staying at the top of his game
While many actors who have been in the industry for over 40 years have had breaks in their careers to take some much needed time off. However, this can’t be said for Robert De Niro and he has been one of the most consistent actors of his generation.
Since 1968, there have only been five years when he hasn’t starred in and released a film. In 2020, he has three films in pre-production with an additional movie ready for release next year.
Silver Linings struggle
Robert De Niro earned an Oscar nomination for his roles in David. O Russell’s real and raw romantic-comedy drama Silver Linings Playbook.
Even though the premise of the film focused on mental disorders including bipolar disorder that was very close to the directors heart, De Niro admitted that playing the father of a mentally disturbed son wasn’t the challenging part and instead, the biggest challenge was to play a football fan as De Niro didn’t follow the sport.
A Father’s Love
In 2016, Robert opened up about an issue within his family that he felt important to voice. He explained that his son, Elliot, has autism and wanted to raise awareness for the issue.
De Niro was known to be an incredibly private person, but he felt that giving a voice to this specific topic was crucial to break down stigmas and provoke discussion and understanding. De Niro has also been an advocate for anti-vaccine, claiming that the MMR changed his son overnight.
Bringing home the bacon
In the last decade, actors movie quotas have gone through the roof, but we have seen in previous years that some of the best performances came from actors who took pay cuts in movies.
This was the case for De Niro as well and his Oscar nominated performance in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver earned him a salary of just $35,000. This is in direct contrast to his salary for his role as Jack in the 2010 film Meet The Fockers where he earned a whopping $20 million.
Ferrari never happened
In 1993, a biopic based on the life of Enzo Ferrari was in the works and Robert De Niro was tapped to star as Ferrari himself. At the time, the film was given a budget of $65 million and had Michael Mann as the director.
However, due to a number of reasons the movie fell through and De Niro never got a chance to take on the role. However, in 2019, the film was reborn and Joseph Kosinski is the director with stars including Matt Damon and Christian Bale signing on too.
He lived a few blocks from Scorsese
Everyone knows De Niro and Martin Scorsese as the dream team and any movie they touch usually gets a number of award nominations. Ironically, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were actually brought up just blocks from each other in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan.
It wasn’t until 1972 when they were formally introduced at a party and developed a relationship. They also realized they had seen each other many times but had never spoken until that point.
Robert and the chocolate factory
In early talks of the remake of the famous Gene Wilder movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Robert De Niro was being considered to reprise the role of Willy Wonka.
However, when Tim Burton was signed on as the director for the movie, he decided to go with the darker and more mysterious Johnny Depp, an actor he has put in many of his other movies. Considering the film roles De Niro is used to, it’s probably better that he didn’t take on this one.
He made Scorsese aware of Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors, highest paid and is an Academy Award winner, but some of his success can be credited to Robert De Niro. After working with DiCaprio on This Boy’s Life in 1993, Robert was very impressed by his talent an envisioned him to become a great actor in the future.
He then went and spoke to Scorsese, his friend and frequent film collaborator about Leo and this paved the way for a great relationship between DiCaprio and Scorsese.
De Niro mixed with Michael Jackson
Robert De Niro was never the kind of person to attend red carpet events for the sake of it and he only really made media appearances for his own movie premieres, award shows or charity events, but the exception he made was at the set of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal music video shoot.
Being one of the greatest actors it isn’t surprising he had friendships with other stars, but not many people can say they were at the set of Smooth Criminal. Gregory Peck and Bruce Willis were said to have been there too.
Robert De Niro has been described as a method actor and will go to great lengths to get into a roll. When he was cast to play Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, he spent four months learning to speak Sicilian so he could portray the character accurately.
Almost all of the dialect that De Niro spoke during the movie was Sicilian and De Niro was hailed for his performance in what was a challenging and important role in an award-winning film.
When De Niro was cast as Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1994, it was very hard to make him look huge in the role. In order to make him look like he was the size of Frankenstein, many tricks used to make humans, wizards and elves dwarf the hobbits on the Lord of the Rings trilogy were employed for De Niro as Frankenstein.
In addition, very large men were brought in as body doubles for shots were only hands and feet were seen in the shot.
Robert De Niro met his Mean Streets co-star Harvey Keitel right before they started shooting the 1973 and immediately became close friends and their good relationship was noticeable on screen.
DeNiro was predominantly mentored by Stella Adler while growing up in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan while Harvey Keital was mentored by Lee Strasberg while growing up in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. It was an instant friendship between the actors and to this day they remain close friends.
His first roles
Robert De Niro’s first role came at the young age of 20 and he appeared in the 1963 film The Wedding Party directed by Brian De Palma however, the film wasn’t actually released until 1969.
The following year after De Niro’s first movie was released, he then appeared in Roger Corman’s film Bloody Mama in 1970. Three years following this in 1973, he gained major popularity and acclaim as a dying Major League Baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly.
Robert De Niro has made it very clear that New York City is very much a big part of his life. Growing up in Greenwich Village and residing in New York for his whole life, De Niro holds a special place for the Big Apple and has even invested in the city.
Not only did he help to rebuild lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but he also owns plenty of real estate. He has residences on the east and west sides of Manhattan and predominantly resides in his 78-acre estate in Gardiner, New York.
A fangirl moment
Robert De Niro had truly become a star by the 80s and had many adoring fans around the world. Some of these fans included British pop group Bananarama who even made a hit song dedicated to him called “Robert De Niro’s Waiting.”
Upon hearing about the song, De Niro appreciated it and arranged to meet the girls. However, their nerves got the better of them and to calm down, they decided to have a few drinks which ended in them getting drunk before even meeting the actor.
A humble guy
Robert De Niro is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of all time, but he is also one of the most humble. When asked about his own movies, he replied “I don’t like to watch my own movies-I fall asleep in my own movies.”
He went on to admit that he never considered himself a fascinating human being and just considered himself to be an actor and that’s the route he decided to go down. Many would argue that knowing him personally, he certainly is a character.
Why he doesn’t do interviews
De Niro is known for being an inherently private person and while this is understandable, many questioned why he didn’t like to be interviewed. He explained that “After my first movies, I gave interviews.
Then I thought, “What’s so important about where I went to school, and hobbies? What does any of that have to do with acting, with my own head?” Throughout his career, there are only a handful of interviews recorded with De Niro being candid.
Every actor has had some films that haven’t done so well at the box office and for some individuals, the negative press can become all consuming. However, De Niro took a different approach to movie regrets, explaining “I don’t regret any film I’ve made, because there was a reason for making it at the time.
If it hasn’t worked out, then don’t spend time worrying about why and how. Just move on to the next project.” It is through this attitude that De Niro has developed as a well rounded actor.
Back to gangsters
Late 2019 is set to see the release of the new Scorsese and De Niro film titled The Irishman. It is Scorsese’s return to film since 2016 and teaming up with De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino it is almost guaranteed to be a huge success.
The latest reviews of the film claim that it is an epic gangster drama and De Niro’s best work in years as well as one of Scorsese’s best creations to date.
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.