Interviews


Robert De Niro


Occupation: Actor, Director
Date of Birth: August 17, 1943
Place of Birth: New York, N.Y., USA
Sign: Sun in Leo, Moon in Pisces
Relations: Wife: Grace Hightower (former flight attendant); ex-wife: Diahnne Abbott; kids: Raphael and Dreena (with Abbott), twin boys Aaron and Julian (with Toukie Smith), and one son with Hightower
Education: High School of Music and Art dropout

 

ARE you talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" Robert De Niro taunts himself in a mirror. He is Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle is trying to become a tough guy, a somebody. De Niro is trying to become somebody too: a crazy person, Travis Bickle. De Niro has likely spent many hours in front of the mirror trying to become someone elseand his time hasn't been wasted. He totally inhabits each character he assumes, and, as a result, he is impenetrable to the media and even his co-stars. An anecdote: Michael Moriarty, De Niro's co-star in Bang the Drum Slowly, was watching a scene for Taxi Driver being shot. A production assistant offered to take Moriarty over to see De Niro. "Don't bother," Moriarty told him. "I don't know that guy at all. I knew Bruce Pearson [De Niro's character in Bang]. I don't know Travis Bickle or Bob De Niro." De Niro's intense immersion in his roles has won him a reputation as the greatest actor of his generation.

Robert De Niro Jr. was born to a family of artists. His mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter, and father Robert was a painter, sculptor, and poet. De Niro's childhood was unique in its freedom, perhaps less so in its loneliness. He was known around his Little Italy neighborhood in New York as "Bobby Milk" because of his scrawniness and pallor. He was a shy child who preferred paperbacks to playmates. He was able to overcome his timidity at age ten for his first stage rolethe cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. De Niro spent most of his early teen years on the streets, where he whiled away his time with a small-time gang. Acting called him back, and his first paycheck came at sixteen with a touring performance in Chekhov's The Bear. From there, De Niro embarked on a fifteen-year tour through dinner theatres and off-Broadway stages. Like most successful actors of the era, he studied with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, the chief proponents of Method acting.

De Niro's first screen effort, The Wedding Party, is notable only because of his participation and that of director Brian De Palma. Shot in 1963, it was not released until 1969, and it went unnoticed. His next two films were also with De Palma: Greetings and Hi, Mom! were satires looking at sex, the draft, and the counterculture. But it wasn't until 1973 that De Niro really began turning heads in Hollywood. His portrayal of dying baseball player Bruce Pearson in Bang the Drum Slowly won him the New York Film Critcs award for Best Actor. The same year, De Niro appeared in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, beginning a longtime collaboration that has spawned a total of eight films, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas. In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II turned De Niro into a superstar. His role as the young Vito Corleone won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscarhis portrayal of the young Godfather cemented his reputation as the next Marlon Brando. He demonstrated his dedication to his craft by gaining sixty pounds to play aging boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.

De Niro has fiercely protected his private life. At the beginning of his career, he gave interviewsthen he abruptly decided that his personal life had absolutely nothing to do with his film career. He married sometime actress Diahnne Abbott in 1976 and had a son, Raphael. They separated after several years; rumor was that they had an open marriage, but rumors are aplenty around De Niro. Another involves child support over twins he had with former girlfriend Toukie Smith (through a surrogate mother, no less). Smith claims De Niro was merely a sperm donor, but . . . well, why bother? De Niro's life is a favorite grist for gossip columnists because he's not prone to correcting them or answering their calls. In 1997, the actor wed his longtime girlfriend, former flight attendant Grace Hightower, in a top-secret wedding ceremony.

Some of De Niro's mid-'90s films put a series of chinks in his iron method. Roles in films like We're No Angels and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein made critics question his motivation, and a popular theory promulgated was that De Niro was trying to raise funds for his Tribeca Film Center, a company dedicated to promoting New York film production. These critics needed no further proof after seeing The Fan, a terrible piece of work in which De Niro seemed to be channeling bits of every cocksure psycho he has played. Such failures have been overshadowed to some degree by more recent successes: Heat and Casino (both 1995) confirmed that De Niro can still climb into the skin of assorted unsavories better than anyone; Sleepers and Marvin's Room (both 1996) illustrated his equal facility at playing kinder, gentler characters; and Jackie Brown and Wag the Dog (both 1997) gave full reign to his quirkier side. Though his 1998 vehicles  the off-target literary update Great Expectations and the turgid John Frankenheimer thriller Ronin  proved unsatisfactory, De Niro got off to a good start the following year with the Harold Ramis mobster-meets-analyst comedy Analyze This. Later that year, he delivered a surprisingly tender performance in Joel Schumacher's Flawless, in which he played a homophobic security guard who submits very reluctantly to speech therapy sessions with his pre-op transsexual neighbor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after suffering a paralyzing stroke.

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