One of the greatest American actors of his generation, Robert De Niro (born 1943) is known for his total immersion in roles. Whether driving a cab to prepare for Taxi Driver or gaining 60 pounds to play boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, De Niro studies his characters intensely. The Oscar-winning actor is best known for his roles in gangster-related films such as The Godfather, Part II.
In a 1976 interview, De Niro explained his approach to preparing for a role. "Actors must expose themselves to the surroundings and keep their minds obsessed with that," he said. " … I always look at everything…. If you don't practice, you don't know your subject and it can't be natural … You've got to physically and mentally become that person you are portraying."
De Niro was born in New York City on August 17, 1943. His father, Robert De Niro Sr., was a sculptor, painter and poet. His mother, Virginia Admiral, also sold paintings. His parents had a salon in Greenwich Village that attracted other artists and intellectuals. They divorced when their son was a young child. As he approached adolescence, De Niro was shy and sickly looking. His pale complexion earned him the nickname "Bobby Milk" in the ethnic neighborhood of "Little Italy," where he grew up. His first stage role, at age ten, was as the cowardly lion in a local production of The Wizard of Oz.
At the age of 16, De Niro got his first paying role, in a production of Chekhov's The Bear . He was hooked. Dropping out of high school just a few credits short of graduation, he studied Method acting under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For the next 14 years De Niro performed off-Broadway, in dinner theaters, in touring productions, and occasionally in television commercials and small films.
Director Brian De Palma gave De Niro his start in films.. He cast the young New Yorker in the little-noticed, small-budget films The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! In Greetings De Niro had the lead role as a draft dodger. Soon, actress Shelley Winters took him under her wing. She helped him land a part in the low-budget Roger Corman film Bloody Mama. He played one of the sons of her character, the legendary killer Ma Barker. De Niro prepared by spending weeks in the Ozark Mountains, perfecting an Arkansas dialect. De Niro next appeared in a string of poorly received films, including Jennifer on My Mind, Born to Win, and The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Though the movies were panned, some film critics started to notice his exceptional performances.
"You Talkin' to Me?"
In 1973, De Niro, who was turning 30, finally won widespread acclaim with two remarkable performances. He portrayed a dying baseball pitcher in Bang the Drum Slowly . De Niro had never played baseball and wasn't an athlete but, through constant practice, intense study of ballplayers in person and on film, and reading books about baseball, he made his performance believable. Later that year, De Niro appeared as a nervous, explosive young hoodlum in Mean Streets, the first of many collaborations with director Martin Scorcese, a contemporary who also grew up on New York's Lower East Side. The authenticity of his performance was startling. It "looked as if a rogue had come in off the streets," wrote biographer David Thomson, and the portrayal seemed "an assertion of how out of conventional control he was."
In 1974, De Niro was cast as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Coppola's blockbuster The Godfather, Part II. He prepared by studying the Sicilian dialect for weeks and by striving to capture the accent and mannerisms of Marlon Brando, who had played the older Corleone in the original Godfather. "De Niro is right to be playing the young Brando because he has the physical audacity, the grace and the instinct to become a great actor," wrote critic Pauline Kael. The breakthrough role, in which he speaks only 17 words of English, won De Niro the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
De Niro continued gaining critical acclaim with his role as the cab driver Travis Bickle in Scorcese's Taxi Driver in 1976. His Oscar-nominated portrait of a bigoted, vengeful Vietnam veteran was an iconic performance. To prepare for the role, De Niro lost 35 pounds and listened repeatedly to a taped reading of the diaries of assassin Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. He also got a provisional cab driver's license and drove around New York for several weeks.
De Niro's gutsy, disturbing performance drove the controversial film. "The genius of the acting consists of De Niro's refusal to simplify," wrote Thomson. "He never opts for sacred monster or shaman. The long, lone sequences establish an hallucinatory confessional with the audience…" Playing with his gun and practicing his bravado in front of a mirror—a scene the actor improvised—De Niro tries out the memorable line: "You talkin' to me?" The phrase became an enduring part of the American lexicon— shorthand for a fed-up, won't-take-it-anymore attitude and a code for white male rage. "It is a picture of a man on the brink of the abyss which is both chilling and comical," wrote biographer Andy Dougan.
Disappeared into Roles
Over the next quarter-century, De Niro would become one of the most prolific and celebrated actors in Hollywood. He was known for immersing himself in his roles—so much so that for many years he often went unrecognized in public. One of De Niro's acclaimed early portrayals came in the controversial, Oscar-winning Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter, in which he played a redneck steelworker traumatized by his combat experiences. To grow into the role, he entered the world of Ohio Valley steel mills. "I talked with the mill workers, I drank and ate with them, and I played pool with them," De Niro explained. "I tried to come as close to being a steelworker as possible. I wanted to work a shift at the mill, but they wouldn't let me." De Niro's penchant for authenticity nearly cost him his life during the filming. Shooting combat scenes in Thailand, he and co-star John Savage were almost killed while doing their own stunt work, dropping from a flying helicopter's runners into a river.
Critics were astounded by the intensity of De Niro's tight-lipped character. Thomson wrote: " The Deer Hunter would not have existed without De Niro's fierce generation of pain and honor…" De Niro was nominated for another Academy Award and might have won it were it not for overwhelming public sympathy for Peter Finch, who had starred in Network and then died before the Oscar voting.
In 1980, De Niro finally won a Best Actor award from the Academy voters for his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta in Scorcese's Raging Bull . Before filming began, he took a year's worth of boxing lessons and spent months at the real Jake La Motta's apartment, absorbing everything he could about the man. After the film's early scenes were shot with a lean, trim De Niro, production stopped while De Niro literally grew into the part of the fighter as an older, obese man. By eating his way across France and Italy, he gained 60 pounds in two months. De Niro explained after the filming: "I just can't fake acting. I know movies are an illusion and the first rule is to fake it, but not for me. I'm too curious. I want to deal with all the facts of the character, thin or fat…. Just by having the weight on, it really made me feel a certain way and behave in a certain way…. It was a little like going to a foreign land."
The result was an intensely personal performance. "He put on not just weight, but the burden of degradation," noted Thomson. "While in the ring, he was a terrifying spectacle, as credible as any movie boxer has ever been…. In the scenes with Cathy Moriarty, and with the 'guys,' there were remarkable insights into sexual insecurity or ambivalence."
Once established as a star, De Niro refused to settle for sure box-office hits. Continually testing his range, he made a number of unusual role choices, including a romantic comedy with Meryl Streep, Falling in Love, which bombed with critics and at the box office. Though he is most closely associated with a gangster persona, De Niro's roles have varied widely. They include a struggling musician in the unsuccessful Scorcese musical New York, New York and an incarnation of Lucifer in Alan Parker's black comedy Angel Heart (for which De Niro grew long hair and a beard and studied the most evil men in history). He also portrayed the Frankenstein creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ;an unfunny would-be comedian in The King of Comedy, a drug-addicted ex-felon in Jackie Brown ; a repressed priest in True Confessions ; and a catatonic patient in Awakenings.
De Niro specialized in difficult, complex characters who represented the dark side of human nature. In 1991, he received another Oscar nomination for his role as a loathsome ex-felon in Cape Fear. Thomson wrote: "His character was so intricately nasty, so repellent, and so clever, that one wondered if the actor hadn't developed too much devil worship." After appearing as gangster Al Capone in De Palma's The Untouchables, De Niro explained: "I prefer the so-called evil because it is more realistic. Good characters or characters who are only positive tend to be unbelievable and boring."
Tedium was unlikely on film sets with De Niro. His intensity was contagious. "When De Niro walks on the set, you can feel his presence, but he never behaves like a movie star, just an actor," said Parker. "And when he acts, his sheer concentration permeates the whole set."
Italian director Sergio Leone cast De Niro as a gangster in his epic Once Upon a Time in America . After the filming was completed Leone said: "I don't consider Bob so much an actor as an incarnation of the character he is playing. Until he feels like that he can't go on the set…. No one is better than De Niro at being studied and spontaneous at the same time."
Appearing in flops and hits, De Niro remained productive and unpredictable. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as a bounty hunter in the lightweight 1989 hit Midnight Run . He returned often to his favorite director Scorcese, playing a mob character in Goodfellas and a gambler in Casino . He played a gangster in Heat and a hit man in Ronin . He spoofed his own persona as a mob boss in the comedy Analyze This and as a hard-nosed ex-intelligence agent in Meet the Parents.
Despite his fame, De Niro has remained extremely protective of his personal life and distrustful of interviewers and photographers. "I liken them to assassins," he once said. In 1976, De Niro married singer-actress Diahnne Abbott. They had a son and a daughter before divorcing. He also had twin sons, born via a surrogate mother, with actress Toukie Smith. De Niro was also romantically linked to model Naomi Campbell, singer Whitney Houston, and actress Uma Thurman. In 1997, he married flight attendant Grace Hightower.
Tribeca Film Center
Seeking new challenges, De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Center in a renovated Manhattan coffee factory in 1989. On the first two floors he opened a restaurant, the Tribeca Grill, in which he displayed his father's paintings. De Niro eventually became part-owner of several upscale New York restaurants.
From his new headquarters De Niro produced his first film, Neil Jordan's remake of We're No Angels, in which he also starred. In 1993, De Niro won critical acclaim for directing and playing opposite Chazz Palminteri in the latter's autobiographical film A Bronx Tale. Also that year, he produced a television series Tribeca, which was cancelled after seven episodes. In 1999, he produced the movie Entropy.
Throughout his career, De Niro has tested his own limits-often going to extreme limits in order to be true to his character. To De Niro, acting has always been a way of expanding horizons. More than 60 film roles in 37 years attest to his willingness to take risks. "Acting is a cheap way to do things that you would not dare to do yourself," he once explained.
Dougan, Andy, Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1996.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, November 1, 1999.
Esquire, December 1997.
Newsweek, May 17, 1999.
"The Robert De Niro Page," http://deniro.jvlnet.com.
"Robert De Niro," All Movie Guide, http://allmovie.com.
"Robert De Niro," http: //www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/9401/.