Considered one of the finest actors of his generation, Robert De Niro has starred in some of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the late 20th Century and beyond. Thanks to roles such as Vito Corleone, Jake La Motta and Al Capone, he is also possibly the most famous Italian-American actor not actually to come from a purely Italian-American background. Yet, like all great actors, achieving such a good reputation didn't come overnight.
The only child of New York-based artists Robert De Niro and Virginia Admiral, Robert De Niro junior was born on 17 August, 1943. His parents separated when he was just three, and he was raised by his mother in an apartment on West 14th Street, Manhattan, New York City. Even at an early age, Robert showed signs of the career he'd later choose, playing the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz (coincidentally, his star-sign is Leo). As a teenager, young De Niro was described as very thin and pale, which led to him gaining the nickname 'Bobby Milk'.
An unexceptional student, he ended up dropping out of High School to pursue acting, attending the Dramatic Workshop and the Luther James Studio, and appearing in a local production of Chekhov's The Bear. However, it was when he began studying with one of the leaders in the Method Acting movement, Stella Adler, and later, Lee Strasberg1, that Robert De Niro first began to take it seriously. He began collating a portfolio of photos of himself as various characters, old, young and in a variety of costumes or hats (one hat, a scruffy 'porkpie', would later appear as part of his costume for playing Johnny-Boy in Mean Streets).
An early success came with Glamour, Glory and Gold, an off-off-Broadway soap-opera-themed production in which De Niro co-starred, playing five parts opposite Candy Darling, the infamous, glamorous transsexual and Marilyn Monroe impersonator discovered by Andy Warhol2. New York paper The Village Voice complimented De Niro for making:
... distinct character statements in a series of parts which many actors would have fused into a general mush. De Niro is new on the scene and deserves to be welcomed.
In 1964, student filmmaker Brian De Palma was putting together his first feature film, The Wedding Party. Like almost everyone else who has met him, De Palma's first impression of De Niro was that he was shy and self-effacing, yet when he began acting he was a completely different person. For the role of the groom's best friend, De Niro picked up just $50. The entire production was pretty low-budget, and indeed the film sat on a shelf for two years before De Palma managed to get it edited. By the time it was released, three years later again, he and De Niro had already collaborated on another feature, Greetings.
As a consequence of the Vietnam War, more and more young men received letters informing them they were to be drafted into the army. Each letter would be headed 'Greetings from the President of the United States'. De Palma's satirical film Greetings depicted the attempts by three young men to evade the draft: Paul occupies himself with conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of JFK; Lloyd pretends to be gay; while De Niro's character, a voyeur called Jon Rubin, tries to appear unsuitable by acting like an underground terrorist. Unsurprisingly, it's Jon Rubin who gets drafted but, enterprising to the end, he begins to make exploitative home movies of Vietnamese women stripping. The script for the film was largely worked out through improvisation with the actors, a technique De Niro would become famous for. This taste of a film career prompted De Niro to audition for a film called Sam's Song3. He bagged the title role - a character that sadly gets killed off in the first reel.
1970 and Beyond
The actress Shelley Winters had befriended De Niro after they had appeared in a play together in the early 1960s. In 1970, she was hired to star in Bloody Mama, an exploitation film geared to cash in on the success of Bonnie and Clyde. Winters encouraged director Roger Corman to cast De Niro as one of her sons, the drug-addled Lloyd. De Niro disturbed the cast and crew by taking his part so seriously and losing weight so dramatically that they all believed he was genuinely ill.
De Niro reteamed with Brian De Palma in 1970 for a hilarious, anarchic sequel to Greetings. Hi Mom4 focused on Jon Rubin, De Niro's character from the first film, as he tries his hand as an amateur voyeuristic pornographer, takes part in an interactive anti-racism theatrical experience called 'Be Black Baby' and finally an urban guerilla terrorist who reacts against modern life by blowing up a high-rise apartment block.
It was De Palma's association with De Niro that would ultimately change the actor's life. At a dinner party thrown by De Palma, De Niro was introduced to a young director who, it turned out, had grown up streets away from him and knew a lot of the same people as De Niro. The other guests were surprised to see the usually painfully-shy De Niro striking up a conversation with the director as they discovered they had more and more in common. The director was Martin Scorsese who was on the verge of making his first big studio picture, Mean Streets, for Warner Bros, a gangster picture set in the Little Italy district of New York. Scorsese felt that De Niro would be perfect for a supporting role in the picture, that of the reckless Johnny Boy. In rehearsals, De Niro once more displayed a talent for improvisations and much of the dialogue for the picture's key scenes was shaped by De Niro and his co-star, Harvey Keitel.
Despite Keitel receiving top billing, on the film's release it was De Niro who received the major share of praise. The film led to him being cast as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather - Part II. More than that, it led to the founding of one of cinema's greatest actor-director partnerships as Scorsese began to use De Niro as his cinematic alter-ego in, among others, Taxi Driver, New York, New York and Raging Bull (for which De Niro won his second Academy Award). Indeed, it was De Niro's frequent collaborations with the very best in directing talent that ultimately helped establish him as a genuine movie great.
Now, De Niro is a prolific actor considered at the very top of his profession. In 1989 he set up the TriBeCa company in 1989 and became a film producer and part-time restaurateur. In 1993, he made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale and in 2002 he returns to the theatre as co-producer of We Will Rock You, a post-apocalyptic musical based on the music of rock group Queen. But his eclectic choice of projects and a reticence towards giving interviews has helped De Niro to remain a bit of an enigma, rather than revelling in the 'stardom' that many other actors succumb to. As his involvement in the 2001 Tribute To Heroes concert5 showed and the subsequent film festival he set up the following year, De Niro is an actor still in touch with his roots, someone who still feels passionately about the city he grew up in, the city that made him famous, New York.