Who Is Robert De Niro?
Actor Robert De Niro left school at age 16 to study acting with Stella Adler. He then worked with many acclaimed film directors, including Brian De Palma, Elia Kazan and, most importantly, Martin Scorsese. De Niro’s role in The Godfather: Part II (1974) brought him his first Academy Award. He went on to make several other critically acclaimed films, including The Deer Hunter (1978) and scored his second Academy Award for Raging Bull (1980). In the 1990s, De Niro saw continued success with such films as Goodfellas and Analyze This. He more recently won acclaim for his work on Silver Linings Playbook (2012), garnering the seventh Oscar nod of his career..
Early Life and Parents
Robert Anthony De Niro Jr. was born on August 17, 1943, in New York City. His parents were both respected artists who had met while attending Hans Hoffman’s famed Provincetown painting classes. His mother, Virginia Admiral, was a cerebral and gifted painter, a Berkeley graduate who made a significant name for herself in the 1940s and 1950s New York art scene. His father, Robert De Niro Sr., was a painter, sculptor and poet whose work received high critical acclaim. Known as the “golden couple” of the New York art circle, Virginia and Robert Sr. nevertheless split ways in 1945, when young DeNiro was only two years old. As his father remained singularly devoted to his art, De Niro was raised primarily by his mother, who took on work as a typesetter and printer to support her son.
A bright and energetic child, De Niro was incredibly fond of attending movies with his father when they spent time together. He was especially taken with films starring Swedish actress Greta Garbo. De Niro’s mother worked part-time as a typist and copyeditor for Maria Picator’s Dramatic Workshop, and as part of her compensation, De Niro was allowed to take children’s acting classes for free.
At the age of 10, De Niro made his stage debut as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Soon after, he was accepted at New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, an institution specializing in visual and performance arts. However, feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for the intense and competitive atmosphere, he dropped out to attend public school after only a few days.
Not long after beginning courses at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, De Niro proved to be uninterested in school altogether and, as a teenager, joined a rather tame Italian street gang that gave him the nickname “Bobby Milk,” in reference to his pale complexion. While De Niro was by all accounts only a very modest troublemaker, the gang provided him with experience to skillfully portray Italian mobsters as an actor.
In 1960, after a soul searching cross-country trip to visit relatives in California, De Niro decided to drop out of high school to study acting. Once asked in an interview why he decided to take up the profession, De Niro responded, “Acting is a cheap way to do things that you would never dare to do yourself.” He enrolled at the Stella Adler Conservatory (later renamed the Stella Adler Studio of Acting), and though he continued to take high school classes at night, he never graduated. Adler was a strong proponent of the Stanislavski method of acting, involving deep psychological character investigation. An intense teacher, Adler was once described by The New York Times as someone who would “curse, cajole, rage, roar and, from time to time, even compliment her students.” Adler, who had taught the likes of Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, would later remember De Niro as one of her best students.
With his mother’s permission, De Niro took the money she had saved for his college education and put it toward his acting career. He studied briefly with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York City, and then began auditioning. As actress Sally Kirkland once recalled, instead of traditional headshots, De Niro showed up to auditions with “a portfolio of about 25 pictures of himself in various disguises to prove that he wasn’t just an ethnic actor.” After a momentary cameo in the 1965 French film Three Rooms in Manhattan, De Niro’s real debut came in the 1968 film Greetings. His breakthrough performances came five years later in a pair of highly acclaimed 1973 films: Bang the Drum Slowly, in which he played a terminally ill catcher on a baseball team, and Mean Streets, his first of many collaborations with director Scorsese, in which he played a street thug opposite Harvey Keitel.
Oscars: ‘Godfather: Part II’ and ‘Raging Bull’
In 1974, De Niro established himself as one the nation’s finest actors with his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, a role for which he learned to speak Sicilian. Two years later, De Niro delivered perhaps the most chilling performance of his career, playing vengeful cabbie Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) alongside Jodie Foster. He continued to show his tremendous skill as a dramatic actor in 1978’s The Deer Hunter. The film follows a group of friends haunted by their Vietnam War experiences.
De Niro later portrayed middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta in the commercially unsuccessful but critically adored film Raging Bull (1980), again helmed by Scorsese. The previously skinny De Niro had put on 60 pounds of muscle for his riveting turn as LaMotta and was rewarded for his dedication with the 1981 Academy Award for Best Actor. After 1981’s True Confessions, his next roles were that of an aspiring standup comedian in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and as a Jewish mobster in the sprawling historical epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
Other notable projects on the actor’s diverse roster for the 1980s included the sci-fi art film Brazil (1985) and the historically inspired The Mission (1986), followed by fare like the crime drama The Untouchables (1987, in which De Niro portrayed gangster Al Capone opposite Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness) and the action-comedy Midnight Run (1988).
Acclaim for ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Awakenings’
De Niro opened the 1990s with Goodfellas, yet another acclaimed gangster film from Scorsese that saw the actor teaming up with Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. De Niro next starred in a project that earned him another Oscar nod, portraying a catatonic patient brought back to awareness in Awakenings (1990), directed by Penny Marshall and co-starring Robin Williams as a character based on physician Oliver Sacks. Dramas continued to be the genre of choice for De Niro, as he played a blacklisted director in Guilty by Suspicion and a fire chief in Ron Howard‘s Backdraft, both from 1991.
Soon afterward, the actor was once again front and center and reunited with Scorsese in a terrifying way, bulking up to become a tattooed rapist who stalks a family in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear. The film was originally a 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen and Lori Martin, and was recast with Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. (Peck and Mitchum made appearances in the remake as well.) De Niro received his sixth Academy Award nomination for Fear, with the film becoming the highest-grossing collaboration between the actor and Scorsese, earning more than $182 million worldwide.
‘Casino’ and Comedic Fare
After somewhat edgy, comedic outings like Night and the City (1992) and Mad Dog and Glory (1993), another drama followed in the form of This Boy’s Life (1993), in which De Niro portrayed an abusive father opposite a young Leonardo DiCaprio. That same year, De Niro made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale, a film adaptation of a one-man play written and performed by Chazz Palminteri. In 1994, De Niro was practically unrecognizable as the monster in actor/director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein.
The fall of 1995 saw another Scorsese telling of mob life, this time in Las Vegas. De Niro portrayed a character based on real-life figure Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal in Casino, co-starring Sharon Stone and Pesci. Michael Mann’s Heat followed that same year, with De Niro re-teaming with fellow Godfather star Al Pacino in a well-received outing about a bank robber contemplating getting out of the business and the police detective aiming to bring him down.
For the rest of the 1990s and into the new millennium, scarcely a year passed by that didn’t see De Niro featured in a big screen project as either a lead or supporting figure. At the turn of the century, De Niro struck out into decidedly different territory with 1999’s Analyze This, a hilarious and highly popular spoof of the mob movies that had garnered him fame. Analyze This earned more than $100 million domestically, with De Niro playing a crime boss who seeks help from a therapist, played by Billy Crystal.
‘Parents’ Patriarch, ‘The Good Shepherd’
In 2000, De Niro took on another comedy, Meet the Parents, with the screen icon playing Ben Stiller’s future father-in-law. The smash-hit spawned two sequels: Meet the Fockers (2004) and Little Fockers (2011), both of which were also box-office successes. De Niro continued to switch between comedic and serious roles over the next few years, reuniting with Crystal for Analyze That in 2002, and starring in the spy thriller The Good Shepherd with Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie in 2006. The following year De Niro was featured as a secretive cross-dressing pirate with a heart of gold in the fantasy flick Stardust, while 2009 saw a return to dramatic fare with Everybody’s Fine.
‘Silver Linings Playbook’
De Niro earned yet another Academy Award nomination for his turn in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), playing the father of a mentally troubled son (Bradley Cooper). He appeared in the comedy The Big Wedding with Diane Keaton and Katherine Heigl the following year. Other projects released in 2013 included the thriller Killing Season and the comedy Last Vegas, the latter with fellow veteran actors Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline.
‘Joy,’ ‘The Intern’
De Niro teamed up again with Silver Linings Playbook director Russell and stars Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for Joy, the 2015 biopic based on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. Later that year, De Niro starred as a widower who returns to the workforce in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern. In 2016, he starred in another biopic, Hands of Stone, playing Ray Arcel, the trainer of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán. That same year De Niro received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for his contribution to the arts.
‘The Wizard of Lies,’ ‘Joker,’ ‘The Irishman’
In 2017, De Niro took on the role of Bernie Madoff, who earned infamy for swindling clients out of billions with his Ponzi scheme, in the HBO film The Wizard of Lies. De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, who played his wife, both earned Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the biopic. Following the announcement that he would earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019, De Niro readied to join two major features that year, playing a talk show host in Joker and the titular hitman and alleged killer of Jimmy Hoffa in Scorsese’s The Irishman.
A noted Democratic supporter, De Niro took umbrage at 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump‘s combative style, stating that he wanted to punch the New York businessman in the face. He was even harsher during a profanity-laced speech at the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala in January 2018, saying, “This f—— idiot is the president. It’s The Emperor’s New Clothes — the guy is a f—— fool … our baby-in-chief.”
De Niro again blasted Trump with four-letter salutes at the Tony Awards in June 2018, though the president fired back this time, calling the actor “a very low IQ individual” on Twitter. A Trump supporter also joined the fray by holding up a “Re-elect Trump 2020” sign near the stage at the end of a performance of the De Niro-directed A Bronx Tale: The Musical.
Wife and Family
De Niro married actress Diahnne Abbott in 1976. The couple had one son before divorcing 12 years later, in 1988. De Niro then had a long relationship with model Toukie Smith that produced twin sons in 1995. Then in 1997, De Niro married Grace Hightower, with whom he has one son. In November 2018, De Niro and Hightower announced that they had split.