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24 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert De Niro

24 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert De Niro

A man of few words – unless somebody happens to get him talking about Donald Trump – Robert De Niro has since the beginning preferred to let the performances do the talking. When you’re possibly the greatest actor of all time, it’s something you are able to get away with.

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But Robert De Niro, like so many of the characters he’s played, has been a fascinating figure through his career. A two-time Oscar winner, De Niro first made his mark in the 70s, as an actor of astonishing devotion to the craft. He has since gone on to become a legendary figure, someone who represents the high watermark of American acting.

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Without further ado, here are 12 things you didn’t know about Robert De Niro, method actor extraordinaire.

1. His childhood nickname was Bobby Milk

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Playing crime bosses in the likes of The Godfather Part II and The Untouchables has given De Niro a fearsome on-screen cred, but he didn’t have quite the same menacing reputation in his younger days.

As a kid growing up in New York’s Little Italy, De Niro’s pale complexion saw him earn the rather less tough-sounding nickname ‘Bobby Milk’.

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2. His background is more varied than you might think…

De Niro has been typecast as mafioso so often through his career, he’s regularly cited as a quintessential Italian-American.

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But while De Niro’s father Robert Sr. had an Irish and Italian background, his mother Virginia was a mixture of Dutch, English, French and German – making Bobby Milk a true European mix.

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3. …though his portrayals have made him unpopular with some

Despite his decidedly mixed heritage, De Niro considers himself to be Italian – something that was confirmed when he got himself an Italian passport in 2006.

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Not everybody was happy. The group Sons of Italy argued De Niro’s Italian citizenship should be revoked, because his portrayal of figures such as Don Vito Corleone and Al Capone had damaged the public image of the Italian-American people.

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4. He made his acting debut as the Cowardly Lion

Everybody’s got to start somewhere, and for the man who would go on to be a double Oscar winner, in the beginning there was The Wizard of Oz.

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The future Travis Bickle first tread the boards aged 10, playing the lily-livered Cowardly Lion, in his school’s production of Oz.

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5. He and Martin Scorsese knew each other as kids

Well, technically anyway. While they were growing up, De Niro and Scorsese – who would go on to make one of the greatest actor-director partnerships in cinema history – lived just streets apart.

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The thing was, they were never actually introduced until 1972, just before they began making films together, though they’d seen each other around the block plenty of times as kids.

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6. He gained so much weight for Raging Bull he developed serious health difficulties

De Niro’s commitment as a method actor is legendary. However, for what’s perhaps his most famous role, as boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, De Niro’s dedication reached new life-threatening heights.

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Having trained for years in the ring in order to get himself into fighting shape for the first leg of filming, De Niro then quickly gained 66 pounds to transform himself into the older, overweight LaMotta. This led to De Niro having respiratory problems, his breathing becoming such an issue that Scorsese endeavoured to get through the second half of the shoot as quickly as possible.

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7. He could have taken Tom Hanks’ role in Big

Big, an 80s movie classic and the premier bodyswap comedy, features such a winning performance by Tom Hanks that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role. That part, however, was Robert De Niro’s if he’d wanted it.

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The reason we don’t now have a version of Big featuring a very different, probably vaguely threatening Josh Bashkin? De Niro’s demand of a $6 million fee, which the producers refused, leading them to turn to Hanks.

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8. Joe Pesci’s role in Home Alone could also have been his

De Niro and fellow gangster movie perennial Joe Pesci have made six films together (with one more coming up, 2019’s The Irishman), but De Niro very nearly replaced Pesci in Home Alone.

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When De Niro turned the part down, a space opened up for his friend Pesci, who went on to make the role his own.

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9. He disfigured himself to play Max Cady in Cape Fear

In one of his last efforts practicing the true method style, De Niro went all-out. To play sociopathic killer Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, De Niro completely transformed, not just his speech and body (De Niro worked out so hard for the movie he reportedly got down to 3% body fat), but his pearly whites as well.

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To play jailbird Cady, De Niro gave a dentist $5,000 to actively ruin his teeth – then, when filming was over, paid him to fix them again.

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10. He shadowed brain surgeons to play a mechanic in Brazil

Owing to his minimal screen-time – he has just two scenes – you’d be forgiven for forgetting Robert De Niro was even in Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi classic Brazil. Gilliam hasn’t forgotten: he hated working with De Niro, who at the time was going to painstaking lengths to perfect his performance in even the smallest parts.

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For whatever reason, for Brazil, De Niro’s preparation included shadowing neurologists as they performed brain surgeries – despite his character being a mechanic.

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11. He commands gigantic paydays

Superstar actors earning multimillion dollar salaries is par for the course in today’s Hollywood. Johnny Depp, still one of the highest paid actors in the world, doesn’t get out of bed for less than $15 million these days. De Niro, however, might have him beat.

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De Niro, who’ll celebrate his 75th birthday this year, amazingly trumps even contemporary superhero stars like Chrises Evans and Hemsworth in the fee department. For Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers, in which De Niro took a supporting role to Ben Stiller, he twice took home a cool $20 million.

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12. He might be an anti-vaxxer

De Niro, for such a shy, close-mouthed public figure, has been surprisingly politically outspoken in his later years. But most controversial, even more controversial than his take on Donald Trump (“I’d like to punch him in the face”), has been De Niro’s flirtation with the discredited anti-vaccination movement.

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In 2016, after he was forced to pull the documentary Vaxxed from playing at his Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro confessed he was open to the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism – which the scientists who subsequently reached out to De Niro had something to say about.

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13. His father used to be the famous one

He might now be an icon of American cinema, but through the 60s and early 70s, De Niro struggled as a jobbing actor who up to that point nobody had ever heard of, while New York artist Bobby Senior was the one with the recognition.

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At auditions in his younger years, De Niro would introduce himself with “I’m Bob De Niro, and I’m sure you’ve heard of my father”, before proceeding to show off some of Dad’s sketches to casting directors.

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14. Madonna, John Belushi and Bob Dylan have all been part of his circle

For an actor who tends to shy away from the limelight, De Niro has palled around with some major celebrities in his private life. He counted Robin Williams and John Belushi among his close Hollywood friends, even being one of the last people (along Williams) to see Belushi alive.

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Also firmly in the De Niro circle are Bob Dylan, Madonna and Sean Penn, who have been known to attend De Niro’s birthday shindigs.

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15. He’s a sax man

Of all the skills De Niro has picked up in preparation for roles over the years – training to box at a professional level for Raging Bull, learning the Sicilian dialect for The Godfather Part II – perhaps most impressive is what he took away from Martin Scorsese’s musical New York, New York.

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In the film, De Niro plays jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, and so his playing would look convincing on film, De Niro learned how to play the saxophone from scratch. “As a musician he was fabulous”, said co-star Liza Minnelli.

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16. He also knows karate

Notable for being a still, internal sort of actor, De Niro spent his best years in dramas practicing quieter method techniques, leaving the physical roles in action movies and the like to other actors.

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Still, in a play De Niro performed in the 60s – One-Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger – his character was required for one scene to chop a board in half. The rest of the play was typical De Niro stuff, full of the high drama he could perform so well, but for this one scene De Niro showed typical commitment, and opted to learn karate.

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17. He’s been romantically linked to some surprising names

Though he’s now married – to Grace Hightower, mother of two of his six children, since 1997 – De Niro has found himself in plenty of rumoured romantic entanglements over his five decades in the business.

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Of the most surprising names, there’s Liza Minnelli (who also became involved with Scorsese during the filming of New York, New York, along with De Niro), Whitney Houston and his Mad Dog and Glory co-star Uma Thurman.

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18. Fans never recognise him

Perhaps it’s his chameleonic ability to constantly shapeshift on-screen, always changing personality from one film to the next so one character never looks the same, but there are numerous accounts of De Niro going completely unnoticed by fans when out in public.

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In a 1987 Vanity Fair profile of De Niro, there are stories of autograph hunters waiting anxiously for De Niro round the back of a theatre, not realising he was right in front of them the entire time, and the actor slipping in and out of an Actors Studio class taught by Shelley Winters, with even De Niro’s friend Winters failing to recognise him.

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19. He was once the focus of a French prostitution scandal

Keeping out of the limelight has been De Niro’s M.O. since the very beginning – it helps to be invisible if you want to slip in and out of character – so the actor was furious when he was erroneously caught up in a French prostitution scandal in 1998.

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It was while he was shooting Ronin in Paris that De Niro became the focus of the scandal, involving a prostitution ring in the city. He was cleared, but De Niro at the time vowed not to set foot in France again.

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20. He’s one of only two actors to win an Oscar for playing the same character

Back before the release of The Godfather Part II, the idea that anyone would have equalled the titanic Marlon Brando – who won an Oscar for his part in The Godfather – in the role of mafia boss Vito Corleone would have seemed absurd.

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De Niro, however, was more than a match for Brando, in playing the young Vito for Part II. He too won an Oscar for his turn in the role, making him – along with Brando – one of only two actors to win an Oscar for playing the same character.

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21. He founded a billion-dollar restaurant chain – and Trump is banned

Nobu, the luxury sushi and hotel chain, was co-founded by De Niro in 1994, and has gone on to make landfall in 40 locations worldwide. It does big business, set to score revenue of $1 billion this year. And Donald Trump is banned from every location.

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In May of this year, De Niro declared a ban on the current US president from every building marked with the Nobu brand, adding that if Trump “walked into a restaurant I was in, I’d walk out”. Sad!

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22. He’s one of a handful of people to be given the Medal of Freedom for acting

De Niro has been showered with awards and tributes throughout his career, but the real highlight may have come in 2016, when De Niro – famously a Democrat – was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama.

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De Niro was along with Bruce Springsteen and Bill Gates handed the highest award a US head of state can give to a civilian.

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23. He’s the reason Leonardo DiCaprio is a star

One of the biggest movie stars of the age – possibly the biggest – Leonardo DiCaprio is one of very few actors who can get a movie financed and sold on his name alone. And we have Robert De Niro to thank for even having him around.

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Back when DiCaprio was just a teenager, De Niro personally chose DiCaprio to feature alongside him in the film This Boy’s Life, giving DiCaprio his first starring role. De Niro then recommended DiCaprio to Martin Scorsese, who went on to make DiCaprio his new regular star and muse.

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24. His daughter has co-starred in nine of his films

You might not know it, considering she’s not a famous face like her old man, but De Niro’s daughter Drena, whom De Niro adopted with first wife Diahnne Abbott, has appeared on-screen alongside her father not once, but nine times.

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Eagle-eyed viewers would spot Drena De Niro in the likes of The Intern, Joy and – shudder – The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

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