24 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert De Niro
A man of few words – unless somebody happens to get him talking about the President – Robert De Niro has since the beginning preferred to let the performances do the talking.
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.
Without further ado, here are 24 things you didn’t know about Robert De Niro, method actor extraordinaire.
24. His childhood nickname was Bobby Milk
Playing crime bosses in the likes of The Godfather Part II and The Untouchables has given De Niro a fearsome on-screen cred.
Though today you’d probably be best to greet the two-time Oscar winner as Mr De Niro, Bobby didn’t have quite the same menacing reputation in his younger days.
Growing up in New York’s Little Italy, De Niro was a light-skinned kid surrounded by other Americans of more obviously Italian descent.
In fact, young Robert’s complexion was so pale that it earned him the not exactly tough-sounding nickname ‘Bobby Milk’.
De Niro was given the less-than-complimentary name by the street gang he hung around with on New York’s Kenmare Street as a teen, apparently because he was “pale and strange as milk.”
23. He’s from “noble lines of French courtiers and English colonialists”
Vito Corleone. Al Capone. Jake LaMotta. Mean Streets’ Johnny Boy. These are just some of the characters that have formed the image of De Niro as one of cinema’s quintessential Italian-American men.
De Niro has been typecast as mafioso so often through his career, in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking his background was 100% Italian.
The truth about De Niro’s ancestry, however, is much more complicated. While father Robert De Niro Sr had a mixed Irish and Italian background, Robert Jr’s mother came had a more diverse heritage.
De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was, according to Shawn Levy’s De Niro: A Life, a descendant of “noble lines of French courtiers and English colonialists”.
Altogether, Admiral was a mixture of Dutch, English, French and German – making Bobby Milk not just Italian-American, but a true European mix.
22. His portrayals of Italian-Americans have led to calls for his Italian citizenship to be revoked
Despite his decidedly mixed European heritage, De Niro does consider himself to be Italian – something that was confirmed when he got himself an Italian passport over a decade ago.
Speaking at the 2006 Rome Film Festival, where he was presented with Italian citizenship for first time, De Niro said: “I can finally say I’ve come home. I’m happy for my children, who will be Italian like me.”
Though Rome mayor Walter Veltroni called giving De Niro Italian citizenship a ‘gesture of great importance’, not everybody was happy.
The group Sons of Italy, an Italian-American organisation which promotes Italian culture in the US, argued De Niro’s Italian citizenship should be revoked.
The Sons of Italy argument was that De Niro’s portrayal of criminal figures such as The Godfather Part II’s Don Vito Corleone and The Untouchables’ Al Capone had damaged the public image of the Italian-American people.
21. He made his acting debut as the Cowardly Lion
Today, De Niro’s reputation is built on powerful performances in iconic original roles including Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and The Deer Hunter’s Mike Vronsky.
Everybody’s got to start somewhere, though, and for the man who would one day go on to be a double Oscar winner, in the beginning, there was The Wizard of Oz.
In 1953, the future Don Vito first tread the boards, aged just 10, in a school production of Oz. He played the Cowardly Lion.
Playing the lily-livered feline, it was in this moment that De Niro knew he wanted to be an actor for the first time.
According to Vanity Fair’s exhaustive 1987 profile of De Niro, the Cowardly Lion showed the pre-teen De Niro that acting offered an outlet, “because then I could express myself.”
20. He and Martin Scorsese knew each other when they were kids
With Mean Streets in 1973, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese began one of the finest collaborative runs cinema has ever seen.
All-time classics including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino followed, in a relationship that surprisingly goes back to before both De Niro and Scorsese’s time in Hollywood.
What’s amazing is that, while they were growing up, De Niro and Scorsese – who would go on to form one of the greatest actor-director partnerships in film history – lived just streets apart.
Scorsese, like De Niro, was raised in Little Italy, and knew De Niro as part of ‘the Kenmare gang’.
The thing was, the pair were never actually formally introduced until 1971, just before they began making films together, though they’d seen each other around the block plenty of times as kids.
19. He gained so much weight for Raging Bull he developed a breathing problem
De Niro’s commitment as a method actor is legendary, taking in huge weight gains and losses and the wholesale learning of skills to an obsessive degree.
However, for what’s perhaps his most famous role, as champion boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, De Niro’s dedication reached new life-threatening heights.
Prior to the first leg of filming on Raging Bull, De Niro trained for years in the ring in order to get himself into fighting shape. By the time he was done, De Niro was – according to the real LaMotta – a boxing pro.
To transform himself into the older, overweight LaMotta for the second half of the film, however, De Niro decided to take a binge-eating holiday around Italy and France, gaining 66 pounds in just four months.
Gaining the weight so quickly led to De Niro having respiratory problems. By the time he got back to the Raging Bull set, De Niro’s breathing had become such an issue that Scorsese got through the second half of the shoot as quickly as possible.
18. He almost played 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.
Hanks wasn’t the original frontrunner to play the adult Josh Bashkin, however. That part was Robert De Niro’s if he had wanted it.
At first, De Niro did want it: seeking to make a more commercial film following a number of adult-oriented dramas, Bobby originally said yes to Big.
De Niro even did camera tests for the film, playing basketball, skateboarding and generally goofing around with child actor Jared Rushton in the style of Mean Streets’ Johnny Boy for director Penny Marshall.
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 as Plan B.
17. Joe Pesci’s role in Home Alone could have been his
Like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci is one of Hollywood’s favourite Italian-American sons, having made his name in a number of classics including My Cousin Vinny and the Lethal Weapon films.
Pesci has even starred in a number of films with De Niro – six altogether – including Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, with a seventh coming up in 2019’s The Irishman.
The pair are so closely linked that they almost swapped roles in Pesci’s most commercially successful film, 1990’s Home Alone.
De Niro was considered to play the family comedy’s villainous burglar Harry Lime, but he, like comedian Jon Lovitz, said no.
When De Niro turned the part down, a space opened up for his friend Pesci, who went on to make the role his own.
16. He disfigured himself to play Max Cady in Cape Fear
In Cape Fear, which involved one of his last efforts practicing the method style that made him famous, De Niro truly went all-out.
To play sociopathic killer Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s thriller remake, De Niro completely transformed himself.
First off, De Niro altered his speech and body, learning his character’s southern accent from recordings he made of locals in southern towns and extensively tattooing himself (these weren’t permanent, fortunately – they faded after a few months).
In the end, De Niro had also worked out so hard for the movie, in order to cultivate that ‘prison body’, that he reportedly got down to just 4% body fat.
Then he got to work on his pearly whites.
To play jailbird Cady, De Niro gave a dentist $5,000 to actively ruin his teeth, grinding them down – then, when filming was over, De Niro paid the surgeon to fix them again.
15. 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.
For whatever reason, for Brazil, De Niro’s preparation included shadowing neurologists as they performed operations – despite his character being a mechanic – because he likened his character to a brain surgeon.
De Niro also built the tool belt of Harry Tuttle from scratch, gathering up the various gadgets himself, while insisting upon 25 to 30 takes at a time, rather than the 2-3 of the rest of the cast.
By the end, after all his actor’s endless research for just a few minutes of screen-time, Gilliam says he “wanted to strangle De Niro”.
14. He commands gigantic paydays
Superstar actors earning multimillion-dollar salaries is just par for the course in today’s Hollywood.
For example Johnny Depp, still one of the highest-paid actors in the world despite his myriad troubles, doesn’t get out of bed for less than $15 million these days. Robert De Niro, however, might have him beat.
De Niro, who celebrated his 76th 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.
His regular fees of tens of millions of dollars are a far cry from the $50 he made on his first film, 1969’s The Wedding Party. Unsurprisingly, De Niro’s estimated net worth today is £300 million.
13. 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 the 45th President (“I’d like to punch him in the face”), has been De Niro’s flirtation with the discredited anti-vaccination movement.
In 2016, De Niro was forced to pull the documentary Vaxxed from playing at his Tribeca Film Festival, after a widespread public outcry.
De Niro pulled the film begrudgingly, later going on live TV to say 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.
De Niro has in the past confessed that his concern about a possible link between autism and the MMR vaccine is “very personal to me and my family”, stemming from his relationship with his own autistic son.
12. 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.
Up to that point, nobody had ever heard of Robert De Niro Jr, while New York artist Robert De Niro Sr was the one with the name recognition.
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”.
De Niro would then sometimes proceed to show off some of Dad’s sketches to casting directors, hoping to stoke interest.
In his lifetime, the elder Robert De Niro was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and taught art in colleges including Michigan State University. Today, De Niro Sr’s paintings can be seen in galleries all over the US.
11. Madonna, John Belushi and Bob Dylan have all been part of his circle
Always so monosyllabic in interviews and during press tours, Robert De Niro doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would want to indulge in the showbiz lifestyle.
Still, for an actor who tends to shy away from the limelight, De Niro pals around with some major celebrities.
In his time, De Niro has counted Robin Williams and John Belushi among his close Hollywood friends, even being one of the last people (along with Williams) to see Belushi alive.
The untimely death of notorious hellraiser Belushi, in fact, impacted De Niro greatly; according to the 1987 Vanity Fair profile, De Niro ‘broke down in sobs’ when he heard the news, and immediately ‘tried detaching himself from the dark side of show business’ as a result.
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.
10. He learned how to play the saxophone at a professional level for one film
De Niro has picked up some real skills in his 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 De Niro took away from Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York, however.
In the film, De Niro plays jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle opposite Liza Minnelli’s big band singer Francine Evans.
Naturally, Bobby wasn’t going to let a double play for him and, so his playing would look convincing on film, he learned how to play the saxophone from scratch.
“As a musician he was fabulous”, said co-star Minnelli, who would hear De Niro practicing his instrument late into the night during production on the film.
9. He also knows karate
Notable for being a still, internal sort of actor, De Niro has spent his best years in dramas practicing quieter method techniques, leaving the physical roles in action movies and the like to other actors.
Still, for a play he performed in the 60s – One-Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger – De Niro went briefly into action mode.
Playing a ‘karate-chopping bisexual hippie’, for one scene in One-Night Stands, De Niro was required 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 single moment, De Niro showed typical commitment and opted to learn karate.
De Niro learned the martial art until he got good enough to expertly karate chop a board every night live on stage.
8. He’s been romantically linked to women including Whitney Houston and Uma Thurman
Though the pair are now said to be separated, Robert De Niro has been married, to Grace Hightower, mother of two of his six children, since 1997.
Before that, De Niro was married for another 12-year period, to actress and singer Diahnne Abbott, with whom he has a son, Raphael, and daughter, actress Drena De Niro.
The two lengthy marriages aside, De Niro has found himself in plenty of rumoured romantic entanglements over his five decades in the business.
Of the most surprising names, there’s Liza Minnelli, who became involved with Martin Scorsese as well as De Niro during the filming of New York, New York.
In between his two marriages, De Niro is also rumoured to have dated Whitney Houston and his Mad Dog and Glory co-star Uma Thurman.
7. Fans never recognise him in real life
Perhaps it’s just his chameleonic ability to constantly shapeshift on-screen, always changing personality from one film to the next so one character never looks the same.
Or it could be that, in real life, Robert De Niro looks less like a movie star, more like a regular guy. Whatever the reason, there are numerous accounts of De Niro going completely unnoticed by fans when out in public.
In the 1987 Vanity Fair profile of De Niro, De Niro’s co-star in the 1986 play Cuba and His Teddy Bear, Burt Young, tells the story of autograph hunters missing De Niro when he’s right in front of them.
“We’d leave the theater together, see? And the fans would rush up for my autograph, and then they’d ask, ‘When’s Robert De Niro coming out?’ And the sweet sucker’s standin’ right next to me!”
Shelley Winters, a friend of De Niro’s from his early days, also once told a story of De Niro slipping into her Actors Studio class in the 80s at the height of his fame with nobody – Winters included – recognising him.
6. 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 – after all, it helps to be invisible if you want to slip in and out of character.
The actor was understandably furious, then, when he was erroneously caught up in a French prostitution scandal in 1998.
From late 1997 to early 1998, De Niro shot the action-thriller Ronin in Paris, where he soon became the focus of a serious investigation.
In February of ’98, De Niro was arrested at his hotel and questioned as a witness in a case involving an international prostitution ring.
De Niro’s name was quickly cleared, but at the time he vowed not to set foot in France again, telling Le Monde: “I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France…
“I’ve been forced to explain to my family that I’m the innocent victim, but there is always that bad saying – ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire'”.
5. 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 crime boss Vito Corleone would have seemed absurd.
In fact, considering Brando had been aged up to play the ailing mafia don in The Godfather, it was at first suggested that he be simply de-aged to play a younger Vito in Part II.
This wasn’t to be the case, however, and in the end a fresh-faced rising actor was cast as the young Vito: Robert De Niro, who proved more than a match for Brando.
De Niro’s performance in The Godfather Part II was so well-received, in fact, that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 1975 Academy Awards.
This made movie history: as De Niro also won an Oscar for his turn in the role, it made him – along with Brando – one of only two actors to win an Oscar for playing the same character.
4. He founded a billion-dollar restaurant chain – and the President is banned from eating there
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 the President is banned from every location.
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!
3. 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.
This was the year that De Niro – famously a Democrat – was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama.
De Niro was along with Bruce Springsteen and Bill Gates handed the highest award a US head of state can give to a civilian.
2. He ‘discovered’ Leonardo DiCaprio
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 though you might not know it, we have Robert De Niro to thank for even having him around.
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.
1. 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, is a regular co-star.
Drena, whom De Niro adopted with first wife Diahnne Abbott, has appeared on-screen alongside her father not once, but nine times.
Eagle-eyed viewers would spot Drena De Niro in the likes of The Intern, Joy and – shudder – The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.