Robert De Niro: Actor who managed to integrate with his characters

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Robert De Niro was born on 17. 8. 1943 in New York. His parents who were painters, got divorced when he was only two years old. He became famous for meticulous preparation for his film characters to who he later managed to integrate. He protects his privacy, doesn´t talk about his childhood and doesn´t give interviews, so only way how to learn something about him and write a tribute article-which he deserves-is to use information from his biography written by John Parker. We wish him a HAPPY 80. BIRTHDAY.


At the time of his birth new generation of directors, actors and script writers came to Broadway. They brought new methods, art and style, which came from experimental styles imported from Europe and Russia. These artists, around Group Theater later established famous Actors Studio led by famous Lee Strasberg, created style which turned upside down Americal style and brought actors like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean and later on also Robert De Niro.

When his parents separated, young Robert used to go to cinema with his father, who was egocentric and arogant man. His mother sent him away with book under his arm to find entertainment for himself. So, it can´t be said that he had very happy childhood. Maybe, this was the start of his self control and try for perfectness. During his wandering on New York street he befriended with kids who, like he, had interest in films. Without knowing that, he met Martin Scorsese, who was of same age, with whom he collaborated many years later.

Robert´s interest in acting started at school, where he played in play Wizard of Oz. After graduation he enrolled for conservatory led by Stella Adler, who taught method of Stanislavsky, whom she met personally in Paris in 1934 and whose theory she brought to New York. Basic core of this method was building of the character which showed as pretty dangerous way of teaching since in some cases it helped to surface psychic problems and led to nervous breakdown or even suicides of some actors. Among “victims“ of this method belonged Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift of Marilyn Monroe who suffered mental problems which resulted in alcohol adiction. De Niro studied here for 3 years and futher 15 years he attended to Actors Studio. Thanks to tuition he built up incredible abilities to change his look and behaviour according to character he was depicting. He managed to step out from his own personality and put on the mask of person he was to depict.

De Niro Greetings

Firstly he was drafted into film by young Brian De Palma in 1963 in his experimental movie called The Wedding Party. De Palma belonged to the new crop of directors with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas who were called Hollywood Brats.

De Niro was paid 50 dollars for his role and then was jobless for few months before striking a luck. He met famous actress Shelley Winters, who took him under her wings, and organized for him to be able to attend courses in Actors Studio, which was no mean feat. It was very precious training ground for young Robert who took every offer to get experience under his belt. Next film was Greetings which De Palma made for 43 000 dollars. It was produced by young Charles Hirsch, who was looking for new scripts writers, actors and directors in New York for Universal Pictures.

Integrate fully into the character and live life through it without need of experiencing real consequences

This film helped change attitude of Hollywood moguls towards small, independently made films, especially those focused at young audience. When small picture made by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda called Easy Ride filmed for 400 000 earned 35M dollars, both films created interest on style and technique of directors, and showed mainstream people, that it is possible to make cheap film by different methods. De Niro himself said:

I understand each role as mathematic problem. Character on screen is its´ solution. I try to imagine final result and then go back to roots in order to find out how to grab it. That´s the way. Intergrate fully into the character and live life through it without need of experiencing real consequences.“

In 70´s he made 5 films but still was an unknown actor. He was obsessed by details of his characters but in real life he remained quiet, lonely young man who kept on talking about his work. When compared with likes of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman or Robert Redford who also had difficulties at the beginning of their careers but soon became stars, De Niro didn´t have their charisma which caught attention every time they entered the room. In Hollywood, the ability to play was only one thing, but agents were looking for charm of personality and Robert didn´t have that.

De Niro Zrozen k vítězství

So the man who helped him open the door to Hollywood was Roger Corman, who made films on tight budget, hired unknown actors, script writers, directors or ex-stars who worked for minimum salary. He hired Shelley Winters for lead in a movie Bloody Mama, and she agreed under condition that he will hire also Robert. He shocked everyone when in final scene, when his character dies, he buried himself in the real grave to bring real horror into faces of actors. Film was positivelly accepted by audience but hammered by critics, who nevertheless noticed young De Niro. Winters ignored chit-chats about her rumoured affair with him and took him to New York where she got him a job in theatre. This was followed by few films which flopped, including one made by Ivan Passer called Born to Win.

First success and positive acclaims came with movie Bang the Drum Slowly. At that time he met-firstly since childhood-Martin Scorsese on Christmas party. He offered him a job in his new film Dirty Streets and he liked Robert´s obsession for characters. He was able to talk 15 minutes just about the way how he will wear his hat. Slowly, one of the tightest bond between director and actor was built. Film had a budget of 40 000 dollars and had to be made within 30 days. With it´s success he hit the last nail into coffin of old Hollywood system. New independent production companies took over.

Scorsese worked with minimalism of French New wave and his film brought realistic view and feelings of filthy night clubs or streets of New York. They could shoot in New York streets only for 6 days and the rest was made in studio during 4 weeks. Dirty Streets had interesting destiny. Since it mirrored rough, daily life in New York, they were popular in America but in Europe they were considered as art film and almost disapeared. But in Cannes, distributor Peter Hayden watched it and sold all his property and house to get money for British film rights and when it was showed in London on new premiere after three years, it was screened non-stop for six months.

De Niro Kmotr II 02

For his role De Niro was matched with Marlon Brando and success of the film helped him to get a role in F. F. Coppola´s film Godfather: Part II. He flew to Palermo to learn local dialect and behaviour and in film he speaks fluently with Sicily accent.

Next project was XX. Century made by legendary Bernardo Bertolucci, where he befriended Gerard Depardieu. Filming wasn´t easy, since director often stopped filming and re-wrote script and film was edited many times due to demands of Paramount studio. De Niro commented that.

Film isn´t roll of salami to be cut that way.“

De Niro Taxikář

After that, he happily accepted a lead in Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese which finally made him famous.

To prepare for the role he himself drove taxi for weeks and observed people and was happy not to be recognised. When he was, by one client, he told him:

Jesus, you must be De Niro, who won Oscar and now you drive taxi. It must be hard to find good job in film.“

He accepted 35 000 dollars for this role and refused 5 times more for movie A Bridge Too Far directed by Richard Attenborough. One of the De Niros´s characters, who cared more for story than for money.

De Niro Taxikář 02

Film characters were so greatly played, that juvenile Jodie Foster was pursuited by psychotic man and De Niro´s characater is said to inspire assassin John Hincley, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981 and watched movie 15 times. De Niro had favourite reviews and movie had 25 M profit. Some supporters of Richard Nixon´s corrupted government considered films by Martin Scorsese, Jane Fonda, Sydney Lumet or F. F. Coppola as dangerous and socially unacceptable, despite (or because) it showed truth. Right wing fraction of Hollywood elite looked at Taxi Driver with disdain and despite it had four Academy Award nominations, in Official History of Academy Awards the name of the film is missing. It was purely taken out. De Niro showed what he thinks about that and didn´t bother to attend the ceremony. While world applaud the movie, Hollywood ignored that and press accussed director, that film had bad influence at society. It hit hard both Scorsese and De Niro and while the former stopped making films for some time, the latter said:

Film doesn´t kill people, people kill people.“

 Film doesn´t kill, people kill people

 De Niro Lovec jelenů

After relocationg to Los Angeles, De Niro accepted the role in The Deer Hunter, which all Hollywood studios refused but it went ahead when British producers rescued that and EMI put considerable sum into it. Young Meryl Streep got small part in the movie and she was nominated for Oscar for that. Oficial History of Academy Awards again paid very little attention to this film so no wonder Robert didn´t attend the ceremony.

At that time he was preparing for next movie of Martin Scorsese called Ragging Bull where he was to depict former boxer Jake La Motta. For early boxing sequences Robert underwent fitness regime with trainer of Sylvester Stallone. The the shooting was stopped for 4 months and De Niro put on 30 kg of weight. He integrated to La Motta character so much that when he visited boxer´s ex-wife she was so shocked with resemblance that she wanted to get Robert to bed. He didn´t step out from his character which had fatal consequences for his marriage since his wife refused to live with characters he depicted and took home. During 4 months he integrated into two totally different characters and this time Oscar was his and he finally got on very top.

De Niro Zuřící býk

Despite the fame, he still refused talking to press and didn´t give interviews between 1977-1984. Hollywood bosses matched his acting abilities with the profit of his films, which have never been big, so he wasn´t in same league as Sylvester Stallone and never had celebrity status. During 1981-1984 he made five films, all box office flops, but he still chose films according to scripts and not according to size of cheques. The biggest priority for him was the difference of characters he was to depict. Many of his better paid mates wouldn´t dare playing such characters since money was too big insentive for them and they wouldn´t do anything to endanger their careers. Few back to back box office flops can have fatal consequencies in well money oiled Hollywood machinery. De Niro was now earning more but never reached stratospheric heights as did Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He was good actor but wasn´t that popular to become box office hit. Hollywood always judged actors according to their financial profitability, not according to acting ability. He refused many scripts that later became box office mega hits which led him into conflict of two worlds and interests. Capitalism and its lust for money on one side and art and social prosperity on other side.

De Niro Král komedie

How different the audience can be shows example of next Scorsese-De Niro movie The King of Comedy. While in America audience didn´t like it and it was the biggest financial flop of Robert´s career, in England it was voted as the best film of a year and it opened the Cannes festival.

De Niro Tenkrát v Americe

Further film Once Upon a Time in America made by Sergio Leone bombed out again and producer of these two films, Arnon Milchan, lost 50 M in twelve months.

De Niro Brazil

After next three flops Brasil, Mission and Angel Heart he didn´t get any offer and firstly after 15 years he had no job. Academy Award which he got 7 years ago was long forgotten. So he decided to return to theatre, where he started, in hope to find peace after two broken marriages and unsuccessful spell in film industry. He didn´t act as big film star, put everything into each performace and it was always sold out. When it was moved to Broadway, it had phenomenal success and reinforced De Niro returned to Hollywood in film Untouchables.

De Niro Neúplatní

Director Brian De Palma gave him a small part of Al Capone, which was a job for two weeks for 1,5 M dollars. Since director wasn´t sure if Robert accepts the offer he kept Bob Hoskins as reserve but when De Niro gave his nod for the film, he thanked Hoskins and sent him 200 000 dollars for loyalty. Nice gesture. When De Niro came to sign contract with producer, he was still integrated into role from Broadway, he had no resemblance with Al Capone and produced thought they made big mistake. But when it came to shooting, De Niro became Al Capone. He even wore same silk underwear made by same company, eventhoug it wasn´t needed or seen in film. Such detailed preparation seemed as obsession for Sean Connery. Film earned 15 M in first week and became the most successful movie of De Niro´s career, so far.

In 1987 he started to take interest in production since he wanted to have control over his films. He wanted to follow the likes of Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Michael Douglas, Robert Redford or Sylvester Stallone who earned tens of millions by that. In Manhattan, De Niro found deserted café warehouses which he wanted to turn into restaurant and studio. He formed production company TriBeCa made from name Triangle Below Canal Street. It was a project for three years and needed lots of money. De Niro had his financial limit, under which he wouldn´t get, but didn´t require private jet and non-stop limo with driver while shooting and he drove his Mercedes himelf. He wasn´t selfish either so when he realized his friend Sean Penn played only in one film in three years, due to his escapades and pranks, he got him into one film, which saved his career.

De Niro Nejsme žádní andělé

Slowly but surely De Niro started to change direction and attitude to film offers. He was still uncompromising towards Hollywood and didn´t want to lick anybody´s ass in order to get a role. Unlike some of his colleagues, he didn´t have access to big studio bosses and in some cases even didn´t know personally some star names.

Situation in Hollywood in 80´s had affect on way how De Niro looked at it and how Hollywood looked at him. Money had much bigger importance than ever before and block busters were grossing over 300 M dollars. Big profits needed big stories, big stars who got big money and he didn´t belong into this league. Stars like Stallone, Willis or Schwarzenegger earned between 10-25 M dollars for one film. Bruce Willis lent his voice in comedy Look Who's Talking and for two weeks job he got 4 M dollars and since he had 10 % from profit and film became a smash hit, he got extra 14,5 M dollars. De Niro never came close to such earnings and he kept on choosing interesting roles in films which never aspired to become financial hits. This fact forced him to work his socks off and during 2 years he made 6 movies which brought to TriBeCa project 20 M dollars.

I put together something I always dreamt about but I can´t estimate how it will finish

He planned to build big film workshops and studios and establish creative community which would swap ideas and oppinions on films. He said about his project:

I put together something I always dreamt about but I can´t estimate how it will finish.“

As a small fish who wanted to produce his own films and whose financial possibilities were limited, he had to fight hard with big studios. They tied up with big international consortiums which brought big money into films with view of earning even bigger money. Now he realized what does it mean to be a boss of production company. He had to make contracts, hire locations, find money for his own films. One bad move and all would sink in.

First movie he produced was called Mistress, directed by Barry Primus, and all distrubutors refused to screen it in the movies. Then came independent director and producer Henry Jaglom, who later showed on his festival in Iowa movie Enemy of Destiny about Czech WWII RAF pilot Frankie Truhlář, made by Ondřej Krejcar from Czech independent company Unitedfilm. Although further films De Niro produced weren´t very successful, he decided not only act, produce and run restaurant and film company, he decided to put on his head another hat-directing.

De Niro Příběh z Bronxu

For his directorial debut he chose his favourite topic A Bronx Tale. Not only he produced and directed it, he was also playing lead it in. Universal studio gave him money under condition that he will work for free as director and must finish the movie within 55 days. Since he was directing as he was acting, punctual, never satisfied and perfectionalist, repeating scene many times, he was over the time deadline Universal walked off the project and he had to find another backer. It was Italian company PentAmerica which was led by future Italian prime minister and mogul Silvio Berlusconi. When the film was finished and Robert went to editing room, he was a month behind schedule and was watched by Film Guarantors Insurance Company. He worked 18 hours a day not to lose the film. Film was positively accepted but it showed him how hard it is to direct a movie and he didn´t speed to direct another project, it took further 12 years before he stood behind camera again.

He slowly left his meticulous choise of scripts and as and actor and producer he put fifth gear into his working attitude, producing as many as 6 films in a year. They had various degree of quality and various degre of success and De Niro didn´t hide the fact he is shooting for money which he badly neded for his project.

During those years he built up big portfolio of real estates and restaurant empire. After 11.9.2001 his restaurants suplied firemen with food and drinks and he estsablished TriBeCa Film Festival which should support ressurection of Manhattan. Within only 120 days the festival was ready to open and helped local businessmen with 10M dollars. It offered interesting programme, all night competition, documentary and short films section, restaurated classic movies and Martin Scorsese had workshops called The Best of New York. Within few years TriBeCa festival became one of the most prestigeous film festivals in the world.

De Niro Tribeca Film festival

Roberto De Niro is a man who doesn´t have to prove anybody anything. Although his photo probably wasn´t stuck on the walls of film fans, it can´t be denied that he is an exeptional man of extraordinary talent and ability. He managed something that many of his colleagues failed, defy a Hollywood machinery system where money is out and out No.1 priority.

Photos, thanx: IMDb, Wikipedia