My Life in Pictures: Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro is famously a man of few words. But as he relaxes in his downtown Manhattan office, its walls covered in photos of his children and his iconic movie roles, he turns surprisingly tender when the subject turns to his father, an abstract expressionist painter who died in 1993. Robert De Niro Sr. “was loving and affectionate,” says the two-time Oscar winner, 70. “But he wasn’t the kind of dad who played baseball. He liked to take me to the movies on 42nd Street: King Kong, Beauty and the Beast.” De Niro honors his dad in the HBO documentary Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro Sr., premiering June 9. In the film, he reveals that his father was gay, something he discovered years after his parents separated when he was a toddler. “He never told me,” he says. “He was very private about it.” As he looks back on his five decades of acting and his own life as a dad, De Niro knows the importance of passing along memories. “I want my children to see what their grandfather did and how he lived,” he says. “It was for the family.”


“When I was a kid, I didn’t like to go to my father’s art openings,” says De Niro (with his dad in the mid-1940s). “I was kind of embarrassed and shy.” It’s a regret he still carries to this day.


De Niro was scheduled to fly out to San Francisco to test for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather: Part II until Martin Scorsese showed Coppola footage of De Niro’s breakout role. “A few days later,” De Niro recalls, “they called me and said, ‘You don’t have to come. You got the part.’ ”


To prepare for the role of Mafia don Vito Corleone, De Niro (on-set with director Coppola) traveled to Sicily to learn the dialect. “I drove around, hung out with kids and tape-recorded their voices,” he says. In the southern town of Corleone, he’d sit in the kitchen of a local family. “They didn’t know who I was,” he recalls. “I’d go over the script with them. One guy liked to talk and would tell me his war stories.”


De Niro drove cabs for several weeks – “Whatever shift they gave me” – to prepare for his role in the Scorsese film. He ad-libbed the movie’s most famous line: “You talkin’ to me?” His director’s response?” ‘Great, keep going,’ ” says the actor. “Marty always liked something unexpected.” The quote took on a life of its own. One night while he was driving in Culver City, says De Niro, “these kids pulled up next to me, rolled down the window and said, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ It was funny.”


“We’ve been friends a long time,” says the actor of Dustin Hoffman (in the late ’70s with, from left, De Niro’s first wife, Diahnne Abbott, and Hoffman’s first wife, Anne Byrne). Before he became famous, De Niro was once Hoffman’s waiter at a club on Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. “They were holding a benefit for Eugene McCarthy, who was running against Bobby Kennedy,” De Niro says.”I didn’t know Dustin then. It was the night Bobby Kennedy was killed. I was just a waiter, and afterward I remember walking home and seeing the assassination scene played back on a television in a Second Avenue window.”


“It was so hot,” says De Niro of filming this scene in West Virginia (with Meryl Streep). “When we shot in the bar, we’d sit in the walk-in refrigerator between takes. That way we wouldn’t have to take our heavy winter clothes on and off.”


De Niro directed Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon in the CIA thriller. “Jesus, it’s stressful,” he says. “You’ve got to be tough. I joke with some of the directors I work with: ‘Boy, I don’t want to have to have your problems.’ ”


De Niro trained for 1,000 rounds to bulk up for his brutal turn as middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. His best boxing move? “My left hook,” says De Niro. He gained 60 lbs. for the later scenes. “The whole point was to see how it changed the way he felt and how he breathed.” Losing the weight was easy – at first. “The last 20 lbs. are the hardest,” he says. “But eventually I got it off. Sometimes I still go up and down a little bit, 15 lbs. Those are always the hardest.”


“There are great moments and moments of sadness,” says De Niro, who has six kids: Drena, 46 (pictured here), Raphael, 37, twins Julian and Aaron, 18, Elliot, 16, and Helen, 2. “Sometimes you’re the last person they want to deal with. It’s like when you walk your kids to school and they get older and they don’t want to hold your hand or kiss you goodbye.” Luckily, he says, his youngest still adores him. “It’s good stuff now,” he says, smiling.


De Niro and Grace Hightower, 61, the mother of his two youngest kids, wed in 1997. The documentary, he says, “is almost a message to my kids. It’s important to do family things. Even when your inclination is not to. Because I wish I had done more with my parents.”

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