Robert Anthony De Niro, Jr, was born in New York City on August 17th 1943. His mother, Virginia Admiral, was a cerebral painter who made a name for herself in the 1940s and ’50s New York art scene while his father, Robert De Niro Sr., was a painter, sculptor and poet whose work received high critical acclaim throughout the New York art circle. They were known as the “golden couple” throughout this time but alas parted ways in 1945 when Robert was just 2 years old. This didn’t seem to have an overall damaging effect on the young De Niro, though, as he developed a love for movies while spending time with his estranged father. He was especially taken with the films of Greta Garbo and by the age of 10 he made his own foray into the world of acting, in his stage debut as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Not long after this, he earned a scholarship to New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art – a private school specialising in visual and performance arts. This proved too overwhelming for him, though, and he dropped out to attend public school after only a few days. He soon became uninterested in school altogether and, as a teenager, joined a rather tame Italian street gang in Greenwhich Village, 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 ample experience to skilfully portray Italian mobsters as an actor. It’s throughout these numerous roles that he has become legendary.
When he decided to drop out of high school to study acting, he claimed in an interview that he decided to take up the profession because “Acting is a cheap way to do things that you would never dare to do yourself.” He then 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. Stella Adler was a strong proponent of the Stanislavski method of acting, involving deep psychological character investigation. Adler was an intense teacher who had taught the likes of Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger and would later remember De Niro as one of the best students she ever taught. He studied briefly with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York City, and then began auditioning for the real deal. After a momentary cameo in the 1965 French film “Three Rooms in Manhattan”, De Niro’s real debut came in the 1968 film “Greetings” by director Brian De Palma.
However, it wasn’t till five years later that his breakthrough performances came in a pair of highly acclaimed 1973 films: the first was “Bang the Drum Slowly”, in which he played a terminally ill catcher on a baseball team
A year later, 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 and also won the award over his fellow nominated (and once teacher) Lee Strasberg.
A mere two years later, he delivered one of cinema’s most iconic characters as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
The pinnacle of his acting career, though, was when he portrayed middleweight boxer Jake La Motta in the commercially unsuccessful but critically adored film “Raging Bull” in 1980. A previously skinny De Niro trained extensively in preparation for the role, entered in three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches and won two of them. He then gained 60 pounds to portray La Motta in his older years. For this riveting turn he was rewarded for his dedication with the 1981 Academy Award for best actor. This role alone, is highly regarded as one of cinema’s finest achievements – and for very good reason.
Throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, De Niro achieved a remarkable catalogue of movies and worked consistently with prestigious director after director; he ranged from Roger Corman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Elia Kazan, Michael Cimino, Sergio Leone, Terry Gilliam, Roland Joffé, Alan Parker, Brian De Palma, Martin Brest and Neil Jordan. He then headed into the 90’s and 00’s by working with Penny Marshall, Ron Howard, Irwin Winkler, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Mann, Tony Scott, Barry Levinson and Quentin Tarantino. Quite simply, no other actor has worked with such a plethora of talented directors as De Niro has, and during this time, he also found his own abilities in directing with “A Bronx Tale” in 1993 and “The Good Shepherd” in 2006.
The likes of “Meet The Parents” and “Analyse This” (and their financially successful sequels) marked the arrival of De Niro into comedic territory in the 00’s. This made him a household name amongst younger viewers, but this type of material is a far cry from the talents of an actor who is, without doubt, one of (if not) the finest to ever grace our screens.
Treat yourself, to the following videos to fully understand the life and work of the great Robert De Niro…