Douglas Brinkley | November 19, 2014 | People
In a rare interview, author Douglas Brinkley talks to Aspen Ideas Festival star Robert De Niro about his new movies, celebrity, politics… and the father whose life and art still inspire him.
The two-time Academy Award–winning actor known for playing boxer Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), and Vito Corleone (The Godfather Part II) resides in Humble Valley, where he’s turned self-deprecation into an art form. “People treat me with a bit too much reverence,” De Niro laments. “Look at Dustin Hoffman. I always envy the way he can speak and be smart and funny and so on. I just can’t do that.”
If De Niro has a running shtick, it’s always to turn the spotlight on somebody else. Last October, for example, the Friars Club presented De Niro with its Entertainment Icon Award, given only four times before in the Friars’ 110-year history (Douglas Fairbanks, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Tom Cruise are past award winners). Upon accepting the honor, De Niro put his trademark understatement on display. “I’m very happy to be part of an event that raises money for such good causes,” he deadpanned. “Thank you, Friars! Who am I giving an award to?”
New York City is the soul of De Niro. He and his wife, Grace Hightower, rent a Central Park West apartment for $125K per month. He’ll only go to Los Angeles if somebody pays him a lot of money. Nobody has promoted the Tribeca district of Lower Manhattan more than the 71-year-old actor. He cofounded the film studio Tribeca Productions, launched the world-beat Tribeca Film Festival, co-owns two very reputable restaurants (Nobu and Tribeca Grill), and is the proprietor of the Greenwich Hotel—all of which he shrugs off as no big deal. “I get too much credit for the things I’m doing in Tribeca,” De Niro tells me in an exclusive interview for Aspen Peak. “Tribeca has morphed into so many things that I’m [no longer] up to speed. We have a big team. [Producer and Tribeca Film cofounder] Jane Rosenthal is the best. The [team] really does the work. If they need me for something very important, I’m there.”
It used to be that De Niro enjoyed trips to the Colorado Rockies. During the years between Taxi Driver in 1976 and Goodfellas in 1990, he was occasionally seen wandering around downtown Aspen, blending into the community with grace and ease. “Snowmass was where I spent my time,” De Niro explains. “But I don’t ski much anymore and don’t get to Aspen for Christmas like I used to. So when I need to get out of New York City, I go up the Hudson. I looked for a house within a 100-mile radius and found one. And I also have a little place on the ocean in Long Island. I’m content.”
De Niro, the Divine: “People treat me with too much reverence,” laments the Oscarwinning legend.
But to promote the HBO documentary Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro Sr. (directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir), De Niro appeared with great fanfare at the Aspen Ideas Festival last June. After the film was shown, a panel discussion ensued about his openly gay father’s underappreciated artistic career. During his painting heyday, De Niro Sr. had his figurative paintings exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock’s and Willem de Kooning’s. Even though the elder De Niro has been dead for two decades, his influence on his world-famous son continues unabated. At first, the film was created only for family consumption. But the end product was so strong, De Niro figured, “Why not share it with others?” So the actor found and purchased old film footage of his father and collected his paintings and drawings. “My father left journals and poems,” De Niro explains. “When I read them or even think about them I choke up.” In the documentary, De Niro, in fact, reads passages from these journals to great effect. When asked whether he plans to publish an anthology of his father’s writings and paintings, De Niro perks up. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that,” he says. “But maybe I should. It’s a possibility I hadn’t really considered.” (Attention book publishers: Get on this!)
The seven-time Oscar-nominated actor has been busy on set in the past few months, shooting Bus 657 in Mobile, Alabama (with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Dave “Batista” Bautista, and Kate Bosworth), and The Intern in Brooklyn (with Anne Hathaway). Then there is Dirty Grandpa, a comedy with Zac Efron in the works. For those who like De Niro in violent films based on characters that are quasi-psychotic, there is Hands of Stone to look forward to, a film in which he plays Ray Arcel, the trainer for middleweight-champion boxer Roberto Duran. Making movies is grueling work, but De Niro wouldn’t know how to stop.
Ever since he studied acting at Stella Adler Conservatory as a New York City teenager he has learned to embody the characters he plays. “It’s true,” he once told a reporter of his early days in the business. “I spent lunchtime in a grave during the filming of Bloody Mama . When you’re younger you feel that’s what you need to do to help you stay in character. When you get older, you become more confident and less intense about it—and you can achieve the same effect. You might even be able to achieve more if you take your mind off it, because you’re relaxed. That’s the key to it all. When you’re relaxed and confident, you get the right stuff.”
Robert De Niro as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974), for which he won his first Academy Award.
It’s impossible to find anybody in Hollywood who doesn’t like and admire De Niro. While over the years he has warred with “the suits,” as he calls film executives, his fellow actors worship him as their friend Bobby D. (The two actresses he seems to admire the most are Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep.) And he is the critics’ darling. He’s regularly mentioned in the same breath as James Dean, Robert Mitchum, and Marlon Brando as that rare actor able to transcend the confines of the screen to prick the very consciousness of contemporary American life. When we spoke, he was blue over the death of Robin Williams, his dear, longtime friend. “When you get old you look back at those things, the times, the good experiences you had and you realize that they’re forever gone. I’m very saddened by what happened to Robin. Very sad. His death brought back all the good old times that are no more.”
If De Niro has an alter ego in the film world it’s legendary director Martin Scorsese. They first met back in 1972 at a party in Little Italy. Although De Niro played only a supporting role in Scorsese’s violent Mean Streets—a bloodier version of The Godfather—he earned the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor. Critics were floored by his bravado performance. “This kid doesn’t just act,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Mean Streets, “he takes off into the vapors.” Next, the Scorsese/De Niro team made New York, New York, a commercial bomb that has achieved cult status for its deconstructed approach to the film musical. What Scorsese understood was that a brooding silence or grimaced smile from De Niro was more powerful than pages of screenplay dialogue. Eventually, they struck Oscar gold, collaborating on the thriller Cape Fear, in which De Niro showcased a hillbilly dialect and muscleman demeanor. De Niro had become a shape-shifter extraordinaire. When he won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1980’s Raging Bull, it became commonplace to call him America’s greatest actor. “Marty and I have great shorthand,” De Niro says simply. “We talk about projects regularly.”
Robert De Niro and his father, Robert De Niro Sr., face off in 1982.
While De Niro doesn’t particularly enjoy discussing his 100-plus films, Democratic politics are a different story. He positively beams excitement at the prospect of America having its first female president: Hillary Clinton. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Back in 1998 he lobbied against impeaching Bill Clinton and a friendship developed with the 42nd president. At a 2012 Barack Obama rally he joked, “Callista Gingrich, Karen Santorum, Ann Romney—now do you really think America is ready for a white first lady?” This got him in hot water with the political correctness police.
Now De Niro tells me, “If Hillary runs in 2016, she has my vote. I’ll get behind her. I know she has paid her dues. I have trust in her. She has the experience and ability to make an excellent leader.”
De Niro is a historical figure himself now, part of the fabric of America, like Joe DiMaggio or Louis Armstrong—a folk figure of film. In 2006, De Niro donated over 1,300 boxes of papers, memorabilia, film, and costumes from his archive to the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library, archives, and museum at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection was appraised at more than $5 million. “It covers so many aspects of filmmaking, from scripts and screenwriting to costumes and film and video,” Steve Wilson, curator of film at the Ransom Center, explains. “Scholars and students can follow the development of such films as The Deer Hunter  from the printed page to the screen. I simply don’t know of another film archive quite like it.” That makes perfect sense. For De Niro is sui generis, an island all to himself, something much larger than a celebrity—a consummate tradesman.
photography by getty images; everett collection; COURTESY OF HBO