HELLO AMERICA!—He’s from the streets of New York and proud of it! This is a guy who touched your hearts when he exploded on the screen in “The Godfather: Part II.” YES! Robert De Niro had arrived and the world would experience his sting from that moment on.
When I first met De Niro, it was during the early 1970s, he was married to the beautiful Diahnne Abbott. Her cousin was Gregory Abbott, a young handsome, gifted musician I hired to work with me on popular magazine “Players.” I served as editor in chief. Through the years, the actor was always available to whatever I needed for my deadlines. “If I didn’t give you a story,” he said once.” I was afraid I’d wake up and see you waiting for me outside my bedroom!” Well, I wouldn’t have gone that far but when I take on an actor or artist and believe they are definitely special, nothing stops me from staying connected.
Even though De Niro’s life was topsy turvy at times, he managed to use those years of mini-dramas as an artist. “I was really raised by my mom in a small loft apartment in Greenwich Village. My folks had had separated The ‘refuge,’ as it was dubbed at the time, was sometimes filled with bohemian friends, including members of the Warhol ‘circle’. The area was not the chi and trendy area it is today, with most of the spaces being used as warehouses and studios. It was the place if you’re involved in the art scene.”
Bob reminded me that as I did grew up spending as much free time as possible sitting in a movie house watching the likes of Montgomery Clift, Bob Mitchum, Cagney and Bogart. He used to do imitations of all the actors he admired. He even appeared as the Cowardly Lion in a local production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“My mom was so impressed,” he offered. “She enrolled me in New York’s High School of Music and art. Yeah, it was great for a minute and I got restless and dropped out without graduating. Just needed to hang out with a local street gang…hey, that’s how it was man!”
Fortunately, he came to his senses, realized there was more to life than roaming the streets of Little Italy. He began sneaking into acting workshops at the famous Stella Adler Conservatory. Adler was a teacher and acting coach to a variety of actors including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel and Candice Bergen. Her ‘rival’, the Actor’s Studio, was run by Lee Strasberg, a Ukrainian who taught his version of the Method – a system of mental exercises and games for actors to help build up their character.
De Niro spent the 1960s fine-tuning his technique in these performing sessions, getting a few roles in off-Broadway productions and travelling America performing Neil Simon-style comedies in dinner theatres. Although the pay was next to nothing, De Niro did not see this work as beneath him and his persistence and ambition would keep him from quitting. New York’s small film industry meant that when De Niro auditioned for film roles he would often see the same faces turn up each time, such as Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and later Harvey Keitel. Director Brian de Palma was to give De Niro his first break with a small role in “The Wedding Party” (filmed in 1963, but not released until 1969).
They collaborated again on “Greetings” (1968) and the sequel, “Hi Mom!”(1970), but perhaps the most memorable film they did together would come later, with 1987’s Oscar-winning film “The Untouchables.” De Palma was also responsible for introducing De Niro to fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese at a Christmas party in 1972.
Coming from the same area, they quickly hit it off and found they saw a lot of things the same way. At parties they would sit and talk about movies and technique for hours on end. “I’ve been very lucky my entire career,” he said. “The right people at the right time. It’s really mostly about timing…timing is what makes the groove work, you.”
“Mean Streets” from 1973 was the first of many films where De Niro and Scorsese would collaborate. His Italian looks and background earned him many roles in violent gangster movies. Indeed his appearance as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppolla’s “The Godfather: Part II” in 1974 is perhaps one of the most famous, with De Niro winning his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. De Niro perfected a Sicilian accent, astonishing his voice coaches in Italy who did not think it would be possible. He also had a dentist fit a prosthetic mold to fill out his cheeks, and put on weight so that he could look more like a young Marlon Brando.
He and Marlon Brando are the only actors to have both won Oscars for playing the same character (Brando won his in 1972). When asked what he misses more about his early years as an actor, he smiled and said, “Being young enough to remember my lines easily.”