Robert De Niro is thought of as one of the greatest actors of all time. Although he is best known for his tough-guy roles he has actually played leading roles across almost all genres. Here are some of our most interesting facts about acting legend Robert De Niro.
Robert De Niro Facts
1. A Mosaic Indeed
Robert De Niro was born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City, to artists Virginia (Admiral) and Robert De Niro Sr. His parents met in a painting class, but divorced when De Niro’s father revealed he was gay. De Niro was two years old at the time. After, he was raised in his mother’s household, though his father lived just a short walk away and they saw each other often.
2. The Dream Team
De Niro is no stranger to the Oscars. He won his first, for Best Supporting Actor, playing a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. His collaboration with Martin Scorsese then earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1980, for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. He also earned nominations for the psychological thrillers Taxi Driver (1976) and Cape Fear (1991), both directed by Scorsese.
De Niro received additional Academy Award nominations for Michael Cimino’s Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter (1978), Penny Marshall’s drama Awakenings (1990), and David O. Russell’s romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook (2012).
3. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
De Niro rarely does interviews and is known as one of the most ultra-private celebrities. He was the subject of a late 90s interview (and cover photo) for Esquire magazine. Most of the article focused on how guarded he is with his personal life, what few details are known about him, and what rumors are speculated, while only a minority of the article dealt with the actual interview itself.
The writer noted that while the interview was ultimately agreed upon, he was given a substantial list of off-limit subjects NOT to ask De Niro about. They included: politics, religion, his family, his reported interest in fine wines, and so on.
4. Early and Often
De Niro first discovered his love for acting at age 10 when he portrayed The Cowardly Lion in a local production of The Wizard of Oz. He eventually dropped out of high school to join a gang. He says that his ability to portray a New York gangster is thanks to his childhood experiences.
5. Respect the Don
De Niro was the second actor to win an Oscar for portraying Vito Corleone. Him and Marlon Brando are the only two actors to win an Oscar for playing the same character. At that point, do they get the credit, or does Vito?
6. In and Out of Love
De Niro married his second wife, Grace Hightower, in 1997, and she gave birth to their son, Elliot De Niro on March 18, 1998. However, in 1999, De Niro filed for divorce. The fallout continued into 2001 as a potential custody battle over their son, Elliott, heated up. However, the divorce was never finalized and they managed to smooth over their troubles, renewing their vows in 2004. Their second child was born in December 2011.
They have since separated once again, as of 2018.
7. The Milkman
De Niro’s Italian street gang that gave him the nickname “Bobby Milk,” in reference to his pale complexion. De Niro was by all accounts only a very modest troublemaker.
8. My Blood Type is Ragu
Although he is sometimes referred to as an Italian-American actor, De Niro is actually only one-quarter Italian in ancestry. His father was of half Italian and half Irish descent. His mother was of Dutch, English, Irish, French, and German ancestry on her own father’s side, and of German ancestry on her own mother’s side. Robert was quite close to his Italian grandfather, whom he visited frequently in Syracuse, NY when he was young.
De Niro has stated that he identifies “more with [his] Italian side.” He was inducted into the Italian-American Hall of Fame in 2002.
9. Pack ’em On
De Niro formerly held the World Record for Most Weight Gained for a Movie, in gaining over 60 pounds for his role in Raging Bull (1980). But seven years later, Vincent D’Onofrio eclipsed him in gaining 70 pounds for his role in Full Metal Jacket (1987).
10. Community Builder
De Niro organized the first Tribeca Film Festival in May 2002. He intended to revitalize the Lower Manhattan area after the September 11 attacks.
11. Showbiz Ain’t for the Faint of Heart
After his stage debut as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, De Niro was accepted at New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, an institution specializing in visual and performing arts. However, feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for the intense and competitive atmosphere, he dropped out to attend public school after only a few days.
12. Impossible is Nothing
De Niro and Scorsese’s first collaboration was the 1973 film Mean Streets. Since then, his Italian looks and background earned him many roles in violent gangster movies. Indeed, his appearance as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974) is perhaps one of the most famous, with De Niro winning his first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting role.
De Niro perfected a Sicilian accent, astonishing his voice coaches in Italy who did not think it would be possible.
Acting isn’t De Niro’s only passion: He also co-owns the Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco, which he founded with Bay area residents Francis Ford Coppola and the late Robin Williams. Much of his father’s artwork adorns the walls of the business. He also owns a restaurant in West Hollywood, Ago, and co-owns several restaurants in New York, including Nobu and Layla.
14. Yes We Can!
Never one to keep quiet about his beliefs, De Niro is a staunch supporter of the US Democratic Party. He lobbied Congress against impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998. He supported Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential election, John Kerry in the 2004 election, and Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
15. Lennie Small
During the sparring scene in Raging Bull, De Niro actually broke one of Joe Pesci’s ribs. He must not have realized how strong he’d gotten from his training!
16. Can’t Take Down the Bull
In 2003, De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent a successful surgery at the New York Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in December 2003. Thankfully, he has reportedly been cancer-free ever since.
17. What’s your De Niro?
For such a famous dramatic actor, comedies have been particularly lucrative for De Niro. For example, he earned a reported $20 million for Analyze That (2002). He’s also been extremely successful in producing comedies. His producer credits include Meet the Parents (2000) and the sequel, Meet the Fockers (2004), both of which he also starred in.
When many millennials think of De Niro, they often picture Meet the Parents De Niro. They don’t even know what they’re missing.
18. Just Go With It
“Are you talkin’ to me? ARE YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?”; this line from Taxi Driver (1976) is one of the most memorable of De Niro’s entire career, and he is said to have made it up when he was meticulously researching his role in front of the mirror. De Niro enjoyed improvising and it was not uncommon for him to encourage other members of the cast to do the same.
19. The Green Ribbon
Many viewers couldn’t help but notice a green ribbon on De Niro’s lapel at the 1981 Academy Awards. The previous year, a serial killer in Georgia had murdered several African-American children, and the ribbon was meant to memorialize them. As De Niro was walking in that night, a fan in the crowd gave it to him and he put it on immediately. It didn’t hurt that De Niro won the Best Actor that yeat, giving the ribbon even more time in the spotlight.
20. A Professional
De Niro is known for using method acting techniques for his roles. Especially in his younger days, he would spend tons of time studying their backgrounds in great detail. His assistant on Raging Bull has noted that he never broke character on the shoot, even when the cameras stopped rolling.
De Niro almost played the Jack Nicholson role in The Departed (2006). However, he turned it down so he could direct and co-star in The Good Shepherd with Matt Damon, Joe Pesci, and Angelina Jolie.
22. Energizer Bunny
De Niro is nothing if not versatile—just look at his filmography from 2011. That year, he starred in Killer Elite, an action movie, Limitless, a sci-fi thriller, and New Year’s Eve, a Garry Marshall romantic comedy.
23. Can’t Slow Down Now
Despite being such an acclaimed actor in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, by the 2010s, it looked like his best roles were behind him. He hadn’t been nominated for an Academy Award since 1992, and he began making more and more frequent appearances in forgettable movies. However, he proved his critics wrong in 2013 with his Oscar-nominated role in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.
Never doubt De Niro.
24. He Should Have Two
In 2011, De Niro received the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, for his exemplary artistic skills and exceptional talent. He joined the ranks of such stars as Martin Scorcese, Barbra Streisand, and Stephen Spielberg.
De Niro is one of the most prolific actors in history. Since his career started in earnest in 1968, only five years have passed without a De Niro movie. That’s half a century! He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. In 2015, at 73 years old, he appeared in five different films!
26. Too Far?
While filming Scorcese’s forgotten classic The King of Comedy, one scene featured Jerry Lewis required the comedian to be furious with De Niro’s character. In order to provoke genuine anger, De Niro made several anti-Semitic remarks to Lewis—and it seemed to have done the trick. Lewis once stated: “I forgot the cameras were there…I was going for Bobby’s throat.”
27. Playing Favorites
Robert De Niro been in a lot of movies, and that means he’s worked alongside some truly great actors. So, of all the stars he’s played with, who’s his favorite? None other than Meryl Streep, with whom he has starred in multiple films, including The Deer Hunter (1978), Marvin’s Room (1996) and Falling in Love (1984). Good choice, Bob!
Silver Linings Playbook was a special movie for De Niro. Director David O Russell wrote the film based on his own experience, as his son suffers from bipolar disorder. This apparently hit home for De Niro a well: When an interviewer asked him how he related to the film, the famously private De Niro became visibly emotional. While holding back tears, he simply responded, “I don’t like to get emotional, but I know exactly what [Russell] goes through.”
29. Does this Guy Sleep?
De Niro clearly enjoyed working with Russell. The pair once again teamed up with Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence for the 2015 film Joy, based on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano.
30. Not You Too, Bob…
In 2016, De Niro revealed that his son, Elliot, has autism. “Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.” Because of this, De Niro has become affiliated with the Anti-Vaxxer movement. That same year, he chose to include the Andrew Wakefield movie Vaxxed in the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, despite widespread criticism.
Eventually, due to pressure from almost all sides, De Niro did remove the movie from the festival lineup, though he has continued to state his belief that there is a link between vaccines and autism.
31. Be Fruitful and Multiply
In December 2011, his daughter named Helen Grace was born via surrogate. In addition to his six children, De Niro has four grandchildren, one from his daughter Drena and three from his son Raphael. He also has twin sons conceived by in vitro fertilization and delivered by a surrogate mother in 1995, from a long relationship with former model Toukie Smith.
32. Stones and Bombs
If there are two things you can expect in a De Niro film, they’re the Stones and the F-word. “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones has appeared in at least three of De Niro’s films—The Fan, Casino, and Goodfellas—while the F-word is spoken 114 times during Raging Bull, most during improvised scenes. A few years later, Goodfellas smashed Raging Bull’s record with 296 f-bombs.
33. Secretly Saved
De Niro’s mother was an atheist and his father was a lapsed Catholic. They did not raise him with religion, and hoped to keep it that way—but his grandparents weren’t having any of that. While young Robert was staying with them during his parents’ divorce, grandma and grandpa had him secretly baptized against his parents’ wishes.
34. School or No School
De Niro spent his youth jumping from one prestigious school to another. He attended several well-known public and private Manhattan institutions from elementary to high school, including Elizabeth Irwin High School, the High School of Music and Art, McBurney School, and Rhodes Preparatory School. Despite these fancy academies, education wasn’t really De Niro’s bag—he dropped out of school completely at age 16 to focus on becoming an actor.
35. Delayed Debut
It took six years for De Niro’s first acting role to actually hit the theaters. In 1963, he landed a part in Brian De Palma’s movie The Wedding Party at just 20 years old, but the film sat on the shelf for several years. It didn’t actually see a release until 1969, by which time he had several other credits to his name. In fact, De Niro’s rising star was partially why The Wedding Party finally saw the light of day all those years later.
36. Try, Try Again
Robert De Niro actually auditioned for several roles in The Godfather. He read for Sonny Corleone, Michael Corleone, Carlo Rizzi, and Paulie Gatto, but got turned down each time. It wasn’t all for naught, however—Francis Ford Coppola remembered him from these early auditions and cast him as young Vito Corleone in the sequel. Not a bad consolation prize!
37. One of the Greats
One director whom De Niro had a particularly strong effect on was Elia Kazan. After De Niro lost more than 40 pounds for his role in the Kazan movie The Last Tycoon (1976), the director was amazed at De Niro’s commitment and effort. Kazan went so far as to say that De Niro was one of the only actors he ever worked with who actually worked hard at the craft.
38. I Like Him!
In the early 90s, De Niro went to see an unknown actor by the name of Chazz Palminteri perform a one-man off-Broadway play that he’d written himself. De Niro was so taken with the show that he bought the rights to the story and began producing a film. It became De Niro’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, and launched Palminteri’s career. Palminteri has since gone on to become an iconic wiseguy actor.
39. Giving Back
Throughout his career, De Niro collected a massive trove of memorabilia, from scripts to costumes to props. In 2006, he decided to give back to the film community by donating the entire archive to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. A few years later, the whole archive was opened to any member of the public who wished to see it.
40. Netflix and Chill
It’s hard to find good employees, and De Niro knows that as well as any boss. In 2019, his production company filed a $6 million lawsuit against a former employee. The suit claimed that she had breached her contract, embezzled money and…spent all her time at work watching Netflix. One of the specific claims against her was that she watched 55 episodes of Friends in a span of four days. Hey, we’ve all binged a few Netflix shows, but at work? Come on…
41. New Yorker Through and Through
Many of De Niro’s most iconic characters have been New Yorkers, and that holds true to his real self as well. He was born in the city and has lived there nearly all his life. He currently owns several properties in Manhattan (though his main residence is a massive estate outside the city in Gardiner, NY). His swankiest place just might be his 6,000 square foot, five-bedroom apartment at 15 Central Park West, which he moved into in 2014.
42. Italian Enough for Me
Though he’s only one-quarter Italian, the link between De Niro and Italian American identity is obvious. In 2006, the Italian government actually issued him an Italian passport and made him an Italian citizen—but not everyone was happy about it. A group called the Sons of Italy strongly opposed his citizenship, as they felt that De Niro actually hurt the public image of Italians by making everyone think that they were all criminals.
43. He is Missed
De Niro was the last star to see comedian John Belushi alive. On March 5, 1982, he visited the troubled comedian at 3 AM in a hotel, but only for a short time. Tragically, that afternoon, Belushi was found dead from an accidental overdose.
44. Probably Won’t Be Going Back There
In February 1998, during his film shoot in France, De Niro was taken in for questioning by French police over a prostitution ring, which he denied. Later in an interview, he said, “I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” He was publicly named in the investigation but denied any involvement in the prostitution ring, and was so furious at the implication that he told the nation to take back their Legion of Honour, which they awarded him in 1997.
However, time heals all wounds, and De Niro eventually returned to France to film a movie, and was even a judge at the 2o11 Cannes Film Festival.
45. Serious Commitment
Most people don’t truly understand just how far De Niro will go for a role. The most extreme example is probably his performance as Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the movie Cape Fear. To sell the part of a psychopathic ex-con, De Niro paid $5,000 for his dentist to make his teeth look worse. He filmed the movie with the beaten-up grill, then returned to his dentist after to pay another $20,000 to fix them!