RDN = NYC
If reputation is everything, then Robert De Niro is indeed the mayor of Gotham by ROBIN SAYERS / photographs by HEDI SLIMANE
You know the scene: An inner sanctum in New York City. Sun rays burst through wooden blinds, lending the space an amber glow. The don, with his salt-and-pepper mane, sits in a leather chair, granting a supplicating, nervous visitor an audience. A gray-and-white kitten frolics blithely in his tuxedo-swathed lap. So there’s no kitten, and the tux is more a baby blue polo, olive cargo pants and nondescript black sneakers. But make no mistake: This is Robert De Niro’s New York. The rest of us are just living in it.
After the attacks of September 11, when A Tribute to Heroes aired, I remember getting emotional when De Niro appeared. I later learned several of my friends were similarly moved. For whatever reason, the man is an embodiment of his town. In the Ken Burns documentary The Statue of Liberty, historian David McCullough addresses the power of symbols: “The statue is only copper, granite, steel and iron. It’s what it speaks to us about, what it makes us feel inside, that’s so important.” For many, and for so many reasons, De Niro is like the Statue of Liberty with a mole.
The headquarters of De Niro’s NYC dream is housed not far from Lady Liberty herself, in a restored brick building in TriBeCa, a long block east of the Hudson. His private suite occupies the southwest corner of the penthouse level. Although this is where untold movie and business deals have been strategized, it’s decidedly less war room and more jam-packed den. In fact, if the occupant weren’t a two-time Oscar winner and partner in a string of insanely successful side endeavors (restaurants, condos, hotels), he’d make an ideal candidate for A&E’s Hoarders.
Almost every square inch is crammed with souvenirs of a life well spent. There’s a model of his Shark Tale character, a Travis Bickle Russian doll, a plaque-adorned fire ax, a four-foot-high hat collection and curved ornate knives that could make short work of any carotid artery. Then there are numerous framed children’s drawings and countless photos of his family and friends lining the shelves and filling whole tabletops.
Nothing in his space is there without careful consideration. Given several days and a team of archaeologists, the particulars of De Niro’s life could be excavated.
What at first seems a mishmash of disorder are, in fact, fractals in De Niro’s equation, which makes sense considering his legendary attention to detail. During the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, Meryl Streep told a story about working with De Niro on Falling in Love. She watched her friend weighing how high the zipper on his character’s windbreaker should be during a wardrobe test: “Up. No, down. Down...yeah...no! Yeah, down,” he said. “Details are important,” noted Streep. “And Bob knows that.” Nothing in his space is there without careful consideration. Given several days and a team of archaeologists, the particulars of De Niro’s life both on and offscreen could probably be excavated.
My firsthand encounter with De Niro’s obsession with detail came during the making of Cop Land. He was playing a New York Police Department internal-affairs officer, and the production department had gone to great pains to acquire authentic “dead” (inactive or closed) NYPD IA case files. There was just one problem: As a Method actor, De Niro needed the names in this paperwork to correlate to the characters in the script. A frantic call was issued for someone to jump in and create them.
At the time, I was interning for director Alan Pakula by day and reporting for the New York Observer at night. Having one foot in film and the other in news won me the gig. It was round-the-clock for days, with the prop master serving as my “editor”—his primary note being that, for non-typed entries, I should alternate between black, blue and red pens. Sometimes in the wee hours, I’d get creative in my “reports,” and I was repeatedly told, to my delight, that De Niro enjoyed reading them.
“I’m sure that was true,” he says on a freezing December day, his Mona Lisa smile morphing into a full-on grin. He’s unapologetic about his need for specificity. “Everything—a business card, a scrap of paper—has to mean something.” (Keep this in mind the next time you see him read a parking ticket or prescription bottle in a movie.)
At 67, De Niro is two decades older than Marlon Brando was during the filming of The Godfather, a fact that seems unbelievable after spending time in his company. Nothing against the AARP, which last year bestowed upon De Niro its lifetime-achievement award. “What are they going to give me 40 years from now?” he joked in his speech. “The He Lived Too Long Award?” He doesn’t Twitter, has no idea his famous mole has its own Facebook page and carries a cell phone that looks like it’s from the last century. Still, he exudes an energy and enthusiasm generally associated with men half his age.
Born to two artists in 1943, Robert De Niro’s first home was on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. After his parents divorced when he was three, he lived with his mother and grew up entirely south of 14th Street, no more than a mile and a half from where he now sits. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Lower Manhattan, but he’s ever curious and revels in learning about the city he loves.
Hearing that I live on East 5th Street at the Bowery, he dives into the topic of the two newish hotels in my neighborhood with the gusto of a NoHo local. He’s unfamiliar with a term I use—salmoning, aka bikers riding against traffic—and insists, “Tell me!” He knows Gotham like the back of his hand but, as the sight gag goes, also wants to be surprised every time he sees it.
While discussing his earliest memory of New York—cobblestones—he pinpoints that this impression was made when he was around five, precisely “on Houston Street, between Thompson and Sullivan.”
Naming “the more quaint, more gentile, gentrified” West Village streets of his youth, he rattles off, “Bedford, 11th, 10th, Perry, Charles” with a speed usually reserved for one’s Social Security number. So, think twice before betting against De Niro over a topographical detail of downtown New York.
“I like the whole feel of it,” De Niro says of “Empire State of Mind.” He mentions it as a favorite recent song about New York. “I read somewhere that it’s very popular.”
It was in this city that his earliest acting breaks were caught. There was his first role—the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. Asked how he played the part, he laughs. “I can’t even remember—I just played it. I had a big lion outfit, I think. I was 10 years old.” Then there was the early film incident that could have happened to any other Bobby just off the bus from Topeka who had stars in his eyes. “There was a movie called Sam’s Song. I did a nude scene. It was all, you know...the highest artful intentions, but somehow the company turned it into a soft-porno kind of thing.” De Niro shakes his head. “One scene. I was young. I did the movie...it was fine, and I enjoyed doing it, you know?”
A series of less vexing NYC-based movies would follow: Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II. Then came Taxi Driver, the film that concretized him as an icon. “[Paul] Schrader is from the Midwest,” says De Niro of the screenplay’s scribe. “But Marty [Scorsese] and I are both from Manhattan—the script grabbed us. Even growing up [here], you’d feel like an outsider in your own way. And that could be a good thing, too, because you felt like you weren’t part of it. There is an anonymous feeling about being around people who aren’t always watching you.” Despite being so famous he’s namechecked in songs by artists ranging from PJ Harvey to Bananarama to Jay-Z, De Niro claims he’s still able to slip into theaters undetected.
Now, about that Shawn Carter ditty: “I like the whole feel of it—the rhythm, the sound, everything,” he says of “Empire State of Mind,” featuring Alicia Keys. Unprompted, he mentions it as a favorite recent song about New York, but so as not to seem boastful, he says, “The lyrics, I don’t really hear. I was told [about the namecheck], and now I hear it, but it’s not for that—I just like the song. I read somewhere that it’s very popular.”
This month, amid the buzz of Little Fockers—the third in the franchise—De Niro heads west for the Golden Globes, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has named him its 2011 Cecil B. DeMille honoree. It’s a myth that he hates Los Angeles. “I always joke about places like L.A.: Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” He laughs, then is quick to add, “People say the same thing about New York. I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to live here, with all the hustle and bustle.” It might not be De Niro’s first lie of the interview, but with- out question, it’s his biggest.
Why Are Robert De Niro and New York City Synonymous?
“He’s the quintessential New York actor, epitomizing the seriousness and dedication to craft. And he’s devoted to the city itself—particularly to TriBeCa, which he has done so much to revitalize.”
“They are both incredibly tough and also full of heart.”
“They are both multiethnic, no bulls--t... tough-minded. They never forget a slight or a friend; there’s a joke in every rough corner, a generous heart at the very center.”
“Every time you walk in the city, you can’t help but start to walk like Travis Bickle.”
“He doesn’t live in North Dakota.”
“New York City breeds a warrior’s mentality born of courage, pride and, above all, honor.”
Cuba Gooding Jr.
“He owns most of it.”
“He has continually used his artistry and reputation to enhance the quality of life here. He stayed and said, ‘This is my home.’ ”
“As Travis Bickle, he foreshadowed Rudy Giuliani, cleaning the scum off the streets of New York. Only difference was, he had a mohawk.”
JACKET, SHIRT and TIE: Giorgio Armani
PRODUCER: Kim Pollock
STYLIST: Jay Massacret
GROOMER: Lynda Eichner