Quiet extrovert, cultured street kid, gentle nutcase; Robert De Niro’s life is one of contradictions. Speaking to the actor, and his old friends in Little Italy, Andrew Dickens goes in search of the real “Bobby Milk”
Robert De Niro’s waiting. No, I’m not quoting Bananarama – he really is. He’s in a room, in London, waiting. He’s waiting for me. The goodfella, the godfather, the raging bull, the king of comedy, the taxi driver, the deer hunter, is waiting for me.
I enter. He stands. We shake hands. We sit. He looks at me and I look at a face that’s contorted to form some of film’s most iconic characters. At any given point, I feel like I could get punched, whacked, arrested or hugged. No, not hugged. De Niro is a man of few words and his default expression, today at least, is that of uninterest. But he’s earned it; he may be 70 years old, wear rimless glasses and comfortable clothing – basically looking like your dad – but this is cultural history made flesh.
This reserved demeanour makes it a joy when he laughs. You know, that silent laugh he does, where his jaw juts out, his eyes close and his head gently bounces; the laugh that’s emerged from psychos, good guys and wiseguys. His new film, The Family, provides a bit of all three. He plays a snitching Mafia boss under witness protection – with his ‘colourful’ family – in a middle-class Normandy village; made man meets homemade cheese, if you like. It’s a mob comedy (or “mobedy”, De Niro suggests, doing that laugh) directed by Luc Besson and based on French novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista (English title, due to its theme: Badfellas). Frenchmen taking on Italian-American organised crime, the centre of De Niro’s wheelhouse – how did he feel about that?
“Tony, the author, said that he didn’t know anything about that world, he was just writing what he thought,” says De Niro. “So, to make it more specific, I talked to Nick Pileggi [who wrote the Wiseguy book and subsequent film adaptation, GoodFellas] and had him talk to Luc, just to keep stuff a little more on point. I don’t know why people love gangster films so much. You tell me. People are fascinated by them. It’s a tradition, like westerns.”
The genre is like a second home to De Niro; from Mean Streets to Casino to Analyze This, his career is littered with ‘legitimate businessmen’. It’s perhaps no surprise, seeing as this second home is very close to his first: the neighbouring streets of NYC’s Little Italy and Greenwich Village districts.
PRIDE OF LITTLE ITALY
Two weeks earlier, I’d walked those streets in an attempt to find traces of the young De Niro, the places and people who made him, and to discover just how close these two ‘homes’ were; how much he’s been playing to type all these years. Back then, the Village was all folk music and beatniks, while Little Italy was exactly what it said on the tin. These days – bar a ‘Welcome to historic Little Italy’ sign – it’s practically impossible to tell them apart, with more organic eateries than you can shake an artisan baguette at. I mention this in London.
“It’s totally gentrified,” says De Niro. “It’s a totally different place entirely. When I was a kid there it was a very, very insular neighbourhood, as tight as it could be. I never thought I’d see it change. It happened in the West Village, which was Italian too, when artists started moving in there, especially in the Fifties and Sixties. But it didn’t happen in Little Italy until, I guess, 20 years ago. I guess a comparison here in England would be the what, the South End?”
The East End.
“East End, South End, whatever. A friend of mine from here was comparing it to Little Italy.”
In New York, I’d visited his schools, the Society For Ethical Culture – which provided his kindergarten and the location for his first marriage – and a bunch of locations from Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. Nothing; nobody knew him, nobody knew his connection to these places. Little Italy, it seemed, was my best, perhaps last, chance of finding De Niro’s youthful footprint set deep.
I headed to an Italian beacon: Lombardi’s, the first, most famous and, many would argue, best pizzeria in the US. Here I’d arranged to meet the owner, John Brescio, and another local boy, Vinny Vella – best known as Artie Piscano in Casino and Jimmy Petrille in The Sopranos. Broad men with thick accents, both were exactly what you expect to find in Little Italy. And Vella knows De Niro rather well. “He was best man at my wedding,” he said. “I couldn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t even tell my wife. He says: ‘Vinny, I’m only gonna stay for a drink or two, then I’m outta here.’ He ended up staying two and a half hours – we got him loaded.”
I asked Brescio and Vella about Little Italy during their and De Niro’s childhoods. Had the place changed? How did it function? Was it full of gangsters back then? Is it now?
“You used to know everybody,” said Brescio. “It’d take you an hour to walk from one end of the block to the other, because you’d say hello to nearly everybody you passed. It was all Italian. You’d have all the Sicilians in one building, all the Neapolitans in another. Everyone spoke different dialects. Today, everybody’s moving in and out.”
“You couldn’t check out girls,” added Vella, “because the next day a racketeer would say, ‘I hear you’ve been looking at my daughter. You’d better keep your eyes in your f*cking head or I’ll break your f*cking arms and legs.’ There are still some people left in the neighbourhood where, if you f*ck around, you’re gonna wind up getting hurt. But they’re very quiet. Wiseguys used to dress up in suits and ties. Now, you don’t know any more. Now they’re in sweatsuits.”
“Years ago, it was just like you see in the movies,” said Brescio. “Now, it’s not. Mean Streets is a very good representation of what it was like back then. It was a way of life here. There were social clubs on every block – one group was in this club, another group was in this club. Whether you got involved depended on your father. Some fathers were strong enough to keep you out, become a doctor, lawyer – or you got involved.”
I tell De Niro about my little meeting in Lombardi’s. I don’t know if he’s worried, impressed, flattered or on the verge of calling security, but he nods in agreement at their description.
De Niro’s character in The Family, Giovanni, claims at the beginning of the film that he “had no choice” but to join the family business and, judging by what I’d been told, the presence and lure of organised crime was always there. Did De Niro ever feel pressure to get connected?
“Yeah,” he says. “It was kind of classic – like an Edward G Robinson movie – because one guy became a cop, one guy became a mailman, one’s a priest, one’s a gangster. Everybody would hang together, but kids go in different directions when they grow up.”
According to Vella, De Niro’s direction could have been very different. Whether or not films ‘saved’ him from a life where his gangster role wasn’t make-believe, it’s impossible to say, but they certainly changed him.
“De Niro used to hang out at the Morosini Boys Club on Sullivan Street,” his old friend had told me. “If people were playing pool, he’d roll the ball down the other end. Ping pong, he’d throw the ball away. He was a f*cking whacko. He’d start trouble with anybody.
“He was a tough kid at that time. Mean Streets – that’s what he was like. He was a f*cking nutjob. So when he started making films, they told him, ‘You gotta get that Mafia sh*t out of your system, you can’t be that same Robert De Niro.’ So he just became a gentleman from that day on. He’s one of the best guys you’d ever wanna meet – a really great guy.”
“You’re a kid,” says De Niro, when I relay this. “It’s two lifetimes ago. You have to make decisions, if you want to go one way with your life or the other, and so I wanted to be an actor. I remember telling some of my friends and some didn’t understand – they weren’t sure what it was, what it meant. But, you know, it was what it was.”
COMING OF AGE
What it was led to arguably the finest screen acting career there’s been – Bananarama don’t write songs about just anyone, you know. And within that career there have been two constants: mob films and Martin Scorsese, a man with whom De Niro has made eight pictures, and one cut from the same Little Italy cloth. “He grew up there, but we didn’t hang out as kids,” he says. “He hung out in one area, I hung out in another area. We just came together. It was exciting when we did Mean Streets. It was about a kid that I knew and also Marty knew. I didn’t know that until we talked later.”
Mean Streets would’ve graced any era, but to stand out in the Seventies – a period seen by many as US cinema’s finest – was quite some feat. Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, William Friedkin, Brian De Palma – legends in their absolute pomp making some of the greatest films of all time. No hyperbole required. De Niro and Scorsese – with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York – were at the heart of it.
“It was exciting,” he says, “but I felt like ‘this is what it is’. I didn’t compare it to anything. I guess looking back on it people say the big movies were more personal. I had – have – a great working relationship with Marty. But he has a great working relationship with everybody, that’s why he’s so terrific. He listens and he will try things and encourage ideas from people – they’re not afraid to try to create something. It’s really important.”
The mob has almost gone from Little Italy; likewise De Niro. Vinny said he’d spotted him the previous week, having a coffee, but pointed out that “big shots” like him can’t go for beer or a slice of pizza. De Niro offers other reasons. “I could,” he says, “but it’s changed so much anyway. There are still the people. I was with somebody the other day and we were talking about who’s around and what happened to so and so. He said, ‘You wanna talk?’ and I said yeah and we met. We had a nice conversation.”
A case of missing the times rather than the place, then? “I had good times when I was hanging out there. I miss Lombardi’s…”
This is the part where I can write ‘and the rest is history’. From Raging Bull to Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro’s career has spanned myriad roles and garnered decades of lavish praise. As for the future, it’s not that different from the past. De Niro admits that he’s never going to leave New York (“It’s the best place”), is making a ninth film – The Irishman – with Scorsese and, after 50 years in the business, shows no signs of slowing down. “What else am I gonna do?” he says, when I ask if he’s ever considered not acting. “Feed the pigeons in the park?”
The eyes close, the jaw juts, the head bounces.
The Family is at cinemas nationwide from 22 November
(Image: All Star)