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   : 23.06.10 20:33. : Playboy ( 1989)




Robert De Niro: Playboy Interview
January, 1989

Outside his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, two state-of-the-art exercise machinesone for the legs, the other for the armsare about to be picked up by the company that delivered them to Robert De Niro during his stay in Los Angeles. Inside, his trunks are packed and he is eager to return to New York, the only city in which he feels comfortable enough to call it home, the city whose rhythms he understands and one that has served as a backdrop for so many of his filmsTaxi Driver, New York, New York, Once upon a Time in America, Falling in Love. The country's most respected actor is going home.

Some say De Niro is the individual who has taken the torch from Marlon Brando and run the farthest with it; Elia Kazan, who directed Brando as well as James Dean, said De Niro was the hardest-working actor he'd ever met; John Hancock, who directed him in Bang the Drum Slowly, compared him to Alec Guinness; Liza Minnelli, his co-star in New York, New York, tagged him "the greatest actor around today." Yet despite the superlatives, De Niro can also be maddening. His penchant for indecision and perfection of craft has driven make-up artists, directors and screenwriters to muttering obscenities. It is that very perfectionism that makes De Niro as enigmatic as he is gifted: "I like Bob," Francis Ford Coppola said after directing him in The Godfather, Part II. "I just don't know if he likes himself."

De Niro was born in Greenwich Village on August 17, 1943; his parents, both artists, separated when he was two. While his father, also named Robert, traveled to Europe to paint, the young De Niro lived in an apartment on West 14th Street with his mother, Virginia Admiral, who supported them by running a typing service. It was in a public school production of The Wizard of Oz that audiences caught the ten-year-old De Niro in his first role: the Cowardly Lion. Soon after, he enrolled in the dramatic workshop at the New School for Social Research for a summer. So shy he could scarcely stand up in front of strangers, he set aside his acting ambitions and joined a New York street gang.

At 16, he dropped out of school and returned to acting class, this time studying with Stella Adler, the woman credited with teaching Brando. Actress Sally Kirkland, a friend of De Niro's during those early years, remembers him going to auditions with a portfolio of pictures of himself in various disguises, just "to prove to casting directors he wasn't an ethnic." Gradually, he began appearing in plays and low-budget films.

In 1963, he auditioned for Brian De Palma's The Wedding Party and impressed the young director with his chameleonlike ability to transform himself into the character. He got the part, for which he was paid $50, and went on to do two other De Palma films, Greetings, a film about a draft dodger, in 1968 and Hi, Mom! in 1970.

That same year, he appeared as one of Ma Barker's bad boys in Bloody Mama, starring Shelley Winters. Then Al Pacino dropped out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight to do The Godfather and De Niro took over his part in the comedy. That appearance, like his next three in Jennifer on My Mind, Born to Win and Sam's Song, wasn't memorable, but a young director named Martin Scorsese had seen something in De Niro's intensity and asked him to appear in a film he was about to make called Mean Streets. De Niro thought Scorsese, whom he vaguely knew from their childhood days, understood film making, so he took the part, made it his own and ran away with the picture. But it was his performance that same yearas a terminally ill catcher in the baseball film Bang the Drum Slowlythat many would consider De Niro's breakthrough role.

In 1974, Coppola chose De Niro to portray the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Brando had created the role of the aging don in the original Godfather, and few moviegoers who saw both Brando's and De Niro's performances could have said which was stronger. Both won OscarsBrando for Best Actor of 1972 and De Niro for Best Supporting Actor of 1974.

Bernardo Bertolucci was the next director to tap De Niro's talents, this time for his lavish, flawed epic 1900. It was after that exhausting shoot that De Niro made his second and, perhaps, most controversial picture with Scorsese: Taxi Driver. Based on Paul Schrader's script about a tormented and violent New York City hackie named Travis Bickle, the 1976 film became a De Niro tour de force. It also caused an uproar five years later, when the defense team for John Hinckley, Jr., said the Bickle character had inspired him to shoot President Ronald Reagan and three others outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. Hinckley did it, they said, to get the attention of Taxi Driver co-star Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed; he'd seen the film 15 times.

In 1976, De Niro married a beautiful black actress, Diahnne Abbott, and adopted her eight-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He and Diahnne also had a son, Raphael, in 1977. While Abbott would eventually appear in a number of De Niro's films (most notably, as his reluctant girlfriend in Scorsese's The King of Comedy), the marriage didn't last. They were recently divorced.

After friction with the movie's director, Mike Nichols, De Niro was fired from his next film, Bogart Slept Here. Nor were his next two effortsKazan's The Last Tycoon, based on the life of Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, and Scorsese's musical New York, New Yorkcommercial or critical successes.

Controversy also surrounded De Niro's next movie, Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam-war story, The Deer Hunter, shot in Pennsylvania and Thailand. Even though it was hailed as a masterpiece, it has never been shown on network TV, for fear that its scene in which POWs play Russian roulette would inspire youngsters to repeat the deadly game.

De Niro won his second Oscar, for best actor, for his 1980 portrayal of fighter Jake La Motta in his next Scorsese film, Raging Bull. Bringing to the screen a performance of equal parts of explosiveness and vulgarity, De Niro was reported to be characteristically obsessed with his role, befriending the real-life La Motta and gaining 60 pounds to resemble the bulky fighter in the film's later sequences.

All of his subsequent performances have been studied as serious efforts, whether or not the films themselves were well received. Those roles are stunningly varied: the troubled priest in conflict with his brother (Robert Duvall) in True Confessions; Rupert Pupkin, the desperate, manic stand-up comic who kidnaps talk-show host Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy; a Jewish Mobster in Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once upon a Time in America; a married man having an affair with Meryl Streep in the quiet, warmly romantic Falling in Love; a cameo as a wacky terrorist in Terry Gilliam's brilliantly futuristic Brazil; a murderer turned Jesuit priest in Roland Joffe's The Mission; the Devil in Alan Parker's Angel Heart; and gang lord Al Caponea ten-minute appearance for which he was paid $2,000,000in De Palma's The Untouchables.

In 1986, De Niro appeared in the off-Broadway play Cuba and His Teddy Bear. Then came last summer's sleeper, Martin Brest's hilarious Midnight Run, a film Universal Pictures consideredafter all this timeDe Niro's commercial breakthrough.

De Niro is almost as famous for his silence as he is for his movie roles. He has thrown a Garbolike cloak of mystery around himself, leaving gossip columnists a diet of hearsay. He apparently looks on interviews as a form of torture. So rather than feed the rumor mill, De Niro chooses to work: By the time Midnight Run was enjoying its success, he had already completed another film, Jacknife, dealing with the stress syndrome of returning Vietnam vets, and was shooting Lettersformerly titled Union Streetwith Jane Fonda, whose anti-Vietnam-war activities overshadowed the making of the movie itself.

To talk with this most extraordinary actor for the 35th Anniversary Issue, Playboy sent Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel on his trail. The assignment seemed fitting, since it was Grobel who interviewed Marlon Brando for Playboy's 25th Anniversary Issue. Grobel's report:

"When I learned that De Niro was actually willing to meet with me, I found it hard to believe. I had been trying for years to interview him, unsuccessfully. When I finally went to see De Niro at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, I found a nervous, edgy, thin, small-boned man who answered his own door and couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. He wore a beard, as in Angel Heart, and talked in half sentences when he spoke at all, leaving me with the uneasy feeling that it just might be impossible to expect to get anything quoteworthy out of him. After half an hour, he said he'd call me to arrange our first session, and he did, two days later.

"'We'd never really said we'd start here,' he said. 'Maybe we should start in New York. It's something that may take a year or two, y'know?' But I managed to persuade him to begin in L.A., where we talked for an hour and I worried that little actually was said. For De Niro, however, it was a breakthrough. He thought we had talked up a storm and he joked about our prevailing on Playboy to send us to China to continue our talks.

"A few months later, I flew to New York to meet with him in my suite at the Drake Hotel. The beard was gone, but the restlessness wasn't. Always aware of the tape recorder, he was constantly reaching to turn it off when he wanted to say something off the record. When I suggested he just say, 'Off the record,' rather than turn off the machine, he said, 'If I don't turn it off, I may say it's off the record, but it's still on your tape. So it's on, not off.'

"After eight sessions over a period of seven monthswaiting for De Niro's calls, waiting for him to arrive late and knowing that he would leave earlyI began to understand that it wasn't just me he was juggling around; it was his life. Every day, weekends included, De Niro lives a moment-to-moment existence, balancing his time among his children, his friends, his associates, his lovers and himself. Like mercury, he slips right through your fingers; you can't grasp him, can't hold on to him. Try to shake his hand and it's limp. Try to look him in the eyes and they're darting around. Corner him and he side-steps you; pin him down and he outfoxes you. Ask him about his childhood, his parents, his interracial marriage and he's ducking out the door. Robert De Niro, it finally occurred to me, is the real-life White Rabbit, always on the move, always checking his watch, always late for a very important date.

"For a guy who arrived a long time ago, you'd think someone would have told him he doesn't have to look at his watch all the time. Because time stopped for De Niro a dozen years ago. He can be as late as he wants. Everybody will wait for Bobby."

PLAYBOY: After so many years of trying to see you, it's hard to believe that we're actually here.
ROBERT DE NIRO: OK, that was a good conversation. We'll pick it up next time. [Laughs]

PLAYBOY: Seriously, this is your first in-depth interview, but lately, there have been a couple of cracks in your wall of silence. You even spent a few minutes on the Today show. Are we seeing a new Robert De Niro? Should we look for you next on The Tonight Show?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. I like Johnny Carson, but I wouldn't do his show. It's not my energy; it's another type of energy. He realizes that.

PLAYBOY: Do print interviews interest you? Do you read them?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I read them. I read two of yours, with Pacino and Brando. I'd like to read them again; I just don't have the time. [Quickly glances at his watch]

PLAYBOY: OK. Is the question you get asked most often the one about your weight? How you managed to put on 60 pounds for your role in Raging Bull?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, that's been asked a lot.

PLAYBOY: Let's get it out of the way first: How did you do it? And how did you feel?
ROBERT DE NIRO: All right. At first it was fun. I ate ice cream and everything I wantedit's like part of the fantasy that one has about eating everything. I took a tour through France, from Paris to the Riviera, stayed in inns and ate. And for two weeks I was miserable, because as good as the food was, it's richyou could eat only one big meal a day and then lie there, digesting it. But I'll never, ever eat like that againit gets boring, it's tiring and I did it in a fast way. I was uncomfortable, I couldn't see my shoes or bend over. My feet hurt because of the extra weight. I was breathing heavily. I felt terrible. After 15, 20 pounds, it was hard work. I had to get up early to eat a full breakfast and digest that in order to eat a full lunch and digest that in order to eat a full dinner. And lots of Di-Gel or Tums.

PLAYBOY: The next question has to be: Why did you do it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: The transformation, to me, was interesting. I didn't want to do it with just make-up. I wanted to really do it so you could see his stomach. So I thought, Let me try this as an experiment. I said, "Shut down the production." Marty and I planned it. There was something about Jakehe was a young fighter and then he let himself go and it was so sad, in a way. To see that deterioration and to capture it on film was really interesting to me.

PLAYBOY: Were you just as interested in getting the weight off afterward?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Oh, yeah, I was sick of the weight; I just wanted to get it off. But I couldn't go back to eating the way I normally did, because I would then feel sick. I had to let myself down gradually.

PLAYBOY: Raging Bull wasn't a commercial success, in spite of the Oscars you and the picture received. Did that surprise you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn't expect it would be. We just did the movie the way we wanted to do it and that was it. Of course, you always want people to see it and hope that it will be OK, but it's more important to do movies that have a meaning and some relevance 50 years from now. I'd rather be part of a movie like that than of a movie that's not gonna be around. Certain types of filmsI won't even say which ones; you know which onesare recognized for other things....

PLAYBOY: Rocky sorts of movies?
ROBERT DE NIRO: You said it; I'm not gonna say it. [Checks watch again]

PLAYBOY: Jake La Motta was almost 60 when you made Raging Bull. Did you go into the ring with him to learn how he fought?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes I would spar with him. He knew the language so well that you'd be making a mistake not keeping your guard up. He was a tough guy.

PLAYBOY: La Motta paid you a big compliment: He said he would have ranked you in the top-20 middleweights of all time. Could he have taken you out with one punch?
ROBERT DE NIRO: If it came to a real fight, of course he could; no question about it. The only thing would be the age difference; but even with that, he's still so skilled as a fighter.

PLAYBOY: As a kid growing up in Manhattan, you were pretty skilled, too. Didn't you once belong to a street gang?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's a whole other thing to talk about, not here. No big deal.

PLAYBOY: Wasn't your nickname Bobby Milk?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That was one of a few I had.

PLAYBOY: What were the others?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to get into that.

PLAYBOY: Why Milk?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Maybe because I drank milk. I don't want to go too much into that.

PLAYBOY: We don't have to go too much, but maybe just enough to get some idea of where you came from.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Listen.... [Reaches over, turns off tape recorder, talks about the pressures on actors to do interviews]

PLAYBOY: We'll keep things general, then. What kind of kid were youintroverted, extroverted, shy, loud?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It's hard to talk about yourself, about what kind of kid you were, and so on. So I don't feel that disposed to it.

PLAYBOY: Why is it hard?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It just is. That's why I don't do interviews. I think it's self-evident. I know people who don't want to talk about things in their life. It's a personal thing and it's really nobody's business.

PLAYBOY: Is your past something you've decided to shut out? Was it a happy past or an unhappy past?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, it's not that. It's.... [Turns off recorder, and begins to explain why he doesn't want to talk about his childhood, becomes emotional, angry] This has nothing to do with you, it's just that I'm feeling angry about this. I'm being pressured into doing an interview, and I resent that. I don't like the feeling. Why should I have to put myself in a position that makes me feel this way? I know the studios think it's important for a moviethat's their job. Everyone's got his job to do, so they all make like it's important to do these interviews, when it's not. I know it's not. So why bother?

PLAYBOY: So, you had an unhappy childhood? [De Niro is not amused. Pacing the floor now, he calms down when room service brings the coffee he ordered.]

Why turn off the tape recorder to say you don't want to talk about your childhood? Why not just talk about why you don't want to?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to look like I'm complaining. I'll just say this: I'm not good at editing how I feel. And those personal things that I feellike maybe who I would talk to in the past or somethingare not something that I care to let anybody know about. That's my own personal thing.

PLAYBOY: Then why not talk about your need for privacy? Brando felt the same way and was articulate about it, saying he wouldn't hang his private laundry out in public. How about you? What are the demands of fame and success?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I can't even make a clear statement about that; there's no clear-cut rule about it. My only rule is if I'm in discomfort, If I'm not feeling right about it, I back off and don't even subject myself to it.

PLAYBOY: Then we'll move on: Your film with Jane Fonda, Letters, produced headlines such as "Angry War Vets Try Jane Fonda For Treason," referring to her trip to Hanoi in 1972. She then met with some of the vets and apologized. Did you get involved in the politics of the film?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A little bit. Some vets sent me literature on Agent Orange and I said I would do something. And then Jane asked me to help raise money for the victims of Agent Orange, something they don't get much of. I hope that her having interaction with the vets will bring about better feelings and a better understanding.

PLAYBOY: How strong an actress is Fonda? [De Niro turns off the tape recorder to ask what we mean by strong, then says he doesn't know her well enough to answer.]

You also talked with vets about your role in Jacknife, the film you made with Ed Harris, which deals with the effects the Vietnam war still has on those who were part of it. Did you hear a lot of horror stories?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I heard a lot of horror stories, yeah. Jacknife is about the post-Vietnam stress syndrome, the trauma of two veterans who have unresolved feelings about each other and a third friend who died in the war. We've all heard stories of the negative feedback felt by returning vets, but it was brought home to me more by talking with some of them and watching documentaries and interviews with guys who hide in the woods in the Northwest and can't really deal with things. They're afraid of themselves, being around people. That made a big impression on me. Coming back, they felt a real rejection. They were really persona non grata.

PLAYBOY: A number of your filmsfrom Greetings to The Deer Hunter to Jacknifehave dealt with Vietnam. How politically aware were you of the Vietnam war?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was aware. I thought that the war was wrong. What bothered me was that people who went to war became victims of it; they were used for the whims of others. I didn't think that the policy makers had the smarts. I didn't respect their decisions or what they were doing. And it was a right of many people to feel, "Why should I go and get involved with something that's unclearand pay for it with my life?" It takes people like that to make changes.

PLAYBOY: How did you manage to beat the draft?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's an area I don't want to talk about. [Looks at watch]

PLAYBOY: All right, then, let's jump to the future: There's a project called Stolen Flower, which you want to direct.
ROBERT DE NIRO: It's about a girl who's kidnapped. We're working on the script and it's going through a lot of changes, so I don't like to talk much about itthat's a kind of superstition: Talk about it, then nothing happens. It's bad luck to say too much. Jinx it.

PLAYBOY: So you're superstitious?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes I'm very superstitious; other times, I think it's all bullshit. A black cat walks by and I say, "What's going to happen?" Other times, I just don't care.

PLAYBOY: Would you live in an apartment number 13?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I might not. Unless it was a nice apartment and I got a good deal. [Laughs]

PLAYBOY: Well, Bob, where do we go from here? You don't want to talk about your past; you don't want to jinx your future and you're not real nuts about discussing the present.
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Turns off tape recorder, complains about having to do this interview] Are you going to show this to me?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I ask because someone told me that sometimes you get to see it.

PLAYBOY: It's OK to ask. But it doesn't help the integrity of this interview if you get to see your answers and then edit your own copy. Then it really isn't journalism anymore, it's promotion.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I can understand. I know it's a form of censorship and that's not good, and I know it takes away from what you're doingI know all that. But, on the other hand, if I could look at it, see if anything that I said I would feel very uncomfortable about, you know, then.... Now I have to edit my own thoughts. There's a lot of things I'd like to say, but I don't feel I am very clear in my thinking right now, so it comes out wishy-washy. "I don't think this, I don't think that"it's boring; who cares? And why come off that way? I think, in time, down the line, maybe when I'm old, looking back, it will all make sense; I'll be able to say something. Right now, I can't say anything. There are real times and places for everything, and when it's not the right time, it's upsetting.

PLAYBOY: It's tough on us, too. We're prepared, we're waiting for you to do this, we have a lot of questions to ask, yet we don't want to upset you or get you angry, as you were before.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I never got angry.

PLAYBOY: You certainly did when we asked you about your childhood, unless we read you wrong. Right now, it's hard. Talking in these spurts, it's tough.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. It's a tough one.

PLAYBOY: Look, let's concentrate on your movies for a while. How did you meet Martin Scorsese?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I met him at a mutual friend's house about 16 years ago, before he did Mean Streets. I'd seen Who's That Knocking at My Door? and I liked it a lot. I knew him off and on when I was a kid. Then he asked me if I wanted to be in Mean Streets. He offered me the part.

PLAYBOY: Johnny Boy?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. It's like Rashomoneverybody has a different way of telling itbut my recollection is that Marty offered me a choice of any of the four parts, except Harvey Keitel's part, Charlie. At the time, I felt like I should be asking for the lead. There was a self-worth side of me; I had done a lead in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straightwhich was a total disasterand I felt like this was a step down. I was thinking, I want to work with Marty, but I'm going to hold out for the lead.

Then I ran into Harvey Keitel in the street. He said, "I think you should do that part." I said, "I know, but, to be honest about it, I think I should have the part you have." I said it in such a way that he wasn't offended by it; I was just being straight about it. He said, "Well, I think you would do very well with Johnny Boy." I couldn't see it. But finally, I mulled it over and decided I'd do it.

PLAYBOY: It wound up being an explosive performance. Were you happy with it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It was OK. When you're working on a movie, you never really get a full satisfaction, it's always anticlimactic. You're too connected to it to really be objective. Ten years later, I can look at it with a little distance and say, "Yeah, that wasn't bad."

PLAYBOY: Francis Ford Coppola saw your Mean Streets performance, and you wound up playing the young Vito Corleone in his Godfather II. How intimidating was it playing the young Brando?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I wasn't intimidated. I just looked at it like a mathematical problem: Brando had already established the character, so I just figured out how to connect to what he had done. We videoed scenes from the movie with a little camera, and I'd play those back, look at them and see what I could do to connect it all.

PLAYBOY: You both used a mouthpiece. Did you use the same dentist?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I went to Brando's dentist, Dr. Dwork. He made up a smaller piece, because my character was younger.

PLAYBOY: Did you learn Sicilian?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, I learned the dialect. There are lots of dialects in Sicily. I worked with a Sicilian guy in California.

PLAYBOY: And what did you learn from Coppola?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He leaves you alone. He helps you in certain areas where you're having trouble. Makes it comfortable for you.

PLAYBOY: Is that the highest praise you can give a directorhe leaves you alone?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A director has to leave you alone and trust you. One thing about Francis, he casts people you wouldn't think would be good or right for the part and they turn out to be very good. I admire that.

You've also got to develop a relationship with a director, so you can trust each other, so you can talk about the problems. Directors can't be condescending or patronizing to actors. Actors want to be helped, guided, given a lot of support.

PLAYBOY: So you don't think you could have worked with Hitchcock, who said actors should be treated like cattle?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. I'm not sure I couldn't have given Hitchcock what he wanted, as long as he treated me with respect. If he was going to be an asshole, like I heard about Otto Preminger, who wants to work with somebody like that?

Sometimes actors want to know certain things before they feel comfortable. Actors ask a lot of questions. So it's not right when a director says, "Just do the fucker," without taking the moment to try and work with you. Some directors enjoy pulling you through, and others are more bored with it, they don't have the patience.

But then there's a certain awkward periodeven I get to a point where I say, "Gee, why don't I just do the fucking thing?" instead of being worried about trying to solve every problem, superanalyzing.

PLAYBOY: After Godfather II, Coppola said, "I like Bob. I just don't know if he likes himself."
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Pauses] That's an interesting thing to say. Sometimes I do wish I was a little happier about certain things. But I'm alsotalking about superstition, something goes up, it has to go downI'm also being careful about what I do. Where or when I would get down, I'm not sure. I'm superstitious in that sense. Francis is a liver, he's more expansive, so I can see him saying that about someone like me. I like that.

PLAYBOY: Do you like yourself?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Certain times. Sometimes I'm unhappy about things.

PLAYBOY: Your next important role was in Taxi Drivera picture smaller in scope but larger in controversy. Before we ask you about it, we should mention that Ulu Grosbard, your Falling in Love director, once warned a writer never to mention Taxi Driver in front of you. Is it that upsetting?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. I don't know why Ulu would say that. Maybe he had a reason that I'm not thinking of now.

PLAYBOY: OK, then, how did you prepare for Travis Bickle?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, I killed a few people. [Laughs]

PLAYBOY: Any other preparation?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, I got this image of Travis as a crab. To prepare for that, I swam around under water and looked at the sea life. [Almost laughs] I don't know, I just had that image of him. You know how a crab sort of walks sideways and has a gawky, awkward movement?

PLAYBOY: Not straightforward?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, not devious in that sense. Crabs are very straightforward, but straightforward to them is going to the left and to the right. They turn sideways; that's the way they're built.

PLAYBOY: Do you often use animal imagery to get a character?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes. I've used a cat, a wolf, a rabbit, a snake, an owl. Certain animals give you certain feelings. I can use the image, take one little thing from that, and it can help me do something. Take a different slant to how you can approach a character, give you an idea, a different rhythm.

PLAYBOY: Screenwriter Paul Schrader said the schizophrenic quality you gave Travis Bickle was not in his Taxi Driver script.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Which part of Travis' nature is he talking about being schizophrenic?

PLAYBOY: His general nature. Maybe you don't agree with Schrader.
ROBERT DE NIRO: He was definitely unbalanced; but schizophrenic...I don't know. I'd have an idea about something, talk to Marty about it, try different things. As an actor, you kid around and do something and the director will say, "Yes, do that," and you'll say, "It's too much." But later, you can tone it down, shape it, guide it. There were things that I did in Taxi Driver that seemed right. We tried them.

PLAYBOY: Is it true that the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene in front of the mirror was an outtake? Unplanned?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, it wasn't an outtake. Part of it was improvised.

PLAYBOY: In 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., shot President Reagan in Washington, D.C. The similarities between Hinckley's story and Taxi Driver were striking enough to revive the theory that violent films breed real-life violence. Did that controversy affect you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. Well, it did in a sense. But people are gonna do what they're gonna do. Anything can affect anybody that way if they're predisposed to it. It's a complicated thing that, to this day, I don't really understand. Whether it was because he was obsessed with Jodie Foster or because he identified with the character, I don't know. But to hang it all on that makes no sense.

PLAYBOY: Do you have any fear of someone's going after you like that?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't worry about it too much. It could happen with anybody, it takes only one person. People are obsessive about getting hold of me sometimes, but what can you do? But if you do try it, you better make sure you do it right, because if I have anything left....

PLAYBOY: Let's move to a film called Bogart Slept Here. You had a disastrous encounter with the director, Mike Nichols. He fired you, then left the film himself. It eventually became The Goodbye Girl, and Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for the lead role. What happened?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It didn't work, just didn't work out.

PLAYBOY: Nichols said that you were undirectable.
ROBERT DE NIRO: He fired me. Then they tried not to pay me.

PLAYBOY: Did they succeed?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, they didn't succeed.

PLAYBOY: Why did he fire you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Because he felt it wasn't right. [Turns off tape recorder, discusses Nichols' personality and his regret over having gotten involved with him]

PLAYBOY: Was The Goodbye Girl anything like Bogart Slept Here?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It was different.

PLAYBOY: There's an eyewitness who said that during Bogart Slept Here, he saw you, Marsha Mason and Nichols in the studio commissary having lunch. You were bent over your food as Nichols pointed his finger at you, telling you what comedy was. Mason supposedly kicked you under the table and whispered that you should show more respect to Nichols. You looked up, said you had to go, left the table, walked out the door, went to the airport and flew to New York.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Who told you that, the Enquirer? People tell such fantastic stories, I'm always amazed. But it always comes back to youon the street, through the streetand never the way it really was.

PLAYBOY: It's not exactly a scandal. Is the story a myth?
ROBERT DE NIRO: People think what they want, so what the hell's the difference? Those who know don't say; those who say don't know. If I hear something that's negative about myself, I say, "Look, if I heard this about somebody else, would I really give a shit?" The bottom line is, So what?

Anyway, I had the good fortune of going from a very negative situation there to a great situation with [director Elia] Kazan in The Last Tycoon. It was like going from the darkest depths to light and inspiration; from black to white; from total angst to being with Kazan and Sam Spiegel. It was a whole other thing. Kazan's a great director. Very simple, too.

PLAYBOY: But Spiegel, who produced such pictures as On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia, was reputed to be tightfisted.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, Sam pulled one on me. He tried to finagle paying me what he said he would. It was very simple. I don't understand why people do that. He was famous for it. And yet he had good taste and he was funny.

PLAYBOY: Did he pay you the full amount?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. I still walked away from him, though. In the make-up trailer one night when we were shooting, Sam came over and said, "Bobby..." and I said, "Sam, you didn't do what you were supposed to do." "Well..." he said, and I just walked away from him.

But I liked him.

PLAYBOY: It's said that the one thing you don't excel in is playing aristocratic characters, such as Thalberg in Tycoon. Was that a tough characterization for you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I suppose. It depends. You wouldn't use me in certain parts.

PLAYBOY: So you admit that you have weaknesses?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Of course. But I'm not going to talk about them.

PLAYBOY: No surprise there. Could you play a woman, as Dustin Hoffman did in Tootsie? Or an Asian, as Brando did in The Teahouse of the August Moon?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I've played Cuban, Hispanic, Russianbut part of me feels that people who play a certain descent should be of that descent when possible.

PLAYBOY: How valid was saxophonist Georgie Auld's critique of your learning to play the sax when he was your music advisor for New York, New York? He said that while you had the externals, you were like a robot at times, you didn't have the inside stuff. Did you believe that you had it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: You always feel like you could've done it better. If I'd had my way, I would've been creating material during the playing, instead of re-creating the illusion of what was being played. I can finger and breathe the way it's supposed to be donewith his phrasingbut I can't do it as well as he does. It's like mouthing a song to playback.

But to be able to do it authoritatively, it's not easy. I may have been stiff at times, but I tried to be the best I could. That's why I worked so hard.

PLAYBOY: Auld said he came to resent your obsession with learning the sax for the movie; he said you were relentless.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I did spend a lot of timeI wanted to know how to do it phonetically. It's how I learned it. It's like someone who knows how to talk but can't read or write; that's what I was doing. I was intent on being able to control it and master it so I wasn't looking like I didn't know what I was doing. That was important.

PLAYBOY: Are you your harshest critic?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Pretty much.

PLAYBOY: Do you still play the sax?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No; I wish I did. I have it. I always want to go back to it, and I will sometime, because it's a beautiful instrument. I had fun doing it and I have so much of the skill left that I just have to learn the other parts.

PLAYBOY: Can you compare musical phrasing to an actor's rhythm and phrasing?
ROBERT DE NIRO: There are a lot of similarities. Like actors working togetheryou have to jibe together, play off one another, have the same kind of tempo; your rhythms may be different, but somehow, you pick up from the other one, you're not at odds. It's important that actors have some kind of connection. It is like a musical thing.

Words can become ping-pong games. You take off from the other person. Cultures do that, communicating with one another. That's how you can tell one culture from another. It's the same with actors; that is, if you're fortunate enough to work with someone you can play off of. When I did True Confessions with Bobby Duvall, we didn't have to talk that much, we just did the work. Just like two musicians. A pianist with a saxophone player. They play off each other.

PLAYBOY: You told Liza Minnelli while you were doing New York, New York that you didn't mind being a bastard as long as you were an interesting bastard. Is that true?
ROBERT DE NIRO: What I might have meant is that if somebody has some quirks or wrinkles in his character or personality, then people can identify with him, because that's what life is. I've always been interested in people seeing parts of themselves in something I do, as opposed to just seeing something that they'd like to be.

PLAYBOY: How much of New York, New York was improvised?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I'd say 30 to 40 percent.

PLAYBOY: That's quite a bit.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, we worked on it very hard. When I say improvise, we had to work on it before we shot it to get it down. You have to have a format, a shape, a structure.

PLAYBOY: Some of that improvisation landed you in an emergency room.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. I was in a car, hitting the roof. I thought it would be funny to show, out of complete rage, an insane absurdity, where you get so nutty that you become funny, hopping mad. I saw that the roof of the car was low and I hit it with my head, then I hit it with my hand. I felt that I might have fractured something, so I went to the infirmary to have it checked.

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PLAYBOY: New York, New York didn't do very well at the box office. Can you tell when a film is good? For instance, crew members working on The Deer Hunter said that it wasn't going to be a good picture. Does anybody really know?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I always felt that The Deer Hunter was going to be a good movie; otherwise, I wouldn't have done it. It had its flaws, but there was something very special about it.

It was in the wake of Apocalypse Now, so everybody who was going to Thailand was worrying about that. They heard about the monsoons and the jungle and being forced to shut down the filming. Subconsciously, it affected people. I know it did me. I said, "I'm going to get stuck there." It was the rainy season, we were going to be there for three monthsaround Bangkok, the River Kwaiand we did have some pretty hairy moments in the shooting.

PLAYBOY: Like having to drop from a helicopter into the River Kwai?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A few times. We spent a month in that river, shooting all the prison stuff.

PLAYBOY: Didn't you narrowly escape death when the helicopter came into contact with the bridge?
ROBERT DE NIRO: The helicopter pilot didn't want to go too low, because there were rocks on two sides and a narrow passage where the water rushed through. The runners underneath the helicopter caught under the bridge's cable and, without knowing it, the pilot lifted the whole bridge and twisted it around while John Savage and I were hanging from it. It was dangerous. I looked down and shouted "Drop!" and we just dropped. We came up out of the water and saw one of the stunt guys standing on the bridge and lifting the cable off the runner of the helicopter. I thought that was it.

PLAYBOY: You thought you would die?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. I thought the helicopter would drop down on us. That happens in movies; you have to be very, very careful. Nobody plans an accident, and the thing is, sometimes the stunts don't even look like anything on film. Or the shot isn't even used. You could die doing one of those stunts, and when people look at it, they don't even know how dangerous it was.

PLAYBOY: Aside from the occasional brush with death, did you have any hesitations about The Deer Hunter?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. The only thing that I felt was that the Russian-roulette stuff with the Viet Cong shouldn't have been played for money. To play for money in Saigon is one thing, but out in the field, the stakes should have been something else. The money sort of cheapened their reason for being out there. They were fighting for what they believed was right. While we were shooting the scene, I said to Mike Cimino, "The money thing there is not right. It should be for their idea, what they believe in. And it would be stronger, more powerful, more accurate than money."

PLAYBOY: Did you ever say that that was your best performance up to that time?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I never said that. I never said that about any movie. [Stands to leave] Well, I'd say we've accomplished quite a bit.

PLAYBOY: The Deer Hunter has never been shown on network TV, and when it is shown on independent stations, there are often deaths caused by Russian roulettean estimated 28 people killed themselves, according to one finding. Can movies kill?
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Sitting down again] I don't know. I heard that, too. Again, can you tie it to the film? Did they need The Deer Hunter to set that off? I know one thing if I know anything: Those people who shot themselves or others would be predisposed to finding another outlet if they hadn't found it in that film.

PLAYBOY: When you were in Thailand, did you smoke opium?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, I did that in upper Thailand. I can't remember how I felt.

PLAYBOY: During the Sixties, were you involved much in that lifestyle?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Not too much. I was sympathetic, but I wasn't an activist in any sense.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever take LSD?

PLAYBOY: Your name was linked with drugs in Wired, Bob Woodward's book about John Belushi. In the book, Woodward says you had used cocaine with Belushi and were with him the night before he was found dead. How did you feel [De Niro turns off the tape recorder, communicates that he hasn't read the book, doesn't know what it says, doesn't want to know and doesn't want to talk about it.

We just want to straighten out what has already been published. For the record.

ROBERT DE NIRO: I'd rather not. I think it's exploiting something that shouldn't be talked about.

PLAYBOY: You've never talked about it. We're not trying to exploit, just to clarify.
ROBERT DE NIRO: If you say you don't want to exploit it, I think it's something you shouldn't talk about. Maybe later in life I'll talk about it, in a book or something, if I ever even do that. But it's not something I want to talk about now. It's horrible enough what happened to him.

PLAYBOY: Have you considered writing a book?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know about that. [Very definitely wants to leave]

PLAYBOY: We can understand your reluctance to talk about this, but
ROBERT DE NIRO: You just got to. For the record. Yeah?

PLAYBOY: Woodward claimed that there was a scene in a movie Belushi wanted to make that called for him to shoot up heroin. He supposedly went to you to ask you about it, and you thought it was a good idea for him to do it. Any truth to that?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I would never tell anybody to take heroinor any drugto see what it's like. Especially heroin. I would never, ever, ever. I don't know where they got that idea. Those are the kind of things that people hear and they get retold.

PLAYBOY: Do you think about Belushi?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He was great. Great. I admired him so much and I'm so sad, to say the least. Such a wasted situation. Terrible.

PLAYBOY: Were you close friends?
ROBERT DE NIRO: We weren't. We knew each other, respected and liked each other. It wasn't that we hung out so much. People thought we did, but we didn't. His friends were [Dan] Aykroyd and others. Although there were times we spent together.

PLAYBOY: Is it wrong to make a film about his life?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Look, they can do it. I would never say it's wrong. I don't know what it's about or what the slant is. But I find it hard to believe. Maybe it's a very positive film.

PLAYBOY: Could they feature you in it without your permission?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know about that. If there was something that I felt was wrong, I might do something about it. People prey on other people; they have no respect. [Looks at his watch, says he has to go]

PLAYBOY: OK, let's change the subject. Scorsese said there was no one who could surprise him on the screen as you can. Who surprises you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Comedians I love, like Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd. They're all terrific. They surprise me. They do some crazy stuff.

PLAYBOY: Moving back to Raging Bull, Molly Haskell said that La Motta was the meanest, most mystifying, unmotivated antihero ever to grace the screen.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes the movie critic is not sympathetic enough. I never felt that La Motta was an extremely evil person, but these people who don't know enough about him see enough to know that they don't like him. It's like anything. You learn about the Russians, you hear they're the Evil Empire, but then you go there and see that they're people. And that they're terrified of the Americans.

PLAYBOY: Still, with La Motta, even at the end, he's spilling a drink over a politician's wife, he's crude, barbaric. There isn't too much to like about him. It's a brutal portrait, yet audiences are won over by it. Why do you suppose that is?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. There's a certain redemption there, in his relationship with the brother and what they've done to each other. A lot of people go through those experiences. That's nothing compared to the horrible, unmentionable things we read about in the paper every day that people do to others. So unbelievably monstrous. Raging Bull is like a little domestic spat compared to what people can really do to one another.

PLAYBOY: It's more than a spat when Jake nearly kills his brother and his wife with his fists.
ROBERT DE NIRO: He thinks the brother is screwing his wifethat's a betrayal. He lives in a more violent, primitive world.

PLAYBOY: Did you talk much with Jake about that incident?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I tried to ask him every kind of question, but it's hard to get somebody to be straight and honest about himself, because he is not even sure himself. Eventually, it's up to you to say, "OK, we've got what we can. Now make the movie."

PLAYBOY: Sort of like what we're up against with you.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Exactly. That's why I'd rather not do interviews! I'm only going to say some things. I'm not going to go into my lifethat would be ridiculous. What am I going to open up and reveal myself for? Impart certain wisdom in a certain way and you make your own deductions out of that.

PLAYBOY: Well, you've talked about wanting to do movies that are seen in 50 years. But what you say about yourself and your movies may become key reference points. If all that's available is books full of speculations and misquotes, you won't be fairly represented. Wouldn't you like to know more about Kean or Shakespeare?
ROBERT DE NIRO: You didn't read the Playboy Interview with Shakespeare?

PLAYBOY: You know what we're saying. You don't have to do a lot of interviews, but since you are doing this one, at least it could be an answer to the lies and rumors.
ROBERT DE NIRO: There's a time and place for it. What you're doing is good, that I see

PLAYBOY: Hold the compliments; we have a way to go yet. Getting back to La Motta, he thought he was a pretty bad guy and that you helped him change his opinion of himself. What did you tell him?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I just kept repeating in his ear, "You're not so bad, you're not so bad." [Laughs] People did not like him. Jake had done some low-life things that were supposed to be bad, but I felt that the drama in his lifewith the brother and all that stuffwas real. He had to face a lot of problems, problems that a lot of people faced coming out of the Sixties and Seventieswhen you weren't supposed to be feeling jealous or obsessive about someone, and then you realized, "Wait a minute, it is a natural feeling, so why fight it?" Not that you should nourish those feelings, but there was a very primitive, basic way of showing them. The guy was a fighteryou go from here to there, you don't circumvent. He had a real direct way of dealing with things.

PLAYBOY: During the making of the movie, did you ever reflect on why men become boxers?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I did. Some of it may be from abuse as a child. Then they have a lot of street fights and they're good at them and they're smart enough to capitalize on them by getting into fighting.

PLAYBOY: Do you admire Mike Tyson?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He's a great fighter. I just hope that he's born in the right time so he can find opponents. He could be unlucky, born in the wrong time, literally.

PLAYBOY: What about all the turmoil in his life?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It's good that his money is being looked after.

PLAYBOY: Are you in control of your finances?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't even have a quarter in my pocket. You got any money you can lend me? [Opens a small fancy jar of strawberry preserves that came with his toast and coffee, notices a small indentation in the jam] This is what they send! I always send it back when somebody else has used it. I got that the other day on the plane. It's like at boy-scout campafter you've finished eating, they say, "Hand back everything." What wasn't eaten was put back.

PLAYBOY: You were a boy scout?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Once. Anything you didn't eat they took back and re-served. I was about ten or 11.

PLAYBOY: Hard to picture De Niro as a boy scout.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Don't picture me; I wasn't in it too long. It was just a camp I went to for a short period of time.

PLAYBOY: When you were growing up, what movies and which actors caught your attention?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, the Kazan films, A Place in the Sun, Splendor in the Grassthe ending was so good. Dean was terrific. Brando, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Spencer Tracyhe didn't vary a lot, but he had a great sense of truth. And Walter Hustonhe was great in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

PLAYBOY: What about Bogart in that film?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's another kind of thing. Walter Huston was the one who was spectacular. Bogart was something else. [Turns off tape. He is not crazy about Bogart.]

PLAYBOY: Why go off the record about an actor who died more than 30 years ago?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't like saying anything bad about actors.

PLAYBOY: OK, then, let's go back 30 years to your childhood. Legend has it that you played the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz and that's what made you want to be an actor.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was ten when I did that and I was very nervous. It was very exciting. I was a kid.

PLAYBOY: Were you in a lot of school plays?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. My mother did some worktyping and proofreading manuscriptsfor Maria Ley Piscator, the wife of Erwin Piscator, who founded the Dramatic Workshop. She knew I wanted to go to acting school, so in exchange for my mother's work, I began going on Saturdays. It was the biggest acting school in the city at that time. Stella Adler taught there.

PLAYBOY: Was acting class easy for you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: They had so many students in the class, it was hard to get up; you had to try to overcome that. An actor is sensitive as it isshyand the whole point of your doing this is that you want to express yourself. There's a kind of thread there as to why people become actors, and if you're intimidated by the situation and not encouraged, it's not helpful.

PLAYBOY: How did Stella Adler, who also taught Marlon Brando, help you overcome your shyness as a teenager?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Stella Adler had a very good script-breakdown-and-analysis class that no one else was teaching. A lot of people I know took the class; it was just a way of making people aware of character, style, period, and so on. People could sit down in a classroom as opposed to having to get up and demonstrate it.

PLAYBOY: Did you learn a lot from it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Oh, yeah. In fact, that's a class I'd want to take again. It taught me that if you have a very balanced script, you can take from the script without putting anything into something that isn't there. That's what she would call fictionalizingwhich is not real, there's no substance to it, it's not concrete. [Turns off the tape recorder and makes a funny observation about his former teacher]

PLAYBOY: Why give us the setup, then turn the tape recorder off for the punch lines?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to say something against anyone. That bothers people. I don't like it when someone says something negative about me.

PLAYBOY: It was funny, not negative, but we'll let it pass.

Stella Adler's father, Lou Adler, once told Brando that actors should never give 100 percent, they should always give a little less than they have. Can you relate to that?

ROBERT DE NIRO: You can't give what you don't have or what you're not able to give. Once you give up more than what you have, you're lying, you're forcing something. You have to trust yourself and do it as simply as you can. Don't try to bring something that's not there. Some actors do a lot more, and right away, you see it; you see they're trying very hard and it's not credible. Simple is hard.

PLAYBOY: Bruce Willis, who knew we were talking with you, had one question for you about just that: He wanted to know how you keep it fresh and simple.
ROBERT DE NIRO: When I'm working, I believe in rhythms of things. One thing complements another; it's a complete arca beginning, a middle and an end that comes about nicely. Make the point and move on.

PLAYBOY: And what about the transition within a character, such as your murderer turned Jesuit priest in The Mission
ROBERT DE NIRO: That anybody could do anything, that there are all kinds of contradictions in lifethat's not a problem. It's like the prostitute who becomes a nun.

PLAYBOY: Interesting analogy. You once said that you wanted to feel that you've earned the right to play a character. What did you mean?
ROBERT DE NIRO: To have done enough research on the character to feel that you have the right to play that character the way you see itbringing what you've experienced, what you've learned, making it your own.

An actor hears these words all the time: "Make it your own, make it your own." Stella Adler would say, "Your talent lies in your choice." It's one thing to know that, it sounds great; it's another thing to really feel it. And then you have the right to do it.

PLAYBOY: You've been known to go pretty far in making characters your own. For example, early in your career, you appeared as one of Shelley Winters' boys in Bloody Mama, when, according to Winters, you lay in an open grave after your character was dead, even though you couldn't be seen on camera. Why go so far?
ROBERT DE NIRO: What happened was, people broke for lunch and I was just lying in that state without getting up. It seemed like an easy thing to do and I wanted to help the actors, because once they saw me like that, they were forced to deal with it.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever surprised yourself when you've been working?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes, and that's a good feeling. When you get that, you've got to really ride with it. Sometimes, when I do something that I think is really funny, I break up and start laughing, because it feels so good. Then I get so mad at myself for breaking up, because the rhythm felt so rightI was right thereand if I'd held out just a little longer and not broken up, I wouldn't have ruined the take. That happened during Midnight Run, between me and Charles Grodin. I knew it was perfect, just perfect.

PLAYBOY: Do you remember your first experience before the cameras?
ROBERT DE NIRO: There was some little thing I did that I don't know whatever happened to. Some walk-on for an independent film: I walked in and ordered a drink at a bar.

I remember a bunch of other young actors hanging around, moaning and bitching, all made up, with pieces of tissue in their collars; it was the kind of thing you always hear about actorswhere they're just silly or vain, complaining back and forth, walking around primping, not wanting to get the make-up on their shirts.

PLAYBOY: So you didn't exactly feel as if you had found a home.
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn't want to be around those people at all. I just walked in and walked out. I was nervous, though, just to say the line "Gimme a drink." It makes me think of that joke: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" You know that joke?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I'm surprised you never heard it; it's a famous actor's joke.

This guy hasn't acted in about 15 years, because he always forgets his lines, so finally he has to give it up. He's working in a gas station and gets a phone call from someone saying that they want him for a Shakespearean playall he has to do is say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" He says, "Well, God, I don't know." The director says, "Look, it'll be OK. You'll get paid and everything." So he says, "OK, I'll do it." The play has five acts and he has to go on in the third act and say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" That's all he has to do. So he rehearses it when he's in his apartment: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" Every variation, every possible emphasis. They're into rehearsal, and he's got it written on his mirror: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And so on. Finally, comes opening night, first act, no problem. Second act, things go fine. Audience applauds. Stage manager says, "You have five minutes for the third act." He tells him to get backstage. His time comes, he runs out, muttering to himself, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And as he runs out, he hears a big brrrooooom!! Turns around and says, "What the fuck was that?"

PLAYBOY: We knew if you gave this enough time, you'd loosen up.

Moving on: In 1981, you and Harvey Keitel were put up against a wall in Rome as the police aimed machine guns at you, then threw you into jail. Want to explain?

ROBERT DE NIRO: We weren't thrown into jail. The paparazzi in Italy are the worst. They're so bad, you have to laugh at them. They were chasing us in a cab and we couldn't get away from them. It was then that I learned something: It's hard to escape, especially in Rome, where people drive up one-way streets the wrong way and don't care about lights. Finally, the police came by and the cabdriver told them to stop those people behind us, that they had been following us. Then we made a U-turn and drove away. A couple of minutes later, the cops were behind us with their sirens and lights going. They stopped us, got us out, they had machine guns on us, put us up against the wall, and the paparazzi were right behind them, taking pictures of the whole thing. So I said to them, "You got what you want, right?" Then the chief of police came over to me and said, "I take all the cameras; put them over there. Don't worry, no problem." And I said, "Yeah, this I'll believe." They took us to the station. They didn't put us in jail, we just sat around and talked. One or two of the cops were so stupid and belligerent, saying, "Ah, so you were in this movie, acting like a bully," talking about Taxi Driver. They finally let us go.

In the station, we were arguing with the paparazzi, saying they had no right to bother us. They were saying they had a right to take a picture. Those guys were actually arguing thatthey're the slimiest people who ever lived.

PLAYBOY: Did the pictures ever appear in the newspapers?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, two days later, in a London paper. There we were, up against the wall. And the cop had told me no problem. The paparazzi know every angle. They show you a phony roll of film and pocket the real one; it's an art with them.

PLAYBOY: Do you think you could ever play a paparazzo?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I thought of it. See, it's one thing to take pictures. I say, "Go ahead, take." But in Italy, they don't know when to stop. They have no respect. No respect. You feel battered. You say, "Boys, enough." But it's an incessant barrage of flashbulbs. They're just vultures.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever gotten violent with a photographer?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A couple of times. I took a camera away from one. It's a very distressing feeling. They're like jackals, they prey on you. It makes you feel very bad about people. Can't they find a better occupation? It's fascinating to me to think what would make people want to do that for a living.

PLAYBOY: Compare autograph hounds and groupieswhich you studied for King of Comedywith paparazzi.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Some of the people I used to run into before I did King of Comedy I used in the film. It was funny. I'd see them and say, "Wait, give me your name, we'll call you." These people are fascinated with celebrities, famous people. Some of them who do that when they're younger become professional photographers or gossip columnists when they're older.

Sometimes there's an anger or rage or hostility there. Like in the scene with Jerry Lewis, when the woman says, "Jerry, can you just say hello to my son on the phone?" He tries to say no and she says, "You should get cancer!" That was from an actual story that he had told us. He was about to go on in Las Vegas and a woman was at a pay phone and asked him that, and he said, "I'm going on, I can't." So she turned a whole different color, did an about-face and said that to him, which is sort of funny, in a way, but still....

PLAYBOY: There's a story that you got Lewis angry for a scene by saying anti-Semitic things to him, just to push his buttons.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know if I said anything anti-Semitic. I might have said something to really bust his balls.

PLAYBOY: Lewis also supposedly invited you to dinner once, but you didn't want to go, because you didn't think he would invite Rupert Pupkin to dinner.
ROBERT DE NIRO: It would make sense not to have dinner with the kind of intensity and relationship we'd builtwhich you don't want to soften.

PLAYBOY: Did you like Rupert Pupkin?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I had fun doing him. I always had a spindly image of him with those white shoes, like a cartoon. I can't explain; it's an image I had in my head.

PLAYBOY: An animal image?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He was some kind of bird. Gawky. A bird whose neck goes out as he walks.

PLAYBOY: A chicken?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A chicken! Exactly.

PLAYBOY: Did you want Meryl Streep for Masha, the role Sandra Bernhard played?
ROBERT DE NIRO: They asked Meryl, yeah. I thought she'd be terrific, because she is very funny. She's wonderful and she does funny stuff like pratfalls. She's got a great sense of humor. In fact, later on, when we were doing Falling in Love, we used to make fun of the scriptwell, not make fun of it, but read it in a different way, soap-opera it up.

Anyway, Meryl went up and talked with Marty, but she wasn't interested, wasn't disposed to it. And Sandra was terrific.

PLAYBOY: Perhaps Sandra worked so well partly because she was a complete unknown. It seems that with you, Brando and Pacino, your best films are often ones in which your co-stars aren't as well known as you are. Do you have any thoughts on that?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I could say what I think it is. I know what it is, but it's something I should talk about later in life, not now. [Gives a look: Enough, already! Wants to go]

PLAYBOY: A number of your films have been severely edited because the studios thought they weren't working. Once upon a Time in America was shown in two versions, because the flashbacks in the longer one seemed too confusing for U.S. audiences and it was changed accordingly.
ROBERT DE NIRO: They tried to make it a linear picture, which never worked. I understand why [director] Sergio [Leone] didn't come back to the U.S. and deal with it, confront them, fight for it, say, "Listen, this is the way it has to be. I'll give you this, but I want to take that." That's really what you have to do. It's like having a child: You don't want somebody to come in and fool with it.

PLAYBOY: Some consider the film almost a Jewish version of The Godfather.
ROBERT DE NIRO: It might have been. It was about gangsters and it was a saga. Sergio told me the story in two installments over seven hours.

PLAYBOY: He got you to sit still for seven hours?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I sat and listened through a translator. He told the story almost shot by shot, with the flashbacks, and it was beautiful. I said, "This is something that I'd like to be part of."

PLAYBOY: What did you know about Jewish gangsters before you made the film?
ROBERT DE NIRO: This and that. I talked with a lot of people and got a picture of it. I realized there were a lot more Jewish gangsters than we'd heard of. We hear the names Legs Diamond and Bugsy Siegel, but there's actually a long list of Jewish gangstersas many famous Jewish gangsters as there are Italian.

PLAYBOY: Leone felt that the director came first, before the writer. Do you agree?
ROBERT DE NIRO: In movies, it's basically true. The director has to construct the house. He's the architect and he also has to be the builder. He has to realize it in real terms, to make it exist. But if you follow a blueprint literally, it's impossibleyou're not allowing for weather, you're not allowing for a tilt in the earth. So you have to compensate for all those things. Otherwise, you're not allowing it to live and breathe on its journey. If it's too locked in by the writer, it's impossible. You have to have that freedom. You have to be able to make adjustments.

PLAYBOY: You taught Leone a lesson in collaboration: He said that for the first time, he had to follow an actor's ideas without destroying his own. How much of a collaboration was it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: We had a good understanding. For a director, he gave me a lot of freedom, in his own way. Sometimes I would say something like, "You can't have this kind of telephone booth in America at that time," and he'd listen to what I thought.

But ultimately, he had his own vision of America, and there are certain things that were off, that were askew. It all added up eventually and the American audience started getting a little glassy-eyed and lost interest. That was one concern of mine: that it was going to have an alien feeling, even though it was supposed to be shot in America. A lay audience can't put their finger on it, but they know something is not right and that distances them from it.

PLAYBOY: How did Leone work differently from other directors?
ROBERT DE NIRO: European or Italian directors sometimes tell you how to do it. They say, "You go over there and you do this or that." American actors don't like that, they want to find it for themselves, they don't want to be told where to go.

But Sergio was very smart and clever and respectful enough not to do that in my case. As I got to know him better, I could see he had a style in his head and began to realize what kind of movie he was making, so I'd ask him to demonstrate a way, a movement, a reactionbecause he had the style. Nobody knew it better than he did.

PLAYBOY: When Leone was asked to compare you with his spaghetti Western star, Clint Eastwood, he said you didn't belong in the same profession with Eastwood. He said you put on a personality the way someone else might put on a coatnaturally and with elegance. He said you were an actor, Eastwood was a star; you suffered, Eastwood yawned.
ROBERT DE NIRO: You can't ask me a question about that, because I'm not going to say anything. [Turns off tape recorder, looks at his watch]

PLAYBOY: Leone said that actors are like children: trusting, narcissistic, capricious. Do you agree with that?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That could be true in some situations. When I work with a director, it does become sort of a parental thing. But at the same time, it's an equal, collaborative effort. You respect them and you're loyal. I don't like to waste time bickering, arguing, playing games. It's a waste of energy and it takes too long to make a movie.

PLAYBOY: Is it that way with you often: arguing, bickering, no respect?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, not at all. I avoid it, I know who I work with, try to get a feeling about their work, who they are, and I'll trust somebody more because of what he gives, even if there are things he's done that I'm not too crazy about. I'll think, This time is really the one that they're gonna do it. I always want to think that it's going to be their moment of greatness and I'm going to be part of it. And that I like.

PLAYBOY: Is Once upon a Time in America one of those films that will be remembered in 50 years?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. It's the kind of movie that maybe I'll look at one day and say, "Well, it wasn't bad."

PLAYBOY: Do you feel that way about Brazil?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I liked the script and I wanted to be part of it. That will be remembered in years to come, no matter what you think of it. It's a movie from someplacesomething that's said in [director] Terry Gilliam's own eccentric way, something that I responded to.

PLAYBOY: Your part as a manic heating engineer was a small role. You and Jack Nicholson seem to be the only major stars who will take such parts without worrying about losing your big-star appeal.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I'll do a cameo if I like it and I don't have to carry the whole movie. I can concentrate on just that, it's more fun and I don't have the pressure.

PLAYBOY: Is that what interested you about playing Louis Cyphre, the Devil, in Alan Parker's Angel Heart?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I just wanted to do it; it was more like an exercise. I thought it would be fun and I wouldn't have to carry the whole movie. I liked [director] Alan Parker. He offered me the other part, but I felt there was something wrong with the script.

PLAYBOY: You're not alone. John Huston thought the first four fifths of Angel Heart was one of the best films he had ever seen but that it fell apart in the end.
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's what I felt. There was a very, very strong texture to itwhat you hoped forbut if some things aren't there structurally, they've got to be worked out. It has to have a certain kind of payoff that comes together, and if it's not there, it's not easy to come up with an idea to fix it.

PLAYBOY: Then there was your ten-minute portrayal of Al Capone in The Untouchables. You had a certain fascination with that role, didn't you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He's a bigger-than-life character and I liked the way it was written in the film. I had told Brian De Palma that I would consider doing Capone if it was ever written right. I'd seen it done other times and I didn't particularly care for the way it was done.

PLAYBOY: You didn't like Paul Muni's original Scarface?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I thought it was awful. He's the biggest ham. It was so hammy. You could see he was possibly a great stage actor, but a lot of his movies were over the top. Like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

PLAYBOY: What about Pacino's Scarface?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, that's a different thing. In fact, I wanted to do a remake of Scarface with Marty, then Pacino told me that he was thinking of doing it. I said to him, "If you don't do it, I'm gonna do it." But I would have done it the way it was written, not the way they did it.

PLAYBOY: Bob Hoskins was signed to play Capone, but you took over the role instead. What happened?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I felt I had gone through a lot of aggravation, too, so that as long as they had paid him and it hadn't gone too far, I felt it was OK to take the role.

PLAYBOY: How much weight did you put on for Capone?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Twenty-three to 25 pounds. I couldn't gain any more weight, like the other time I would never do that again.

PLAYBOY: Did you have any animal in mind for him?
ROBERT DE NIRO: [David] Mamet wrote him so wellthe rhythm was so strong and consistentthat a lot of it was already there in the writing. For me, the most important physical thing was my face. I could always put a body suit on, but I didn't want to put appliances on my face, taking six hours to put them on and just look funny. I wanted to get as much weight onto my face as I could first and then make adjustments with the body suit and recede my hairline to round out the face some more. The only thing I didn't get was a recordingthere's none of his voice, as far as I know. Getting the voice is the most difficult thing.

PLAYBOY: Who was a tougher guyCapone or La Motta?
ROBERT DE NIRO: La Motta was tougher, without question; he was a fighter. Capone might have been ruthless, but he was more of a politician, more able to deal with people; he had to run an empire. And yet he instilled a lot of fear so people wouldn't double-cross him.

PLAYBOY: Speaking of empires, you've met a number of world leaders. What was your impression of Mikhail Gorbachev?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I met him at the Russian embassy in Washington. There were 80 to 100 people there. I would have liked to have said something, but I didn't.

In Russia, they get up and make toasts, get a little drunk on vodkait's very nice and very warm, they say beautiful things, everybody brings out the best in everybody. It would have been nice to do that, but it was a more formal kind of thing. I felt like we were in school. You don't want to get up and make a schmuck of yourself, say a stupid thing. A couple of people said thingspeople from all walks of life, famous scientists, philosophers, writers, actors, politicians. I was listening. [Laughs]

PLAYBOY: Do any people give off an aura?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, Presidents. It's a thing that comes with age, years of experience, that sort of situation. There are people who become so well known that they become part of another layer of your consciousness.

PLAYBOY: So whom would you be fascinated to meet. Garbo, for instance?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, but she was a wonderful actress. I'd meet her if she wanted to. [Pauses] I've got to go.

PLAYBOY: Do people get nervous around you when they first meet you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. Sometimes people can hide the way they are and you don't notice it. It's like with my daughter: She was always screaming, ranting and raving about this particular person, and I would tell her to shut up and stop bothering me about him. So one day, she met him and she was so cool, I couldn't believe the way she acted. But it taught me something. If I didn't know how she had acted before, I never would have known at all what was going on inside her head.

PLAYBOY: Springsteen?

PLAYBOY: Does your daughter live with you or her mother?
ROBERT DE NIRO: My daughter lives alone. She's 20.

PLAYBOY: And who takes care of your 11 year-old son, Raphael?
ROBERT DE NIRO: His mother. He might live with me. I spend a lot of time with him. I took him to New Zealand when we were shooting Midnight Run.

PLAYBOY: Do you let him see all of your filmsRaging Bull, Taxi Driver?
ROBERT DE NIRO: They see them anyway, they see them on cable. Kids have a whole other culture. He goes into a toy store and starts talking like an expert about a bunch of toysthe skate boards, the bikes, the GI Joes, the Nintendosthey know all that stuff. [Taps watch]

PLAYBOY: What TV series did you grow up with?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I didn't like Howdy Doody or Mickey Mouse. I liked The Three Stooges.

PLAYBOY: Thinking that your son may read this one day, what can you say about his mother, Diahnne Abbott, that's positive?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Something positive? How come you asked that question? That's OK, I'm just curious about why you asked it.

PLAYBOY: Because if we ask it any other way, you're not going to answer it.
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Laughs, nods] What happens is that people distort things and it goes back to the kids in school and what are you gonna do? People who create those kinds of situations have no fucking shame, no guilt. I don't know what makes those people do it. Money? You can do a lot of things for money. But to feed off the worst kind of negative shit, propagate itthat's awful.

PLAYBOY: So, you were about to say about Diahnne ...? [De Niro goes to turn off the tape recorder.]

Leave it on!

ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I've got to go.

PLAYBOY: You've been going ever since you started this interview. Let's just finish and be done with it.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well...she and I are friends.... She's very perceptive about people...almost psychically perceptive...and a good friend....

PLAYBOY: Where does she live?
ROBERT DE NIRO: In New York. I really gotta go.

PLAYBOY: Hang in there, we're almost through. Weren't you once kicked out of The Beverly Hills Hotel because you sneaked in four cats?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, I had cats in there and they had this policy.... The manager was.... I've heard they have hookers running all around the pool, and yet when you have cats.... I was told not to have cats, but I did and they locked us out. They put a padlock on the door and put the cats outside. I was furious. The manager threatened to call the police in front of me. We had to put the cats in a cat house.

PLAYBOY: What were you doing traveling with four cats?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was with my wife at the time and she had cats. We were going out there to work on a film, so I had the cats with me. It was totally uncalled for, that type of behavior. You have somebody say, "Listen, we'd like you to do something with the cats, we can't have them." But this was at night, we got home at midnight and they had locked us out. I wanted to suehe was a pig. It looked like he enjoyed being a son of a bitch. I don't think he's there anymore.

PLAYBOY: We haven't asked you about your father, who's an established avant-garde painter. Are you two close?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah...we're close.... [Looks at watch] What else?

PLAYBOY: It is true that you gave Francis Ford Coppola two of your father's paintings for his birthday?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah; he's very, very touchy about that stuff, so I have to convince him that the person I'm giving them to is worthy. It's about as nice a gift as you can give. [Rises to leave]

PLAYBOY: Martin Scorsese originally wanted you for Christ in his controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ. Any regrets for not having done it?

PLAYBOY: There's talk about you and Quincy Jones codirecting a musical movie starting Whitney Houston.
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's a good question. [Turns off tape recorder. Communicates his discomfort at talking about these things; wrong mood] I know that the Directors Guild has a problem with that. We had to go before the D.G.A. and explain our reasoning. They weren't for it, but I thought it was interesting, because then they could ask us questions that would make us think about why we wanted to do it together.

But I can't answer that nowmy mind is not focused. I've really got to go. I have things I want to say to balance what I've said already, but I'm late. I'm very late. God, I'm late.

PLAYBOY: For what?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Some people are coming over; I don't want to be late.

PLAYBOY: What people?

PLAYBOY: Friends will understand if you're late. You're always late.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Not if nobody's at the door.

PLAYBOY: It seems odd: Here you are at the pinnacle of your career, yet you are always on the move; you don't seem to have control of your life.
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Practically out the door] You're right, I should take more control of my life! I haven't any time to relax, for myself. Geez, it's already 7:15!

PLAYBOY: No, it's not. It's only seven. Why is your watch 15 minutes fast?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That way I won't be late. [We laugh. He leaves.]

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