Pop quiz, hotshot: what do you know about Robert De Niro? What actually comes to mind? Probably something like Taxi Driver, or The Godfather Part II, or any De Niro/Scorsese classics and stuff like Meet the Parents. But when you think about Robert De Niro, you mostly think that he is one the greatest actors of all time, a New York icon, a guy who has a lot of businesses, be it good restaurants or the Tribeca Film festival and… that’s it, really. His personal life is his personal life, and he’s a terrible interview anyway, so what is there to know about the guy? I worked for Tribeca Enterprises for two years, and I was in the same room as “Bob” once. He gave a sheepish wave to the company. He’s shy.
HBO’s short documentary, Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr., premiering on Monday, June 9th, is fascinating in its way, since it features an iconic artist opening up about his life and his family. A passion project for De Niro Jr., it’s an effort to tell the world about his dad, Robert De Niro, Sr., an artist form the New York School who was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. (On WNYC, Deborah Solomon reviews De Niro, Sr.’s work.)
There’s vintage footage of De Niro, Sr. in his Soho studio, painting. There are photos of De Niro, Sr. as a young father with a sweet-cheeked baby “Bob” in overall shorts. De Niro reads from his dad’s journal, in which his father was honest about his feelings and shame over his sexuality and attraction to men — his parents divorced when he was young, and De Niro, Sr. moved out. Other artists give testimony regarding De Niro, Sr.’s use of color and vivid work. De Niro gets emotional talking about his dad’s demons and his legacy. “To me, he was always a great artist,” says the actor. It’s heady realizing that some of De Niro’s genius may come from his artistic family (his mother was the painter Virginia Admiral) from, in some way, trying to carry on a legacy for his father.