ROBERT De NIRO
Robert De Niro certainly needs no introduction.
(And to his inner sanctum, the Manhattan native is Bobby).
Nor should Alec Baldwin.
In October of 2018, in the season premiere of ABC’s The Alec Baldwin Show — also known as Sundays with Alec Baldwin, and the first prime-time personality talk show to air on a major broadcast network since NBC’s The Jay Leno Show ended its run in 2010 — Baldwin hosted De Niro as a featured guest.
(In the interest of full disclosure, the show aired for just one season).
The two schmoozed about old, tired stuff we’ve heard a bazillion times before, such as how De Niro gained weight for Raging Bull; whether or not he enjoyed directing; and building the intricate framework of his legendary acting technique.
With a pair of firecrackers like these two, exchanging the amenities in a dignified yet milquetoast-ish fashion, was destined to last only for so long.
About 25 minutes into the program, the simmering came to a full boil.
Baldwin addressed De Niro’s outspoken criticism of President Trump, including a viral 2016 PSA for the #VoteYourFuture campaign, in which the iconic actor called Trump an “idiot” and a “con.”
Then, to underscore his feelings, De Niro confessed that he’d “like to punch him in the face.”
[Sidebar: I’d pay good money to see that.]
“I’m so offended by this person — and by the Republicans in general, and how they’ve behaved, and we see it with the Kavanaugh thing going on right now,” De Niro told Baldwin.
“And when I see [Trump], I know what he is, because everything he says about other people — you’re a loser, you’re a this, you’re a that — is everything he’s saying about himself. He’s so transparent; he’s projecting.”
The soon-to-be octogenarian “Raging Bull” was just warming up, getting loose.
“I’ve just never seen anything like it,” he added, shaking his head in bewilderment and disbelief.
“And I’ve seen a lot in this world, and the years that I’ve been around, but this is totally surreal, and I felt that I had to say something — whatever I can say, whatever influence I can have, I don’t know. But it’s infuriating with this guy.”
And this is 2020; blood pressure rising.
De Niro and Trump are chronological contemporaries, the former 77 and Trump 74.
They both have sniffed plenty of dough.
And that’s where the similarities between the two, begin and end.
De Niro has it — the dough and everything else — and The Donald?
Most probably, nyet.
And soon, perhaps even less.
As the sit-down further unfolded, with a little prodding from Baldwin, De Niro took aim at the Republican Party as a whole.
His feelings about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh, being jammed through despite a number of sexual assault allegations lodged against him, were clear.
“I saw Jeff Flake (R-AZ) at the Global Citizens thing the other day at Central Park, and I said, ‘You’re an American hero. What you’ve done is heroic,’” he recalled.
De Niro was referring to the widely disseminated exchange in an elevator before the door was to close, with a young woman — and other women — he had never met before and likely will never see again.
The woman (women) excoriated Flake, explaining that his support of Kavanaugh did nothing but denigrate women and their bodies.
Flake changed his mind, announcing that he wouldn’t vote for the nominee on the floor without an FBI investigation into allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted someone in high school.
Ultimately, he voted to confirm him.
De Niro’s take?
“That’s a guy with feelings. He’s actually conflicted. You can see it with the ladies [who confronted him] in the elevator. And I don’t understand why some of these Republicans aren’t like, ‘I’m out of here.’”
He wound it down this way:
“Many of these people who are now with Trump are going to be tainted for the rest of their lives,” he continued. “They think they want to be with him and it’s going to give them something, but they are paying such a price [in] making a deal with the devil.
Robert De Niro has made 100 movies or so, and most if not all of the characters he plays, don’t scare easy.
Not only did he star in an extended run of unforgettable films, but he dominated them, showcasing the kind of performances which elevated method acting to the most rarified air.
He got a New York cab license for Taxi Driver; he learned Italian and lived in Sicily to prepare for The Godfather Part II; he put on 60 lbs to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull; he mastered both the Latin Mass for his part in True Confessions and the saxophone for his role in New York, New York.
He was the hardest-working actor in Hollywood.
And the coolest.
The mohawk, aviator shades and M65 field jacket he rocked as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver defined style for the punk generation in much the same way that James Dean’s quiff and red Harrington or Marlon Brando’s biker jacket did for rock ’n ’roll.
De Niro was New York and New York was De Niro from the early ’70s on.
In the mid-’70s New York was broke.
The city applied to the federal government (and US president Gerald Ford) for a bailout and was summarily denied, opening the door for the Daily News to print, arguably, it’s greatest-ever front page banner headline which ran, “Ford To City — Drop Dead.”
New York was dirty, dangerous and cheap, the last “blemish” making it a hotbed of artistic creativity.
Power outages and looting seemed to spawn punk, rap — think “The Trammps” — and street art, giving birth to the rise of the Greene Street Collective and in the late-’70s, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
De Niro found himself in the middle of — and a product of — this artistic blooming, blossoming and flowering.
In his first decade as an established actor, he delivered a handful of performances that seemed to define the city throughout the 20th century, and pay homage to the place that created him.
He was Vito Corleone around the end of WWI, making people offers they couldn’t refuse, and played the less celebrated but no less brilliant Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America, scaling the crime ladder in Depression-era NYC.
Jake LaMotta — the Bronx Bull — rose and fell in the 1940s and ’50s, while Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, made blowing up mailboxes for kicks in late-’60s Little Italy, look like a blast.
And Travis Bickle — soundtracked by Bernard Herrmann’s score infused with apprehension and impending doom — who would venture north of Central Park at whatever time of night, any night.
De Niro did New York and he was New York.
Invariably, he collaborated with great writers and directors regularly, with brilliant results.
And yet, when people consider his work in the 21st century, furr flies.
They cite this dud or that whiff of mediocrity and talk about him “sullying” his reputation; they don’t want to see the greatest actor of his generation stumbling and going out like Willie Mays in 1973.
He’s made some not-so-good films in the last 20 years, but why should that detract from his epic efforts of the previous 30?
(Incidentally, the scorecard of the last two decades includes Meet The Parents, Limitless, Being Flynn, The Good Shepherd [also directed by De Niro], The Irishman, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joker, and What Just Happened, to name several. Not too shabby in a relative down cycle).
Does his appearance in Dirty Grandpa somehow negatively influence Taxi Driver, in any way?
Admittedly, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle had negative-number-line value, but so what?
There is no blueprint for an actor who has had a legendary Hollywood career of nearly fifty years, just as there is no compass to point in the right direction — or in any — for Mick Jagger, the 76-year-old frontman of the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.
You make it up as you go along and try to keep the missteps to a minimum.
In a rare insight to his working methods, De Niro once said, “My joy as an actor is to live different lives without risking the real-life consequences.”
And he knows plenty about “real-life,” his rise to stardom anything but preordained.
He struggled like mad before his breakthrough in Mean Streets (1973) when he was thirty.
Robert De Niro stayed the course and has starred in more classic films than any actor alive.
If only, he could straighten out Trump.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in November 2020.]