I Once Met… Robert De Niro

Everyone knows about Hollywood stars. We know that behind their shiny smiles and American teeth, there lurk monster egos beset with attention deficit and anger issues, given to babyish tantrums and absurd religious cults. Even if it’s all kisses on the red carpet, behind the scenes there are invariably mobile telephones being hurled at cowering assistants. Then again, there are some Hollywood stars so brooding, so suggestive of ill-suppressed anger and psychotic menace, that they barely even manage the public persona part. Jack Nicolson comes to mind, as does Nick Nolte. But right at the top of this category I would have put the scary, saturnine star of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Meet The Parents: Robert de Niro.

Back in the 1990s I was on a flying trip to New York, part of an attempt to sell a screenplay to some Hollywood studio. It was my husband’s screenplay, so my only function was to be what politicians call “room meat” which means ligging along to bulk out a meeting. A meeting was being set up with Robert de Niro’s production company and while we waited for it to materialise, all I had to do was hang around in the trendy Tribeca area of the city, chatting to the junior producers and marvelling at their enormous, picture window lofts the size of basketball courts, with limed oak flooring and just one sofa right in the middle. I also found myself singing the Bananarama hit, Robert de Niro’s Waiting, Talking Italian, in an annoying loop.

The producers loved De Niro, and spoke respectfully of his awesome talents, of his ability to produce and direct films as well as act in them. I have to say I fished shamelessly for gossip. De Niro is known as one of Hollywood’s most private stars. He rarely gives interviews and when he does he rules great chunks of his life off-limits. Though most of the roles he takes are borderline psychotics, little is known about his personal behaviour traits. Sadly hardly any gossip was forthcoming, except the tale that when de Niro had heard of the Bananarama song, he had rung their London council flat and arranged to meet the girls for dinner, but they got so nervous that by the time he arrived, they were blind drunk. Somehow, I knew how they felt.

Soon it emerged that de Niro loved the screenplay. He felt the lead part could have been made for him. He had green-lighted a meeting and we were invited to visit the star in his office.
TriBeCa Productions occupies an impressive office block in Lower Manhattan. As we entered reception and waited for his people to come and find us, a commotion occurred. Outside in the street a huge stretch limousine had pulled up and half a dozen frightening bouncers, wearing dinner jackets and telephone headsets, were thrusting people out of the way. Onlookers gawped. Out of the car stepped a curly-haired, brown skinned woman in a white trouser suit who proceeded through the protective wall of bouncers to the far wall of the lobby where the lift doors were being held. Quite a crowd had gathered and in order to facilitate her regal progress everyone else was shoved brutally out of the way. In the crush I was pushed back and felt my foot crunch painfully on that of an anonymous little guy wearing a donkey jacket and flat cap. Apologising profusely, we exchanged wry smiles and he said: “Looks like it must a real big star!”
It was Whitney Houston, as it turned out. But the real star, of course, was Robert de Niro.

Later, over a meal at the Japanese restaurant he owns, which is a sister joint to London’s Nobu, I sat next to him. He appeared rather shy, until the subject strayed, somewhat uncoolly, onto children. He demanded my baby snaps and showed me his. We talked about his father and his love of art. A nicer, more decent and civilised superstar it would be hard to imagine. And when we had said goodbye, he pulled on his cap and donkey jacket, stepped onto the sidewalk and became instantly anonymous, just another slightly shabby little man, melting straight into the crowd. At no point, I have to report, did he talk Italian.