For over fifty years, Robert De Niro has stood atop the acting profession. The man behind countless iconic roles, who has made his mark on cinema history starring in some of the greatest films of all time, De Niro has had the sort of career that young actors dream of. His accolades include two Oscars, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There’s no denying that De Niro’s career has been nothing short of marvelous.
De Niro’s success has not been by luck or accident. He’s an extremely skilled performer, capable of portraying a great range of characters, from a ruthless mafia boss in “Goodfellas” to an obsessive wannabe comedian in “The King of Comedy.” No matter the role, De Niro has a way of putting on extremely layered and complex performances. His acting is so respected that entire books have been written about it. While show business is nowhere close to a meritocracy, De Niro has the level of talent where it seems like he was always bound to rise to the top.
Like most artists, De Niro spent years and years honing his craft, learning a variety of acting styles from many great teachers. In a 2012 Interview Magazine interview, De Niro credited his impeccable acting education to his very supportive parents, who enabled him to pursue his goal with the effort and tenacity with which he did.
The son of two accomplished painters, De Niro grew up in Manhattan, raised by his mother, Virginia Admiral, after his parents separated when his father, Robert De Niro Sr., came out as gay. De Niro was interested in acting from a young age, starting acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop when he was as young as ten. According to De Niro in the Interview piece, it was his parents’ support and connections that landed him at such a prestigious acting school at such a young age:
“They were both supportive. They would never tell me no. My mother worked for a woman, Maria Ley-Piscator, who with her husband founded the Dramatic Workshop, which was connected to the New School. My mother did proofreading and typing and stuff for her, and as part of her payment, I was able to take acting classes there on Saturdays when I was 10. This couple had come out of Germany, and the guy went back, but his wife stayed and ran the workshop. It was a big school with a lot of actors, some of whom were able to study acting on the G.I. Bill. Brando and Steiger went there, the generation before me.”
As the child of two people who were successful in the arts, De Niro was definitely at an advantage. His parents were able to leverage their connections in order to give him access to the best possible education in acting, at a school where even the legendary Marlon Brando had studied. But his time at the Dramatic Workshop was only the first stop on his acting journey.
Working With Adler
When De Niro was 15, he had another excellent opportunity. He began studying with Stella Adler at the Conservatory of Acting. The list of actors who studied under Adler is long and impressive, with names like Steve McQueen, Elaine Stritch, and Harvey Keitel among them. Many of her acting techniques are still taught today, and De Niro took a lot from his time working with her, which he spoke about in the Interview interview.
“Stella Adler prided herself on teaching the Stanislavsky Method the way it should be, according to her, and I must say I agree with her standpoint. My feelings were, use a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and whatever works for you as an actor is fine.”
The Stanislavsky Method is a famous approach to acting developed by Konstatin Stanislavski, which is based on the idea that an actor should imagine themselves experiencing the situation their character is in in order to elicit more authentic emotional reactions and physical performances. This means lots of preparation, rehearsal, and research goes into these roles in order for the actor to completely understand a character’s motivations.
De Niro’s time with Adler seems to have had a major impact on his career and his acting method. De Niro famously drove an actual taxi cab in preparation for his role in “Taxi Driver” and learned some saxophone for his role in “New York, New York” according to a 1981 interview he did with Michael Parkinson. In the same interview, he explains how his research gives him the confidence to not over-act, allowing him to better play situations “straight” in scenes.
Making It Personal
De Niro’s work with Adler was by no means the end of his theatrical education. He would study at the Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio at 18 as well as at the HB Studio before beginning his movie career, where all his training paid off as he quickly proved himself to be a star in the making with his well-received performance in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” in which he played his first major lead role.
And while De Niro would learn much more from his time working with some of the film medium’s greats, including his legendary partnership with Martin Scorsese, De Niro has maintained that one of the most important duties of an actor is to make each role their own, something he spoke about in a 1991 interview.
“You realize you have to make it work for yourself. It’s like reading a script that’s so good that you wanna say the lines exactly the way they are, but you have to realize that sometimes you have to have a little flexibility in order to make it more personal.”
The sum of all of this learning and practice has clearly paid off, as De Niro is now the kind of actor that other great actors look up to. And to think, it all started with the unwavering support of his parents.
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Author: Matt Rainis
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November 25, 2022