Robert De Niro: Me & My Gay Dad


By Jerry Portwood

The legendary actor shares the story of his father, an artist who struggled for recognition as the city changed around him

Pictured: Robert De Niro in repose on a divan in his father's SoHo studio. | Photography by Platon


I think people may be curious because, in a way, you are coming out for your father. He may not have been hiding his lifestyle or who he was, but it’s not something that is common knowledge.
I felt I had to. I felt obligated. It was my responsibility to make a documentary about him. I was always planning on doing it, but never did. Then Jane Rosenthal, my partner at Tribeca [Enterprises], said, “We should start doing that now.” It was not intended to be on HBO. It was just something I wanted to do.

I had footage from a guy who used to follow my father around in the ’70s. We started with that. I bought it from him and gave the footage to Thelma Schoonmaker, who was Marty Scorsese’s editor. I asked her what she could do with it, and she assembled it and put it together — it was falling apart. Then we started the documentary [with director Perri Peltz], really working, using pieces that would make sense. My original idea was to do it for the kids, about my father — whatever it would be. I didn’t know how long it would be. The thing with HBO is, I felt they would be objective about certain things. I said, “Let’s see what we come up with.”

Is there a piece of your father’s that’s your favorite?
Oh, I have a lot. I have Venice by Night at my house. I love the ones at Locanda Verde, at the grill upstairs on the second floor. There are a lot of black-and-whites that are terrific. I like the delicacy of them, the refinement. They have a certain kind of clarity. They’re really great.

What did it mean to have two parents who were artists? You started acting, and all these creative paths mean a lot of rejection, being told “No.”
When I was young, I wasn’t afraid of being told “No.” I tell my kids, I tell everyone, “If you don’t go, you never know.” I didn’t take it as rejection. Certain things are stacked against you. You’re coming out of nowhere, starting out — that’s part of the excitement of it in a way, too.

If I may return to some of the things you read from the diaries in the documentary, your father said he felt like being an artist was an “affliction,” and he thought being gay was a sort of affliction. Do you think he was conflicted about his life’s passion?
About his homosexuality? Yeah, he probably was, being from that generation, especially from a small town upstate. I was not aware, much, of it. I wish we had spoken about it much more. My mother didn’t want to talk about things in general, and you’re not interested when you’re a certain age. Again, for my kids, I want them to stop and take a moment and realize that you sometimes have to do things now instead of later, because later may be 20 years from now — and that’s too late.

It seems that you are trying to recuperate your father’s legacy, to maybe make his name last longer than yours.
Well, you never know. His art could last longer than my films. Although the digital stuff, it’ll always be there. Great art should last forever.

Some of your contemporaries, like Al Pacino, have made films with queer themes. I wonder if your father’s sexual orientation may have influenced your choices. Were there projects you didn’t want to do because of your dad?
No, I didn’t... those were just the things I did or wanted to do. I won’t speak for Al. He did it because it was a good part at the time. It didn’t happen for me.

It wasn’t because you were shying away from certain roles?
No, they weren’t offered to me. If they had been offered to me by a good director, that’s something I would have considered.

Your daughter Drena is in the film, and she actually sat for your father.
Yes, he did some nice pieces of her. Raphael, my son, was too impatient to sit still. I was, too. But he had some nice things of her. That was between them. He would ask her to do it. I wish I would have pushed to have him do portraits of all of us.

In the movie, you reveal the fact that your father often felt superior. That sort of ego is something a creative person sometimes needs to survive. Do you think it’s rubbed off on you?
In some ways, but I like to be around people. He spent a lot of time alone, or with a still life or a model. That was his thing. What I remember him saying was, “People, what they appreciate in art, that’s their taste. It’s as valid as anything else.” On the other hand, he had very high standards. When a certain artist came along — an obvious one was Warhol — to his standards, he totally didn’t get that. This is a whole other thing. There are people who don’t know a bunch about art, but they buy it as an asset that will gain value, like a diamond. They don’t necessarily know what good art is. They don’t care.

Since you’re sharing his work in this way, do you also have plans to share his diaries?
I’m not sure. I’m going to go over them and talk to everybody about what they think. I have no problem with that. That’s part of his legacy, too — what he was, what he felt.

Even though you said this information is already out there, it’s a brave thing to share it. Was there anybody who said, “Don’t do it”?
No, no. I think it’s time. I thought about it, of course, but if you’re going to do something, you have to do it all the way. You can’t hide anything. That’s the whole point — the truth. That’s what people are attracted to. I should have done this 10 years earlier, but I’m glad I did it now.

Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. premieres June 9 on HBO. Watch the trailer below:

Tags: Movies