Those accustomed to seeing Robert De Niro in tough-guy mode onscreen might be surprised to see how emotional the actor becomes when discussing his next project, a documentary about his late father which seems to be the most personal project of his four-decade career. In the HBO movie, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Senior, De Niro pays homage to his father and namesake, an openly-gay painter who, unlike his son, never achieved the kind of artistic recognition the Oscar winner feels he deserved.
In a wonderful new interview with Out Magazine, the acting legend becomes so emotional when discussing his late father, and the occasionally difficult relationship he had with him, that at times he can’t quite get words out over the lump in his throat. (For example, when asked how it feels to become more famous than your namesake, De Niro cries and needs a few seconds to collect himself.) When he is able to articulate his feelings though, De Niro provides a fascinating snapshot of his childhood years and the formative father-son relationship. An excerpt:
When you were younger, it sounded like you had problems connecting with each other. We were not the type of father and son who played baseball together, as you can surmise. But we had a connection. I wasn’t with him a lot, because my mother and he were separated and divorced. As I say in the documentary, I looked after him in certain ways.
In what ways? I think of my own kids. I try to communicate with them, but it’s hard. I joke about it with them. They have their issues as teenagers. I give them their space, but when I have to step in and be firm about something, I am. But my father wasn’t a bad father, or absent. He was absent in some ways. He was very loving. He adored me… as I do my kids.
In another emotional moment, De Niro speculates whether his father was conflicted about his sexuality.
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.
Despite the actor’s efforts to help his father, even after De Niro, Jr. reached some degree of fame, Out notes that Robert De Niro, Sr. died as a starving artist. As a tribute to his father, De Niro, Jr. has preserved his father’s final home in New York City. The film, which De Niro produced, airs June 9.