Robert De Niro Remembers the Film Business Nearly 50 Years Ago

Robert Dinero Big Break in Hollywood
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Nearly 50 years after his film debut, Robert De Niro is going strong, with upcoming projects including David O. Russell’s “Joy.” Earlier this year, the actor promoted the HBO documentary “Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.,” about his late father, the abstract expressionist painter. De Niro, Sr. won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968 — the same year his son appeared on screen in Brian De Palma’s “Greetings,” his first mention in Variety.

Did you audition for “Greetings”?

I auditioned for “The Wedding Party,” which was Brian’s first movie, which he co-directed with Wilford Leach. That was my first movie too. And then he asked me if I wanted to (do “Greetings”) … I don’t think I read for “Greetings.” And then we did “Hi, Mom!” And then we did “The Untouchables.” So we did a big jump.

When you filmed “Greetings,” did you have high hopes, or were you just hoping for distribution?

In those days, I wasn’t even sure how it worked, distribution. I forget who did pick it up, it was so long ago. But I do remember “Greetings” did somewhat well.

Do you remember reading the “Greetings” review? 

I was aware of Variety, but it must have been pointed out to me.

You were busy in those days.

I also had done something in-between (the De Palma films) called “Sam’s Song” (directed by Jordan Leondopoulos), which Cannon Prods. took at the time. They sort of twisted it into a kind of quasi-porno film, because I had some nude scenes with a girl; at that time, films would be done with whatever sex or nude scenes. But it was all made with the most … with the highest artistic intent. There was a very genuine, sincere intention of the writer-director.

1968 was a tumultuous time. Do you have any memories that stand out? 

Well, the Vietnam War was going on and President Johnson, so that was really … There was a lot going on.

Your father won a Guggenheim Fellowship that year. What are your hopes for his work?

My whole thing is that (my father’s) art finds a home, that it’s respected and kept and revered. It’s good art; I’ll say great art because of what he put into it — the time, the effort, his heart and soul.

Click image for large preview