Interview: Shawn Levy, Author Of 'De Niro: A Life' Shawn Levy's brick-sized new biography of screen legend Robert De Niro was produced without cooperation from the actor — but Levy says that just forced him to do better research.
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The Life Of De Niro, From 'Mean Streets' To 'Meet The Parents'

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The Life Of De Niro, From 'Mean Streets' To 'Meet The Parents'

The Life Of De Niro, From 'Mean Streets' To 'Meet The Parents'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time - period, no parentheses or qualification, the kind of actor who creates icons.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAGING BULL")

DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) I want you to hit me in the face.

JOE PESCI: (As Joey) What?

DE NIRO: (As Jake LaMotta) I want you to hit me in the face.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER: PART II")

DE NIRO: (As Vito Corleone) (Italian spoken). Antonio Andolini (Italian spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

DE NIRO: (As James Conway) Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.

SIMON: Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Godfather II," and "Goodfellas." But for younger filmmakers today, this screen acting legend may be most familiar as a daft, cranky father in a series of "Focker" movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEET THE PARENTS")

DE NIRO: (As Jack Byrnes) I have nipples, Greg. Could you milk me?

SIMON: Shawn Levy, former film critic of The Oregonian and author of bestsellers on "The Rat Pack" and "Paul Newman," has written a thick new biography of Robert De Niro that follows him from the son of an artist, to a man who defines a godfather, a loner, a goodfella, Jake LaMotta, and Al Capone on screen. The new book is "De Niro: A Life." And Shawn Levy joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHAWN LEVY: Oh, thank you. Good morning.

SIMON: First off, you got no cooperation from the subject, and this might be a good thing.

LEVY: You know, sometimes you become intimate with the subject of your book in person, and it becomes difficult to be true to your reporting instincts, to follow unsavory material or things you wish you didn't know. In De Niro's case, he's always been so reticent with the press that it's sort of demanded that I do research almost as if he was a historical figure and not a living person.

SIMON: Several times in this book, you have personal testimony from people who say look at him in the flesh, sit next to him, nothing special. But then move on over and take a look at him through the camera, and magic shines through. What is that?

LEVY: He burrows deeper and deeper into a scene as he's playing it. And he does that most when the camera's on. He's tried to be on stage, and he hasn't been very good at it. But when you see little looks - he works so much with his body and face. And I examined scripts that he worked with on sets for more than 40 years of his career, and he was always cutting dialogue and reminding himself of mood and gesture. And those are things the camera's going to pick up, not the ear or not the casual view.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about a couple of De Niro's - maybe in this day in age - lesser-known films, as compared to, obviously, "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas." One of the many films he's made with Martin Scorsese is "The King Of Comedy." Let's listen to a scene from there. Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis playing Jerry Langford, the talk-show host whom he puts in peril.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING OF COMEDY")

JERRY LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) I really have to ask you that. How do you do it?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) I think it's that I look at my whole life, and I see the awful, terrible things in my life and turn it into something funny. It just happens. But what about the first few one-liners? Were they strong enough? I was a...

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Strong enough?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) No.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) If they were any stronger you'd hurt yourself. They're marvelous, you daffy...

SIMON: He made so many great films with Scorsese - "King Of Comedy," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" "Casino." What makes Marty and Bobby work?

LEVY: You know, they came from the same neighborhood - lower Manhattan - and they're roughly the same age and had similar life experiences during, you know, their formative years. But there's a real difference. I think Scorsese is an Italian-American street kid who kind of wished he was brought up with art and music and culture. De Niro is a kid of Bohemian New York who grew up with art and music and culture and kind of had a yearning for the streets. So they had a sort of a symbiosis from the very first time they met.

SIMON: What do you say to people who know Robert De Niro from the "Focker" films and ask, why does this guy I keep hearing is a great actor do this nonsense?

LEVY: Well, this is the real hardest question of the book. How did someone who, you know - the old question about Bob De Niro was how does he do it? And then it became what has he done? There's a lot to it. I think he worked very hard. You know, the work ethic he acquired from his parents stuck with him well into his 50s. And then he started having huge commercial success of the sort that other of his peers had enjoyed. And only when he was late-50s would he make "Meet The Parents."

But I also think that his workaholism expressed itself in a different way in the last decade or so. Instead of pouring everything into one role and sort of wearing himself out digging deeper and deeper into the likes of Travis Bickle, Vito Corleone or Jake LaMotta, he's chosen to sprinkle his energy over a number of other projects, and the results have not been worth sharing very often. This is not the fellow we grew up astonished at in the '70s.

SIMON: When we see - have seen Robert De Niro in a truly great and defining role over the years, what is it we're seeing at work?

LEVY: De Niro has an amazing ability to empty himself of the things that are Robert De Niro and fill it with what he learns about a character. And he has the ability to fill - refill himself and, you know, transform inside out into the character. And when he's on his game, he just - he can channel people he is not in a way that very few other actors ever have been able to.

SIMON: Shawn Levy. His new book: "Robert De Niro: A Life." Thanks so much for being with us.

LEVY: Thank you.

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