The darkest secrets from the life and career of screen acting legend Robert De Niro are laid out for the world to see a new book, in stores now, by noted show business biographer Shawn Levy — and the notoriously secretive De Niro can’t be happy to see some of the most shocking moments of his once-secret past spelled out in black and white.
Robert De Niro is probably best known to a current generation of moviegoers as the gruff but lovable father-in-law Jack Byrnes in the Meet the Fockers series of hits comedies. But De Niro was anything but a funnyman when exploded into the Hollywood scene with an intense performance as a small time thug in the 1973 Martin Scorsese gangster classic Mean Streets.
The then-30-year-old De Niro had already appeared in several, mostly routine film roles. But his riveting and frightening Mean Streets performance made him a movie star. He became known for his obsessive devotion to portraying his characters, no matter how dark, disturbing, and complex they became.
Among his most notable roles in his 1970s prime: the lonely, mentally unbalanced New York cabbie Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s 1976 landmark Taxi Driver; the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning The Godfather Part II; the self-loathing, paranoid prizefighter Jake LaMotta in the 1980 biopic Raging Bull.
But even as he rose to become one of the world’s most famous stars and most-respected actors, he kept his private life closely shielded from the public eye — and with very good reason, according to Levy.
During that period, Levy writes in Robert De Niro: A Life, De Niro became a heavy cocaine user, and his devotion to the dangerous drug led to his friendship with comedian John Belushi, himself riding the success of the groundbreaking 1978 comedy smash National Lampoon’s Animal House.
De Niro and Belushi went on numerous drug-fueled benders through the nightclubs and upscale hotels of New York and Los Angeles. On the fateful night of March 5, 1982, De Niro stopped by Belushi’s room at L.A.’s famed Chateau Marmont Hotel to take a few snorts of cocaine with the comic. Sometime after De Niro left, Belushi died of an overdose, mixing cocaine with heroin.
De Niro may have felt responsible for Belushi’s death, Levy speculates, because the two had discussed the idea of trying heroin as part of Belushi’s “method” acting research for an upcoming role. De Niro himself was known for adopting the persona of his characters, for example, taking an actual job as cab driver to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver.
The Levy book also explores the many romantic relationships of Robert De Niro, and names the actor’s numerous flings — including with Whitney Houston, who eventually also died of a drug overdose, as well as actress Uma Thurman and model Naomi Campbell.
De Niro had a preference for African-American girlfriends, but would often treat them poorly, Levy says in the book — even attempting to force one to get an abortion she didn’t want, in a series of what Levy describes as “ugly and intimidating conversations.”
De Niro also attempted to date his Taxi Driver co-star Cybil Shepherd during the making of that classic film. When she turned him down, he became abusive to her behind the scenes of the production, according to the Levy book.
So far Robert De Niro, now 71, has not made his feelings known about the Shawn Levy book, which gives away many of his darkest secrets.