You Looking at Him?: Robert De Niro’s Father

Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr.

A new documentary on the life and work of Robert De Niro Sr.

He’s played a sadistic stepdad (This Boy’s Life), a ruthless paterfamilias (The Godfather, Part II) and a bullying father-in-law (Meet the Parents), but Robert De Niro shows he’s just a big softy when it comes to his own pop in Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro Sr., a documentary debuting on HBO in June.

Watching the actor, famously poker-faced about his personal life, choking up and shedding tears nearly steals the film’s big reveal: that Raging Bull’s dad was gay and left his wife, Virginia, and son when the latter was two to live the bohemian artist’s life in postwar Greenwich Village in New York City.

“It was years after that my mother mentioned it,” De Niro Jr. tells departures of his father’s sexual preference. “But it wasn’t a big dramatic showdown around the kitchen table,” he says. “I’d heard things, but I was his son, the last person he’s going to tell.”

Fortunately, homosexuality doesn’t shape the course of director Perri Peltz’s deeply moving, 40-minute doc so much as help to illuminate the Icarus Descending path Robert De Niro Sr.’s life and career took. He found fame and critical recognition at a relatively young age—legendary arts patron Peggy Guggenheim discovered him, and painting sales, openings and rave reviews followed—but he ultimately failed to adapt his still life and portrait style to the radical new movements favored by the art world’s 15-minute clime. He remained a Cubism-inspired figurative painter when the Next Big Things were the audacious Abstract Expressionists and the popes of Pop. His career, standing and finances fizzled. “Too French!” it was decreed.

De Niro Sr. fell victim to resentment and self-aggrandizement, telling his son that all great artists aren’t recognized until they’re dead. “My mother used to say that he could be his best…what’s the word…self-promoter? And his worst enemy,” De Niro Jr. says. Walking with his teenage son past the Cedar Tavern, the Village’s boisterous art-star clubhouse, the elder De Niro refused to enter, saying, “I never crossed the threshold of this place.”

While the film is hardly a bummer—its madman-haired subject is seen singing in French, dancing away, mugging in a Halloween mask, painting his granddaughter Dreena and chatting with one of his flighty “models” (a pet parrot)—things grew progressively darker in De Niro Sr.’s life chiaroscuro.

Fleeing to Paris for recognition that didn’t come, he fell into further despair, going broke and popping antidepressants. Though De Niro Jr. did the best he could to provide financial and emotional support, he confides in the film—the aforementioned teary reveal—that he regrets not having done more for him. If he’d “been more forceful: It may have made a difference. [He might] still be alive today,” he tells us. Like his son, who successfully battled it years later, De Niro Sr. was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993, at age 71, and succumbed to it later that year.

Junior, turning 71 this year, should cut himself some slack. With this film, he’s proved his father right: that often enough great artists get their due only after they’re gone.