No one embodies New York more than Robert De Niro.
Robert De Niro can’t stop talking about the bricks. I get 15 minutes to talk to one of the greatest actors of all time, who starred in the most important New York movies of all time, and he can’t stop talking about the bricks in his hotel. He’s telling me about where he got the wheat-colored handmade bricks that make up the façade of his 2-year-old, 88-room Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca—from “these Irish guys from Ireland” who have a brickyard in Long Island City.
“We looked at different samples,” De Niro says, “and I think we all liked it, but then I said, ‘We have to mock it up bigger, you know, in a kind of a sheet, because we’re not going to get a sense of it unless you see more of it.’ ” So he had a sheet of bricks mocked up—about 8-by-8-feet. “We did that to make sure that it was going to have the right feel, not be this or that. You don’t know sometimes until you mock things up,” he says. “And I like to mock things up, especially when building something.” All of a sudden he stops, hearing himself go on about the bricks: “I made every brick for the hotel,” he jabs. “You know that?” Just before I panic, he eases up. “No, but, as I said, we made sure that the brick was right. As clichéd as it may sound, the devil is in the details.”
I’ve listened to people talk about hotel amenities—the glazed Moroccan tile, the Japanese barn deconstructed outside of Kyoto and rebuilt in the spa downstairs, the heart-pine floorboards—and usually, to be honest, I glaze over. But this guy talking about the bricks is the same guy who trained with Al Salvani in the ring before gaining 60 pounds to play Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, the same guy who three months after winning an Oscar for playing Vito Corleone in Godfather II was driving a cab to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver. Mocking up the bricks reminds me of the story about De Niro driving a cab as he got ready to play Travis Bickle. De Niro was anonymous the entire time he was hacking, and finally a former actor climbs in and recognizes his name on the taxi license. “Jesus,” he says, “last year you won the Oscar, and now you’re driving a cab again.” De Niro said he was only doing research. “Yeah, Bobby,” says the actor. “I know. I been there, too.”
Jane Rosenthal has been De Niro’s partner at Tribeca Films since 1989. “No matter what he does, it’s about the details,” she says. “Whether it’s the building or directing or producing or acting. Working with a writer and respecting the intention of a comma and what that will mean in screen time. It’s about the details of the watch he wears, or the buttons on the shirt, or the patterns, or the sunglasses. It’s all the little details, and all the little details add up to the whole—that’s really Bob.”
In 1989, Tribeca Films bought the Martinson Coffee factory on Franklin and Greenwich in Tribeca, and it attracted an entire film community: Steven Spielberg bought a floor, Harvey and Bob Weinstein bought a floor for their independent film company, Miramax. Back then, Tribeca was not yet “Triburbia,” it was still an artists’ neighborhood—Scorsese lived in the neighborhood “for the light,” according to Rosenthal, and De Niro lived about nine blocks away. But Tribeca’s past life—the old mercantile “butter and egg district”—informed its character, and such details mean a lot to De Niro. Rosenthal considers him an “urban archaeologist”—he still has the original coffee-roasting scale in his corner office.
De Niro grew up nearby in the Village as the only child of two artistic parents who circulated with writers such as Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams. His father, Robert De Niro Sr., was a well-respected painter, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, but a man who stuck to figurative expressionism his entire career—an earlier style than the abstract expressionism and pop art that came to dominate the 1960s. “He never explained that,” De Niro says, when asked if his father talked about his stubborn adherence to an earlier style. “He might have explained things to me in other ways that were, in a way, an expression of what he was feeling, but I never . . . ” he pauses. “And now, of course, I wish that I had spoken to him more about it.”
De Niro says that when he was younger, his father would try to get him to go to art openings and shows downtown. “I was proud of him, but I wasn’t that interested,” he says. Now De Niro is his father’s biggest fan and gallerist—his dad’s paintings are all over the walls of his restaurants and his hotel. Before he died in 1993, De Niro’s father designed the menu for the Tribeca Grill, in the Martinson Building, and he would sometimes come in and stare at his two big paintings on the wall behind the back bar. “I love to show his work,” De Niro says. “And I know he’s a great artist, and I am partial, but you know, that’s OK. He was a real artist—he was an artist since he was 5.”
De Niro dotes on his neighborhood in the same way he dotes on his buildings or his father’s legacy. De Niro, Rosenthal and her husband, Craig Hatkoff, started Tribeca Film Festival as a direct response to the devastation of September 11. De Niro was downtown when lower Manhattan was attacked. “At that time, I lived about nine blocks north of the World Trade Center, so I saw the two planes hit the two buildings—the whole thing, pretty much. The trade center buildings dominated my windows, and I was seeing what was happening with my own eyes, but I had to verify it by looking at CNN, it was so unbelievable.” After the attack, Lower Manhattan was a ghost town. “With the helicopters and the sirens,” Rosenthal says, “it was something like Apocalypse Now”—they announced plans for the festival in October 2001 to get people downtown again.
De Niro has worked in the city so much—Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Bang the Drum Slowly, Goodfellas, The Good Shepherd—that he and New York are indelibly linked. “I’m from Lower Manhattan; this is where I grew up,” he says. “I am in New York. I love to work in New York. If I could have my way, I’d always work in New York.”
This article has been adapted from the original, which appeared in the September 2010 issue of Sky.