Robert De Niro: The buck hunter

After acting, it was directing and producing. Then it was food. Now it's 'We Will Rock You', the stage musical. As a money-maker, he's one of Hollywood's best
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The Independent Online

He will be 59 this August, an age at which financial advisers recommend special attention to your portfolio, your holdings and your future. And whereas his ostensible career is that of actor, so that he is regularly listed as one of the great actors in the world, still he hasn't made an outstanding film for years – so maybe he might as well take care of business. And this business is good enough to merit care. In just the past few years, in up-front money, he has earned around $150m (£107m) for making Ronin, Analyze This, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, The Score, Analyze That, and Meet the Fockers. (The last two are not released yet.)

Now there are critics, actors and even audiences who argue that, if you're Robert De Niro, that is a disappointing list after, say, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, 1900, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Brazil and Once Upon a Time in America. But De Niro answers that it's nobody's business but his; that he likes the pictures he makes; and, anyway, these days, no one is looking to do stuff like Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter. Further, he likes the pictures he makes all the more because so many of them are based in his own production company, Tribeca – like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, Analyze That and Meet the Fockers. Which only means that on those pictures he will make a good deal, more than mere appearance money. He takes a part of the profits.

And so it is that in talking about the actor who once upon a time went to extraordinary, self-effacing lengths to get work – so long as it was difficult and dangerous – we are also discussing a very successful businessman. Thus, the immediate hook of this story is De Niro's increasing presence as a London entrepreneur. It is not just his share in the hot restaurant, Nobu, nor even the steady rumours that he is looking to buy a property in Bermondsey (the old Hartley's jam factory) as a production base, but the word that his Tribeca Productions will be one of the backers on We Will Rock You, the stage musical derived from Queen songs, set to open in the West End in May.

This is not to imply that De Niro is uncommon among actors in being interested in money. Rather, it is perhaps the first pronounced revelation of character in an actor who, ever since his debut in the late 1960s, has been unusually silent (or inarticulate) about all the matters that the gossip press puts to actors – like how he does what he does, how it feels, his family and romantic life, and even the meaning of his films. To many observers, there had always been a fascinating gulf between De Niro's eloquence once he finds himself in a role, and his reticence, his shyness, his sour, morose unhelpful attitude (all have been invoked) whenever he has risked stepping into our garish confessional, the personality interview.

He doesn't do such things; he clearly finds the ways in which he arrives at his characters and performances rather mysterious. He's not the only actor who can't explain what he does. But whereas most players are inclined to be ingratiating, superficially friendly and "available", De Niro has often emphasised his own blankness, his emptiness, his indifference to all the stupid questions. There were times when he could seem hostile and even dangerous, for there has always been a coiled energy in the man, a kind of guardedness that could seem menacing. There was a time when it seemed vital to his pursuit of very violent and even satanic characters (Taxi Driver, Angel Heart, The Untouchables, Cape Fear Frankenstein).

What's refreshing about the new De Niro is that even if the films are lightweight – downright silly, as he sometimes admits – he has unearthed a comic persona and some pleasure in getting people to laugh. Indeed, in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he even replayed that classic line from Taxi Driver – "You talking to me? Well, I'm the only one here" – for comic effect.

The entrepreneurial persona began to emerge about a dozen years ago. It was then that he set up Tribeca Productions (with Jane Rosenthal as his business partner). Very quickly, he directed his first film – A Bronx Tale (1993) – so that there was speculation that De Niro was about to turn himself into a director akin to his close friend and long-time collaborator, Martin Scorsese. Not so. He has directed nothing else since, whereas he has had some production involvement in nearly a score of projects – including Ed Harris's Pollock, which got finished because of De Niro's help, and which reflects his great interest in modern art. (His father was a noted painter.)

But De Niro made a rapid sideways move as he branched out into a series of high-quality restaurants. He is too canny to be a sole proprietor, but he has participation in varying amounts in the Tribeca – Grill, the nearby Nobu on Hudson Street, a Nobu in South Beach, Miami, Rubicon in San Francisco, and now Nobu London. While all of these have some cachet as places where you might see celebrities, they have thrived because of their culinary excellence in very competitive markets. They tend to be expensive and innovative, with a stress on classical decor and magnificent wines.

Of course, De Niro was capitalising on Tribeca (the site of one of his homes) in the early 1990s, when all of Manhattan was awash with stock-market money. But it's been fascinating to see another side of De Niro emerge – call it his Giuliani spirit – since the events of 11 September. He has become a spokesman for the city, most notably in the way he hosted, narrated, and then helped to publicise a stirring television documentary, 9/11, that has just played in America. It offers the working class De Niro (a real part of his life and feelings), as well as the actor who played a fireman in Backdraft and who has been an unconventional cop plenty of times.

The sincerity of his part in 9/11 was beyond question, and it's hardly diminished by his obvious wish to boost business all over Manhattan. The fact is that, for years, De Niro tended to be taken for granted as Scorsese's actor, and thus, the ideal spokesman for a very bold, artistic kind of film-making. Whereas it may be the case that in recent years – and he has not worked with Scorsese since Casino (1995) – the more ordinary man has come warily into view. As I said earlier, he's been criticised for so many dull films. Equally, it may be that he's doing his grudging best to answer the old question "Who is Robert De Niro?". One answer could yet be: one of the richest guys in the business.

It's a reminder that, once upon another time, the very mild and conservative Fred MacMurray and the amiable Bob Hope shared that title because they habitually ploughed a part of their salary back into Los Angeles real estate. You never know when you're going to need a few hundred million dollars.

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