De Niro trial revealed his real-life drama aligns with his onscreen mob personas

‘The balls. The nerve. The chutzpah. The sense of entitlement. How dare her,’ wrote De Niro of his ex-assistant, one of the many heated moments during a workplace discrimination trial, Bevan Hurley reports

Sunday 12 November 2023 16:37 GMT
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<p>An artist’s impression of Robert De Niro on the witness stand. The actor has won two Oscars during a stellar career </p>

An artist’s impression of Robert De Niro on the witness stand. The actor has won two Oscars during a stellar career

During a 60-year film career, Robert De Niro has played mobsters and hitmen, fraudsters and hustlers.

Now in the twilight of his career, De Niro tends to oscillate between highbrow Martin Scorsese dramas and slapstick comedies.

But it’s his mafioso roles that are the double Oscar-winner’s most iconic – and that tough-guy persona, a new trial revealed, is also embraced in his personal and professional lives.

A jury found on Thursday that De Niro was not liable in a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by his former assistant Graham Chase Robinson, but found his company Canal Productions liable and awarded her $1.2m in damages. The juicy two-week trial opened a window into the screen legend’s complicated romantic relationships and old-school values.

Robert De Niro's company to pay $1.2 million to ex-assistant

Testimony from his employees and private text messages shown in court revealed De Niro prized loyalty above all else, issued threats with a menacing undertone and made it clear that anyone who crossed him would be severely punished.

The 80-year-old global superstar surrounds himself with a small coterie of trusted lawyers, accountants and assistants, many of whom have been by his side for decades. They know and refer to him simply as “Bob”.

Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 1976 film ‘Taxi Driver’

Ms Robinson claimed that during 11 years of working for De Niro, he subjected her to demeaning tasks unbefitting her role as a $300,000-a-year vice-president of production and finance.

She claimed to be terrified of speaking up out of fear of reprisal.

Here are five ways the trial revealed how De Niro’s tough-talking onscreen characters mirror his complicated offscreen life.

‘How dare you f***ing disrespect me?’

After launching her $12m lawsuit in 2019, Ms Robinson’s attorneys released a 2012 voicemail from De Niro as evidence of the “hostile, abusive, and intimidating manner” in which he spoke to her.

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In a performance worthy of his Oscar-winning role in The Godfather 2, De Niro can be heard calling his former assistant a “spoilt brat”, saying, “how dare you f***ing disrespect me?”, and yelling, “you’re f***ing history”.

The actor was in Los Angeles at the time and threatened to fire Ms Robinson while she was living in Spain.

“How dare you. You are absolutely fired, you’re f***ing history,” De Niro says in the leaked recording.

“How dare you with all the good things you do this is bulls*** after Christmas.

“F*** this, how dare you f***ing disrespect me how much you did. You want a f***ing another position? You want another position? Then change and go off somewhere.

“Don’t f***ing get angry with me ’cause I’m p***ed off cause I didn’t get a simple thing I need more than right now here out in California when I am here for less than 24 hours.

“You got to be f***ing kidding me you spoiled brat, f*** you! So quit whenever you want, goddam ya, how can you f***ing... so you don’t answer, you’re upset ’cause you’re living in Spain, you spoilt f***ing brat.”

De Niro’s explosive testimony

The actor grabbed headlines with an astonishing performance on the witness stand early on in the trial.

In his thick New York accent, De Niro admitted berating Ms Robinson and agreed he had called her “petulant,” “snippy” and a “f***ing spoilt brat” under questioning from her attorney Andrew Macurdy.

The actor maintained he had never raised his voice at her or been abusive, his anger slowly building as the attorney continued to press him on his behaviour towards Ms Robinson.

His claims to have never yelled were somewhat undercut when he shouted across the courtroom shortly afterwards: “Shame on you Chase Robinson!”

Robert De Niro arrives at court to give evidence on 31 October

Realising he had lost his temper, De Niro apologised to the court.

Mr Macurdy then asked the actor about claims he had urinated while speaking on the phone to Ms Robinson.

“That’s nonsense,” De Niro replied angrily. “You got us all here for this?”

De Niro denied he had sought publicity by suing Ms Robinson, telling the court: “It draws attention to me. It’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

‘Who the f*** does she think she is?’

Ms Robinson’s fiery clashes with De Niro’s girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, were a running theme of the trial.

Ms Chen testified that she was suspicious of the former assistant’s “imagined intimacy” with her boyfriend, and described her as “crazy” and a “psychotic single white female”, a reference to the 1992 psychological thriller.

Ms Robinson eventually quit De Niro’s company, Canal Productions, in April 2019.

In a July 2019 text exchange shown to the court, De Niro wrote to Ms Chen: “Can you believe Chase? Who the f*** does she think she is?”

“She thought she was your girlfriend. I saw it from the beginning,” Ms Chen replied in the text.

“The balls. The nerve. The chutzpah. The sense of entitlement. How dare her,” De Niro continued.

De Niro and his girlfriend Tiffany Chen

That same attitude appears to have rubbed off on Ms Chen.

In January 2019, she became convinced that Ms Robinson had deliberately “sabotaged” their four-hour flight home to New York from holiday in Antigua by private jet after telling flight attendants not to provide any refreshments.

“If you keep her you and I will eventually have problems,” she texted De Niro that March.

Loyalty above all else

Several of De Niro’s longtime confidantes took the stand at trial and delivered fascinating insights into the workings of his inner sanctum.

There was his personal trainer of 40 years Dan Harvey, whom De Niro sought out after struggling to lose the 35 pounds he put on for his Oscar-winning performance as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

Mr Harvey told the court how he would put the actor through punishing near-daily weight and exercise routines that would last up to seven hours. He became a sounding board for De Niro to practice his movie dialogue, and accompanied the actor on location all over the world.

“I like working for him because he’s a very disciplined man who works hard at his craft and I respect him very much,” Mr Harvey told the court.

De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta starred in Martin Scorsese’s classic mob drama ‘GoodFellas’

De Niro could be a demanding taskmaster, and early on in their working relationship would often lose his temper, Mr Harvey said. His salary eventually rose to $375,000 a year.

During a lean patch for the actor in 2008, Mr Harvey said he was asked to take a 50 per cent pay cut.

He said he told De Niro that the salary reduction “just doesn’t make sense for me” as he had mortgages, car payments and a child starting private school.

“He said: ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it’,” testified Mr Harvey.

Dan Harvey’s brother, Tom Harvey, has been De Niro’s personal attorney for 30 years and also testified at trial.

Tom Harvey, who is also general counsel at Canal Productions, was responsible for dealing with Ms Robinson’s exit from the company.

A complicated love life

De Niro’s complicated romantic relationships were not spared from scrutiny. The public timeline of his divorce from Grace Hightower and blossoming romance with Ms Chen appeared to have been compressed by a couple of years more than was previously known in evidence produced before the court.

Ms Chen testified that the couple met on the set of the 2015 comedy The Intern, began dating in 2017 and moved in together into a new townhouse in 2018.

The Intern filmmakers had sought out a martial arts expert for the film and approached Ms Chen’s father William, a highly respected tai chi instructor.

Ms Chen, a former Golden Gloves champion and expert martial artist in her own right, went on to appear in the film, and the couple began dating in 2017 while he was still married to his ex-wife Grace Hightower, the court heard during her testimony.

Grace Hightower and De Niro

“You entered a relationship with Mr De Niro while he was still married, correct?” Ms Robinson’s attorney Vince McKnight asked her.

“On paper, yes,” she replied.

Ms Chen told the court they had initially concealed the relationship from De Niro’s family and office workers.

They moved into a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and had a baby girl – the actor’s seventh child – earlier this year.

“We have 15 dogs and a human daughter,” Ms Chen said.

De Niro publicly separated from Ms Hightower in November 2018, sparking a bitter divorce proceeding.

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