The Other Side of Robert De Niro: From Family to Feuds

When it comes to the one and only Robert De Niro, where do we even begin? The man is a legend, and not many people dispute that fact. But there’s a whole other side to De Niro that isn’t as exposed in Hollywood. And that’s probably because his movies and acting eclipse any sort of gossip that revolves around him.

Robert De Niro / Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro / Robert De Niro / Robert De Niro, Jay Z.
Source: Getty Images

Believe it or not, De Niro is a mortal like the rest of us earthlings and has human concerns like the rest of us. He has fears, family issues, and even feuds. From raising six biracial kids to his feuds with Mickey Rourke and Jay Z (no joke), De Niro has a side that we don’t know about.

This is the unadulterated life of Robert De Niro.

His First Wife Is Baby Mama #1

During his long career, which started in the 1960s, De Niro has been married twice. First, to Diahnne Abbott from 1976 to 1988 and later to Grace Hightower in 1997, with whom he split over two decades later. The year he married Abbott was the same year he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where he played Travis Buckle.

Robert De Niro kisses Abbott on the set of the film New York, New York.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Abbott was pursuing an acting career of her own and also appeared in the film (she was the adult theater box office clerk). De Niro adopted Abbott’s daughter, Drena, from her previous relationship. De Niro and Abbott also had a son together, Raphael.

His Ex-Girlfriend Is Baby Mama #2

After 12 years of marriage, in 1988, De Niro and Abbott divorced. A friend said one reason was that Abbott wanted the celebrity life and De Niro did not. By 1997, he was married again, but before that he dated his former girlfriend, Toukie Smith (she was a regular on the show 227 and appeared in a few episodes of Miami Vice).

A dated studio portrait of Abbott.
Source: Pinterest

Smith and De Niro had a long-term relationship in the mid-‘90s and had two children together, Julian and Aaron. Apparently, the model and actress suffered a miscarriage, and her anguish took a toll on their relationship.

His Second Wife Is Baby Mama #3

Then De Niro met Grace Hightower, his second wife, at a London nightclub. They actually met earlier, in 1987. It took them ten years to finally make it official. Hightower had some acting credits of her own, in NYPD Blue and in 2009’s Precious (she played a social worker).

A photo of Grace and De Niro during an event.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

De Niro and Hightower tied the knot at their home in Marbletown, New York, in the summer of 1997. A year later, they had their first child together, Elliot, who was De Niro’s fifth child. A year after that, he filed for divorce. It was said that he wasn’t working at their marriage.

Divorced After 20 Years

They reconciled years later and renewed their vows in 2004. This time, it was a bigger event, with famous guests like Ben Stiller and Meryl Streep. In 2011, they had another child (through a surrogate), Helen, De Niro’s sixth and last. By 2018, De Niro’s second divorce was underway, after 20 years of marriage.

De Niro attends an event.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Getty Images

“We are entering a period of transition in our relationship which is a difficult but constructive process,” he said in November 2018. In speaking of his kids, De Niro said, “There are great moments and moments of sadness. Sometimes you’re the last person they want to deal with.”

Speaking of his kids…

Drena De Niro

Let’s start with Drena De Niro, his stepdaughter from his first marriage. Born in 1971 (she was five when she was adopted by De Niro), Drena became an actress and model. She started acting in her mid-20s; she played a receptionist in the movie Grace of My Heart.

Drena De Niro attends an event.
Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images

She later got roles in A Star Is Born and Joy, co-starring alongside De Niro. Drena is close with both her mom and stepdad, and often shares photos with De Niro on Instagram, showing the actor off as the grandfather he is.

Raphael De Niro

Raphael De Niro is Abbot and De Niro’s first child together. Born in 1976, Raphael went into acting as well. Early on, he appeared in films with his dad, including Awakenings and Raging Bull. He was a teen when his parents divorced. And as it turns out, acting wasn’t a passion of his.

Drena and Raphael pose for the press during an event.
Photo by PATRICK MCMULLAN/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Raphael made a drastic career change, moving on to real estate. He founded the firm De Niro Team, and his clients include the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Kelly Ripa. Raphael has been married twice and has kids of his own.

Julian & Aaron De Niro

After his divorce from Abbot, De Niro dated Toukie Smith and the two had twin sons, Julian and Aaron. The boys were conceived through in vitro fertilization and born via a surrogate in 1995. Both boys keep their lives pretty private.

A dated picture of the twins with Tookie Smith.
Photo by Mario Magnani/Liaison Agency/Getty Images

Although they were seen here and there at red carpet events with their mom and dad as youngsters, their adult lives have remained out of the limelight. De Niro once said that the advice he gives his kids is: “Just don’t sell yourself short… push yourself a little more and reach for what you really think it is you want to do. Don’t be afraid.”

Elliot De Niro

Elliot De Niro was born in 1998 and has been diagnosed with autism, which De Niro revealed in 2016. He is beyond protective of Elliot, saying, “Grace and I have a child with autism, and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.”

A dated photo of De Niro with his son, Elliot, at the park.
Photo by Lawrence Schwartzwald/Sygma/Getty Images

In 2013, De Niro broke down during an interview (in which he was promoting The Silver Linings Playbook). In the interview, he admitted, “I don’t like to get emotional, but I know exactly what he goes through,” referring to the writer, David O. Russell, who wrote the book about his own son with bipolar disorder.

Tennis Has Helped Him Big Time

Part of De Niro and Hightower’s support for Elliot was their choice to involve him in tennis. Initially, he resisted the sport, but he became an accomplished player. “Finding things for kids to do is a hard part of the whole situation with parents of kids with special needs,” De Niro said in 2019.

A photo of Elliot today.
Source: Pinterest

“He wasn’t crazy about it, at times,” he confessed. “His mother was good at pushing him and wanting him to be physical and work out.” Tennis has helped Elliot socially, and he was even featured in a Special Olympics video series on ESPN in 2019.

Helen De Niro

After De Niro and Hightower renewed their vows, they had one last child together. Helen De Niro was born in 2011, also via surrogate. She’s only 11 years old, so not much is known about the youngest De Niro kid.

A dated photo of Helen De Niro.
Source: Pinterest

De Niro was never one to discuss his personal life, but during a 2020 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he spoke a bit about his children and what raising them over the last few decades has been like. He opened up about raising biracial children.

Raising Biracial Kids Is “Scary”

“My children are all half Black and I don’t have, even me, I take certain things for granted,” he told Fallon. “When you become a parent, there are certain things that you become more aware of, more sensitive about,” he shared.

A portrait of Robert De Niro.
Photo by Terence Patrick/Getty Images

No one can deny that racial issues are a common concern in this country. The general advice Black kids are taught – how to behave when stopped by police officers, to keep their hands where cops can see them – De Niro said he understands that, adding that it’s “scary” and has to change.

De Niro’s Parenting Wins and Woes

The New York native said it’s not easy being a dad, explaining that even though he loves them, they can get under his skin. “Sometimes it’s fun and you love your kids, and sometimes you want to kill them!” In terms of the ones that followed his footsteps, he would give them advice.

A photo of Robert De Niro with his daughter, Drena.
Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis/Getty Images

He would tell them, “If you want to be an actor or you want to do this or that, that’s fine as long as you’re happy.” He even goes to his son Raphael real estate help. At the end of the day, it was important for De Niro that his kids eventually find their own way in life.

De Niro’s Unlikely Feud With Jay Z

As it turns out, De Niro has had withstood some dramatic feuds throughout his career – some more understandable than others. Before we dive deep into his three-decade rift with fellow actor Mickey Rourke, let’s explore the bizarre beef De Niro has undergone with none other than hip hop king Jay Z.

A picture of Jay Z and De Niro sitting together at an event.
Photo by Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images

For a rapper to engage in feuds is really no surprise, but with Robert De Niro? What the… But this particular feud actually took Jay Z by surprise. It was also over something quite minor. Well, maybe to him, but to De Niro it was something that justified a little beef.

The Quarrel Began at Leo DiCaprio’s Birthday Party

Jay Z has expressed his appreciation for De Niro – and his film work – in some of his songs. So, you would think the rapper respects the actor. In 2012, De Niro happened to start the grudge at Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday party, no less.

A portrait of Robert De Niro.
Photo by Dominik Bindl/WireImage/Getty Images

The reason? Because Jay Z didn’t return any of his phone calls. Word has it that a while back, the rapper agreed to record a song for the Tribeca Film Festival. Then, when the actor tried to hit him up – six times – to discuss it further, Jay Z never picked up.

When De Niro Calls You, Call Him Back

What could have been seen as a mishap, and brushed over, snowballed into something bigger. According to reports from DiCaprio’s birthday, the exchange between De Niro and Jay Z was noticeable. Multiple witnesses from the party made note…

A picture of Jay Z and De Niro during an event.
Photo by Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images

“Bob was sitting at a table, and when Jay went over to say hello, De Niro told Jay that he never called him back. He told Jay that if somebody calls you six times, you call them back. It doesn’t matter who you are, that is just rude.”

“Bigger and Badder” Than Jay Z

“Bob wasn’t in any mood to make polite conversation,” the source claimed. Jay Z tried to make a joke out of it, saying he’s horrible with the phone. “De Niro kept telling him that he thinks he’s the man, but that he was disrespectful,” the source added.

A dated portrait of Robert De Niro.
Photo by Eric Robert/Sygma/Getty Images

Many party guests couldn’t help but watch the exchange and, obviously, it became a popular topic of discussion. “It was the talk of the party. Everyone was saying there’s only one star in New York bigger and badder than Jay-Z, and that’s Robert De Niro.”

Beyonce Didn’t Succeed in Calming De Niro Down

Referring to De Niro, one source said, “He can be quite scary when he’s angry.” Of course, Beyoncé was there by Jay Z’s side and tried her best to smooth things over. But this was just the beginning of a very strange feud between such unlikely participants. Jay Z later made an appearance on The Breakfast Club radio show.

A picture of Beyonce.
Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

On it, the rapper spoke about the conflict and how he approaches such feuds. “I treat people based on who they are. Who they really are. Not the name, not Robert De Niro. Who you are as a person. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone has to be respectful.”

The Beef Ends in 2016

What Jay Z said on The Breakfast Club can be seen as a little vague. Not much was actually said. But it was clearly something that stuck with him. In the end, neither De Niro nor Jay Z spoke publicly about the incident in much detail or even made a public apology.

De Niro arrives at a film premiere.
Photo by James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images

However, the feud reportedly ended in 2016. Since then, the two stars have gone to multiple public events together. And both Jay Z and Beyoncé have attended his film premieres to express their support.

Mickey Rourke vs. Robert De Niro

Rourke and De Niro happen to be two actors who should definitely not be in the same room together. This feud goes all the way back to 1987, when the two co-starred in the psychological horror film Angel Heart.

A promotional still of De Niro and Rourke for the film.
Source: Copyright: TriStar Pictures

It was during filming that the two actors had a serious falling out and they have yet to bury the hatchet, after all these years. Angel Heart was the first and last film the two ever worked on together. Reportedly, De Niro – known for his method acting – wouldn’t talk to Rourke at all while on set.

Let’s Not Talk

De Niro later explained that it was because of the complex relationship between their characters. He even told Rourke when filming, “I think it’s better if we don’t talk.” In 2019, when De Niro was set to make the gangster film The Irishman, Rourke claimed he blocked his casting.

A backstage picture of Rourke and De Niro walking on the set.
Source: Copyright: TriStar Pictures

At the time, Rourke said (on Italian TV), “Marty Scorsese, great director, he wanted to meet me for a movie with Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Chris Walken and Robert De Niro. The casting person told my manager that Robert De Niro said he refused to work with me in a movie.”

Rourke Calls De Niro a Crybaby

Rourke continued to explain how he “needed the money,” adding that he doesn’t “look up to him no more; I look through him. I came up from the s***. He doesn’t know that life. I lived that f***ing life, so every time I look him in the face I look right through his a******.”

Rourke attends an event.
Photo by Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Rourke took to Instagram in 2020 to rant about it and call De Niro out for having called him a “liar” in newspapers. Rourke posted: “Hey Robert De Niro, that’s right I am talking to you, you big f***ing crybaby.”

Now That’s a Harsh Instagram Post

He continued his post: “A friend of mine just recently told me that a few months back you’re quoted as saying to newspapers ‘Mickey Rourke’s a liar he talks all kind of s***.’ Listen Mr. Tough Guy in the movies, you’re the 1st person that ever called me a liar and it was in a newspaper.”

A picture of De Niro during an event.
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

It didn’t even end there. Rourke called him a “punk a**” and that when he sees him, he swears to “God on my grandmother, on my brother and all my dogs, I gonna embarrass you severely 100%. Mickey Rourke ‘as God is my witness.’”

Rourke Was Never Even Considered for a Role

Rourke even went further in the comments of his post, verbatim: “I’ll be relocating moving back to NYC in next few months this encounter will for sure happen.” It seems as though The Irishman incident really triggered Rourke.

Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Sebastian Maniscalco pose for the press.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

But the film’s producers, Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, as well as casting director Ellen Lewis, claimed that Rourke was never in discussions for a role in the movie. If money was an issue, it seems to be settled, since he was involved in numerous projects at the time, including War Hunt.

The Actor Who Hides Behind His Characters

At some point in the 1970s De Niro came out of nowhere and quickly became the next best thing in cinema. He was one of those chameleon actors who could transform into any role and hit it out of the park.

A still of De Niro in Casino.
Source: Copyright: Universal Studios

But for the longest time, he was hiding behind his characters, refusing to reveal his true self to the public. He’s been known to hate giving interviews. But since he has always been the talk of the town, there’s always been a demand to know more about him.

Boxed for a Year Only to Gain 55 Pounds

De Niro became the favorite of the “movie brats” — directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Michael Cimino, and Brian De Palma. He also became legendary for his role preparation. He drove a taxi and practiced on a pistol range for Taxi Driver.

A still of De Niro in a scene from Taxi Driver.
Source: Copyright: Columbia Pictures

For Raging Bull, the role he won an Oscar for, he spent a year in the ring to box like Jake La Motta. Then he gained 55 pounds to portray the aging fighter accurately. “He never breaks character,” his assistant on Raging Bull said, “even when filming stops.”

Learning to Play the Sax

“I feel I have to earn the right to play a part,” De Niro once said. He was also in the musical film New York, New York, and learned to play the saxophone for the part. Liza Minnelli said she’d never forget how intensive he worked.

A movie still of De Niro staring at Minnelli’s eyes while playing the saxophone.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

“I’d leave the studio around twelve midnight, and I could hear the wail of a saxophone. As a musician he was fabulous.” She added, “That’s the way he found the character—through the music. That’s the way he put it together.”

Robert De Niro the Second

De Niro was born in 1943 and raised in Greenwich Village. His father, half Irish, half Italian, was a painter whose name was also Robert De Niro (so he’s technically a Jr., or Robert De Niro II). His mother, Virginia Admiral, was an artist too.

A portrait of a young Robert De Niro.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The De Niros were part of an underground artistic community in Greenwich Village that started to flourish during the World War II. The De Niros had a salon on Bleecker Street, where art critics, film criticism and artists would come to discuss Freud, Kierkegaard, and other intellectual topics.

A Lonely, Shy, and Quiet Boy

In 1946, Robert Sr. and Virginia separated, and the mother took two-year-old Robert Jr. to an apartment with her on West 14th Street. She had to work to pay the bills, so De Niro had to make it on his own from an early age.

A backstage photo of De Niro at the Oscars.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“He was never coddled,” a family friend revealed. The boy was a loner, shy, and tended to be quiet for long periods of time. After school, young De Niro would wander the streets of Little Italy, and eventually joined a street gang on Kenmare.

They Called Him Bobby Milk

In the gang, he earned the nickname Bobby Milk, “because he was pale and strange as milk.” At ten, he played his first-ever role in a school play – The Wizard of Oz – as the Cowardly Lion. It was then that he thought he might enjoy being an actor.

A dated portrait of Robert De Niro.
Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images

He later explained, “because then I could express myself.” Afterward, he started going to “lots of movies” with his father. At 16, De Niro dropped out of high school and never looked back. He decided to enroll in Stella Adler’s scene-study class.

A Road Trip to Find His Roots

Come 1975, he spoke to Time magazine about why he became an actor. “At first, being a star was a big part of it. When I got into it, it became more complicated.” De Niro grew obsessed with discovering his roots.

De Niro walks the street.
Photo by MEGA/GC Images/Getty Images

One summer, he tried to find his relatives by hitchhiking from Ireland to Italy and actually found them. The De Niro family was living in a place called Campobasso, in between Naples and Rome. He then went to see his father, who had moved to France.

A Good Son

De Niro Sr., who was still painting, was struggling to survive. “It was a nightmare,” De Niro told the New York Post, but his father was committed to his art. It was something that De Niro admired, and he urged his father to show his work in Paris and New York.

De Niro speaks on stage.
Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images

He took slides of his dad’s paintings back with him to the States. A good son (also an only child), he would promote his father’s work at his own acting auditions. “Hello there,” he would say. “I’m Bob De Niro, and I’m sure you’ve heard of my father.”

He Inspired a Copycat Killer

As soon as he became a movie star, he bought both his parents (who never remarried) big lofts. Things were looking up for the De Niros, but when the 1980s rolled around, De Niro was hit by a disturbing event. In March 1981, as you might recall, John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Reagan.

A mugshot of John Hinckley / A photo of De Niro.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Prisons, Getty Images / Noam Galai, Getty Images

It was then revealed by federal investigators that Hinckley was inspired by De Niro’s portrayal of the crazed loner Travis Bickle – a guy who stalks a presidential candidate – in Taxi Driver. Apparently, he saw the movie 15 times before shooting Reagan, and three psychiatrists testified that Hinckley believed he WAS Travis Bickle.

Don’t Talk to De Niro About Taxi Driver

The movie was even screened as evidence for the jury at the trial. De Niro, who is truly serious about his roles in film, was horrified by the controversial publicity around Taxi Driver. People were asking, “Can a film drive someone to murder?” For the first time, De Niro started getting stopped by fans on the street.

A still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Columbia Pictures

They demanded he say Bickle’s infamous line, “Ya talkin’ to me?” It became a touchy subject for De Niro. The role that made him a star ended up being a tainted one. “Do not ever bring up the subject of Taxi Driver with Robert,” director Ulu Grosbard stated. “He gets extremely upset.”

Scorsese Was Sensitive About It Too

Martin Scorsese didn’t like to talk about the copycat crime or John Hinckley, either. After the attempted assassination, Scorsese said he refused to comment for six months. “I didn’t feel like making another film for a while, and I’d never felt that way before.”

A photo of Scorsese and De Niro attending an event.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Still, he added, “I do not regret I made Taxi Driver. It was not an irresponsible act; it was a responsible one.” He said that both he and De Niro thought so at the time – that “this is something we’re attracted to—let’s go for it! Movies don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Don’t Mention John Belushi Either

Something else that is off the table is the subject of John Belushi, who was a close friend of De Niro’s. After the comic died of an overdose in March 1982, De Niro broke down. He was in Belushi’s room at the Chateau Marmont on the night of his death, but he didn’t stay long.

A dated picture of John Belushi.
Photo by Steve Kagan/Getty Images

De Niro said he left almost immediately after showing up, thinking the woman Belushi was with was “trashy.” Ironically, when De Niro was filming Falling in Love with Meryl Streep, rumors circulated that he was doing cocaine.

In and Out of Hollywood’s Shadows

“But that is preposterous!” Grosbard, the film’s director, claimed. “I should know. I directed him in every scene.” However, Judy Belushi, the comedian’s widow, said she asked De Niro about his cocaine use. And he reportedly replied, “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.”

A still of Meryl Streep and De Niro in Falling in Love.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures

After Belushi’s death, he tried his best to stay out of Hollywood’s shadows. He made King of Comedy, then grew his hair shoulder-length and went to Colombia to play a slave trader turned priest in The Mission.

From $50 to $2 Million

De Niro turned down the lead role in Ironweed to play a role as Al Capone in The Untouchables. The actor was paid $2 million for two weeks’ work. Back in the mid-‘60s, De Niro auditioned for Brian De Palma, who was only a struggling young film director.

A still of De Niro in a scene from The Untouchables.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures

“Bobby was shy and withdrawn at first when he read,” De Palma recalled. De Niro appeared in three of De Palma’s earliest films, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! His salary for each movie was 50 bucks.

Becoming a Director’s Favorite

He and De Palma became friends, and it was the director who recommended the Taxi Driver script to De Niro. “It was the strongest stuff I had ever read. I didn’t think the movie would ever be made. But if anybody could do it, it would be Bobby,” De Palma said.

A backstage photo of De Palma and De Niro on set.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures

In 1973, De Niro played Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. “Exploded like a shotgun blast,” a critic wrote. Two years later, he won the Oscar for best supporting actor (as the young Don Corleone) in The Godfather, Part II.

A Perfect Sicilian Accent

He spoke only eight words of English in the film. He learned to speak in a perfect Sicilian dialect and also watched Brando’s performance as the aging godfather 50 times. He shocked director Francis Coppola by asking relentless questions about the character during the shooting.

A picture of De Niro attending a screening.
Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

“I didn’t want to do an imitation of Brando,” De Niro explained. “I wanted to make it believable that I could be him as a young man. It was like a mathematical problem.” Brando himself said about De Niro, “I doubt if he knows how good he is.”

He and His Wife Were Sued for Damaging the House

It came to the point where De Niro was working nonstop. In between projects, he would fly home to New York, to his cheap West 14th Street apartment, or hide out in Malibu with industry people. By 1976, De Niro was married to longtime girlfriend, Diahnne Abbott.

A dated picture of Diahnne Abbott and De Niro attending an event.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

They lived in a rented Bel Air house, filled with friends and pets, including a parrot. When they moved out, their landlord sued them for $10,000. Why? “The number of cats De Niro and his wife had soiled the house, clawed at the rugs, the drapes, the furniture,” the landlord declared.

When Bobby Met Marty

De Niro and Scorsese have one of the most enviable alliances in Hollywood history. Martin Scorsese, the son of immigrants and raised in New York’s Little Italy, met De Niro at a 1971 Christmas party. Scorsese said to him, “Hey! Didn’t you use to hang around Hester Street?” De Niro didn’t answer.

A friendly picture of Scorsese and De Niro.
Photo by Edoardo Fornaciari/Getty Images

“Just stared at me—he does not look at you, he considers you—so I stared back. Then I remembered: ‘It was Kenmare Street—the Kenmare gang.” Then De Niro went “Heh, heh!” It had been 14 years since the two had seen each other.

De Niro and Scorsese Spoke in Code

The two hit it off immediately. “We were both guys who’d grown up on the street,” Scorsese said. But according to the star director, “Bobby hardly talked to me at all. I might be rambling on, and suddenly I’d notice that Bobby had fallen fast asleep!”

A photo of Scorsese and De Niro inside a taxi in Taxi Driver.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

By the time they made Raging Bull, they were speaking in code to each other, communicating in shrugs and whispers. When he was asked what they talked about, Scorsese answered, “The real stuff between me and Bob is private. Bob talks to me private.”