Creation of a Character: Two Excerpts From Shawn Levy’s DE NIRO: A LIFE

Last week in EatDrinkFilms, Roger Leatherwood reviewed Shawn Levy’s new biography De Niro: A Life. This we week we present a pair of excerpts from the book, focusing on De Niro’s intensive character preparation and obsessive working methods for The Godfather: Part II and The Untouchables.

MCDGOTW EC001De Niro visited Sicily in October 1973, when Coppola was shooting the Nevada scenes of the film. He stayed for a while with Pianti’s family in Trapani, spent time in the towns of Scopello and Castellammare del Golfo, and then, most delicately, traveled to the now-famous village of  Corleone, where he ventured alone in order to, as he had in Georgia before Bang the Drum Slowly , get a sense of how his lines should sound in the local manner of speech.

He didn’t make a secret of his motives. “I was always up front about what I was doing,” he said. “I feel it would be underhanded not to say anything. I’m just an actor doing my work. I’ve found people enjoy helping you and if they understand what you’re looking for, you save a lot of time and unnecessary suspicion.” But even that attitude could seem overly hopeful in Sicily and especially Corleone. “When I went into a bar, I was a little hesitant about mentioning the picture,” he confessed, “because I didn’t know what the reaction would be. But they seemed genuinely proud of The Godfather and complained because the picture wasn’t filmed there.”

When he returned and continued working with Pianti, the tutor was amazed at his pupil’s progress: “If you’d asked me if it was possible that an actor master a language like Sicilian in such a short time,” Pianti later commented, “I would have said, ‘Never. Impossible.’ But this De Niro has done it.”

DeNiro2Coppola claimed that he was never in doubt that the man he’d chosen as young Vito could pull off this part of the role: “Bobby De Niro is such a unified, concentrated guy that I always had faith he could do it,” he said. “Later I heard he’d been a terrible student in high school—which tells us something about positive motivation. Also, I always knew, and I’m sure he did too, that if it had turned out a disaster, I could always dub him with a Sicilian. Which, I suppose, tells us something more about motivation.”

In fact, De Niro’s proficiency in Sicilian became such that he did extensive rewrites of Coppola’s dialogue, not only for his own character but also for all of the Sicilian-language scenes in the script, sometimes emphasizing little idioms and tics of pronunciation, sometimes ratcheting back speeches that he felt, after his exposure to the manners of Sicilians, were too forthright and direct. (This practice came to dominate virtually all of De Niro’s work. Other actors might want to pump their parts up by adding dialogue; throughout his career, based on the evidence of scores of his working copies of scripts, he indulged the opposite impulse, paring and even slashing away at his own lines to make them less explicit, less verbal, less everything—subsuming actorly ego to the belief that he could do more with a gaze or a gesture than could be accomplished with words.)

Spending time among Sicilians had filled his head with many ideas for his portrayal of the young Vito Corleone. In particular, he found that he ought to augment his linguistic work with the practice of, in a word, silence. “The people are very wonderful to you, invite you into their homes. And yet, there’s another side, another layer of logic that runs through the Sicilian communities,” he said “They have a tremendous disrespect for authority … The only people they trust are members of the immediate family. Ultimately, everyone else is a foreigner. Suspicion runs high. And although they are very cordial to you as a tourist, you are still aware of this. Sicilians have a way of watching without watching; they’ll scrutinize you thoroughly and you don’t even know it.”

DeNiro3Reading through Puzo’s novel and the various drafts of Coppola’s script, De Niro continually took note of the stillness of his character, the way Vito would never let on what he was truly thinking, no matter the seeming triviality of the moment. “Never show how you feel cause you never know how things will turn out,” he scribbled in the margins of the book, and “never let anyone know thinking. always keep off guard. be doing one thing while thinking another.” In the script, he reminded himself to “give smile with mouth, not with eyes. Chilling smile.” And, most revealingly, he underscored a moment in which Vito would like to react but doesn’t with this note: “Think of my father here. Don’t get too rash. Wait. Control yourself.”

He also, of course, had to calibrate his performance to match Brando’s. The Don Corleone whom Brando had made world-famous had certain physical, vocal, and behavioral characteristics that De Niro would have to incorporate in his portrayal of the younger man in order to make the connection between the two credible to audiences. At first, he admitted, the character eluded him—“There’s a peasant shrewdness which I haven’t found yet,” he said before traveling to Sicily. But then, having gotten a sense of the culture from which the man arose, he went about studying the specifics of Brando’s performance. In a screening room at Paramount, Coppola’s crew set up a videotape camera and filmed each of Brando’s scenes so that De Niro could watch them again and again on his own. He did this at least a half dozen times, making detailed notes on Brando’s gestures, facial expressions, and habits of speech: “lead a little with shoulders… head cocked… when thinking hand to chin… sly smile, sense of humor… raised eyebrows when making certain deliberate expressions… use back of fingers to scratch face… when point lift only forearm when want something… maybe should do more of chin sticking out. Esp. for smiling… Big thing is he is relaxed talker… Lets things happen. Let things happen.”

He specifically assigned each of the characteristic gestures of Brando’s he had identified to one or more of his own scenes, choosing a strategy of slowly revealing the future man in the nuanced behavior of the man of the past. As he said at the time, “It’s like being a scientist or a technician. Audiences already know Vito Corleone. I watch him and I say, ‘That’s an interesting gesture. When could he have started to do that?’ It’s my job as an actor to find things I can make connections with. I must find things and figure out how can I use them, in what scenes can I use them to suggest what the older man will be like.”

DeNiro4

DeNiro5Besides the physical aspects, he also had to reveal the nascent pieces of the elder Vito’s personality: his easy command, his purring warmth, his confidence, his charm. The character, as he saw it, had a feline quality, “an attitude of just about to strike,” and should be played “perfectly still like a cat ready to strike.” Stillness and silence were, finally, his keys: “I listen. I’m a listener. I don’t have to move to do a lot… Talking is really not that important… Don’t just answer… Think… Really think, weigh.” But there was another animal he had in mind, because he was playing someone who would soon be a killer of men: “Don’t forget to get that serpent color.”

In effect, the job in front of him was to take a prebuilt older man, project what he likely might have been like decades before, and bring that sketch to life. “I watched the tape,” he said, “and I saw if I had done the part myself I would have done it differently. But I tried to connect him with me, how I could be him only younger. So I tried to speed up where he was slower, to get the rasp of his voice, only the beginning of the rasp. It was interesting. It was like a scientific problem.”

He did the usual physical things that helped him prepare for a role: acquiring hats and other bits of wardrobe that were appropriate for the era of his performance (roughly 1918–23, when Vito would have been in his mid- to late twenties), then aging them to take off the storebought sheen; finding old-time knives and change purses for Vito to carry, even though they might never appear in the film; and working closely with costumer Theadora Van Runkle to ensure that his wardrobe matched the research he had done in Sicily and in the New York Public Library. He visited Dick Smith, who had helped Brando devise his makeup in the first film, to settle on facial appearances: “The slicked-down hair seemed natural, that was how they wore it in those days. We decided to do a little with the cheeks, suggesting the padding that Brando used.” (They also settled on a makeup scheme to hide the mole on his right cheekbone.) And he even went to Brando’s Los Angeles dentist, Henry Dwork, to be fitted with a removable implant that would give him some of the facial and vocal appearance Brando had. “He made up a smaller piece,” De Niro explained, “because my character was younger.”


M8DUNTO EC011In the fall, just as production on The Untouchables began in Chicago, Paramount’s Ned Tanen flew in to see how things were going. He was impressed by the preparation and the footage that had already been shot—the bombing of a speakeasy. Then Linson and De Palma sat him down and De Palma laid out his case to pursue De Niro: “We have the opportunity to get De Niro to play Capone. I believe if we stay with the cast we have, shorten the schedule [as the studio was hoping], and reduce the scale of the picture, that you will end up with a movie that at best will be suited for ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ It is not the movie I want to direct. It will not work, and I cannot afford to make a movie that will not work.” Linson added, “Ned, think of it, when Bob De Niro kills somebody with a baseball bat, with Brian directing, it will never be forgotten.”

Tanen was hesitant, but he was mollified by word that De Niro would be willing to drop his fee by $1 million, taking $1.5 million and a piece of the gross of the film as his salary. He begrudgingly agreed to replace Hoskins, paying the actor his entire fee as a parting gift. Hoskins, for his part, had absolutely nothing bad to say. Asked if he was upset at being let go, he told a reporter, “Are you kidding? I got $200,000 for doing nothing and went on to my next project. De Niro has shown me only kindness. He’s a real friend. He’s helped me shop for my wife’s and my kids’ Christmas presents. He’s invited me around to meet his granny, and he’s come to my house for a pot-luck dinner. That really knocked my wife out. I think she was finally impressed with me. You can’t do better than that for a friend.”

DeNiro7Working with De Niro had been smooth thus far. His only demand had been that all his scenes be shot on continuous workdays, which actually made things easier for the production. But when he showed up in Chicago for rehearsals, some weeks before he was scheduled to begin shooting, Linson was alarmed. The producer went with De Palma to visit De Niro in a hotel suite and couldn’t believe that the thin, sheepish fellow before him was the man he’d just hired to play Al Capone. “He was thin; his face was gaunt. He was quiet and he looked young. His hair was thick and low on his forehead and he wore a ponytail.” As he later recalled, “If De Palma’s introduction had not confirmed that this was Robert De Niro, I would’ve asked for some verification.” When they left after their chat with the actor, Linson put his fears bluntly to De Palma: “If I didn’t know that was Robert De Niro, I’d say we were doomed. Tell me we haven’t made fools of ourselves.”

Determined to go forward, De Niro told Linson about some problems he was having with the script. To De Niro’s surprise, the producer indicated that Mamet had turned hostile toward the production and might not even be willing to answer any of his questions; he gave De Niro Mamet’s phone number and wished him luck. Then he accompanied him to the wardrobe department, where De Niro looked at the costumes that had been prepared for him and declared them “great… good… nice… interesting…” Linson knew that what he was hearing was, in fact, the opposite of what the words said. “You have come to the conclusion that you hate the wardrobe,” he said. “You would like me to start over and have it completely redesigned… under your supervision.” De Niro smiled. Linson calculated another $50,000 had just been added to his budget, but he had passed the point at which he could say no.

DeNiro8De Niro took off for Italy, where he spent five or six weeks eating an obscenely rich diet like the one he’d indulged in during the production of Raging Bull . Linson, meanwhile, put in orders for ten bespoke suits, at $3,000 each, from a tailor whom De Niro recommended in lower Manhattan who’d actually made clothes for Al Capone. He also splurged on underwear: silk, from the famed Sulka haberdashery, which again was where the real Capone had shopped. Per De Niro’s instructions, specific items of jewelry, hats, even cigars (Havanas, illegal, at $25 a pop) were obtained. Now all they needed was their Capone.

That winter, with production well under way, they got him. De Niro returned to Chicago plumped out and with his hairline altered, unrecognizable as the quiet fellow from the previous visit. He sat for the makeup department to give him a prosthetic nose, then went into the wardrobe trailer, put on his silk drawers and bespoke suit, donned a fedora, lit a cigar, and stepped out onto the set. “It was like witnessing a grand magic trick performed by a maestro,” Linson recalled. “Without uttering a word, by merely strolling to his position in front of the camera, Capone–De Niro suddenly became sly, dangerous, confident, and even witty. The entire crew felt the electricity … The character had been created.”

DeNiro9Of course, that magical transformation was the result of another of De Niro’s deep exercises in mining and creating a character. He watched several of his old movies, particularly Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America , and compared his performances with images of Capone from newsreels; he read books by people who knew Capone, practiced working with a cigar, acquired a manicure and a suntan, listened to Capone’s favorite operas, and looked at hundreds of photographs of Capone and other gangsters of the 1920s, paying particular attention to their clothing, haircuts, hats, and jewelry. (He sought, and failed to find, an audio recording of Capone’s voice. “Getting the voice is the most difficult thing,” he complained.) The hair was particularly vexing, he admitted: “It took a week, sitting in a barber’s chair for seven hours at a stretch while they snipped and shaved and tweezed, checking with photographs of Capone. It was incredible; if just one hair was off it looked artificial.”

He built his Capone as a man of words, of public relations, of political theater; larger than life, kingly, even godlike. He reminded himself in his script notes to move his head only barely, to speak clearly and forthrightly in expectation of deference, to make a show of candor when it seemed beneficial, to consider that Capone had acquired so much power and authority at a relatively young age, to always remember that he was a spectacle, that people were watching him, that even his most out-of-control moments had to have an element of restraint and dignity.


Purchase De Niro: A Life at your local bookshop or through our affiliate links with IndieBound and Amazon. For other films starring Robert De Niro, click here.


ShawnLevyShawn Levy is a Portland, Oregon, author, teacher and community volunteer. From 1992 until 2013, he wrote for The Oregonian, serving as Film Critic from 1997 to 2012. Prior to that, he was Senior Editor of the late, great American Film magazine and Associate Editor of Boxoffice magazine. He has written about film, pop culture, books and sports for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian of London, the Independent of London, the San Francisco Chronicle, Movieline, Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Premiere, the Village Voice, the Hollywood Reporter and many other publications. A native of New York City, he was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Irvine. He has three children and lives in southwest Portland. He is a board member of Operation Pitch Invasion, a not-for-profit dedicated to building, restoring and maintaining soccer fields in parks, schools and communities in and around Portland.

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