'Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.': A famous son takes an emotional look back

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Relatively few sons have the opportunity to honor their dads the way Robert De Niro does.

The two-time Oscar winner and modern screen legend recalls his abstract-expressionist-painter father (1922-93) in the documentary "Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.," which has its HBO premiere Monday (June 9). Though it runs under an hour, the program packs in a wealth of information about the actor's parents; his mother, Virginia Admiral, also was a painter as well as a poet.

Home movies, interviews with such art-world notables as artist Albert Kresch and art adviser Megan Fox Kelly, and footage of comments by the elder De Niro himself also inform the profile, scored by Philip Glass and shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In some of its most moving moments, the younger De Niro reads entries from the elder's journals, which noted De Niro Sr.'s uncertainty about his career even as it seemed to thrive in the New York of the 1940s and 1950s.

In an interview with  Zap2it, "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" icon De Niro spoke as candidly as he does in the documentary about the "obligation" and "responsibility" he feels to shine a light on his father's work.

Zap2it: How satisfying is it to you that all of this different material finally has been fused into this documentary about your father?

Robert De Niro: I've always been wanting to do it, but I'd delay it for one reason or another. I'm not sure how much longer his contemporaries will be around, and I would want them to be part of it ... and family members, and so on.

Jane Rosenthal (De Niro's longtime producing partner) and I had been talking about it for years, and she finally said, "We really have to do it." I said, "You're right," but I was only doing it at that time to document my father's life as much as I could for the family. As time went on, HBO got interested in it and I said, "OK," since I thought that also would be helpful in giving me another objective.

Zap2it: Along with Geeta Gandbhir ("God Is the Bigger Elvis"), Perri Peltz - well-known in New York as a former local newscaster - directed the project. Was it significant to you to put this in the hands of someone as associated with the city as you are?

Robert De Niro: Well, Perri is friends with Jane, and Jane recommended her. I'd met Perri over the years and certainly knew who she was, and I met Geeta through them, and that's how it started.

Zap2it: What was the impact on you of reading your father's words for the documentary?

Robert De Niro: It was emotional, of course. I've not read his full journals yet, only those pieces and parts and some others, but I intend to do that one day.

Zap2it: Your father's studio, which you now own, is shown in pristine condition in the documentary. What went into that?

Robert De Niro: I wanted it to be there for the kids. I was seriously considering letting it go -- I'd documented everything, took lots of videos and photos -- then I had a gathering with friends and relatives there a couple of years ago as sort of a saying goodbye, and then I just said, "I can't let it go. I've got to hold onto it for as long as I can."

I held it originally for my younger kids, so they'd know who their grandfather was by really being right there, in that space. I take them there from time to time, so I've accomplished that, and this movie is even more of an accomplishment of it.

Zap2it: Through such efforts as the Tribeca Film Institute, it's clear that you like to foster talent. Through that and your father's estate, you give a Robert De Niro Sr. Prize for painting. Do you consider that a way to have him share the same aim?

Robert De Niro: Yes, yes. That's right.

Zap2it: Many artists seem to have scholarly looks, but the footage of your father shows him as very active and vibrant. Is that how he lives in your mind?

Robert De Niro: He died when he was 71, and I think he would be alive today if he had not had his prostate situation or dealt with it proactively. It was a slightly different time then, and he was terrified of dealing with that.

As I look back on it, I realize I should have pushed him more. I don't know if I would have succeeded in getting him to have an operation, which I had about 10 years ago. Ever since I saw how he was diagnosed, I was more proactive about checking myself often.

Zap2it: As much as the documentary is primarily about your father, it also invokes a strong portrait of your mother. Are you happy with its depiction of her?

Robert De Niro: That's one reason I wish I would have done this while she was still alive. There are a lot of memories she could have come up with that would have made it even better ... and the fact that she'd just be in the movie would have been nice.

Zap2it: Both of your parents were able to see the stature you've attained in the film world. How do you look back at your own career?

Robert De Niro: I consider myself very lucky to have been part of wonderful films, and to now be able work with younger actors and have good relationships with them. We're friends, and it's a very good, nice situation.
Photo/Video credit: HBO