Robert De Niro’s first film after the tremendous critical success of “Raging Bull” was “True Confessions” in which he played an Irish-born, American priest. My dad didn’t know who Robert De Niro was when he called and asked if Pop would help him with his research of the character by coaching him on the sung latin responses of the Mass that an Irish-born priest in the 1950’s would sing with the proper inflection. Although my dad was regularly around celebrities given his work as a noted conductor and did considerable amounts of work on film soundtracks as well, he seldom had time to watch movies or television as his work kept him so busy. So it was rare that he’d heard of or seen many noted actors’ work. My brother and I happened to be at the house once when De Niro called and when my mom called out “Paul, TELEPHONE! Robert De Niro!” My brother and I asked,“You mean THE Robert De Niro??? Pop said, “Well he’s an actor. Have you heard of him??” We answered, “YEAH Pop! “We’ve heard of him!!!” Pop asked, “Is he any good?” We answered enthusiastically, “YEAH Pop! He’s pretty good!!!”
When Pop first met with DeNiro, he went to the Chateau Marmot where DeNiro was staying and dropped off a tape for him to listen to. Since DeNiro had just finished “Raging Bull”, he still looked like the older, pudgy version of Jake LaMotta and since Pop had never seen him before, he figured that’s what he normally looked like. This was back in the days of De Niro’s fairly obsessive character preparation where he’d gain or lose huge amounts of weight for a part that required it. And back then, his obsession with preserving the imagination of the character extended to not breaking character for the entire time he was working on a film, even when the cameras were off!! None of which was known to my dad. When Pop went back a month later, DeNiro had so transformed himself into the character of Monsignor Desmond Spellacy whom he would play in “True Confessions,” Pop didn’t recognize him! We took my dad to see “The Godfather Part II” so he could see some of DeNiro’s work. He was especially shaken by the scene where DeNiro’s character the iconic Vito Corleone, went back to Sicily to avenge the deaths of his father, mother and brother by a powerful, local don years before. At the crucial moment of “pay back” in the scene, De Niro introduces himself to the don who is now quite old and hard of hearing. When the don asks him the name of his father, Vito tells him specifically so he can remember that name and realize just before the vendetta is finally settled, that the old man is now going to pay! Vito then says to him, “E questo nei per te!” which translates to “And this is for you!” as he sinks a knife into the old man’s chest and runs it downward to make fatally sure the score is finally settled before making his getaway. You can see the scene HERE.
One day during production on “True Confessions” in the old St. Joseph’s church in downtown Los Angeles, they filmed the opening sequence in which De Niro’s character is performing a wedding in full priestly vestments. True to his intense research and preparation, De Niro had also enlisted the help of a number of actual priests in vestments as extras on the altar with him who had also been advisers to him during his preparations for the role. My dad was up in the choir loft conducting the choir who performed the music for that opening sequence. Pop notices that DeNiro is bringing the host down too fast during the consecration scene so he sends a runner down to the altar to tell him that he can raise it up as fast as he wants, but he has to bring it down slowly. DeNiro then sends the runner back up to Paul to have him come down and stand near him to advise him because the priests missed that minute detail. One that while unimportant to the plot, was important to De Niro’s imagination in “being” the character. At one point later, DeNiro is singing a responsorial and as he finishes, he looks over at Pop and asks if that one “was all right,” but while remaining fully in character. Pop tells him that it was a little out of tune but that they can probably fix it during looping. The director, Ulu Grosbard then yells, “Cut!” ….For what seemed like an enormously long time of silence, DeNiro and Pop are now looking at each other as they’re trying to figure out if they blew the take because they were speaking before the “Cut!”. While waiting to see if they get chewed out for ruining the shot, Pop looks at DeNiro and repeats the cataclysmal line from the “Godfather Part II” , “E questo nei per te!” DeNiro then completely shattered his precedent of not breaking character and with a big grin on his face and in full vestments, channels young Vito Corleone as he recreates the “payback” scene from the “Godfather Part II” and runs an imaginary knife down Pop’s chest and they both broke up laughing about it on the altar!….You can see the finished opening scene HERE.
I think they were both blue-collar guys in a white-collar world and understood that about each other. And that was the basis for the great trust and affection between them. I also think that DeNiro was put at ease by the fact that Pop didn’t know who he was and that whatever information that exchanged between them, was unvarnished or affected by the pollution that celebrity often brings to relationships. They never saw each other after the film’s wrap party, but I remember he used to send Christmas cards to Pop for several years afterwards. Even though Pop had been around film sets and performed on-stage as a singer in numerous professional, musical theater situations, he had never before seen an actor with De Niro’s discipline in preparing and researching the imagination of the characters he played and what would motivate them. So much so that by the time the filming started, all De Niro needed to do was “Be” the character since he’d spent so much intense time stoking his imagination with the character’s background and motivations! Anyway, I thought the story might be interesting to recount here as a vivid example of an actor going to great detail to stoke the imagination of the character.
The picture at the top of the post was sent to my dad by De Niro and is autographed to him as…. “To Paul, Thanks for everything! You’re the best. Robert De Niro”