For a guy who's made his fortune baring his soul on camera, Robert De Niro is unusually private: though he's been working for fifty-seven years, he rarely divulges any information about himself offscreen. “After I give an interview, I spend all my time trying to explain what I meant,” he once said. Now, the actor rarely takes interviews, and if one's been through as much crazy stuff in one's life as he has, it's probably for the best.
Born in 1943 in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, De Niro had creative roots from the start. His parents had met one another in a painting class, and his father was well-known as an abstract expressionist whose friends included Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin.
He's a complicated mix. Although he's stated he identifies most with his Italian ancestry, De Niro is actually only 1/4 Italian. His dad was half Irish, and his mom had English, Dutch, French, Irish, and German ancestors.
And while nobody knows what his spiritual beliefs are nowadays, De Niro was raised by an atheist mother and a formerly Catholic father. Neither parent wanted their son to be baptized, but young De Niro's grandparents had the ceremony performed secretly while he was staying with them.
De Niro got into acting at age 10, when he played the Cowardly Lion in a local performance of The Wizard of Oz — but he didn't strictly follow the artist path. He also joined a gang a few years later, which would inspire his highly-praised gangster performances as an adult.