Robert De Niro debunks a local legend
“Bob says he was never fired,” wrote Robert De Niro’s publicist after I queried him about the longstanding rumor that the Oscar-winning actor was terminated from the Barn Dinner Theater in 1967.
The story, circulated in Triad theatrical circles for decades, made its way into the 2011 Los Angeles Times article “The Rise and Fall of Dinner Theater,” which stated the actor “reportedly was canned midshow during a production.” This unsubstantiated claim also appears in the Wikipedia entry on dinner theaters, with the parenthetical notation “citation needed.”
The oldest continuously operated dinner theater in the United States, the Barn opened at 120 Stage Coach Trail in 1964, the second of a one-time chain of 27 venues that stretched from New York to Texas. Ric Gutierrez, the Barn’s general manager since 1996, wrote in an email that he was told by the Barn’s former owner Roy Conley Jones, who died in 1997, that the actor was fired in the middle of a performance because he refused to wait tables. In the Barn’s first decade, cast members were often expected to do that before the “Magic Stage” (so-named for its hydraulic system) descended from the ceiling, and the play began.
A February 2017 Barn press release tells a slightly different version, explaining that the “chain of Barns were union houses back then, under the Actors’ Equity Association, and employed some of the finest Equity Actors from New York, including two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro.” It also mentioned the rumor “that Mr. De Niro was fired three weeks into his contract because of a ‘conflict of interest’ between him and the director.”
The future Oscar-winner was mostly unknown in 1967 when an ad in the Wednesday, April 24 issue of the Greensboro Daily News proclaimed that “Tchin-Tchin,” an “adult comedy with New York Cast” was opening on the Barn’s Magic Stage. The play, written in French by François Billetdoux and translated into English by Sidney Michaels, had opened on Broadway in 1963 and closed the next year. It originally starred Anthony Quinn as Italian construction worker Caesario Grimaldi and Margaret Leighton as the aristocratic Englishwoman he attempts to seduce. Robert De Niro, who played Caesario in Greensboro, was never in the New York cast.
While the future star had been acting in his native city since the early 1960s, Shawn Levy’s excellent and thoroughly documented De Niro: A Life makes it clear he worked far off-Broadway and, until he came to Greensboro, was rarely paid. His contract with the Barn for $35 a week, plus $3 a day in expenses and living space at the theater, may have been his most lucrative up to that point. His only credited film roles had been in The Wedding Party and Encounter.
The former, a 1963 micro-budget comedy with De Niro in a supporting role, remained unreleased until 1969. Levy reported that De Niro was paid $50 for the entire shoot. The latter, a now-lost drama starring De Niro and Dyanne Thorne (who later embodied the title character in the notorious Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS), was never released and De Niro was never paid.
Such experiences may have made his Barn salary appealing, but many struggling actors would have still welcomed the tips from waiting tables, and while Levy’s biography doesn’t address the rumor of his firing for refusing to do that, it still casts some doubt. Levy reported that the actor enjoyed his time in Greensboro.
“We’d serve the desserts,” Levy quotes De Niro as saying, “and then go upstairs to prepare for the play, and then the stage would drop, and we’d perform. I liked it.”
He also liked doing local publicity. Ric Gutierrez was kind enough to send me an audio recording of an interview that Burlington’s WBAG did with the actor while he was performing here. It’s a fascinating bit of local history, despite interviewer Fran Campbell’s habit of interrupting her subject.
Campbell begins by praising De Niro’s performance in “Tchin-Tchin” and asks him about The Wedding Party, which he says is being prepared for release at Cannes. When she asks about his plans, he says that he’ll be in “Tchin-Tchin” until “the 20th of this month, and then will be taking it on tour to Charlotte.” (According to Levy’s biography, the play De Niro actually performed in Charlotte in the summer of 1967 was William Goodheart’s “Generation,” in which “he stole the show in the role of a kooky obstetrician helping a hippie-ish young couple navigate the wife’s first pregnancy.”)
The following exchange then occurs:
Campbell: Do you know after that? Do you have anything lined up?
De Niro: I’m working on a film script which I’m trying to complete, which I’d like to direct once I get . . .
Campbell: [interrupting] I was just wondering if, in all the different facets of the theater, if you’d ever done any directing or writing.
De Niro: Not yet. A little writing, this film script I’m doing, but that’s it.
Campbell: What might that be about? Can you tell us some more?
De Niro: Basically, it’s about someone who. . . the progression of someone … I’m very interested in the assassination, in the Kennedy assassination . . ..
Campbell: [speaking over him] Oh, I see
De Niro: . . . something about along those lines, right, and . . .
Campbell: [speaking over him] Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
De Niro: . . . psychological development into why someone would do, you know, what Oswald was su– [it sounds like he was going to say “supposed”]
Campbell: [Speaking over him] Oh, I see, uh-huh. Robert, thank you so very much, and we’ve enjoyed it immensely.
And with that, she cuts off the man whom many would later call the greatest American actor of his generation.
However, in 1967, the most famous Robert De Niro in America was not the actor but his father, a respected artist, who by the mid-60s, had several paintings and drawings in the collection of UNCG’s Weatherspoon Gallery. But that wasn’t the senior De Niro’s only North Carolina connection.
In 1939, at the suggestion of his mentor Hans Hofmann, a pivotal figure in abstract expressionism, the 17-year-old Robert Henry De Niro applied to Black Mountain College, the experimental arts school near Asheville, which such noted painters as Willem De Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg (along with Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Allen Ginsberg) attended and/or taught at between the school’s founding in 1933 and its closure (for lack of funds) in 1957.
Although one of the youngest painters at the school, De Niro was lauded by art department head Josef Albers, but despite this praise, De Niro found Albers’ cool and rigorous (one might say stereotypically German) aesthetic uncongenial. “One day I just walked out,” he would later tell New York Daily News reporter Sidney Fields, “with only $5 on me.”
He returned to his mentor Hofmann’s school in New York, and to summer sessions in the bohemian artist colony Provincetown at the Northern tip of Cape Cod. There, when he was 20 and she 27, he met his future wife, the American painter and poet Virginia Admiral.
Admiral, who’d also studied with Hans Hofmann, was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League and a protégée of the not-yet-notorious writer of erotica Anaïs Nin, for whom Admiral would type 60 volumes of Nin’s scandalous diaries that were published decades later. Admiral’s art would be included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, but in those days, times were hard, and she and her future husband earned extra cash by writing pornography that Nin sold to a private collector for a dollar a page.
De Niro, who would later call the smut “very hard work,” soon went back to earning extra money at a fish cannery, but Admiral apparently found it more fun, although Nin criticized her early efforts for being “too satiric.” They still had to take on such odd jobs when their son Robert Anthony De Niro Jr. was born in 1943.
“Like Father, Not Like Son,” a short uncredited article in the “Not Strictly News” section of the 05/18/1967 Greensboro Daily Record, describes the not-yet-famous Robert De Niro’s trip to see his father’s painting of actress Greta Garbo, which belonged to UNCG but was on loan to Burlington Industries. It’s worth quoting in its entirety, especially since the PDF available online is barely legible (I had to track it down on microfiche at the Greensboro Public Library to read all of it). Particularly amusing is his claim that “beats” and “hippies” (or as one might say now hipsters) are ruining New York’s East Village. [Note: italics are used to indicate the text of the original article].
Robert De Niro Jr., who is appearing in the Barn Dinner Theater’s production of “Tchin-Tchin,” was like most teenagers when he was growing up. He wanted to be just about anything except a painter. That was what his mother and father were, so it just didn’t appeal to him.
When he was 15, because he did possess some of his parents’ talents, he was offered an art scholarship. For a couple of months, he tried it, then dropped out. Now he is a little sad about it.
He said so yesterday after visiting his father’s painting of Greta Garbo in Burlington Industries Executive Wing. It seems that Burlington bought the picture as a gift for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Benefactors can borrow their gifts so that is what the painting, for the moment, is not in Weatherspoon’s gallery where it belongs. Robert looked as if he were greeting an old friend when he saw the painting. It was a bit of ‘home away from home’ for him.
He grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City when the elements were mostly Irish and Italian. He says, “I don’t make that scene anymore.” The changes in recent years have cased[sic] many of the Village residents to turn into what Robert calls, “East Village.” The “beats” and the “hippies” are not his kind of people.
His father is 43 and of Italian and Irish descent and his mother is Dutch and French. The mixture has made Robert a lover of sounds. Many times, he takes a tape recorder with him when he knows he will bump into a good accent.
His background and his interest in accents made him a great choice for the role of the rather crude but lovable Italian, Caesario Grimaldi, in “Tchin-Tchin.” He seems to become this loud-mouth Italian on stage but off-stage he speaks in a gentle, soft accent. No trace of his stage character can be detected.
Somehow Robert thinks it’s right for North Carolina to own a De Niro painting. His father was a student at Black Mountain College near Montreat in his young days, where his artist ambitions gained impetus. Now his son’s talents are gaining a polish here.
If you happen to have a lush southern accent and see a handsome young man following you, don’t be afraid. He’s just Robert De Niro accent collecting.
“Greta Garbo as Anna Christie,” the painting Robert De Niro Jr. visited in 1967, is in the permanent collection of Weatherspoon Art Museum, along with several other works by Robert De Niro Sr. It now hangs in the living room of the residence of UNCG chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam Jr.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.