Robert De Niro has won widespread acclaim for more than a half-century of performances on the silver screen, including portraying military veterans. Did De Niro actually serve in the military?
Robert De Niro did not serve in the military. In a 1989 interview, he revealed that he opposed the Vietnam War and he was too old for the 1969 Draft Lottery. The actor’s first major role was in “Greetings”, a 1968 satirical film about avoiding the draft. One of his most highly regarded roles was in “The Deer Hunter”, a film about Vietnam veterans.
For more on De Niro’s relationship with the military both on and off the screen, keep reading.
Robert De Niro was born on August 17, 1943, making him 26 when the 1969 Draft Lottery for conscription to fight in the Vietnam War occurred.
The draft used a system where each date on the annual calendar was drawn at random. This draw created a numbering order for conscripting men into the US army, with every eligible man whose birthday fell on that day of the year called up.
De Niro’s birthday would have seen him called to service in the 154th group of men, a little under halfway through the chart. His birthday was ultimately irrelevant, however, as the purpose of the draft was to call up men born between 1944 and 1950, making him too old by just four and a half months.
The draft, which was intended to present a sense of fairness through randomness, actually generated far greater resistance to forced military service.
Despite this, if a draft were to occur in the US today, the same system would be used. In fact, the Selective Service Committee has stored away the tumbler used to select candidates in 1969, meaning it remains ready for use.
Regardless of being too old to be drafted, De Niro was strongly opposed to the war. He felt it was wrong in general but what bothered him the most was “that the people who went to the war became victims of it”.
He felt that the leadership lacked the intelligence to make proper decisions and that people had a right to question why they were being sent to fight in a war with an unclear purpose and potentially lose their lives in the process.
De Niro’s military roles on screen have been reflective of his political views. “The Deer Hunter”, in particular. De Niro’s character, Michael Vronsky, volunteers to fight in Vietnam out of a sense of patriotic duty but is permanently affected by his traumatic experiences during the war.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid controversy after the film’s release, its makers and marketers tried to strongly convey that the film was not politically motivated. Instead, the intention was to show the effects of war on the individual, rather than questioning its justification.
It had long been the perception that Vietnam films were “box office poison”, leading the director, Michael Cimino, to claim that Vietnam was simply a backdrop to its characters and psychological issues. Unfortunately, by claiming the film was apolitical, they simply invited deeper analysis and stronger criticism.
Even as somebody who rarely praises his own performances, De Niro has stated that he feels “The Deer Hunter” was his finest.
Earlier, De Niro’s first starring role in a movie dealt with the draft, albeit in a more satirical way. “Greetings”, one of Brian De Palma’s earliest films, was released in 1968. De Niro stars as Jon Rubin, a young man attempting to avoid the draft.
The film received mixed reviews on release but did launch De Niro’s cinematic career and is now perhaps best remembered for being the first film to receive an X rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), although this was later downgraded to an R.