Across a half-century as a major Hollywood star, Robert De Niro has performed in some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. What do we know about his parents and their relationship?
Robert De Niro’s parents were Robert De Niro Sr and Virginia Admiral, New York-based artists. The couple separated when Robert Jr was two years old after Robert Sr came out as gay, though he maintained a good relationship with both parents.
For more about Robert De Niro’s parents and his upbringing, read on.
Robert Sr and Virginia
Both Robert De Niro Sr and Virginia Admiral were painters and met at painting classes hosted by influential artist Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Robert De Niro Sr was born in Syracuse, New York, and he was based in New York for the rest of his life. His parents were also American, though his paternal grandparents had emigrated from Italy and his mother’s parents were from Ireland.
Virginia Admiral was born in Oregon, with English, French and Dutch ancestry on her father’s side, and German on her mother’s. She was raised in California but had studied with Hofmann for some time when she had her fateful meeting with Robert Sr.
The couple moved together to Greenwich Village, New York, and were married in December 1942. Virginia gave birth to their son, Robert De Niro Jr, on August 17, 1943.
Shortly after Robert Jr’s birth, Robert Sr came out as gay, entering a relationship with his and Virginia’s mutual friend, poet Robert Duncan. He and Virginia divorced in 1945 but Robert Sr continued to live nearby, playing an active part in his son’s life.
Most of Robert Jr’s formative years were spent living in Little Italy, likely enhancing his sense of Italian identity. Robert’s Jr’s fellow Italian-Americans nicknamed him “Bobby Milk”, owing to his comparatively pale complexion.
Both of De Niro’s parents were nonreligious in his youth, with Robert Jr a lapsed-Catholic for most of his life. Virginia was raised Presbyterian but later became an atheist.
A popular rumor states that, during their divorce, they briefly left Robert Jr with Robert Sr’s parents, both Catholic, and were furious after they discovered that De Niro had been baptized without their consent.
When asked about this, De Niro said he wasn’t sure whether or not the story is true and that, when asked, his mother would only say that he was “baptized a Catholic, but that’s it.” De Niro does not consider himself religious.
Robert Sr was dedicated to art throughout his life and struggled to make ends meet. As soon as Robert Jr had made sufficient money from his film career, he apparently bought both his mother and father spacious lofts, giving them plenty of room to live and paint.
Robert Jr has spoken about the complicated relationship he had with his father, making clear that there was love but also an unavoidable distance between them.
Robert Sr wrote in his journals that he prayed frequently to be cured of his homosexuality, referring to it as his “mental and emotional sickness”. If God did not want him to be gay, he wrote, then he would meet a woman who he loved. He also wrote, however, that he did not really want to be “cured”.
Neither of De Niro’s parents remarried and remained close friends throughout their lives. Decades later, when Robert Sr was diagnosed with cancer, Virginia had him move into her home so she could care for him.
Robert De Niro Sr died on May 3, 1993, his 71st birthday, due to complications caused by cancer. Virginia Admiral died on July 27, 2000, at the age of 85.
In 2014, Robert Jr made a documentary about his father, “Remembering the Artist”, which aired on HBO, feeling it was his responsibility to preserve his father’s memory in some concrete form.