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The actor declines requests for interviews, but author pushes on

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF SHAWN LEVY - Shawn Levy, former film critic for The Oregonian, has started a new project about Rome of the 1950s and 60s.Robert De Niro has played some of the most iconic film characters of all time, from young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II,” to Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull.”

In his latest biography, “De Niro: A Life,” Portland author Shawn Levy examines the man behind the characters.

Levy, one of the nation’s foremost film buffs, is the former movie critic for The Oregonian. He has achieved extraordinary success as an author, including becoming a New York Times bestseller with “Rat Pack Confidential” and “Paul Newman: A Life.”

The 608-page “De Niro: A Life” (Random House. $32.50) debuted late last month. Levy will be at Powell’s City of Books at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 to discuss the book.

The Portland Tribune caught up with Levy to talk about the complicated subject of his biography, why De Niro refused to help out with the book and what makes a good biography:

Portland Tribune: Your books feature an eclectic array of subjects. Why did you want to write about De Niro?

Shawn Levy: There are a number of reasons why I would choose any subject. One is the simple fact that there’s not a recent book, or a good book out there, at the time I make the choice. So there’s a hole on the library shelf. I’ve written about older performers, Jerry Lewis, Paul Newman, the swinging 60s, the Rat Pack. De Niro is later than that. Part of me thought it was time to move forward. But also, I grew up loving his work. He was the great actor of the time that I was

becoming a film buff. And then, at the time I was considering it, I learned about his archive at the University of Texas. There was a treasure trove of never-before-seen stuff. It went, then, from something I’d want to do to something I could do.

Tribune: What was the process of writing the book like?

Levy: This was the longest period of research and writing that I’ve ever undergone. Partly because of the things that happened in my life. The book was supposed to be out a year ago and it got delayed. I was employed full-time when I began. My pattern then was to use vacations and flex time to do research. My process is that I gather anything I can possibly get my hands on, organize it and then keep sorting through it and sifting through it until I know it. Then, writing a biography is pretty straightforward because you have the chronology of the life. You never have to wonder what comes next.

Tribune: What was the cooperation like from De Niro?

Levy's new book.Levy: Zero. Zero cooperation. From the time De Niro first got into the limelight, he was a lousy interview. He’s always been that way. He’s an introverted person, he’s watchful. He’s always avoided interviews. He went from being so embarrassed to talking with the press, to being someone reluctant, to being someone suspicious of the press. He had no interest in cooperating. Because his nature is so well known, many people close to him had no interest in cooperating. But, I had this archive in Texas where I’m working in 2012 and I’m looking at a paper he wrote in 1972 about preparing to play Bruce Pearson in “Bang the Drum Slowly.” He could reflect on it now and say something interesting. But he could never fetch that frame of mind he had been in 40 years earlier. In some regards, the original material is more valuable than the reflection of the living man. Also, being told no just makes you work harder.

Tribune: As a journalist, you approach a story and a subject objectively. When you are writing a biography, do you have to be objective, or do you wind up liking the people you write about?

Levy: Liking or disliking, I’ve had both. The previous book I wrote was about Paul Newman. My God, people don’t come much better than Paul Newman. It was almost like in the writing I had to ratchet back describing his looks, his charity, his auto racing, his sense of humor. I was like a starstruck kid. With De Niro, I knew there were dark aspects to him. I was edgy about getting close to him. But when I was trying to end the book, I realized that I admired him a great deal. He’s played all these tough guys, but he’s also got this strong and warm sense of family commitment. In the end, I came to like him more than when I started, which was a nice surprise.

Tribune: What makes a good biography as opposed to a bad one or an average one?

Levy: You always have two things going on in a biography. You have a chronology, which is unavoidable. You can’t, alas, write about Robert De Niro without mentioning “Little Fockers.” You’re responsible to the chronology. I think of that chronology as a clothing line — it goes from one wall to another. Then you hang things off that clothing line. That’s what’s interesting to me in a biography. In De Niro’s case it’s his upbringing, the method acting, the relationship with Martin Scorsese, his business decisions, his filmmaking decisions. They’re the things that draw your eye. With Jerry Lewis, Paul Newman and I think with De Niro, there’s enough hanging off the clothes line to make it attractive. I’d rather read a book filled with that sort of stuff about someone I wasn’t interested in than a long factual (book) about someone whose work I admire.

Tribune: What’s next for you?

Levy: I’m already at work. Now that I don’t have a fulltime job I play leapfrog with myself. I’m working on a book about Rome in the era of the 1950s and early 60s. It’s just a big juicy, gossipy, rich story about fashion and movies and celebrity and Ferraris and Euro-trash, some society scandals, a couple of murders. It’s got the making of “Cleopatra,” the beginning of Formula One. That’s a good thing to hang off a clothes line.

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