De Niro on Comedy, Eddie Murphy and the 9/11 Special

During a recent interview in Manhattan, the notoriously press shy Robert De Niro was positively chatty, answering questions in whole sentences and giving complete answers.

He didn't travel to Los Angeles with the rest of the cast of his new movie, Showtime, to do press interviews. But he stayed in New York and talked about his new role in comedy, working with people like Eddie Murphy, and the upcoming CBS Sept. 11 special, which he hosts on Sunday, March 10.

He rambled only occasionally, responded politely to each question and even laughed sort of when I chided him with an imitation. Of course, he is one of the greatest actors on the planet, so I could just be buying it.

McCuddy: You're suddenly the king of comedy.

De Niro: Yeah. I'm happy. I have fun doing them, so what can I say?

McCuddy: Someone said an audience knows how a dramatic actor will react to drama, but never knows how they'll react to comedy. Do you think that's true?

De Niro: Well, I always say, like a lot of the earlier movies I did — especially with Scorsese — I felt they had a lot of comedy in them and irony. To me comedy, depending on what type of comedy, (comes) out of ironic situations, funny things that characters do when they think they're being serious. To me that is always kind of a lot of fun, and more real and interesting. And Marty Scorsese and I were always aware of that in anything that we would do. No matter how gruesome, no matter how grim, no matter how dramatic, we would always be aware of that.

McCuddy: (Ray Liotta's Goodfellas voice) You're gettin' blood all over my trunk!

De Niro: (Laughing) Right.

McCuddy: How about working with a comedian like Eddie Murphy?

De Niro: Well, Eddie is just a great comedian. And his timing was great, so, he's coming from where he's coming from, and I'm coming from where I'm coming from. He's supposed to be this, the way he is, and I'm the more dour, no-nonsense, real guy and he's the one saying "Lighten up," and this and that. So, it's kind of a harder less fun part to play, it's a ...

McCuddy: You're the foil.

De Niro: Yeah. So, it's a hard thing to get anything in there that's ... It's more fun to play the flamboyant, have somewhere to go with it. Um, so, that's it. We came in from two different places.

McCuddy: Do you consider yourself a no nonsense actor in terms of, if somebody wants to play around and do some improv?

De Niro: I don't mind doing that. It depends. Sometimes you have to... I like to do it, get going, I like to get the thing going. And I don't like to have long discussions about the character or this and that unless they're really, really relevant to what we're doing, because at the end of the day you've got to get out there and do it. And there's no other way. When it's out there and being done, that's the reality, that's when it's — that's it.

McCuddy: And would that be truer in comedy than in drama because you're getting to a punchline. And you've got a laugh line that with improv you might not get to?

De Niro: (Nodding) Well that's, yeah, certain things. It's the timing. It's the way it's phrased. It's the way — I mean there are certain things you can ad-lib and do improv in certain areas, and others you have to like get what's written the way it is because the timing, unless you can do it, you can maybe ad-lib or rephrase it. But you have to make the point to hit the punchline in a certain way, and there are some of those things that you just have to get that way or it's not gonna work.

McCuddy: Are you ever surprised when you go to a certain screening and see what gets a laugh?

De Niro: Yes, sometimes I am.

McCuddy: Even in some of the dramatic movies because...

De Niro: Well sometimes you think the thing is a little weighty or heavy in this, and then you go in, you're with an audience and you're kind of looking at it through their eyes and you're floating on what they're just looking at it through their eyes. So you see it, and feel it, and all of a sudden something that you didn't think was that funny, they're very much with, and it's easy for them to laugh and get it. You've put all kinds of stuff into it, and they're like, you know, "Great!" That happens.

McCuddy: The hell with the nuance.

De Niro: Yeah.

McCuddy: "That was funny, what he just said."

De Niro: They get it, they're with it. That's a nice thing.

McCuddy: Does that ever make you cringe? "They laughed at that? That's a cheap joke."

De Niro: (Smiles) Well, maybe, sometimes. Sometimes, but I'm happy they laughed.

McCuddy: As you're so famous for saying, "Yeah, a little bit, little bit."

De Niro: (Smiles and nods)

McCuddy: Tell me about this CBS Special on 9/11 this Sunday night. Some of the families think it's exploitative. How do you answer that criticism?

De Niro: Uh, I don't. But I'm not sure who's seen it. Whether they based that on what they saw, I don't know.

McCuddy: CBS has been very careful to say that no bodies are going to come flying out of buildings.

De Niro: No. No.

McCuddy: You have seen it?

De Niro: Yeah, I've seen it. I've seen a certain, the main part of it, unedited. And I don't know what else they're going to do to kind of round it out. I don't know.

McCuddy: But you feel good that it's going to honor the memory of what happened there.

De Niro: Oh yeah, of course. No question.

McCuddy: It's kind of an unusual thing for you to be involved in. But it's because of your alliance to the neighborhood?

De Niro: Yeah.

McCuddy: And the way you feel about New York?

De Niro: (Nodding) I felt there was something that they had asked me do and I thought that, uh, to be a part of it, to help, for the fund that's been set up, in the thing, I ask people to give me permission so they can give money for the families of the firemen who were killed in the World Trade Center.

McCuddy: You know Bill O'Reilly is going to want to know if that dough is going right to those people.

De Niro: Right. (Smiles) But I think it's a worthy — more than think — I know it's a worthy endeavor. And that's why I did it. They asked me do it. I said, 'I'll be a part of it, if you want me to.' And I wasn't even sure about certain things. But I still said 'I'll do it.'