Robert De Niro Family History


Robert Anthony De Niro was born on August 17th, 1943 to Robert De Niro Sr. and his wife Virginia in Manhattan, New York.  He was their only child.

His parents, both painters, separated when he was two after his father had announced that he was gay. He was then raised by his mother in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods of Manhattan.  His father did not disappear from his life.  His work studio was nearby on West Broadway and they would often go to the movies.  Even so, he never knew much about the turmoil in his father’s life at that time.

Robert attended public school in Manhattan, but dropped out of high school at sixteen to pursue acting.

He said that performing was a way in which he could overcome his shyness.  And he studied acting with the great ones of that time – Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and the Stella Adler Conservatory which introduced him to the Stanislavski method of acting.

Robert began to appear in small film roles in the 1960’s.  But it was not until 1973 that he had his breakthrough role in Mean Streets in his first collaboration with the film director Martin Scorsese.  The two collaborated further with Taxi Driver in 1976 and Raging Bull in 1980.  His portrayal of the boxer Jake Lamotta in Raging Bull was highly acclaimed at the time and remains so.

Oscar acting awards followed – Best Supporting Actor in The Godfather Part II in 1976 and Best Actor in Raging Bull in 1980.  For these and later roles he is considered as one of the most influential actors of his generation.

In Italy

The family name was originally Di Niro.  This surname derived from the Italian word nero, meaning “black,” and was likely to have been originally a nickname for someone with black or dark hair.  Similar names such as Nero and Neroni had been prominent in medieval times in Florence.

However, Di Niro is relatively rare.  There are only 400 with that name in the whole of Italy today.  It seems to have been mainly found in the inland region of Campobasso in southern Italy.

Ferrazzano, located on a hill some 3-4 kilometers away from the town of Campobasso, was the home of Robert De Niro’s ancestors.  In the olden days, the place was commonly called lo Spione (the Spy) because – at 870 metres above sea level – it could command a view over the whole region.

Ferazzano has retained a rustic, homespun nature. Its cuisine – la cucina povera – is peasant food with rich, exquisite flavors that start from a full taste of mozzarella and caciocavallo.

Fillippo Di Niro (born in 1806) and his son Carmine Di Niro (born in 1836) had been farmers there in the 19th century.  But the living there was poor and two of Carmine’s sons – Giovanni and Leopoldo – sought to escape its grinding poverty for a new start in America.

In 1887 Giovanni departed Naples for New York.  At Ellis Island his family name changed to De Niro and Giovanni would later become John.

And in America

John De Niro, soon after his arrival at Ellis Island, made his way upstate to Syracuse, New York.  That was to be his home for the rest of his life.  He made his living as a stone cutter in the building trade.  He and his wife Angelina raised three children there, two boys and one girl.

Of his two sons, Frank and Henry both married Irish girls.  For Frank it was Ella Dougherty in 1914 and for Henry it was Helen O’Reilly in 1920.

The older son Frank moved to Erie, Pennsylvania after his marriage and remained there for the rest of his life.

The younger son Henry stayed in Syracuse.  After his marriage he initially moved in with his wife’s family before setting up his own home.  He was variously recorded as a salesman and a proprietor of a general store.

He and Helen raised four children.  Of their two sons, the older one was the painter Robert Sr. who moved to New York City and was Robert De Niro’s father.  The younger son John, better known as Jack, joined the Marines during World War Two and afterwards spent a lifetime in the real estate business, mainly in Florida.

John himself died in 1952.  The Syracuse Post Standard of June 23, 1952 reported the following:

“John De Niro, aged 88 of 603 Ash Sreet, a retired stone cutter and a Syracuse resident for 64 years, died on Saturday night at his home. He was a member of the Sacred Heart Society of Our Lady of Pompei Church.

Surviving are his wife, Mrs. Angelina DeNiro; two sons, Frank of Erie, Pa. and Henry M. DeNiro; a John DeNiro and daughter, Mrs. Frank Maglione; nine grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; several nieces, nephews and cousins.”

His grandchildren included the painter Robert De Niro Sr. and his great grandchildren included the future actor Robert De Niro who was nine years old at the time.

Robert De Niro, Father and Son

Born in Syracuse, New York in 1922 into an Irish-Italian household, the father Robert Sr. was a child prodigy.

In 1933 at the age of eleven, he started taking classes at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts.  They even gave him his own room in which to work.  His debut solo exhibition occurred ten years later and he emerged as one of the most respected abstract expressionist artists of New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Robert Sr. died in 1993, leaving behind four notebooks filled with his inner thoughts written over ten years from 1963.

Robert the son was shocked when he read them.  They dealt with struggles about his sexuality, financial insecurities, and his overall mental fragility.   “It was sad for me to read. He had his demons.  I was sorry,” Robert said.  He realized that he had never really known his father.

Possibly to compensate, Robert lined his homes with his father’s pictures.  And in 2014 Robert sponsored a documentary about his father’s career entitled Remembering The Artist.  He said at the time:

“The thought of what he’s done, all his work, I can’t not but make sure that it’s held up and remembered.  So I just want to see him get his due. That’s my responsibility.  He used to say that artists are always recognized after they’re long gone.”

Robert De Niro’s Family Tree

  • Fillippo Di Niro (1806-1886) m. Serafina Di Scenza (1808-1884) in Campo Basso, Italy
  • – Carmine Di Niro (b. 1836)
  • Carmine Di Niro m. Francesca Notartomaso (b. 1842) in Campo Basso, Italy
  • – Leopoldo Di Niro (1862-1931), left for America
  • – Giovanni (John) Di Niro (1867-1952), left for America in 1887
  • – Donato Di Niro (b. 1870), remained in Italy
  • Giovanni (John) Di Niro m. Angelina Mercurio (1874-1961) in 1892
  • – Frank De Niro (1894-1961) m. Ella Dougherty
  • – Henry De Niro (1897-1976)
  • – Helen De Niro (b. 1902) m. Joseph Scicli
  • Henry De Niro from Syracuse, New York m. Helen O’Reilly (1899-1999) in 1920
  • – Robert De Niro (1922-1993)
  • – John (Jack) De Niro (1924-2015)
  • – Joan De Niro (1926-2020) m. Robert Bauder
  • – Elizabeth (Betty) De Niro (1928-1999)
  • Robert De Niro Sr from Syracuse, New York m. Virginia Admiral (1915-2000) in New York in 1942, but separated in 1945
  • – Robert De Niro (b. 1943)
  • Robert De Niro from New York City m. Diahnne Abbott (b. 1945), in 1976, divorced in 1988; rem. Grace Hightower (b. 1955) in 1997, separated in 2018
  • – Drena De Niro (b. 1971), adopted with Diahnne
  • – Raphael De Niro (b. 1976), with Diahnne, m. Claudine De Matos and Hannah Carnes
  • – twins Aaron and Julian De Niro (b. 1995) with Toukie Smith
  • – Elliot De Niro (b. 1998), with Grace
  • – Helen De Niro (b. 2011) with Grace
  • – Gia Chen-De Niro (b. 2023) with Tiffany Chen



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Written by Colin Shelley

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