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The Young Robert De Niro
The Young Robert De Niro

Santi Visalli Talks About His Photographs

When I met Bob — this is the way Robert De Niro is addressed by his friends — he was a very young aspiring actor. It was on the set of "The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a film based on a Jimmy Breslin novel. I was the set photographer for this movie, but being Sicilian, I also had another informal job. I was coaching Jo Van Fleet, the matriarch of the gang, on Sicilian grandmother mannerisms, telling her what I remembered of my grandmother and all her idiosyncrasies. Jo used some of them in the movie. As I was coaching her, Bob was intently observing what I was doing. Robert De Niro had a very small part in this movie; I think this was his first break. He played a member of an Italian cycling team who stayed illegally in America after the race was cancelled. To survive, he impersonated a priest trying to con Mafia bosses.

When his big break came through, he called me and asked if I would be willing to read the script for "The Godfather: Part II" with him; the dialogue was mostly in Sicilian. We met for several weeks in my New York office, rehearsing pronunciation. One day, we went out to lunch in a place where they served you soup, sandwich, and an apple. Bob did not want the apple.The lady at the cash register insisted that the apple “comes with it sir.” “But I don’t want an apple,” Bob replied. This went on for a few minutes and when she wouldn't give up, he smashed the apple on the counter and walked out, forcing me to follow. It looked like a scene from a movie.

After that, I organized a dinner at my sister's house in Greenwich Village. The guests included other Sicilians to show him how we behave at the table in a Sicilian household. I had reserved a place for him at the table, but he insisted that he would not sit there because he wanted to take notes. So he sat in a corner observing us and taking notes during the entire dinner.

When I mentioned our relationship to one of the editors at The New York Times, they immediately gave me an assignment to photograph him for an upcoming article in the Arts & Liesure section. After our shoot, Bob mentioned that he would like to take a week off before going to Sicily and studying a little more. I gave him the keys to my country house in the Catskill Mountains, where he stayed for a week with his then girlfriend (who became his wife). The NY Times insisted that Robert De Niro should look very Italian. I didn’t have to do much because he is very Italian.
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