I knew Robert De Niro slightly in 1973, so I told my boss at The New York Times, the great Seymour Peck, that I probably shouldn't be the one to interview him. Sy told me not to worry, that he was convinced I would be totally objective in my reporting. Terrific, I thought, I'll be the very first journalist to whom this soon-to-be superstar babbles about his thoughts, hopes and dreams. Which tells you how TRULY slightly I knew good old Bobby. --GUY FLATLEY


"Bobby is the next Brando!” bursts the bigger-than-life woman on the other end of the telephone. She should know: she’s Shelley Winters, a long-time fan and friend of both Marlon Brando and Bobby De Niro.

Bobby who? Bobby – or Robert – De Niro, the stunningly versatile young actor who has crashed through with a big bang in the two hit movies now showing, shoulder-to-shoulder, at Cinema I and II. In “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a disarmingly old-fashioned laughter-and-tears tale, Bobby plays a crude-but-cuddlesome, tobacco-spitting, Southern-drawling baseball player who is stricken with an incurable disease; in “Mean Streets,” a machine-gun paced study of life and death in New York’s Little Italy, he plays a chiseling, semi-moronic punk who meets with a sudden, far from natural death. And the critics – from Pauline Kael to Vincent Canby – have gone bananas over Bobby, Newsweek’s Arthur Cooper going so far as to say his performance in “Mean Streets” (shown at right, below) should be “preserved in a time capsule.”

So who the devil is Bobby De Niro and how come, all of a sudden, he’s such a hotshot? To start with, there is nothing sudden about his triumph; he’s been plugging away at stardom for 14 frustrating years. But chances are you have never heard of Bobby before – unless you’re one of those intrepid souls who savor sitting all scrunched-up in some Off Off Broadway cellar. Or maybe you stumbled upon him in “Greetings” or “Hi, Mom!,” a pair of impudent, mini-budget movies made by Brian De Palma in the late sixties.

Or perhaps you were among the privileged few to see Bobby as the psychopathic son of pistol-packing Shelley Winters in a brazenly lurid flick called “Bloody Mama.” Or – if you were really on the ball – you may have glimpsed Bobby as the bisexual, spaced-out hippie who shacks up with an aging-Oscar-winning actress in “One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger,” the Off Broadway show which was to skyrocket Shelley into the galaxy of great American playwrights back in 1970.

Don’t panic. If you missed Bobby in ’70, you’re sure to catch up with him in ’73. Then, in ’74, you’ll have the opportunity to ogle him as that truly illustrious Italian, Don Corleone, in the flashback portions of “The Godfather, Part II.” And you don’t have to be Italian – or a film historian – to know who won an Oscar for creating Corleone in the original.

But, like Brando, Bobby is not an easy man to know in real life, as one discovers soon after climbing the four breath-defying flights to his meagerly furnished, $70-a-month, Greenwich Village apartment. A pale and wiry type – far closer physically to Dustin Hoffman than Marlon Brando – Bobby fidgets in his chair and tensely runs his fingers through his dark, shoulder-length hair. And when you snoop into his private life, there are enough pauses and puzzles to fill a Pinter play.

Not that Bobby shares Brando’s celebrated contempt for the press. He is such a sympathetic listener, in fact, that before long he has found out all about you, your wife, your kids, your dog, your pals and your politics. And you have found out that Bobby is an actor.

Which is precisely the way Bobby wants it, and which is why – on the following day – you place a panicked call to the incomparably articulate Shelley Winters, whom Bobby has affectionately tagged his Jewish mama.

"I'm Bobby’s Italian mama,” Shelley insists over the phone. “Well…maybe I am his Jewish mama, but if I am, he’s my Jewish son. Bobby needs somebody to watch over him; he doesn’t even wear a coat in the wintertime. Do you know that when we did ‘Bloody Mama’ down in the Ozarks, he didn’t even know how much money he was getting? When I found out how little they were paying him, I demanded they give him something for his expenses, at least. Bobby was broke, but he will never borrow, so you have to find ways of giving him money without letting him know you are giving it to him.”

Did Shelley also find a way of giving him more than motherly love?

There is a purr on the other end of the line which quickly swoops into a cackle. “Listen,” Shelley says, “let’s put it this way – I had a bigger romance with Bobby than I did with any of my lovers. Better change that to read ‘any of my husbands.’ No, I guess lovers sounds all right.

“The truth is, I feel very close to Bobby – and don’t you dare tell him I haven’t seen ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ yet. God forbid that you should miss seeing Bobby act! I was out in Hollywood some time ago and he called from New York saying there was a screening of ‘Bang the Drum’ scheduled for that evening. The next day he called to ask how I had liked it. I told him I hadn’t seen it because I had to be out of bed at 4:30 the next morning for some early shooting. Would you believe that Bobby hung up the phone on me?

“By the way, was Bobby’s apartment clean when you interviewed him? It was? Then his girlfriend must have cleaned it up for him. She’s a beautiful girl, and just right for Bobby because she’s not a professional and she allows him to concentrate on his work.”

Bobby’s girlfriend is both beautiful and black, but just try to budge him into babbling about his idyllic love life; you might as well ask him to give you the low-down on his troubled childhood, to describe the domestic skirmishes which finally led his parents to divorce.

“Bobby will never talk about what made him the way he is," says Shelley, "but I suspect he must have been a lonely kid, that somewhere along the line he was brutalized.”

Nevertheless, the ideal interview is peppered with nuggets of gossip – not grunts and gasps – and even the most timid of potential superstars should be able to blurt out an intimate tidbit or two.

“Well, yeah,” Bobby mumbles to me in his walk-up. “I see what you mean.”

Seeing is not talking, however. So we sit, silently shifting in our chairs and listening to the police sirens in the street below. Finally, breaking under the pressure to meet the press halfway, Bobby confesses that he was born 30 years ago into a casually Catholic Italian family, not far from the Little Italy of “Mean Streets.” His father is Robert De Niro, the painter; his mother used to be an artist too, but she now operates a typing service. When Bobby was a nervous, rail-thin boy, he ran with a gang, but "you’d better not say anything about that, because those guys are still around and I wouldn’t want to embarrass them.”

Martin Scorsese, who directed “Mean Streets,” remembers Bobby as a kid in Little Italy, “a shy kid, a very nice kid, and never one to make trouble.”

Bobby never made trouble at P.S. 41 on West 11th Street, either, nor did he exactly make the honor roll. After a few stifling semesters of high school, he became a dropout and then, at 16, he became a permanent drop-in on the theatrical scene by enrolling in Stella Adler’s acting class.

To this day, Bobby’s first love is the theater. Just a few weeks ago, he toiled for pennies as a hardhat who dallies with a debutante in “Schubert’s Last Serenade,” Julie Bovasso’s wacky one-act play at Stage 73. He would have been willing to toil for even less, had the people in power at Lincoln Center seen fit to cast him as Stanley Kowalski in the recent revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

For the past seven years, Bobby has been an observer and guest performer at the Actors Studio, though he does not cotton to the Method notion that the key to every character is situated within one’s own psyche. “Of course, you always bring something of yourself to a part, but to me acting means playing different parts, trying to get as close to the reality of a character as possible, learning his lifestyle, how he holds his fork, how he carries himself, how he talks, how he relates to other people. It’s hard to do, because it means you always have to keep looking. Some days you find nothing, other days you’re inspired and see lots that’s exciting. That’s why I like to travel before I do a part…so I can feel I’ve prepared as well as I can. I want to feel I’ve earned the right to play a person.”

For the part of Bruce, the blundering ballplayer of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” Bobby traveled South – to Florida, where he scrutinized teams in training, and to Georgia, where he taped the conversations of townspeople so that he might later study them and perfect his Southern accent.

For the part of Johnny Boy, the gun-wielding schizoid of “Mean Streets,” he traveled a far greater distance – all the way back to the corners of his childhood and the memory of a wild-eyed boy who used to amuse, and sometimes terrify, the inhabitants of Little Italy. And he has already begun traveling for his next part.

According to Shelley Winters,"A few weeks ago, Bobby’s agent was looking frantically for him. I said, ‘Try Sicily,’ and sure enough, that’s where Bobby was, studying for his role in ‘The Godfather, Part II.’ ”

Shelley, who is undoubtedly the best all-around Bobby-watcher, still has vivid memories of that time he traveled to the Ozarks to play one of her murderous brood in “Bloody Mama.” “I was very nervous just before we shot the first scene, so Bobby came over to me and said, ‘What’s the matter, Shelley?’ I said, ‘I’m upset because I have to bathe five grown men in this scene, and I don’t even know all of you.’ ‘But Shelley,’ he said, quite seriously, ‘we’re your babies.’ And you know what? Bobby was right; they were my babies. I mean, you have a baby and you change his diaper and you don’t get embarrassed by it, right?

“Sometimes Bobby gives the impression that he’s dumb, that his mind is wiped out, because he doesn’t say anything. But behind those slit eyes, he’s watching everything. He is definitely something new under the sun; I’ve never seen an actor do the kind of exploration, the minute research that he does for a role. He doesn’t act; he becomes.

“He scares me. The things that he does with his body are truly frightening. He can blush or get as white as a sheet in a second, and he could force his hair to curl on command if he wanted to. The character he was playing in ‘Bloody Mama’ was to deteriorate physically, and Bobby got so frail that we all became alarmed. His face got this horribly chalky look and his skin broke out in disgusting sores. At night we’d all go out to dinner and stuff ourselves and there Bobby would sit, drinking water. I don’t think he ate a bite of food during the entire shooting of the movie. He must have lost at least 30 pounds. I wish I could do that!

“I tell you, Bobby gets to the kernel, the soul of a character and he refuses to let go. This is going to sound crazy, but…Bobby got killed in ‘Bloody Mama,’ his part was over and he could have gone home. On the day we were to shoot the burial scene, I walked over to the open grave, looked down and got the shock of my life. ‘Bobby!,’ I screamed. ‘I don’t believe this! You come out of that grave this minute!'”