It was the summer of 1973 and Meryl Streep, fresh off her first year of drama school, had a job cleaning urinals in New Haven, Connecticut.
“True story,” she recalled from an Austin podium Saturday night in opening a tribute that was less about bathrooms and more about an acting hero. “I heard that a friend of mine that I knew in college got cast in a big movie and it was the first person that I ever knew that had been cast in a movie. Michael Moriarty was a beautiful young actor. So, all my friends after work, we went to the movie theater to see him.”
The film was the John D. Hancock-directed Bang the Drum Slowly about the friendship between a pitcher (Moriarty) and catcher as they cope with the latter’s terminal illness through the course of a baseball season. “Michael was great but we all agreed that the kid they found in the South, non-actor, clearly non-actor, incredible performance. We thought they must have scoured Appalachia to find this guy.”
Then, two months later at the same movie theater, Streep and friends were seated to check out Martin Scorsese’s newest movie, Mean Streets. “And there’s the guy, there’s the same kid,” Streep recalled. “And only he’s not slow. He’s not Southern. He’s a New York punk. He’s absolutely mean, this fast-talking street smart guy and we were blown away. We scoured the credits and saw his name. I said, ‘Oh my God.’ He’s Italian. He’s Robert De Niro. He’s an actor. And it really blew me away.”
Streep, who seemed to have the audience in the palm of her hand while retelling the tale, delivered the anecdote during A Celebration of Film, a gala event held at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center that shined a spotlight on the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and its 65th anniversary. The center, a humanities research library and museum, has hosted De Niro’s personal archive since 2006 and this year, created a new endowment called the De Niro Curator of Film to honor the legendary star.
He took the stage to accept the shine but not before Streep finished her personal tribute the man who she would go on to share the screen with in a few short years, first in 1978’s The Deer Hunter and later, in 1984’s Falling in Love.
“Over the years, people have always said to me, ‘What actress do you most admire? What actress’ career would you like to emulate?’” Streep said, adding that she has a long list of women she reveres including Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. “But, really, the second time I saw Robert De Niro, I said to myself, that’s the kind of actor I wanna be. That’s what I wanna do. And I wanna do it with the commitment and the passion and the skill and the beauty with which he applies to it. And he’s been my beacon for 50 years.”
She continued by saying that his strength comes from what he doesn’t say or show, what’s held in reserve. “It’s like a kind of seismic power of what he could do if he wanted to,” she added of De Niro, whom she later praised as a “true blue patriot” for his commitment to the country and his response to the 9/11 tragedy. “He’s a man whose presence in my life for 40 years has been a consoling constant. But I don’t see him very often. We don’t chat. But I know he is, without question, always there for me and he always will be. He’s a man who lives by his loyalty to his ideals, to his country and to the people that he loves.”
De Niro, for his part, accepted the love with a speech that illuminated his reasoning for gifting the university his personal archive of film memorabilia that includes scripts, costumes, props, notes and correspondence.
“If I didn’t do something to keep it intact, little by little, it would just would disappear,” he said. “My colleague, the invaluable Robin Chambers, has been my partner in planning this arrangement with the Ransom Center. Around 2004, she showed me Marlon Brando’s personal annotated Godfather script for sale on eBay. It may be very uncomfortable to think that this document, which could be a window into the mind and process of one of our greatest actors, would be sold to a collector or a fan who might keep it in a shelf or a drawer and never be shared with family, friends, students, historians, cinephiles. And I wanted my family to have access to my keepsakes because it’s part of their heritage.”
De Niro continued by praising his good fortune to have worked so closely with so many great artists that the archive not only tells his story but contributes to the stories of talents like Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, Francis Ford Coppola, Streep, Al Pacino, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Pfeiffer and more.
Near closing, De Niro had the audience laughing with a jab at former President Donald Trump over the investigation into his handling of classified documents.
“It’s also important to preserve the narrative of film history to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the films themselves. The Harry Ransom Center is a leader in that essential mission to preserve our cultural heritage but the collection isn’t quite complete. There are still some papers in the basement at Mar-a-Lago. I’ve been having some problems getting them released, they may have to send in the FBI.”