Robert De Niro: Narrating the Truth

On De Niro's Role in the Making of Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth

Sometime in 1999, I was interviewed by a writer named Andy Rausch who found me on the Internet. He was editing a book of interviews with film directors and wanted to speak with me. We did the interview which he recorded, transcribed and edited.

Although Rausch touched on a few topics in the finished piece (including the derivation of the "Whyaduck" DeNironame and the experience of watching ''Duck Soup'' with Kurt Vonnegut), he chose to focus primarily on my experience working with Robert De Niro who narrated my documentary, ''Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth.'' Andrew eventually e-mailed me the edited piece which I include here.

Andrew Rausch: I think your passion for the Marx brothers is evident through the name of your production company -- Whyaduck Productions.

Robert Weide: Well, yeah, that's where the name comes from. My joke about that name when people ask, I tell them that Whyaduck was actually my family name before it got changed to Weide at Ellis Island. And a lot of people say, "Really?" [Laughs.] A lot of people think it's from the duck on ''You Bet Your Life,'' but it's not. It's actually from their first movie ''Coconuts'' in a scene where Groucho is explaining to Chico how to find his way to an auction. He says, ''You'll see a river, you'll cross a bridge, and you'll come to a viaduct...''

And Chico's saying, ''Whyaduck? Why-a-no-chicken?'' So the Marx brothers film was my first movie back in 1982. I incorporated then and used this name Whyaduck, thinking that would be my company for the Marx brothers film and then I would dissolve it afterwards. But I found that even if people forgot my name they remembered Whyaduck, so I kept the name.

AR: What are some of your favorite Marx brothers films?

RW: It's hard to analyze this stuff too much. It all comes down to a visceral reaction. All of their early films are wonderful. ''Animal Crackers,'' ''Horsefeathers,'' ''Duck Soup,'' which is sort of the classic. It sounds like I'm name dropping, but last year Kurt Vonnegut invited me out to his country house and we were just hanging out like a couple of college roommates.

One night he said to me, ''What would you consider the ultimate Marx brothers film?''I said, "I guess it would be 'Duck Soup.''' So we got into his car, went to a video store, and brought back ''Duck Soup.'' I think he had seen it once when it was released in the '30s -- he would have been a kid then -- but we just watched it and laughed like a couple of idiots.

AR: You recently worked with Robert De Niro on the Lenny Bruce documentary. What was De Niro like to work with?

RW: He was terrific. He's not a guy who invites you in on a personal level. There's not a lot of backslapping and kidding around. He basically shows up and does his work.

AR: Strictly business.

RW: Yeah, he's strictly business. I'm certain among his close friends and the people within his circle, he's a very personable guy. It's not that he was unfriendly either. He was perfectly friendly.

When he arrived, I asked him, ''Do you want to spend any time beforehand going over some of this or even talking about Lenny?'' He said, ''No, let's go to work'' and that was it. He went into the booth and put on the headphones. What's funny is -- and I think I can tell this story because it has a happy ending -- when he first came into the room and started to read the copy, it was somewhat flat. Frankly I was worried. I thought, Oh, geez. I went for the name. He doesn't really do anything like this. My wife has an acting background and she kind of pinned this. She said that an actor who works as internally as De Niro really needs a character to sink his teeth into. If you just give him copy for narration, it's just Bob De Niro reading copy off a page, which maybe isn't so interesting. Reading copy is an entirely different art than finding a character and acting.

To his credit, if I asked him to do the same line 10 times, he gladly did it. I even offered him line-readings, which he gladly accepted. I thought, Oh, my God! I'm giving line-readings to Robert De Niro! How did that happen? It was pretty overwhelming. Now here's what happened that was interesting -- about halfway through the film, the narration starts to take on this sort of Martin Scorsese-ish element when we get to the point where Lenny's busted for the drugs in Philadelphia on a trumped-up charge and an attorney approaches him and says that for $10,000 he can pay off the judge and the attorney and all of this. Well, the narration started to sound like something out of ''Casino'' or ''Goodfellas.'' It was like, [narrating like De Niro] ''When an attorney made a bribe offer to Lenny, Lenny refused and instead, went to the press...'' It started to sound like a Scorsese film and De Niro really got into it. It was really good. And from that point on, he just sailed through the narration beautifully. I think he found the character of the narrator, so to speak.

So what happened was, he got to the end and I said, ''Bob, now that we're really in the swing of this, do you wanna go back and do those first few pages over again?'' He said yes and he nailed every one. So, ultimately, I was extremely happy with the narration and I think he did a great job. But there was that first 10 minutes when I was in a bit of a panic.

AR: Was De Niro familiar with Lenny Bruce at all?

RW: I asked him about that. I said, ''Were you a big Lenny Bruce fan? Did you know a lot about him?'' He said, ''No. Probably about as much as the next guy.'' So what happened was, I sent him a copy of the film. I think it had my voice on it as a scratch narration track. I think he just responded to the story and the material. God knows he did it for not a lot of money. I think he just liked the project and felt good about being attached to it. So I was thrilled and honored.

AR: Were you a fan of De Niro's work prior to the documentary?

RW: Oh, yeah! Who's not? I think he's one of the best guys out there. There was a lot of time spent trying to figure out who would be the best narrator for this film. I did not want to go for an obvious choice. HBO and I were going back and forth. They were suggesting comedians they thought were cut from Lenny's cloth. I said, ''If I go with a comedian, I would rather have it be somebody who has nothing in common with Lenny.'' Someone like Steve Martin or I even thought about John Cleese for a while. But ideally I wanted to go for someone who was not even a comedian and maybe shared some sort of spiritual connection with Lenny by being somewhat of a rebel or something. But we were watching the film one day -- me and a couple of people from HBO -- and an HBO exec named Anthony Radziwill, who unfortunately passed away himself this past year, suggested De Niro as narrator. We were watching the film and there was a picture of Lenny in the film where he actually looked like a young De Niro. And somebody said, ''Look, Lenny looks like De Niro in that photo.'' And Anthony said, ''Hey, what about De Niro?'' My jaw just dropped and I said, ''Oh, my God! That's exactly the right choice. I don't even know why, but that's exactly right!''

AR: What are your thoughts on the Fosse biopic ''Lenny''?

RW: I quite like it. I was only seven when Lenny died, so I certainly knew nothing about his life or his career during his lifetime. I do remember seeing that film with my mother because it was rated-R and I was 14. That was kind of odd, seeing it with my mother. Especially during the lesbian sequence! [Laughs.] That film really got me interested in Lenny. I maybe knew a little bit about him before that, but I saw the film and thought, Wow! What an interesting story. Then of course I wanted to go out and buy all of the Lenny Bruce records and read everything I could. There were certain obsessions in high school and they remain my obsessions today. Fortunately I've been able to make a living off of them. The big four were the Marx brothers, Kurt Vonnegut, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen. There were more after that, but those were the big four during my real formative years. Those were all characters who later played a role in my making a living.

But yes, Lenny just struck a chord with me. Again, it's like those Marx brothers films -- I can't tell you why they appealed to me other than they just go right to the marrow of me in the same way that hearing a single note of Billie Holiday's voice does. Hearing Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn -- I appreciate them and I like them and have a lot of their CDs and I listen to them a lot, but Billie Holiday just goes right to my gut. The Marx brothers go right to my gut. Lenny Bruce goes right to my gut. Kurt Vonnegut goes right to my gut.

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