Just over 30 years after Robert De Niro first encountered Grace Hightower at a restaurant in London, rumors again swirled about the couple. And at the end of November 2018, the two-time Oscar winner confronted some of the whispers about his marriage and confirmed some very sad news.
But let’s start the (love) story from the beginning. You see, long before he met Grace Hightower, New York City native Robert De Niro made his first foray into acting as a 10-year-old. The fledgling actor actually played the Cowardly Lion in his school’s version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and he found it to be a great way to counter his natural shyness.
From there, De Niro became greatly enamored with the world of movies. This likely spurred him to subsequently drop out of school at the age of 16 to study acting. And four years later, in 1963, he landed his first film role. Then in 1973 he first worked with director Martin Scorsese – a significant collaboration that would prove to be the first of many between the pair throughout De Niro’s career.
But De Niro’s big break would actually come the following year when he starred as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. For the role, the actor learned to speak a number of Sicilian dialects and delivered the majority of his lines in the language.
And for his monumental efforts to accurately portray the mob boss, De Niro was handsomely rewarded: he earned the 1975 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Then after this came a string of Scorsese-led films, among other projects, that led to even more acclaim for De Niro.
In 1976, for instance, De Niro starred in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, portraying a Vietnam War veteran who begins to lose his mind behind the wheel of his cab. The role earned him another Oscar nomination and gave the world the signature line with which De Niro would be associated for the rest of his career: “You talkin’ to me?”
In 1980 De Niro then headlined a Scorsese picture called Raging Bull, which tells the tale of Italian-American boxer Jake LaMotta. De Niro learned to box for the role and even gained 60 pounds to accurately portray the fighter in later life. And, once again, he received an Academy Award for his efforts. This time it was the coveted Best Actor award that he scooped in recognition of his incredible performance.
Of course, though, these films reflect only the first few years of De Niro’s career. And by the mid-1980s, he worried that he might have pigeon-holed himself into Mafia-related roles. He therefore branched out into other areas, including comedies and dramas. Needless to say, he found success there, too.
For example, De Niro satirized his earlier roles by playing a gangster in need of therapy – from a psychiatrist portrayed by Billy Crystal – in the 1999 comedy Analyze This. And the next year, he starred as a tough-to-please dad in Meet the Parents – a hit flick that raked in more than $330 million worldwide.
As a result, there’s now no way to define De Niro’s career by a particular genre. He has, after all, starred in mob flicks, thrillers, comedies, crime epics, musicals and more. He has also earned seven Academy Award nominations, the most recent one for the 2013 movie Silver Linings Playbook.
And for a large portion of his career, De Niro had one woman by his side: Grace Hightower. For her part, Hightower hadn’t climbed the ranks in Hollywood like De Niro had; instead, she’d set her sights on traveling the world – and she’d happened to meet the actor in the process.
Hightower had in fact spent her life working odd jobs to support her family, who’d had little money. Eventually, though, she’d picked up a job as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines, seeing it as an opportunity to explore places beyond her Mississippi hometown.
Hightower had then moved to Paris and from there to London. And while living in the English capital she’d held two jobs: she’d been both a mutual fund trader and a restaurant employee. So in 1987 she’d been working at an upmarket Chinese restaurant called Mr. Chow – and it was there that she’d met De Niro.
At that point, of course, De Niro had already won two Oscars and starred in a multitude of films. But Hightower admitted to journalist Katie Couric in 2013 that she’d had no idea who he was that night – until her co-workers had let her know that he is a famous actor.
Yet while the pair had flirted that night, serious sparks didn’t fly between the couple right away. In fact, De Niro had been married to Diahnne Abbott, his first wife and mother of two of his children, at the time. And even after he and Abbott had divorced in 1988, De Niro had started dating restaurateuse and model Toukie Smith instead.
De Niro and Smith had also gone on to have twin sons named Aaron and Julian – but their relationship hadn’t lasted. And after this split, De Niro finally began a serious relationship with Hightower. The duo then got married ten years after they’d first met at Mr. Chow.
In 1997 actors Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel were among the 11 people invited to De Niro and Hightower’s nuptials at the pair’s home in Marbletown, New York. And, naturally, the guests showered the newlyweds with their best wishes. “There were congratulations all around,” a source told People magazine shortly after the wedding took place.
Then, less than a year after their nuptials, De Niro and Hightower shared more exciting news: they were expecting their first child together, their son, Elliot. But their bliss wouldn’t last long, as in August 1999, a mere two years after their wedding, De Niro filed for divorce from Hightower.
According to People magazine, a friend of De Niro’s said of the split, “[De Niro] was just not working hard enough at his marriage to [Hightower].” The couple did, however, succeed in co-parenting their son until 2001, when they fell into a tough custody battle.
At that time, in fact, Hightower alleged that her partner had been unfaithful and that he used narcotics and abused alcohol. De Niro, however, denied her claims while adding one of his own: he said his estranged wife had a fiery temper.
Surprisingly, though, these harsh allegations didn’t pit the couple against each other for good. Instead, rather than following through with their divorce, De Niro and Hightower renewed their wedding vows in 2004. And this time, famous faces including Ben Stiller, Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese looked on as they said their “I dos.”
De Niro and Hightower also brought in two judges to officiate the ceremony, in which they re-devoted their lives to each other. De Niro even joked about the setup. “They can make sure this one sticks,” he said.
And it did seem as though De Niro and Hightower were on a better path. Seven years after their vows renewal, for instance, the pair had their second child together, this time with the aid of a surrogate. Their daughter, Helen, was born in 2011.
And three years later, De Niro told People magazine that he enjoyed the triumphs – and occasional tribulations – of fatherhood. “Sometimes you’re the last person they want to deal with. It’s like when you walk your kids to school, and they get older, and they don’t want to hold your hand,” he said.
But having his youngest daughter, Helen, as well as children who had grown older and presumably more appreciative of him motivated De Niro to say that it’s all “good stuff now.” And De Niro also said that he hoped all of his children would stay in New York City and live nearby.
Yet aside from these rare comments about his children, De Niro – and Hightower, for that matter – have kept most of the details of their relationship private. Eventually, though, a rumor that they couldn’t ignore arrived.
On June 10, 2018, De Niro and Hightower attended the 72nd Annual Tony Awards. But after that, nobody has spotted the pair in public together for months. This is despite the fact that De Niro continued attending public events that he’d normally attend with his wife.
And according to celebrity news website Page Six, in November 2018 someone close to De Niro and Hightower revealed, “They are not living together at this time.” Another person added, “De Niro and [Hightower] are breaking up. He’s been at a few things since the very end of the summer without her – and rumor has it they are done.”
The gossip about De Niro and Hightower’s separation then continued to circulate in tabloids and celebrity news magazines. So, one week after Page Six published the unconfirmed news, the two-time Oscar winner released a response to the rumors.
De Niro – who has typically kept mum about his life behind the cameras – in fact confirmed the rumors about his and Hightower’s separation. In a statement to CNN, he said, “Grace and I have two beautiful children together.”
De Niro then revealed, “We are entering a period of transition in our relationship which is a difficult but constructive process.” He also lauded Hightower’s role in the lives of their children – and made a request of the public.
“I honor Grace as a wonderful mother and ask for privacy and respect from all as we proceed to develop our roles as partners in parenting,” De Niro wrote. Yet although the actor offered no explanation as to why the couple’s relationship was ending, some theories developed after the news broke.
Some fans even assumed that the split happened because the couple have opposing political opinions. According to website Sputnik News, for instance, Hightower is a supporter of President Donald Trump, while De Niro regularly disagrees with the Commander-in-Chief’s actions.
An insider also apparently told Life&Style magazine that the source of discord between De Niro and Hightower is finance. The unknown source reportedly claimed, “She was spending his money like there was an endless supply. [De Niro]’s definitely made some movies just to pay the bills.”
The same source reportedly opined that a separation would cost money upfront but that De Niro would improve his financial standing afterwards. “It might cost him a pretty penny now, but a divorce may actually leave [De Niro] with a retirement fund,” they apparently concluded.
However, Hightower reportedly has financial stability thanks to artistic and entrepreneurial ventures of her own. For one thing, she had small acting roles in critically acclaimed movies, including Precious and The Paperboy.
Hightower also helms her own non-profit organization, which sources environmentally friendly, fair-trade coffee from Rwanda. And all of her efforts have reportedly armed her with a $16 million net worth – separate from her husband.
De Niro’s bank account likely does have quite a bit more padding than his estranged wife’s, though: he is reportedly worth $300 million. After all, he has his film career as well as real estate investments and business ventures – including the TriBeCa film studios and festival, restaurants Nobu and Tribeca Grill and The Greenwich Hotel.
So perhaps De Niro’s financial assets take some credence from the rumor that Hightower’s spending pushed him away. In fact, according to Page Six, the separation “blindsided” Hightower. “As of a few weeks ago, everything seemed fine,” its source supposedly added.
Considering how private De Niro and Hightower have always been, it seems unlikely that the public will get an explanation as to exactly why they’re separating. Either way, though, without any formal objections to the proceedings, the former couple could have a divorce in New York State in as little as six weeks.