Is Robert De Niro an Idiot Savant?

I recently saw this brilliant actor as part of a panel discussing kids on drugs (this was on BRAVO) and the man absolutely could not make sense. His sentences were disjointed and he often fought for the thread of the question he was being asked, to the point where I was feeling sorry for him. So I am wondering: is it it possible that this man can function only when he has a script telling him what to say and who to be?

Did any of you see this program or have any of you seen him outside of his acting environment? Being involved in community theatre, I have seen very shy people “come out” as it were, but it was always an improvement to their personality and they “stayed with it” for the most part in real life, but this guy just seemed so devoid of any personality that it made me wonder how he could be so brilliant on screen, but is at a loss for words when he doesn’t have a script.

Please don’t take offense at this post! I am a fan and he is one of my favorite actors. I just wanted your insights.


Might explain his (brilliant) performance in Awakenings.

I did not see the interview you refer to but think about yourself answering a serious question in front of an audience of millions of people for which you don’t have a glib and ready answer and are turning it around in your mind.

Thought and language tend to be stop and start when tackling a difficult question that requires serious thought. He doesn’t strike me a glib but that doesn’t mean he’s not intelligent or thoughtful. I’ve met many glib people proffering themselves as sleek and intelligent beings but whose parroted responses fell apart when real dirty hands, bruised knuckles mental heavy lifting was required.

I’ll agree 100% with Astro. I’ve always respected Jack Nicholson’s talents a lot. However, he’s always been the wise-assed “Star” when in front of a tv camera. That is , until I got the DVD of “The Shining”. In the making of doc ( produced by Kubrick’s daughter Vivianne), Nicholson was completely thoughtful and articulate about his craft, and what it meant to him to work with Kubrick.

It was a highly cerebral side one doesn’t get to see much. Just a reminder I guess that while we may not get to SEE it, many better actors- real, working actors- are terribly serious about the thoughtful presentation they make to the public. Perhaps that is what you were seeing- a De Niro who was taking his time to articulate carefully. :slight_smile:


This post just reminded me of a guy I used to work with who was known as an “idiot savant without the savant”.

He’s not an idiot savant in the old sense of the word. I’m blanking on what those people are labelled with now but originally the term was used to mean a person with low intelligence who had one extraordinary skill. Like calendrical calculation or drawing or music. I think Stephen Wiltshire is the only known example of an idiot savant who has two extreme gifts. He is an amazing painter and later in life demonstrated he is also a musician. Both to very high standards.

Savants are usually (always?) autistic and their skill is seen as a splinter skill. What we don’t know is why they are so good at what they do, far beyond what a person of normal intelligence is capable.

So, no, De Niro is not an idiot savant. he might suck at public speaking but he is capable of dealing with life as a normal person.

An example of an idiot savant from the 19th century was a slave named “Blind Tom.” He was an imbecile for all intents and purposes in most areas of life, but he could play the piano like a maestro. After hearing any piece of music just once, he could play it back on the piano note for note. It was as if he were incarnated in this life solely for the sake of music.

How rare are Idiot Savants?

I’ve seen De Niro on a few talk shows and on every one he looked to be very uncomfortable. He strikes me as a shy person who just wants to his job and not deal with all the rif raff that goes along with it. Makes you realize how good of an actor he is in my opinion.

Also, various works on the history of Martin Scorcese’s film Raging Bull quote reputable behind-the-scenes sources that De Niro did an uncredited polish of the screenplay in order to answer a studio executive’s assertion that Jake LaMotta was “a cockroach.” Any halfwit can churn out a crummy screenplay (see The Wedding Planner), but given the quality of Raging Bull, I’d say that if any of it reflects De Niro’s writing as well as his spectacular acting, he’s far from a one-trick pony.

Just echoing the above comments: I think he’s a smart, supremely talented individual, and one of the rare people who has a highly public job but who isn’t any good at off-the-cuff public speaking. Uncommon, sure, but not unimaginable.

This just reminds me of William Hurt, who is known to be rather cryptic when you speak to him. The man is a good actor, but as himself, doesn’t make much sense and seems to think on some abstract level.

I remember reading Entertainment Weekly when Lost in Space was released. Mimi Rogers realted a story about Wiliam Hurt and Gary Oldman having a conversation that went on for nearly a half hour. When they had finished, Rogers asked Oldman what he and William Hurt had been talking about. Oldman said, “I have no idea.”

Maybe DeNiro is the same way, where he tends to think abstractly and artistically, making the communication of his thoughts more difficult to someone who doesn’t understand his line of reason.

Or maybe he’s just not comfortable speaking in public.

I agree with all here concerning De Niro’s definite talent as an actor. One of the very best of his generation. And the very few times I saw him give interviews, he did, as Oblong said, look very uncomfortable. Must be very painful for him to go on the road and plug his movies.

Cartooniverse: I think you’re spot on concerning Nicholson’s obvious mastery of the art. And I agree that he usually project a smart-ass image off-screen (the media certainly don’t help much in that respect; actually, the feed out of it). Gotta lay my hands on the ‘Shining’ DVD ( :::making note to buy DVD player first::: ). Would be real interesting to hear that interview. Unless I’m mistaken, Nicholson has given about as many interviews as De Niro.

One other actor, IMHO, we don’t seem to see as much as we’d like to off-screen (read: interview-wise) is John Malkovitch. I find this actor radiates intelligence (mixed with a bit of superiority at times), and I’d easily put him in the same class as the two above. You haven’t lived if you didn’t see him read the ‘Top Ten List’ on Letterman. There, I heard that he also has a definite and delicious sense of self-deprecating humour:D.

Savants are rare but autistic kids with splinter skills are not all that rare. Hyperlexia is where a 2 yo autistic kid will teach themselves to read. Math ability in autistic kids is also not all that rare.

OK this page says that 2/3 of autistic kids have idiot savant abilities
and that the occurence of autism is about 5 in 10 000.

I guess it’s how you define idiot savant. Not all idiot savants are as outstandingly gifted as Wiltshire FI. It’s the appearance of any ability at all in some of these autistic kids of low intelligence

It occurs to me that the title of this thread might have been worded a little strongly, if not altogether wrong. Nect time I will give a little more thought to what I want to ask and how to ask it. Mea culpa.


I simply couldn’t find a link to this book- it’s most likely out of print. I read it every few years, it’s that important to me. So, I will give the best longhand cite I can. To wit:

“Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of HEAVEN’S GATE” By Steven Bach. 1985, William Morrow.

On pp. 164-166, a meeting is taking place with United Artists Executives, and Martin Scorcese. Robert DeNiro is present in the room. Irwin Winkler, the producer says in reference to the angry character of Jake LaMotta, " We all agree that’s too strong".

Scorcese says, " We’re not hyappy with this script either", and he nods towards DeNiro, who is sitting but not speaking.

David Field, executive in charge of Production for United Artists says, "…The problem is will anyone want to see any movie about such Neanderthal behavior? Can any writer make him more than what he seems to be in the scripts we’ve seen? "

Scorsese says, “Which is what?”.

Field replies, " A cockroach".

Apparently, after a moment of a room full of silence, De Niro says quietly, " he is not a cockroach".

Six months later, a new script was submitted and vetted, and produced. The title page that covered the draft of "Raging Bull"that made Jake LaMotta human said, in small type in the lower right hand corner, “RdN”.

I’ve paraphrased and used a few direct quotes here. I hope I’m not in trouble for using some quotes from the passage in this book, but lacking an Internet link to the words, there was no way to accurately deliver the information.


I have it on the authority of someone who has worked with Mr. De Niro (no one that you would have ever heard of) that he is an inarticulate man. I don’t believe that this is a secret.