The Closing: Raphael De Niro
The Douglas Elliman power broker and Hollywood scion on shunning the spotlight, his residual checks from MGM and how his last name factors into deals
Raphael De Niro may be Hollywood royalty, but he’s also a real estate powerhouse. The Douglas Elliman broker and son of actors Robert De Niro and Diahnne Abbott took the No. 1 spot on The Real Deal’s latest ranking of Manhattan’s top residential agents, with $721.4 million in closed sales in 2016, including $665.5 million in new development projects. While many of those closings stemmed from legacy contracts signed several years ago at the height of the market, that haul was mammoth for the broker’s team. Growing up, De Niro, who started his real estate career at Elliman in 2004, got a front-row look at real estate development from his grandmother, an early investor in Soho. His father — with whom he partners on hospitality plays, including the Greenwich Hotel — also later famously backed such developments as the Tribeca Grill and several commercial-to-residential conversions. The younger De Niro, who has a roster of celebrity clients, including the likes of Renée Zellweger and Kelly Ripa, previously marketed Magnum Real Estate’s 100 Barclay. He is now working on the Fitzroy, JDS Development Group and Largo Investments’ 14-unit condominium on the High Line that has a sellout of $164 million.
What’s the origin of your first name? My mom and dad claim I was conceived in the Hotel Raphael in Rome. My mom also talks about the Archangel Raphael. And I was actually told it means “to get better” or “to get well” in Hebrew.
Where’d you grow up? I was born in L.A. and we moved to New York when I was 10.
What was that like? It was culture shock. I was moving from an idyllic, suburban community to the city in the mid-1980s. It was two totally opposite ends of the spectrum.
What were you like as a kid? Rambunctious. Definitely fun-loving, but I got into mischief all the time. When I was four, we were on the roof of a building that my dad was looking at and I just started climbing up a ladder to this old wooden water tower. Everyone freaked out, not knowing how to get me down. Stuff like that.
There was a graffiti incident when you were a teenager, too, right? I was a teenager in NYC just doing what my peers were doing. I never got into serious trouble. It seemed mild, like playing with fireworks. That was the culture downtown.
Are any of your childhood haunts still there? Most of them are gone. It’s kind of sad.
Is that depressing? I feel a little conflicted. Change is good. But I look at Bleecker Street and all these empty storefronts and I think about the cool mom-and-pops that used to be there. It would be nice if certain businesses had some sort of protection — like people have rent stabilization or rent control. But that’s blasphemy in the real estate community.
What was your first job before real estate? I always had some kind of summer job — folding rugs in this Persian rug store, working as a production assistant for my dad or working as a busboy at Nobu [his dad is a co-founder] when it opened in 1994. My parents felt it was good for me to get some responsibility. They were worried that I’d become a typical Hollywood kid. It’s part of why I think they moved me to New York.
You went to NYU but never finished. How come? In retrospect, I kind of regret that, but at the time I just wanted to work and prove that I didn’t need to live off my father’s dole. I feel like that’s what everyone expected and I wanted to prove otherwise.
How did you get into real estate? It sort of happened by mistake. I knew a little bit because of my grandmother’s investing, and my father did the same thing 20 years later in Tribeca. Around 2002-2003, I decided to get a license. I thought it might come in handy one day. It started to take on a life of its own.
You’ve appeared in some of your parents’ movies, right? I did when I was a kid. I remember vaguely being on the set and having to repeat the scene over and over. It didn’t appeal to me. I still get residual checks from MGM for like $5.50 for “Raging Bull,” even though I was cut out of a short scene.
When did you become aware of your parents’ fame? Not until about 1988, when my dad’s career started to take off in a commercial way. Prior to that, he was more of an actor’s actor. I kind of shunned the attention. Walking around with him was sort of difficult for me. At a certain point in my 20s, I stopped caring.
You’re still fairly press-shy. Why? I had a front-row view of life under a microscope and I didn’t like it. I’d never do a Bravo real estate show. I’ve been asked many times. I want to be able to get on the subway and not be recognized.
Does it bother you when your personal life shows up on Page Six? Yeah, I’m not into that at all. I just try to keep my head down and keep my private life private. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t let it upset you too much. People forget.
You and your ex-wife split in 2015. How often do you see the kids now? Four to five days a week and every other weekend is dedicated solely to them. I want them to see my face as often as possible. Before, it was like, “It’s OK if I come home after they go to bed, I’ll just see them tomorrow. You take it for granted a little bit.
You’ve said no one buys a $10 million apartment because of your last name. Is your name a double-edged sword? It’s helped in terms of being recognizable and it helps to have really good contacts, which I do. But it doesn’t help when it comes to meeting with a developer and pitching their $800 million building. You have to win those kinds of assignments on the merits, because you know what you’re talking about. And people can figure that out in two seconds.
In 2010, you sold two apartments to Malaysian billionaire Jho Low, who’s now being investigated for his role in a money-laundering scheme. Were there red flags? He wasn’t my client. I was representing two sellers of big, fancy apartments near the park. Jho Low was out shopping and picking off luxury assets for his reasons. But you don’t know. He’d show up with these huge entourages, which is always kind of silly. That was my only real takeaway.
Do you have vices? Nicotine. I smoked off and on for 20 years, but I stopped 18 months ago. Now I just use this JUUL [vaporizer]. I feel good. I can walk up 10 flights of stairs and I’m not out of breath and before I couldn’t even walk up one flight without being out of breath.
How do you want to be remembered? As somebody who didn’t try to cash in on the family name, who tried to make his own way and tried to be honest and forthright in his dealings with everyone.