Robert De Niro Dedicates Friars Club Award to Robin Williams at Raucous, Star-Studded Gala

AP Images/Invision
Robert De Niro with his family at Tuesday night's gala.

The non-roast still featured a few zings at the guest of honor along with jokes about Larry King, Ryan Seacrest, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Hi, Ricky Gervais) and the event itself

Tuesday night's Friars Club gala wasn't technically a roast. The lavish event at New York's Waldorf-Astoria was designed to honor Robert De Niro with the Entertainment Icon Award, only the fifth one the Friars Club has bestowed in its 110 year existence, and recognize business mogul Carlos Slim with the Icon Award for Philanthropy.

But that didn't stop those who took the stage to praise De Niro from taking a few shots at the legendary actor and taking aim at a number of other targets including Friars Club dean Larry King, who served as the evening's host; Ryan Seacrest; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Hi, Ricky Gervais); and the event itself.

The raucous, star-studded event also featured live performances from music legends Sting, performing "Every Breath You Take," which he helpfully introduced as "a song about obsession"; Aretha Franklin, who claimed she caught a cold after "pounding the pavement" shopping on Monday night; and Stevie Wonder, who had the well-heeled guests on their feet for "Superstition" after performing renditions of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "My Cherie Amour."

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The jokes, and roars of laughter from the audience, reached a fever pitch when Joel McHale took the stage after the Queen of Soul.

"Yeah, follow Aretha f—in' Franklin. Thanks. She wasn't even off the stage yet," McHale said as he took the stage. "Living legend. Guy from E!"

McHale said that he was there to "officially and publicly apologize" to De Niro for the "mean joke" he made about the actor at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which De Niro initially seemed cool with, but he later told Katie Couric that it had hurt his feelings. (McHale joked that he felt so guilty when he heard that that he almost rented Grudge Match but didn't feel that guilty: "I didn't see that movie, but who exactly was the 'grudge match' with? Fans of quality cinema?")

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He also joked about the event itself, pointing out the painted, empty bottles of Jack Daniel's that were on each table, prompting howls from the audience, who had likely already noticed the lack of booze in the bottles. And he poked fun at a giveaway of two free round-trip tickets on Delta, which were won by a multimillionaire.

"If the private jet is full, send your staff with those," he said. "Friars Club gives back. Do you have to fly Delta?"

And he jested that there was another giveaway, instructing guests to look under their seats, where one of them would find Ryan Seacrest, at full height. "If you put your hand up his back, you can make him talk," he joked.

But he was also there to pay tribute to De Niro, saying, "Robert De Niro has been a genuine inspiration to me, which, if you glance at my IMDb page, is maybe the most insulting thing I could say to a person.

"Mr. De Niro has influenced me greatly as an actor. Yes, I am one!" he added, citing roles in Spy Kids 4, the "original" Spider-Man 2 and Open Season 2.

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But in all seriousness, he told De Niro, "You are the greatest f—ing American actor in the f—ing world!"

And he looked forward to apologizing for what he said Tuesday night at a future event.

"If we do our part, we can both keep this going for like five more years," McHale told De Niro.

De Niro later indicated that they would resolve things much sooner than that, menacingly telling McHale, "I'll see you later!"

And he was a good sport about the many "bad movies" jokes, saying when he accepted his award, "There are lots of bad movies left to make and with some of the people here tonight, God damn it we'll make 'em."

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Earlier that night, in a videotaped message Ricky Gervais illustrated just how well De Niro appreciated what some might consider offensive humor, recalling that the actor called him after the Golden Globes, when, as Gervais put it, "I pissed everyone off in Hollywood and you were laughing all the way through."

According to Gervais, De Niro said, "You were great. They were jokes. F— them. They were jokes." And after Gervais said he didn't know if he'd be invited back because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was really angry, De Niro said, "You want me to have a word?"

"I thought you meant you were gonna have 'em whacked," Gervais said. "I said, 'No, but thanks.' "

Edward Norton was one of the many guests who trotted out a De Niro impression when he took the stage, but he's had practice, explaining that after he first moved to New York, he watched Taxi Driver and Raging Bull every day, making De Niro's classics his acting class. Still, although
he still knows all of those scenes line for line, he said he wouldn't do any of them in front of De Niro. Instead, he illustrated one of De Niro's less imitated but distinctive off-camera techniques.

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"You might be interested to know that this man who communicates so much wordlessly onscreen gets offscreen and uses words to communicate just horrendously," Norton said as De Niro's wife, Grace Hightower, seemed to agree with him from the audience. "He is the worst, most cryptic articulator of non-words, non-sentences amounting to total confusion of the listener in the history of stage or film. He is the Yogi Berra of actors. You wait for him to call you over and convey something that's going to improve your performance or take you to the next level of the craft. The moment comes and he leans in and says something like, 'So, at that point, I think that it's important that not that it's not if we don't you know we really gotta I think we really, really I think that's the thing OK?' There is an entire generation of actors that gathers in bars to discuss, 'What the f— was Bob saying?' Nobody knows," Norton said.

But he noted that De Niro really can't be copied.

"The truth is that everybody has a De Niro imitation but everybody understands that nobody can imitate De Niro. He is inimitable. He didn't imitate anyone either, and even that inspired [me and my roommates studying De Niro's performances on film] to move beyond the imitation you start with and find our own paths toward character and truth. I can guarantee you that every actor of my generation found the courage to find his or her own voice because of his example," Norton said. "Thank you for taking some of us under your wing, as confusing as that might be."

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Clips of De Niro's films, and one Saturday Night Live appearance, were shown before tributes, with SNL star Kenan Thompson using his time at the podium to joke that De Niro was being inducted into the African-American hall of fame, "as an honorary black man."

"Because he's very, very cool," Thompson said.

He then joked that as an honorary black man, De Niro would have to sell his interest in Nobu and invest in Red Lobster and some of his movie titles would have to be changed: Taxi Driver becomes Can I Get a Cab? Goodfellas becomes Goodbrothas. Awakenings becomes Wake Up, Bitch.

In all seriousness, Thompson took a moment to point out De Niro's generosity and humility, something several speakers touched on.

"One time I made a video for Mr. De Niro's son for his birthday, and maybe a year and a half later I saw him on an airplane and the first thing he said to me was, 'Did you get my thank-you note?' and I was really, really touched by that because you obviously have your feet very much on the ground and deserve everything you get tonight," Thompson said.

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The night also featured video tributes from Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese, who both joked about her being honored instead; Billy Crystal, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Sean Penn, Keith Richards, Barbra Streisand, who suggested that she and De Niro make another Meet the Parents/Fockers film called The Old Fockers, and Ben Stiller, who told De Niro that the veteran actor was his hero and that his acting is "frighteningly good."

"And by frighteningly good, I mean: I'm scared of you," Stiller said. "When we work together I always address you as Mr. De Niro, which always feels weird even though you insist on it." Stiller also participated in the night's running joke of pretending to hit up Slim for business help and quipped of the newly inducted friar, "I thought you had to be funny to be a friar, but I guess when you're the richest person in the world, you can do anything."

Back at the Waldorf, David O. Russell, Sharon Stone and Penny Marshall also took the stage to pay tribute to De Niro, with the latter talking about and showing an outtake from her movie, Awakenings, in which De Niro starred opposite Robin Williams.

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When De Niro accepted his award, he noted that he couldn't watch that clip without thinking about how much he misses Williams.

"No one made me laugh like Robin. Of course, it was more than the jokes, he had so much humanity, just look at his face in that scene. He was a wonderful actor, sure, but those feelings were real. No one could fake that kind of love and compassion," De Niro said, dedicating the award to his "dear friend."

De Niro may also have had the best line of the night, touching on the fact that it was getting late and some of the guests may already be asleep.

"Larry King is the only one still awake, and he should be good until dawn when he goes back and crawls into his coffin," De Niro said.

He's still got it.