For over a year now, actor and icon Robert De Niro has been involved in a nasty custody dispute with his estranged wife of 22 years, Grace Hightower. The shock announcement in November 2018 that they had split took the world by surprise. He’s 76 years old, after all, while she’s a comparatively young 64, and they have an adult son and a young daughter between them. They also have a prenuptial agreement between them, but that hasn’t stopped Hightower from spending the months in between fighting with De Niro over custody of 8-year-old Helen Grace. There have also been feints about money, although it seems that the custody matter is the one that’s most driven De Niro to distraction.
The whole process has seemingly been hard on the notoriously press-shy actor, whose trips to court have featured him hiding his face behind newspapers and otherwise trying to foil the flock of photographers waiting to catch a glimpse of him. He’s even repeatedly snapped at them, calling reporters outside the courtroom “scumbags” and implying they’ll regret doing their jobs this way. While Hightower doesn’t appear to have relished the attention, there’s every indication that she’s orchestrated the case to be as difficult as possible on De Niro in order to exert leverage over her much richer ex. In fact, as early as February 2019, The Post was reporting that Hightower, who was said to have been taken by surprise when she learned that she was being divorced, had a strategy of ratcheting up the pressure with ongoing court dates. De Niro apparently expected a fairly drama-free divorce, given the controlling documents, but Hightower’s lawyers seem to have succeeded with their ploy.
In that February report, Hightower’s lawyers blamed De Niro for needing to make the case public, while a De Niro source said, “Bob would have preferred to not go to court, and she would do better by not going to court, but she’s forcing Bob to give her less money.”
It’s not clear that things worked out that way, either. In June, the pair came together in a Manhattan courtroom where Hightower’s lawyers asserted that the Raging Bull star is worth $500 million and that she is entitled to half. This is in spite of their prenuptial agreement’s terms giving Hightower a $6 million apartment, $500,000 cash, and a cool million a year in spousal maintenance. Backing up the apparent cash grab were some big time receipts to support her claims. “Mr. De Niro has made $300 million since 2004 via 35 businesses, and 38 movies,” her lawyer told the judge.
Meanwhile, his team complained about the aggressive tactics that Hightower and her lawyer were using, pointing to the six subpoenas that she had already issued for his financial records. “She is seeking essentially every piece of paper of De Niro’s receipts for meals on movie sets, wardrobe, payroll records of every employee at Nobu, credit card charges. This all goes back 15 years.”
At least his car was waiting for him outside the courthouse when he exited that day. Following an earlier appearance, his driver had mistakenly situated himself at the wrong entrance to the courthouse, leaving De Niro and his lawyers standing on the sidewalk while tourists gawked and reporters swarmed. De Niro called his driver on his cellphone and blew up at him, all recorded on cell phone videos that hit YouTube moments later. “You’re not in front!” he shouted at the driver. “You’re not where you dropped us off!” His lawyers eventually led him back into the courthouse to wait, trying to hold up newspapers to cut the sight line between the camera lenses and the actor’s face. It was likely a low moment for Tribeca’s most ardent cheerleader, but one that fed a bit of levity as he left the court in June.
“Any last words?” a reporter asked cheekily as De Niro’s car approached. Another photographer nearby quipped, “Yeah, ‘Go f— yourself!’” as one possibility. De Niro himself smiled and replied to the reporter, “Your co-worker just said it,” as he climbed into his car.
When it comes to someone like De Niro, it’s always a question mark whether being spotted in public is simply a function of a famous person being in public, or whether the publicity was planned. This is especially true when it comes to play dates during a custody fight, and in May, De Niro made some ostentatious moves with his then-7-year-old daughter. First, The Post tells us, he took Helen to a party with Uma Thurman’s 6-year-old, Luna, at the interactive Troll The Experience museum. After getting their hair and makeup Trolled up, De Niro took them for pizza. A week later, De Niro was spotted at a playground with Helen, and because he’s Robert De Niro, normal dad activities require a write-up in the tabloids.
After all these months of game playing and brinkmanship, it appears that genuine progress was made at a January 2020 hearing where, according to their judge, Justice Matthew Cooper, the parties finally came to a consensus on what a co-parenting plan would look like. Details, obviously, were not made public, but Justice Cooper brightly announced a final hearing on the agreement slated for February 14, Valentine’s Day. “We will come back that day for an allocution,” Cooper told the parties. “I’m going to ask certain questions on the record so I can be sure that the parties knowingly and intelligently entered into the parenting plan.”
While their tiff over De Niro’s fortune remains to be settled, Justice Cooper was even optimistic that the end was in sight on that portion of the dispute. “Hopefully in a number of months we can bring this matter to full conclusion and have the parties divorced,” he told them before gaveling the session closed. Are you considering divorce but hoping it doesn’t take a year and a half? Call the experienced Queens divorce lawyers at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with an experienced Queens divorce and child custody attorney.