Robert De Niro got more than just applause when he received his degree of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts during commencement exercises at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Sunday, May 27. When delivering his speech, the actor drew a steady stream of laughter from the 463 graduating seniors and more than 5,000 onlookers with his witty remarks.
"With all due respect to Gwen Ifill and Bonnie Bassler, I think this is the most important piece of advice you'll get today: become a movie star," he said, giving shout-out to fellow honorary degree recipients. "Now, you might be tempted by other careers, other interests, other commitments. There might be pressure on you to change the world, but you want to find the strength to resist."
He threw another joke when looking back at the day he dropped out of school. "In many ways, leaving school when I did it was an advantage. I saved nearly $6,000 by not having to pay tuition and expenses for four years of education. I feel a little foolish, because if I had waited until now not to go to college, I could have saved around a quarter of a million," he stated.
"It worked out just fine. I saved the money, and I got the degree," 68-year-old De Niro continued. "My mother would be so proud to see her son, who never graduated high school, standing up here, receiving this honorary doctorate of fine arts. She would've been more proud of it if it was [from] Harvard." His joke got another laughter from the crowd, but some reportedly booed him.
On a serious note, he said, "Trying to improve our society isn't a cliche, it is a worthy goal; thinking about an actually doing the right thing is a cliche, but so what, it is the worthiest of goals. When a director gives you a line reading that doesn't feel right for your character, nod and agree with him or her then do it the way your character would do it."
He went on, "If you are an actor been true to your character; if you are not an actor, have character and always be true to yourself." Although admitting he did ok despite having lack of education, "The King of Comedy" star stressed that education was important so he encouraged people to value it. "Staying in school for as long as you can," so he said.
The Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts was conferred by interim president at Bates, Nancy Cable. De Niro was presented the degree by his friend, trustee Michael Chu. The movie veteran was honored during the 146th commencement at Bates along with PBS "Newshour" senior correspondent Ifill and Princeton University molecular biologist Bassler.