Robert De Niro on Stage — Cuba and His Teddy Bear

Tom Brogan
9 min readJan 6, 2023

De Niro’s stage appearances have been few and far between, and his 1986 bow on Broadway was an unusual choice.

Since the early 1970s, arguably beginning with his turn as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Robert De Niro became an exciting presence on screen. His reputation as an actor to watch throughout that decade was enhanced by his roles in The Godfather Part Two and Taxi Driver. However, unlike his contemporary Al Pacino, he rarely ventured on stage. The most notable occasion he took on a theatre role was in 1986 in a play entitled Cuba and His Teddy Bear.

Playbill program cover for Cuba and His Teddy Bear. It features drawings of the three stars in character — Robert De Niro, Burt Young and Ralph Macchio.
The Playbill program cover for the show’s initial run.

Cuba was the first full-length play by Reinaldo Povod, then 26 years old. It was a partly autobiographical story about his childhood on East 13th Street in the Lower East Side of New York as the son of a drug dealer. Bill Hart, the literary manager of the Public Theater and the play’s director, discovered Povod in 1979. On visiting a Lower East Side bar called the NuYorican Poets’ Cafe, where plays and poetry by Latin writers were performed, he saw a play called Cries and Shouts, a gritty play about a vicious drug dealer. ‘I was stunned,’ Hart told the Associated Press, ‘twenty-five years ago, I walked into a church on St Mark’s Place and saw two plays by a guy named Sam Shepard. Until I saw Cries and Shouts, I hadn’t confronted another young writer with such a distinctive and powerful voice.’ Hart had directed Shepard’s work since those days in the 1960s and continued to do so into the 1990s. Povod had been pursuing a career as an actor until playwright Miguel Piñero and Miguel Algarin, a poet and writer who together ran the NuYorican Poets Cafe, encouraged him to write.

After securing Povod’s play an Off-Broadway run, Hart asked the young writer who he would like to play the role of Cuba, the father in the story. Povod had no hesitation in suggesting De Niro. Hart laughed but took the idea to Joseph Papp, the head of the Public Theater. Papp called De Niro on a Friday and then sent him the script. By Monday, the Academy Award winner had agreed to take the role.

The production would be De Niro’s first stage performance in twelve years since he had appeared in Schubert’s Last Serenade by Julie Bovasso at the Manhattan…

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Tom Brogan

Author of We Made Them Angry Scotland at the World Cup Spain 1982. Writing about films, music, football and television. https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/tombrogan