Commencement 2012: honorand Robert De Niro remarks (text and video)

Thank you Michael [Chu ’80, trustee citation presenter].

I’m sure you’re thinking: Wouldn’t it have been cool if Michael Chu were friends with Will Ferrell instead of De Niro?

President Cable, Bates trustees, Gwen Ifill, Bonnie Bassler, I am honored to share the podium with you. Parents and families, guests and you, the Bates College graduating Class of 2012, thank you for including me on this momentous occasion.

I have one message for you, Class of 2012. Stay in school [laughter]. I know you’re here to graduate, I know you think your work is done, but hang on just a minute. It’s tough out there. The world is a scary place. Stay in school [laughter].

You’re not alone. Surveys show that many undergraduates are staying for four and a half to six years. Really! Nothing gets better after this [laughter]. So now, say it with me [graduates say, “Stay in school!”].

It won’t be easy; the best things seldom are. I know you’ve already rented the cap and gown, gotten an internship, broken up with your girlfriends and boyfriends, and started sleeping with new ones [laughter], had your last drink at the Goose [cheers], deposited the early graduation gifts. But listen to me: Yes, stay in school.

It doesn’t matter how you do it. Go for a master’s degree; that always works. If that’s not too much of a stretch, bribe a professor to lower your grades so you don’t have enough credits to graduate [laughter]. Finance your extra schooling by working part time, helping Brad at the omelet station or assisting Vegan Mike. Or go on the American plan: borrow more money. Forget about what the Republicans want to do with your student loan interest rate! Get your parents to kick in too. It should be worth it to them just to keep you from moving back into your old room. That was your plan, wasn’t it?

I know not all of you will be able to do it; some of you will have to go out into the world, some of you will have to leave school. I know that pain of leaving school. For me it happened in the middle of high school. In many ways, leaving school when I did 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 save around a quarter of a million [laughter], just by not going to Bates [laughter].

But, I was in a hurry and, you know, it worked out just fine. I saved the money and I got the degree [laughter]. I’m a doctor of fine arts. Thank you Bates College.

It’s too late to save the tuition, but it’s not too late to save yourselves, and with all due respect to Gwen Ifill and Bonnie Bassler, I think this is the most important piece of advice you will hear today: Become a movie star [laughter].

Now, you may be tempted by other careers, other interests, other commitments. There may be pressure on you to change the world, but you must find the strength to resist. When I started, I wasn’t a movie star, and it sucked [laughter]. The moment I became a movie star, things started to get better [laughter]. If you’re, say, a professor, or a distinguished broadcaster or a groundbreaking biologist, you have to ground it out every day — though I heard differently today from Bonnie.

When you’re a movie star, you can coast. For example, who remembers the last really good successful picture I made [laughter]? C’mon, anyone? It doesn’t matter. I’m still getting the big bucks that Will Ferrell wishes he were getting.

I want you to know under this movie star exterior is a real person. Just like you. Naw, I really didn’t mean that [laughter]. That was acting. You see, I still got it.

But I am deeply honored to be here this morning. I am flattered to be considered in the same company with Gwen Ifill and Bonnie Bassler. I am complimented to be in a group of so many outstanding students educators and alumni. I am appreciative of this great honor, and it is truly a great honor but perhaps giving it to me cheapens it a little.

I think of what my mother would have thought. My mother would be so proud to see her son, who never graduated from high school, standing up here today receiving this honorary doctorate of fine arts (I imagine she would’ve been more proud had it been Harvard, but anyway [laughter]).

But, had she learned, as I have, the history of Bates, she would’ve been moved by my association with this great institution. Bates has been a pioneer in equality and equal opportunity; that’s quite a legacy. It’s also a responsibility; you must follow in the footsteps of so many of your distinguished alumni and bring your Bates values out into the world. I know you will do your alma mater proud.

Bates College’s concern for minorities is inspiring, and now Bates is at the forefront of serving the most abused minority of all, the 1 percent who can actually afford to send their kids here [laughter].

I can practically hear some of you thinking, “Mr. De Niro” —  no, Dr. De Niro — “what if being a movie star isn’t for right for me?” OK, you can be a rebel, but you know you’re only hurting yourself.

But don’t worry, Dr. De Niro has wisdom for you:

As you face the world, there is nothing more important than…..blah blah blah blah blah. [laughter]. And this, above all, blah blah blah blah. And blah blah blah….And, blah.

[laughter and cheers].

Today is one of your six most important days at Bates College. Your graduation day. Then there was your first day of classes, remember. And in between, those four Newman Days [laughter]. You came here, most of you, because of your values, including appreciating the value of an exceptional liberal arts education. So this isn’t an occasion for me to suggest what you should do, or to urge you on a path you have already chosen. This isn’t a day for advice; this is a day for pats on the back.

And what can I tell you. I can tell you what I tell my own children. Three of my sons are here with me today. They’re the ones praying I won’t do anything to embarrass them. That is, anything more than what I’m doing right now. I’ll tell you what I tell them; if it’s any use, fine, if not, find them after the ceremony and just say, “Dudes, sorry your dad is such a dick.”

I tell them these tried and true lessons I’ve learned, or tried to convince them I’ve learned. Keep an open mind. Welcome new experiences and new ideas. Don’t be afraid to try things. Don’t be afraid to fail. I always say, “If you don’t go, you never know.”

Trying to improve our society isn’t a cliché; it’s a worthy goal. Thinking about and actually doing the right thing is a cliché, but so what? It’s also 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 you know your character would do it. If you’re an actor, always be true to your character; if you’re not an actor, have character, and always be true to yourself [applause].

The golden rule — this is not the rule of gold, it’s not do unto others, and when you’ve got all their money leave them to go on to do unto someone else. The golden rule is very simple. It’s about treating people the way you want to be treated. But I don’t have to tell you that. After all, you’re Batesies. Whatever you do, wherever you go, do something real, make a real product, provide a real service, do something of value. Create something of beauty.

I’m very impressed with you Batesies. I’m especially impressed that so many of you made it here the morning after Midnight Madness. That was not a pretty sight at Dunkin’ Donuts this morning.

I’m looking at a new generation of artists, dancers, scientists, writers, teachers, economists, historians, leaders, humanitarians, doers. I’m looking at you. And this morning, I’m feeling a little more hopeful about the world.

It’s a great day to be a Bobcat [cheers].

Congratulations, Class of 2012. And congratulations to myself. Thank you.