The pair reunited for the 1980 project after working together on Taxi Driver (1976), but Scorsese soon found himself on a reckless downward spiral due to the critical mauling of New York, New York, which was released in 1977.
Speaking to author Jay Glennie for Raging Bull: The Making Of, Scorsese recalls: “It became more impossible for me to function, both physically and mentally, until I finally collapsed.”
Scorsese was rushed to hospital in a “near death” state, where the film’s co-screenwriter Mardik Martin said: “He was bleeding from the mouth, bleeding from his nose, bleeding from his eyes.”
The filmmaker was told by a doctor: “You cannot go anywhere; you may get a brain haemorrhage any second.”
Hearing about Scorsese’s state, De Niro visited him and asked him some questions that ultimately prompted the director to clean up his act. These were: “What is it you want to do? Do you want to die, is that it? Don’t you want to live to see your daughter grow up and get married?”
De Niro was convinced Scorsese was the only man who could direct Raging Bull and, keen to get back to work, asked him: “Are you gonna be one of those directors who makes a couple of good movies and then it’s over for them?”
While the actor says he doesn’t remember the conversation playing out in that way, he told Glennie: “The thought was unthinkable to me to move on without Marty. But I had to give him that out and ask him if he wanted to do it.
“I do recall telling him he could really make this picture special and we would have something that would be remembered for all the right reasons. To me, there was nobody else who could do it better – period.”
Scorsese said he was “lucky there happened to be a project ready” for him to jump into.
Producer Irwin Winkler doubled down on the importance of De Niro’s exchange with Scorsese, adding: “I’m not sure what would have affected Marty more? Bob saying you are going to die or you are never going to make another movie again. Marty’s so passionate about movies it could well have been that.”
Raging Bull, based on the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, is considered one of both Scorsese and de Niro’s greatest films.
Jay Glennie’s Raging Bull: The Making Of, published by Coattails, is out now.