Robert De Niro

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b .   1 9 4 3


    1. A person whose profession is acting on the stage, in movies, or on television.
    2. A person who behaves in a way that is not genuine.

"My parents were very supportive; they were glad I hadn't become an insurance salesman."
- Robert De Niro

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    'You talking to me? Well, who the hell else are you talking to? You talking to me? Well I'm the only one here.' Travis Bickle, the rabid urban avenger played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, affirms his solitariness in front of a mirror. As the Seventies wore on it seemed De Niro himself was the only one 'here' - the one actor immediately identifiable with lost souls on the streets of New York, fall-guys of the Vietnam fall-out, and other victims of the age. The brilliance he brings to such roles makes him the most authentic movie-hero of his generation.

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There is an agreeable symmetry for the fact that in The Godfather, Part II (1974) Robert De Niro played Vito Corleone, the young Sicilian who was to 'become' the old Mafia chief portrayed by Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). As Brando himself got older and his screen appearances rarer, it seemed for a long while that there was no-one to fill the void he was leaving: what other star was there possessed of such incredible sexual magnetism, who was at the same time a sensitive actor with a huge range, whose presence in even the most mediocre films lifted everything around him to a high level of intelligence and excitement?

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Then in 1973 along came De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly and, even more importantly, Mean Streets; it was not a 'new Brando) who had appeared, but an actor who would obviously become, like Brando, a consummate film actor.

I n 1973, however, De Niro - born on August 17, 1943 - was already 30 years old, and his career had begun much earlier.

    'I was born in Greenwich Village. I wanted to be an actor when I was 10, and then again when I was 16.'

At 10, he attended New York's American Dramatic Workshop: at 16, he studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Actors' Studio.

    'My parents were artists, and I thought they were Bohemian, and like all kids I wanted to rebel, so I decided to live a very conventional life. When it came time to make a real choice, however, I studied acting, which is what I always really wanted to do. My parents were very supportive; they were glad I hadn't become an insurance salesman.'

After working in semi-professional theatre outside New York City, he appeared Off- Broadway in a number of plays, including One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger with Shelley Winters. In 1967, the director Brian De Palma, who had seen him on stage, hired De Niro to play a friend of the groom in The Wedding Party. They worked together again on the comedies Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). De Palma remembers:

    'One day on Greetings, he came in to shoot a scene and I didn't recognize him. We had to put a label on him so that viewers would remember that it was the same character they had seen at the beginning....He really lives his roles, and that changes him physically.'


People who know him have remarked that De Niro 'isn't here' during the making of a film, and he is well known for his 'isolation' between takes.

    'I can't cheat when I act. I know that the cinema is only an illusion, but not for me. The qualities of an actor must be those which Faulkner said were those of a writer: experience, observation, imagination. The preparation of a role, the experience of making a film, are hard. When you are 10, you dream of beauty, of glory, and you aren't aware of the reality: study and work. If one is really in a film, the rest of the world disappears. No obligations, no telephone, no everyday details, no bothers. Then when it is finished and you return to reality you have to lose all the weight of the character, and go back to other disciplines. You have time for yourself, and that can be a source of new problems.'

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Aside from the major influences of his teachers - Lee Strasberg, Luther James and Stella Adler (who he says was the first to give him 'a total sense of the theatre and of a character') - he says that the actors who 'marked' him include Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page - and also Spencer Tracy:

    'I know, he was more conventional, but his authenticity touched me, and I admire Walter Huston for his magic - remember The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)? - and Jeanne Morceau because of something she emanates which always strikes me.'

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In 1970 he played one of the gangster sons of Ma Barker (Shelley Winters) in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama, and the following year did three films - Ivan Passer's Born to Win, Noel Black's Jennifer on My Mind, James Goldstone's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight - none of which won him fame and glory, but did get him noticed by other directors and producers.

    'If I look back, I made a lot of films (independent or commercial, big and little) before I had any success, which was unforeseen. My luck was to be able to work and to learn; that's what an actor must never forget.'

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His dying baseball player in John Hancock's Bang the Drum Slowly had audiences asking who he was and critics raving, and his Johnny Boy stole Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (not an easy task when your co-star is the excellent Harvey Keitel), for which De Niro won the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Actor. The meeting with Martin Scorsese was particularly fortuitous:

    'What matters to me is to work with a director who responds to me. That's been the case for a long time with Martin Scorsese. What's important in our work, which is very heavy and very slow, is a kind of complicity, solidarity, and at least a minimum of fun - which prevents migraines.'

Scorsese refers to De Niro as 'Mr Perfection', and credits the actor as a major contributor to each of the films, from improvising new dialogue to rearranging troublesome scenes so that they work:

    'Our collaboration is a complete collaboration. We work together in total trust.'


From the almost crazy, self-destructive Johnny Boy, De Niro changed like a chameleon into Corleone, the Sicilian immigrant on his way to becoming the head of a Mafia family: the first role was all frenzy, the second a kind of elegant coolness. In Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II, De Niro also worked extensively on his voice and intonation so that they matched exactly those of Marlon Brando's Corleone in The Godfather. De Niro won the 1974 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.

Entirely different again, he played the alienated, paranoid Travis Bickle, dedicated to purifying New York and 'saving' the virtue of an adolescent whore through slaughter in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). The film won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and De Niro became a solid international star.

De Niro has said that he constantly finds it necessary to change directors and kinds of roles:

    'in order to escape from that vicious circle in which we all find ourselves at any given moment.'

A complete change came with 1900 (1976), made in Italy by Bernardo Bertolucci and an international cast of stars all acting in their own languages (later to be dubbed into Italian). De Niro played a sympathetic Italian landowner at the turn of the century trying to come to terms with the idea of revolution and maintain his relationship with his longtime peasant friend.

Although Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976) was made ineffective by its trowelled-on period decor and absolute fidelity to F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished Hollywood novel, De Niro came through unscathed. His elegant performance in a role modelled on Irving G. Thalberg suggested - more than did the leaden script - that the character was a part of the old Hollywood, that he knew about and loved film, and that he had been caught up in a love affair he knew was finally an illusion more hopeless than the films he was making.

More directly and authentically connected to the old Hollywood, Scorsese's New York, New York (1977), with its re-creation of the New York of movies (as opposed to the 'real' New York) and of the Big Band era, gave De Niro a chance to improvise whole sequences of dialogue, to demonstrate that he has a fine comic talent, and to walk the razor's edge between the comic and the emotionally touching. Jimmy Doyle was also De Niro's first fully romantic role and suggested that if he had been a less talented and ambitious actor he might have had a full career as a conventional matinee idol.

In The Deer Hunter (1978), De Niro played a metal-worker whose hellish experiences in Vietnam make it impossible for him to return to a normal life until he comes to terms with what has happened to himself and his friends. The actor has high praise for Michael Cimino, the film's director:

    'I responded to him. From the time I met him, he was full of his project, of his subject, and I could see he was ready and felt the film had to be made. We were open to one another, ready to meet anywhere and anytime to work together to the end. As with John Hancock (to say nothing of Martin Scorsese) I felt there was something fresh and something good there.'

Although the film was politically and aesthetically controversial (some praised its view of America healing itself while others criticized its verbosity), De Niro's sensitive portrayal of a man learning to understand himself was universally acclaimed.


De Niro's work with Scorsese on Raging Bull (1980), the story of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta, again demonstrates the actor's incredible range and love of change. He played La Motta as an inarticulate, instinctual animal. De Niro was fascinated by La Motta's 'destiny':

    'He fought for everything and he lost everything.'

The same passion for complete preparation that had made the actor learn the saxophone for New York, New York, here led him to take boxing lessons and gain 60Ibs in four months for the scenes of La Motta in retirement. He also learned something about the inner character of the role:

    'I don't like boxing. It's too primitive. But Jake is a more complex being than you think. Take his style: that way of uncovering his face to take blows and tire his opponents. In one way or another there has to be some feeling of guilt to deliberately look to get hit'

De Niro's dedication earned him Best Actor Oscar for 1981. He continued his effective partnership with Scorsese in The King of Comedy (1983), this time playing a man who is convinced of his own talent as a stand-up comic. In De Niro's hands, Rupert Pupkin's arrogance and pathos made a studied comment on those who search after stardom.

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By now, De Niro was established as the most capable actor of his generation but he could no longer continue to play out the conflicts of his times. He settled into middle-age with Falling in Love (1984), a gentle romance co-starring Meryl Streep, which marked a complete change of pace.

Nevertheless, De Niro is still in demand whenever an epic picture is made which attempts to comment on the state of America. Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Brian de Palma's The Untouchables both recruited him to add depth to historic investigations of America's past.

Even given the success he's achieved with other directors, De Niro is at his best when teamed with Scorsese, who has a gift for eliciting jaw-dropping performances from his star, as witness GoodFellas (1990, as coldblooded gangster Jimmy Conway), and Cape Fear (1991, Oscar-nominated again as sadistic ex-con Max Cady).

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De Niro eschews the conventional in his choice of roles; even in a buddy movie like Midnight Run (1988), he brings an added dimension to his parts. He's certainly not afraid to go over the top, as he did with tongue-in-cheek playing the sinister Louis Cyphre in Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987). And no one on the screen today can match him for depicting inner conflict, as he did so well in Jacknife (1989), playing a Vietnam vet whose eccentricity and corny humor mask a seriously wounded psyche. It's precisely those traits that make him the most compulsively watchable male star currently working.

After delivering a harrowing performance as a small-minded bully in This Boy's Life (1993), De Niro took the plunge and directed his first feature film (in which he also costarred), the well-received A Bronx Tale (also 1993). He then played the Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) and re-teamed with Scorsese - the eighth time - for Casino (1995).



- The Wedding Party

- Greetings

- Hi, Mom!
- Bloody Mama

- Jennifer on My Mind
- Born to Win
- The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

- Bang the Drum Slowly
- Mean Streets

- The Godfather: Part II

- Taxi Driver
- 1900
- The Last Tycoon

- New York, New York

- The Deer Hunter

- Raging Bull

- True Confessions

- The King of Comedy

- Once Upon a Time in America
- Falling in Love

- Brazil

- The Mission

- Angel Heart
- The Untouchables

- Midnight Run

- Jacknife
- We're No Angels

- Stanley & Iris
- Goodfellas
- Awakenings

- Guilty by Suspicion
- Backdraft
- Cape Fear

- Mistress
- Night and the City

- The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980 (Video)

- Mad Dog and Glory
- This Boy's Life
- A Bronx Tale

- Frankenstein

- Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma
- Casino
- Heat

- The Fan
- Sleepers
- Marvin's Roooom

- Cop Land
- Wag the Dog
- Jackie Brown

- Great Expectations
- Ronin

- Analyze This
- Flawless

- The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
- Men of Honor
- Meet the Parents

- 15 Minutes
- The Score

- Showtime
- City by the Sea
- Analyze That

- Godsend
- Shark Tale (voice)
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey

- Meet the Fockers
- Chaos

- Hide and Seek
- The Good Shepherd


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