Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 17 August 1943. Education: Attended Rhodes School, New York; High School of Music and Art, New York; studied acting with Stella Adler at the Actors Studio, New York. Family: Married the actress Diahnne Abbott, 1976 (divorced 1979), children: Drena and Raphael; twin boys with Toukie Smith. Career: Appeared in workshop and off-off-Broadway theater productions, 1960s; made film debut in The Wedding Party , 1969; worked with the Theatre Company of Boston for one season, 1969–70; appeared in his first film with director Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets , 1973; set up the TriBeCa project in New York, late 1980s; made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale , 1993. Awards: National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor, for Mean Streets , 1973; New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor, for Bang the Drum Slowly , 1973; Best Supporting Actor
The Wedding Party (De Palma) (as Cecil); Greetings (De Palma) (as Jon Rubin)
Hi, Mom! (De Palma) (as Jon Rubin); Bloody Mama (Corman) (as Lloyd Barker)
Jennifer on My Mind (Black) (as gypsy cab driver); The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (Goldstone) (as Mario); Born to Win (Passer) (as Danny)
Bang the Drum Slowly (Hancock) (as Bruce Pearson); Mean Streets (Scorsese) (as Johnny Boy)
The Godfather, Part II (Coppola) (as Vito Corleone)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese) (as Travis Bickle); Novecento ( 1900 ) (Bertolucci) (as Alfredo); The Last Tycoon (Kazan) (as Monroe Stahr)
New York, New York (Scorsese) (as Jimmy); The Deer Hunter (Cimino) (as Mike)
Raging Bull (Scorsese) (as Jake LaMotta); The Swap (Shade) (as Sammy)
True Confessions (Grosbard) (as Des Spellacy)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese) (as Rupert Pupkin)
Once Upon a Time in America (Leone) (as Noodles); Falling in Love (Grosbard) (as Frank)
Brazil (Gilliam) (as Tuttle)
The Mission (Joffe) (as Mendoza)
Angel Heart (Parker) (as Louis Cyphre); The Untouchables (De Palma) (as Al Capone); Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Coutaurié—doc for TV)
Jacknife (David Jones) (as Joseph "Megs" Megessey); Midnight Run (Brest) (as Jack Walsh)
Stanley and Iris (Ritt) (as Stanley Cox); We're No Angels (Neil Jordan) (as Ned/Fr. Reilly, + exec pr)
GoodFellas (Scorsese) (as James Conway); Awakenings (Penny Marshall) (as Leonard Love)
Guilty by Suspicion (Irwin Winkler) (as David Merrill); Backdraft (Ron Howard) (as Donald Rimgale); Cape Fear (Scorsese) (as Max Cady)
Night and the City (Winkler) (as Harry Fabian); Mistress (Primus) (as Evan M. Wright) (+ co-pr)
This Boy's Life (Caton-Jones) (as Dwight); Mad Dog and Glory (McNaughton) (as Wayne "Mad Dog" Dobie)
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Branagh) (as The Creature/Sharp) (+ assoc pr)
Casino (Scorsese) (as Sam "Ace" Rothstein); Heat (Mann) (as Neil McCauley); Les Cent et une Nuits ( A Hundred and One Nights ) (Varda) (as Actor for a Day)
The Fan (Tony Scott) (as Gil Renard); Marvin's Room (Zaks) (as Dr. Wally) (+ pr); Sleepers (Levinson) (as Father Bobby)
Cop Land (Mangold) (as Moe Tilden); Wag the Dog (Levinson) (as Conrad Brean) (+ co-pr); Jackie Brown (Tarantino) (as Louis Gara)
Great Expectations (Cuaron) (as Arthur Lustig); Ronin (Frankenheimer) (as Sam); Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth (Weide—for TV) (doc) (as Narrator)
Analyze This (Ramis) (as Paul Vitti); Flawless (Schumacher) (as Walt Koontz)
Meet the Parents (Roach) (as Jack Byrnes); The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (McAnuff) (as Fearless Leader); Fifteen Minutes (Herzfeld) (as Eddie Flemming); Men of Honor (Tillman, Jr.) (as Billy Sunday)
The Score (Oz) (as Nick Wells)
Thunderheart (Apted) (co-pr)
A Bronx Tale (d, co-pr, ro as Lorenzo Anello)
"Dialogue on Film: Robert De Niro," interview in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1981.
Interview with Barry Paris, in American Film (Hollywood), October 1989.
Interview with Steve Grant, in Time Out (London), 22 May 1991.
"A Walk and a Talk with Robert De Niro," interview with Peter Brant and Ingrid Sischym, in Interview (New York), November 1993.
"De Niro on De Niro," in Vogue , January 1995.
Interview with M. Meens, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), February 1995.
"Dark Star," interview with Garth Pearce, in Time Out (London), 18 December-1 January 1996–1997.
Cameron-Wilson, James, The Cinema of Robert De Niro , London, 1986.
McKay, Keith, Robert De Niro: The Hero behind the Masks , New York, 1986.
Zurhorst, Meinolf, Robert De Niro: Seine Filme, sein Leben , Munich, 1987.
Agan, Patrick, Robert De Niro: The Man, the Myth and the Movies , London, 1989.
Scorsese, Martin, Scorsese on Scorsese , edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson, London, 1989.
Brode, Douglas, The Films of Robert De Niro , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1993.
Dougan, Andy, Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro , New York, 1997.
Parker, John, De Niro , New York, 1998.
Cieutat, M., "Robert De Niro ou les contraires inséparables," in Positif (Paris), November 1977.
Harris, Mark, "Robert De Niro/Michael Moriarty: Obedience to Self," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Kroll, Jack, "Robert De Niro," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Goldsmith, Barbara, "The Incredible Talent of Robert De Niro," in Parade , 2 December 1984.
Le Fanu, Mark, "Looking for Mr. De Niro," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1985/86.
Cooke, L., " New York, New York : Looking at De Niro," in Movie (London), no. 31/32, Winter 1986.
Pulleine, Tim, "Defining De Niro," in Films and Filming (London), October 1988.
Schruers, Fred, "Awake and Sing," in Premiere (New York), January 1991.
Current Biography 1993 , New York, 1993.
Stromberg, R., "De Niros hemlighet," in Chaplin , vol. 35, no. 3, 1993.
"Courting a Monster Star in Hopes of a Monster Film," in New York Times , 28 February 1993.
Kaye, Elizabeth, "Robert De Niro," in New York Times Magazine , 14 November 1993.
Valot, Jacques & Bénoliel, Bernard, "Robert De Niro, acteurauteur," in Mensuel du Cinéma ," (Paris), April 1994.
Rouchy, Marie-Élisabeth, François Gorin, and Philippe Piazzo, "Le rêve du Rital./Il était une fois le Bronx," in Télérama (Paris), 20 April 1994.
Michaels, D., "Robert De Niro," in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), January 1995.
Scorsese, Martin, "De Niro et moi," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1996.
Steyn, M., "Raging Bulls," in The American Spectator (Arlington, Virginia), April 1998.
Falvo, P., "Straight Out of Queens," in New York , 21–28 December 1998.
* * *
Robert De Niro is nearly incapable of a thoughtless performance. Early in his career, he radiated appeal in several carefully devised, vividly realistic supporting roles, notably as the none-too-bright, fatally ill baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly and young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II , even winning an Oscar for the latter. Still, this stage of his career is best exemplified by the film in which he first gained prominence, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets , in which he plays Johnny Boy, a reckless young hood who roams—and invariably finds trouble on—the byways of New York's Little Italy.
In the tradition of Marlon Brando—who originated the role of Vito Corleone in the first Godfather film—De Niro eschews the Method approach in creating a role. Reportedly, he drove a cab before playing the title character in Taxi Driver , spent hours hitting baseballs prior to Bang the Drum Slowly , and even gained the excess poundage required for his appearance as the aging Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. His casting as the younger Vito symbolizes the passing of the mantle from one generation of Method actors to the next. Unlike Brando, however, De Niro did not dissipate his talent, ultimately showing up infrequently on-screen and mumbling his way through his roles. If anything, De Niro has been a prolific screen actor, appearing in an astonishing variety of roles both starring and supporting, and playing each with equal aplomb.
Yet De Niro's career remains most associated with that of Scorsese. In the annals of screen history, the Scorsese-De Niro union rates right alongside the collaboration of von Sternberg and Dietrich. Their director-actor relationship is even visualized on-screen in Taxi Driver , in which Scorsese, in a cameo role as a frenzied passenger in De Niro's cab, verbalizes the paranoia that motivates the De Niro character and the subsequent, violent bloodbath he will instigate.
In The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver , De Niro superbly plays a classic Scorsese character: the social misfit-psychotic who is transformed into a weirdo-celebrity by a society ever willing to elevate oddballs to pop-culture status. In The King of Comedy , the actor perfectly captures the superficial and destructive amiability of Rupert Pupkin, a fame-obsessed nonentity who yearns to be a guest on a late night talk show hosted by a Johnny Carson-like celebrity. While Pupkin does have some talent as a stand-up comic, he really does not want to work at his craft. All he wants is stardom and fame. It is the idea of being a celebrity that appeals to him, not the creative work involved in honing his craft. He eventually wins that celebrity, but only after kidnapping the talk show host. In Taxi Driver , De Niro gives a now-legendary performance as Travis Bickle, an ex-Marine and pill-popping loner from some nameless spot in the Midwest who has come to New York and taken a job driving a cab. The semiarticulate Bickle is an outsider even to the prostitutes, deadbeats, and castoffs who inhabit the Manhattan terrain like rats in a ghetto hovel. There is a void in his brain; although he earnestly tries to communicate with others, he comes off with the charm and coherence of an airplane glue freak. He sets out to assassinate a presidential hopeful—which would link him to the Lee Harvey Oswalds and James Earl Rays of history—but instead kills a vicious pimp who has enslaved a 12-year-old runaway-prostitute, so he is lionized by the media.
In Raging Bull , De Niro's second Oscar-winning performance, he plays a deeply flawed character who did earn fame based on legitimate merit: real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull, who in 1949 copped the middleweight title from Marcel Cerdan. LaMotta is depicted as an inarticulate, insanely jealous man who does not use his mind and cannot control his temper. He starts out as a cocky and confident young fighter and ends up fat, punchdrunk, and pathetic, separated and alienated from the people he loves. As LaMotta, De Niro is nothing short of extraordinary. He simply chews into the role, digests it, and spits it out across the screen.
The actor's other screen characterizations for Scorsese, all of them fully realized, have placed him within the milieu of gangsters and wiseguys. In GoodFellas , he is a career hoodlum; in Cape Fear , he is a vengeful psychopath; in Casino , he is a bookie-gambler who becomes a Las Vegas casino manager, leaving the muscle to others. Another superlative criminal role came in Heat , directed by Michael Mann, in which he is a cool, disciplined gang boss who is the prey of a determined cop (Al Pacino, whose acting style and city boy charisma inexorably link him to De Niro). These parts can be contrasted to his ingratiatingly comical bounty hunter in Midnight Run ; sensitive intellectual in Guilty by Suspicion ; patient who awakens from a three-decades-long coma in Awakenings ; and, most tellingly, his small town Ukrainian-American steelworker with a firmly rooted sense of honor and duty, who heads off to Vietnam in The Deer Hunter. De Niro even has played the Frankenstein monster (in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ), adding an impressive level of depth and feeling to the character. In A Bronx Tale (playing a bus driver), Falling in Love (cast as a suburbanite), and Mad Dog and Glory (playing a cop), the actor showed that he can act average, essentially colorless, and even retiring characters with the same verve and believability as his Al Capone in The Untouchables. Only rarely does De Niro miscalculate a performance. Such a case is We're No Angels , in which he hams it up in his role as a none-too-bright escaped convict.
De Niro made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale , expanded from Chazz Palminteri's one-character play. It is a story of the coming-of-age of a young Italian-American on the Bronx streets during the early 1960s, and his relationship to two very different men. They are Lorenzo (played by De Niro), his honest, hard-working bus driver father; and Sonny (played by Palminteri), a macho gangster who is feared by all in the neighborhood, and who thinks that working men like Lorenzo are suckers. For a young boy attempting to define his identity, Sonny is a much more appealing role model than Lorenzo. In this regard, the scenario contrasts these two characters: the flashy guy who "pulls the trigger," and the less glamorous, more anonymous man who actually is the real "tough guy" in that he gets up each morning, goes to work, and supports his family. Additionally, A Bronx Tale examines the roots and meaning of racism as it depicts the changing face of urban America. As the years pass, the turf of the Italian-American Bronx neighborhood in which the film is set is encroached upon by an African-American community. The residents of each are culturally disparate, and their mistrust of each other borders on blind hatred.
Not surprisingly, A Bronx Tale is a New York City drama which, in its best moments, seethes with the same raw emotion found in the De Niro-Scorsese collaborations. "I'm not crazy about directing myself in a film, because for me it takes the joy out of acting," De Niro declared, at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival. "But I would like to direct more movies. It takes a lot of work and energy to direct. But it's worth it, if you are able to make something that is good and special." This last sentiment also might apply to De Niro's body of work in front of the camera, which ranks among the best of any late twentieth-century American actor.
And as the century faded De Niro may not have returned to directing, but he still remained a constant and welcome presence on movie screens. His roles—starring, supporting, and cameo—still were remarkably varied, ranging from a none-too-bright ex-convict (in Jackie Brown ) to a slick, cynical political operator/spin doctor ( Wag the Dog ); a gun-for-hire mercenary ( Ronin ) to a medical man with a less-than-reassuring bedside manner ( Marvin's Room ); the escaped convict in a modernized version of Great Expectations to an NYPD Internal Affairs officer investigating police corruption ( Cop Land ); a psycho/loser who stalks a major league baseball star ( The Fan ) to a retired security guard with a conservative world-view who establishes a bond with his next door neighbor, a drag queen ( Flawless ). By far his most celebrated role came in Analyze This , Harold Ramis's amusing farce. Here, De Niro deftly lampooned his tough-guy roles and Scorsese persona, cast as a fabled mobster in dire need of therapy.
—updated by Rob Edelman