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Robert De Niro

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Robert De Niro. Or is it Travis Bickle? Or Max Cady? Who knows?

Robert Luigi De Niro III (born August 17, 1943), known professionally as Robert De Niro, is an American actor, director, producer, writer and convicted felon. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors in history.

De Niro is famous for the intensity with which he throws himself into his roles, a technique known as The Method. For Raging Bull he gained two hundred pounds, for Cape Fear he got tattoos and ground down his teeth, and for Shark Tale he lived underwater with a family of sharks for several months. Friends and colleagues alike describe him as "difficult".

For the first half of his career, he was celebrated for his collaboration with virtuoso director Martin Scorsese. The films they produced together are considered some of the greatest of all time. For the latter half of his career he is known mostly for working with Ben Stiller, and for playing parodies of his own earlier roles.

Early life

Robert De Niro grew up on the streets of Little Italy, Manhattan. As a youth he was nicknamed Bobby Milk due to the fact that his mother continued to breastfeed him long past infancy. She maintains, however, that this caused no psychological damage to her son. Growing up in a deeply Catholic and crime-ridden area, his early life would later be dramatised in the filmic output of his then-neighbour, Martin Scorsese, most notably in the movie Mean Streets.

He was raised by his father, who was a successful artist, and his mother, who was the wife of a successful artist. Perhaps because of the influence of his parents, De Niro became seduced by the arts from a young age. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that he failed miserably in his academic life; either way, he left regular school and began to pursue a career in acting.

By the mid-1960s, De Niro had become a student of Lee Strasberg, the legendary drama tutor who pioneered The Method style of acting, a technique in which actors stay in character even when not performing, and use dramatic events from their past to conjure up emotions. Strasberg had already taught a number of actors, including Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and various other highly talented performers who went completely insane because of his teachings.


Robert, you can put the gun down, we're finished. Robert?

Many of De Niro's early films were collaborations with Brian De Palma. It was De Palma who introduced De Niro to Scorsese, and the two immediately recognised each other from their old neighbourhood and crime syndicate. In 1973 the two old friends got together to create Mean Streets, in which De Niro played "Johnny Boy" a small-time crook with big time debts. The film turned out to be a breakthrough for both of them.

Not yet the intensely private celebrity he would become, De Niro did several TV spots to promote the movie, including a memorable interview with Michael Parkinson. The actor baffled Parkinson as he wouldn't answer to any other name but 'Johnny Boy' and also kept trying to borrow money off the host. His agent advised him against appearing on TV again.

A-list success was just around the corner for De Niro however, as Francis Ford Coppola had finally been offered enough money to convince him to direct a sequel to his hugely successful film, The Godfather. The problem was, the producers had already used almost every Italian-American actor available, and Coppola was worried there wouldn't be any left for the various new characters he was planning to introduce. Fortunately, he remembered the young up-and-coming star Robert De Niro, who back in 1972 had auditioned for every single role in the original movie.

De Niro was cast as the young Vito Corleone, who had been played last time by Marlon Brando. Producers were reportedly happier with De Niro, claiming he was much easier to work with than the famously awkward Brando. In contrast to his predecessor, De Niro followed through on every request the filmmakers made, including learning Italian, growing facial hair, and going for pizza whenever the crew got hungry. Mario Puzo said:

Unsurprisingly, De Niro followed Brando's lead, winning an Oscar for the role. Unfortunately he couldn't attend the ceremony as he was busy back in Sicily assassinating mob bosses.


Following his Oscar victory, De Niro got back together with Scorsese to create Taxi Driver, the film for which he would always be remembered, and which would immortalise him on posters in student's bedroom walls for years to come. The film contains what is possibly De Niro's most famous scene, "You talkin' ta me?" The line, which is considered one of the greatest film quotes ever, was apparently ad-libbed by De Niro, who hadn't read the script, or even been aware there was a script.

In the behind-the-scenes footage, De Niro is heard to ask Scorsese why the pimps weren't dying when he shot them. The director explains that the guns aren't real and they can't really kill people for a movie. De Niro then responds: "We're making a movie?"

As well as cementing De Niro's reputation as a quality actor and revitalising the lost genre of the paedo-drama, Taxi Driver also capitulated Jodie Foster to fame, a fact which some critics point to as its only flaw.

In 1977 De Niro collaborated again with Martin Scorsese on the film New York, New York, New York which went on to become the pair's first flop. For this outing, De Niro learnt many things, including how to play the sax, how to take copious amounts of cocaine, and how to take copious amounts of cocaine using the sax.

The following year saw De Niro take the lead in The Deer Hunter, an epic Vietnam movie directed by Michael Cimino. De Niro caused controversy on set, insisting that they use live rounds in the guns for the Russian roulette scenes, which resulted several times in near-death experiences for co-star Christopher Walken. When asked if he found working with De Niro frightening, Walken quietly replied: "Nah (long, staring pause that seems to bore into your very soul) he was okay."

More success

De Niro really gets into the heads of his characters. Here he is playing a sex offender.

In 1980 De Niro reunited with Scorsese for Raging Bull, a biopic of boxer Jake La Motta. The idea arose when Scorsese was hospitalised following years of cocaine abuse, and De Niro paid him a visit with a present – a copy of La Motta's autobiography. Hollywood legend says the film was De Niro's idea, a plan to redeem his old friend and get his career back on track. In actual fact, De Niro had already been acting like La Motta for days, having confused the book with his own life. As long as he was doing this, Scorsese decided he might as well film it. The result was Raging Bull, a gritty, violent exploration of masculinity, for which De Niro won his second Oscar, this time for best lead actor. In his acceptance speech, De Niro said he had enjoyed his career as a boxer, but was looking forward to getting back to his regular job of organised crime.

De Niro went on to star in a slew of successful films for the remainder of the 1980s, including The King of Comedy (where he helped co-star Jerry Lewis portray anger by repeatedly telling him he was a "filthy Jew"), Once Upon a Time in America (in which he improvised not one, but two unscripted rape scenes), and The Untouchables (a prohibition-era set movie in which De Niro bootlegged vast amounts of alcohol both onscreen and off).

He also had smaller roles in films like Brazil, an Orwellian comedy by Terry Gilliam, and Angel Heart, a modern-day film noir starring Mickey Rourke. Although playing only supporting characters, De Niro was as dedicated to his craft as ever, particularly for his role as Lucifer in the latter, which he prepared for by desecrating several churches.


As the 1990s began, Scorsese bumped into De Niro outside Wende Correctional Facility. The actor said he had just broken out. When Scorsese asked his friend what he was talking about, De Niro explained that he was the infamous gangster James Burke. Scorsese was then hit with the idea for his next film, Goodfellas, based on the lives of three real-life gangsters; Henry Hill (who would be played by Ray Liotta), Thomas DeSimone (renamed Tommy DeVito and played by Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for the role), and James Burke (renamed Jimmy Conway and played by De Niro). The film has since become one of their most well-received, as was its sequel Casino.

Subsequent films like This Boy's Life (where De Niro genuinely abused a young Leonardo DiCaprio) and Jackie Brown (where Quentin Tarantino filmed De Niro getting stoned for a few days) failed to match the success of his earlier work, and De Niro's producers realised his career was winding down. Fortunately, they had a wild card they'd been saving since the early 1970s, something the cinema-going public had been screaming for since he'd arrived on the scene – Robert De Niro would make a film with Al Pacino. Heat was the result, a massively successful action movie directed by Michael Mann.

None of the events depicted here actually take place.

In the same period De Niro somehow convinced himself he was a director (possibly Martin Scorsese) and produced the well-received but financially unsuccessful A Bronx Tale. The film wasn't quite as bad as the VHS cover made it look. It was described by one critic as "Mean Streets from the perspective of Johnny Boy's old man". De Niro also played Frankenstein's monster, a performance which thoroughly disturbed audiences and co-stars alike – particularly Helena Bonham Carter, whom he stalked in make-up for months afterwards.


De Niro's recent work has been mostly within the comedy genre, and he has since become one of the most sought-after Robert De Niro impressionists in the business. His most notable roles from this period include Analyse This, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, Shark Tale and Stardust. When quizzed upon why he has chosen so many unremarkable scripts since turning 60, the actor replied:

He then turned to the computer animation director and asked where his ship had gone.

With the exception of Analyse This, Meet the Parents and their respective sequels, much of De Niro's recent work has not been taken seriously by critics. To counteract this, De Niro again unveiled a desperate wild card – a second film with Al Pacino. The film, titled Righteous Kill, was released to lukewarm reviews and poor box office performance due to its awkward dialogue, clichéd plot and the fact that the twist ending can be guessed just by looking at the film poster.


Over the years De Niro's salary has raised eyebrows as he has gone from working for pittance to being one of the highest paid actors in the industry. The following table demonstrates his earnings from some of his most successful films. Note how the quality of his acting decreases as his wage steadily rises.

Year Film Salary
1973 Bang the Drum Slowly Free lunch and a beer
1973 Mean Streets Sight of Amy Robinson's naked flesh
1976 Taxi Driver Nickel, free haircut
1978 The Deer Hunter Sack of money, Vietnam flashbacks
1980 Raging Bull Briefcase full of money, Martin Scorsese's leftover cocaine
1990 Goodfellas Ludicrous amount of money
1999 Analyze This Record-breaking amount of money, blowjob from Lisa Kudrow
2000 Meet the Parents Downright insane amount of money, ownership of Ben Stiller's mortal soul

Acting style

De Niro's "acting trances" leave him dead to the world.

De Niro is known for popularising The Method style of acting, which was taught to him by the technique's leading proponent – Lee Strasberg. Some people have criticised The Method, saying it does long-term damage to an actor's psyche, but De Niro has always defended it. In one such instance, he said:

The interviewers concluded that De Niro was speaking metaphorically.

Personal life

De Niro has been married twice, and was also involved in a long term relationship throughout the early 1990s. Oddly, all these women were black, something more traditional friend Martin Scorsese has always disapproved of. Their disagreements have caused problems several times, particularly one occasion where the director turned up at the newly married Mr. and Mrs. De Niro's apartment, armed with a .44 Magnum, and proceeded to ask his friend:

This later inspired a famous scene from Taxi Driver.

Unfortunately for the actor, De Niro's marriages have been largely unsuccessful. Those close to the actor have blamed this on the fact that De Niro has played so many rapists on (and sadly off) screen.

Like most actors, De Niro is a vocal Democrat, openly supporting Kerry during the 2004 elections, and lobbying Congress against impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998. However, it has been rumoured that this strong support arose only because De Niro is currently shooting a film where he plays John F. Kennedy. Stay tuned.

See also

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Robert De Niro

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