Robert De Niro: The Master Actor of His Generation

Robert De Niro in Cape Fear (1991)
Martin Cid Magazine
Martin Cid Magazine

Early Life

Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro. Depostiphotos

Robert De Niro was born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City on August 17, 1943. His mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter and poet, and his father, Robert De Niro Sr., was an abstract expressionist painter. De Niro was named after his father, who was of Irish and Italian descent.

De Niro was raised by his mother in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods of Manhattan. His parents separated when he was two years old, and he was largely estranged from his father while growing up. De Niro attended PS 41 elementary school in Manhattan as a child. Despite his partial Italian heritage, he only spoke English growing up. He was a shy child and spent much of his time writing poetry and sketching.

Acting Career Beginnings

Robert De Niro’s acting career began in the 1960s, when he started getting small roles in off-Broadway productions and films. Some of his earliest stage performances were in The Typist and The Tiger off-Broadway in 1963. He then went on to make his film debut with a bit role in Three Rooms in Manhattan in 1965.

Over the next few years, De Niro continued to work in off-Broadway shows while taking minor film roles. He appeared in off-Broadway productions such as The Apple, Gantry’s People, The Bride and The Animal, earning critical praise for his dedication and intensity as a stage actor. This led to more supporting roles in films like Sam’s Song, Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues and Bang the Drum Slowly.

Though most of De Niro’s early film roles were minor, he made an impression with casting directors, leading him to increasingly larger parts. His raw talent was recognized despite his subtle, reserved acting style. During this time, he studied under acting coach Stella Adler, who helped shape his approach. Through discipline and commitment to his craft, De Niro was building momentum toward more acclaimed roles just around the corner.

Breakthrough Role in The Godfather Part II

In 1974, De Niro landed a breakthrough role in The Godfather Part II, playing the young Vito Corleone. The film chronicled Vito’s early life in Italy and rise to power in America.

For the role, De Niro intensely studied the Italian language and body language to inhabit the character fully. He also spent months researching the backstory and reading Mario Puzo’s original novel to understand Vito’s psychology and motivation.

De Niro’s preparation and acting in the film earned widespread critical acclaim. Many critics highlighted it as the standout performance, with some calling it the finest acting in movie history.

His emotional range, ability to convey Vito’s quiet intensity and charisma, and seamless embodiment of the role cemented his reputation as one of the most talented actors of his generation. The part showcased De Niro’s commitment to fully transforming into a character through rigorous research, preparation, and method acting techniques.

The acclaim and strong impression left by his performance as the young Vito Corleone proved a breakthrough that catapulted De Niro to stardom. It remains one of his most iconic roles that had an influential impact on film acting.

Collaborations with Martin Scorsese

One of the most significant artistic partnerships in cinema history has been between Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. The two first worked together on 1973’s Mean Streets, which began an actor-director relationship that would span decades and result in some of the greatest films ever made.

Their next collaboration was 1976’s Taxi Driver, in which De Niro played the iconic role of Travis Bickle, a mentally unstable taxi driver in New York City. His intense and disturbing performance as Bickle is today regarded as one of the best in film history. Scorsese’s use of isolation, paranoia, and violence paired perfectly with De Niro’s committed acting style.

What is widely considered the pinnacle of De Niro and Scorsese’s work together came in 1980’s Raging Bull. De Niro’s metamorphosis into boxer Jake LaMotta required one of cinema’s most stunning physical transformations, as he gained 60 pounds to portray LaMotta later in life. His angry and brutal performance anchors the biopic, with his Oscar-winning work still stood today as perhaps De Niro’s finest acting achievement.

Through these three films, Scorsese and De Niro formed an actor-director partnership that brought out the best in both artists. Their collaborations on films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull produced some of the most potent, iconic, and studied films of the era.

Dramatic Roles in the 1980s

In the late 1970s, De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. This cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s top dramatic actors. In the 1980s, De Niro continued taking on dramatic and intense roles.

One of De Niro’s most acclaimed performances from this era was in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. He played Michael, a Pennsylvania steelworker who is sent to serve in the Vietnam War. The film follows Michael and his friends’ traumatic experiences before, during, and after the war. Many consider De Niro’s acting in The Deer Hunter to be among his best work. His powerful performance earned him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Another noteworthy dramatic role for De Niro in the 1980s was in the 1990 film Awakenings. This was based on a true story about a doctor in the 1960s (played by Robin Williams) who discovers certain patients who have been catatonic for decades have a form of Parkinson’s disease. De Niro played Leonard, one of the patients who is “awakened” and brought back to awareness by an experimental drug. However, the drug’s effects are only temporary. De Niro skillfully depicted the immense difficulties faced by Leonard and the other patients. His sensitive performance gained him his seventh Academy Award nomination.

Comedic Work

In the late 1990s, De Niro began expanding into comedy roles, often playing previously serious characters in much lighter films.

One of his most memorable comedic performances was in the 1999 film Analyze This. De Niro starred as powerful mobster Paul Vitti who seeks help from a psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) due to panic attacks. Critics praised De Niro’s ability to adeptly switch between menacing and humorous, bringing new depth to the mobster character. The film was a major commercial success, grossing over $176 million worldwide.

De Niro continued to showcase his comedic talents in the 2000 sequel Analyze That and the hugely successful Meet the Parents franchise (2000-2010). In Meet the Parents, he portrayed a tightly-wound father-in-law who terrorizes his daughter’s fiancé (Ben Stiller). His humorous antagonism stole the show and established one of De Niro’s most iconic comedic roles. Despite playing an exaggerated character, De Niro brought nuance and humanity to the role. The film grossed over $330 million globally.

This foray into comedy revealed De Niro’s versatility as a performer. Although known for intense dramatic roles, he proved equally brilliant in lighter fare. Even in comedic parts, De Niro brought the same commitment and thoughtfulness that defined his dramatic performances. His comedic work expanded his artistic range and introduced him to new audiences.

Later Notable Roles

In the 2010s, De Niro continued to take on acclaimed dramatic parts. One of his most celebrated performances was in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, where he played a superstitious father and Philadelphia Eagles fan named Pat Solitano Sr. De Niro earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role.

Another critically praised role came in 2019’s Joker, in which De Niro portrayed Murray Franklin, a talk show host who plays a key part in the story. His performance as the host who interviews Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally ill character demonstrated De Niro’s continued ability to master both serious and comic roles, even late in his storied career.

Directorial Efforts

In addition to his acclaimed acting career, De Niro has also directed several films. His directorial debut was with 1993’s A Bronx Tale. De Niro directed and also co-starred as Lorenzo, a hard-working bus driver who struggles to keep his son Calogero away from the mob lifestyle led by local crime boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri). De Niro’s sensitive direction brought Palminteri’s original one-man play to life for the big screen. While A Bronx Tale received praise for its performances, some critics felt De Niro’s direction relied too heavily on his acting instincts rather than demonstrating a unique directorial vision.

De Niro would not direct again until 2006’s The Good Shepherd, starring Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, one of the founders of the CIA. De Niro meticulously recreated the 1940s-60s time period and delivered an epic but introspective look at the personal toll of a covert career. The cast included Angelina Jolie as Wilson’s wife and John Turturro as a fellow CIA agent. The Good Shepherd received a mixed response, with some critics calling it slowly-paced and cold while others appreciated the nuanced character study. While De Niro has proven himself to be a capable director, he is still best known for his legendary acting career.

Personal Life

Robert De Niro has been married twice. In 1976, he married actress Diahnne Abbott. The couple had a son named Raphael before divorcing in 1988.

In 1997, De Niro married actress Grace Hightower. They have two children together – a son named Elliot and a daughter named Helen. However, the couple separated in 1999. They later reconciled and renewed their vows in 2004. In 2018, it was announced that De Niro and Hightower had separated again after 20 years of marriage. Their divorce was finalized in 2021.

Despite his divorces, De Niro remains close with his six children and continues to keep his family life private. He has expressed that being a father is the most important role in his life. In interviews, he has stated that his family keeps him grounded amidst his acting success.

Legacy and Impact

Robert De Niro is considered one of the greatest actors of all time for his iconic portrayals and acting style. Though he started out as a method actor, De Niro became known for his dedication and intense preparation for roles. He transformed his body and learned new skills like boxing and speaking Italian to embody his characters.

De Niro popularized method acting in cinema and inspired generations of actors with his raw emotion and immersive performances. His collaboration with director Martin Scorsese produced some of the most acclaimed films that shaped 1970s American cinema. Movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino explored darker themes in society and changed public perception of the capacity of film.

With over 100 acting credits, De Niro has crafted many memorable characters that had a cultural impact. His role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver especially became pop culture icons. The line “You talkin’ to me?” from Taxi Driver is one of the most famous movie quotes. Other roles like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy examined celebrity obsession.

Though he is best known for his dramatic work, De Niro succeeded in comedy later in his career. Analyzing his serious acting process allowed him to master humorous characters in films like Meet the Parents. De Niro’s career has spanned over 50 years and he continues to take on challenging roles that cement his legacy. His name is synonymous with method acting and he serves as an inspiration for all actors today.

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