Robert De Niro

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De Niro, Robert (1943- ), American actor, director, and producer known for a devotion to his craft matched by few others of his generation and particularly for his ambitious and often outstanding work with the director Martin Scorsese. Robert De Niro, Jr., was born in New York City on Aug. 17, 1943, the only child of the painters Robert De Niro, Sr., and Virginia Admiral. Growing up in Greenwich Village, the young De Niro, whose parents separated amicably when he was three years old, began cultivating a skill for observation.

Notwithstanding his acting debut as the Cowardly Lion in a grade school production of The Wizard of Oz, formal education never served De Niro well, and he often skipped classes. By the time he was 16, he dropped out of the prestigious High School of Music and Art, even though he had already begun to study in earnest with the legendary teacher Stella Adler in special weekend classes for gifted students. His keen eye and ability seemingly to submerge himself in characters finally landed him his first film role, in Trois chambres à Manhattan (1965), an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel by the celebrated French director Marcel Carné. At that same time the actor began working with a recent graduate of New York University's film program, Brian De Palma, appearing in his films The Wedding Party (1966; released 1969), Greetings! (1968), and Hi, Mom! (1970).

The actress Shelley Winters, whom De Niro had met at the Actors Studio, gave him his first big break, recommending him to "B" movie producer and director Roger Corman for his Bloody Mama (1970), a darkly tongue-in-cheek portrait of Ma Barker. De Niro played Lloyd, the sadistic, addicted son of Winters's Barker. In 1973, with his moving portrayal of a baseball player dying of cancer in Bang the Drum Slowly and his riveting young hood Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, De Niro finally attracted critical acclaim and national attention.

De Niro's passion for detail made him a natural for the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather: Part II, which carried echoes of Marlon Brando's performance in the original film but was entirely his own; for it, he won an Oscar for best supporting actor. While his work as Monroe Stahr in the elegant adaptation by playwright Harold Pinter and director Elia Kazan of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon (1976) was similarly understated, almost minimalist, De Niro's psychopathic Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) made him an unlikely star. Lucrative offers poured in, but instead he chose to work with Bernardo Bertolucci, in 1900 (1976), a five-hour, finely shaded epic in which he portrayed the scion of an aristocratic Italian family, and again with Scorsese, as a saxophonist in New York, New York (1977), an ambitious failure that attempted to mix the lush musicals of the post–World War II era with film noir. A year later De Niro won high praise for his performance as a steelworker/Vietnam soldier in Michael Cimino's multi-Oscar winner The Deer Hunter.

De Niro's shining hour, and an Academy Award for best actor, arrived with his next collaboration with Scorsese, Raging Bull (1980), in which he portrayed the violent, complex boxer Jake La Motta. In between Raging Bull and his next truly big role, as Al Capone in De Palma's violent but equally operatic version of The Untouchables (1987), De Niro made a handful of smaller, quirkier films. Among his roles in them were a corrupt monsignor in an adaptation of John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions (1981), the celebrity-obsessed Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's King of Comedy (1983), a Jewish hood in Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in America (1984), and a subversive plumber in writer-director Terry Gilliam's darkly bizarre Brazil (1985). In 1985 De Niro also returned to the stage, in Reinaldo Povod's Cuba and His Teddy Bear, about a drug dealer trying to protect his young son from the very culture in which he makes his living.

In 1986 De Niro played a 16th-century Spanish soldier-turned-Jesuit-priest in Roland Joffe's solemn historical drama The Mission. The next year he had two supporting but highly visible roles, as Lou Cipher (Lucifer) in Alan Parker's overheated melodrama Angel Heart and as Capone in De Palma's Untouchables. For the next several years he concentrated on work in small independent films, including a bail bondsman escorting a neurotic accountant cross-country in Midnight Run (1988), a Vietnam veteran trying to put his life back together in Jacknife (1989), and a mental patient in Awakenings (1990). He teamed again with Scorsese for GoodFellas (1990), playing a hard but amiable mob thief, and for a remake of the noirish 1962 thriller Cape Fear (1992), in which he gave an over-the-top performance (in the part originally played by Robert Mitchum) as a rapist out for revenge on the lawyer who sent him to prison.

Along with television and movie producer Jane Rosenthal (who had earlier worked with Scorsese), De Niro formed the production company Tribeca Films—named after the Lower Manhattan neighborhood where he lives—in 1989. Four years later he made an impressive directing debut in 1993 with A Bronx Tale, a frankly Scorsese-influenced film about a young man's coming-of-age on the streets of New York City. Another memorable performance that year was as the sadistic, demanding stepfather to Leonardo DiCaprio's son, in This Boy's Life. De Niro provided tough but suave credibility as a casino manager in Scorsese's Casino (1995) and played a heist master opposite Al Pacino's police lieutenant in Heat (1995). In 1997, in addition to appearing with Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land and in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, De Niro starred as a political adviser opposite Dustin Hoffman's Hollywood producer in Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson's much-admired satire of the American presidency. Soon after, he appeared as Lustig, a latter-day Magwitch, in Alfonso Cuarón's remake of Great Expectations (1998).

Two subsequent De Niro roles anchored successful film comedies: he played a neurotic mobster seeking the help of Billy Crystal's reluctant therapist in Analyze This (1999) and a hapless Ben Stiller's future father-in-law from hell, a cat-loving ex-CIA interrogator, in Meet the Parents (2000). Although some critics felt that De Niro was squandering his talents in these roles, as well as in a spate of forgettable films both comic and dramatic, others viewed his performances in the hit comedies as fine examples of the actor's versatility. He went on to reprise both characters in the sequels Analyze That (2002) and Meet the Fockers (2004), which also proved popular and successful, especially the latter, one of the year's biggest earners worldwide. De Niro's dramatic roles during the same period—in, among others, 15 Minutes (2001); The Score (2001), Brando's last film; City by the Sea (2002); and Hide and Seek (2005)—did not fare as well with audiences or critics, but hopes were high for De Niro's sophomore directorial effort, The Good Shepherd, which chronicles the 40-year history of the Central Intelligence Agency told through the eyes of one of its founders, James Wilson, played by De Niro; a 2006 release was scheduled.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Rosenthal's husband, former real estate executive Craig Hatkoff, formed the not-for-profit Tribeca Film Institute in 2002 to foster the economic revitalization of Lower Manhattan through various movie-related and cultural initiatives. Foremost of these activities is the Tribeca Film Festival, held every May, whose intent is to attract mainstream audiences not only to the movies shown but also to the neighborhood, thus enabling the global film community as well as the general public to share in the film festival experience.


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