A happy 69th birthday today to one of the most revered, intense, influential, and inspiring actors of his or any generation, Robert De Niro. For over 4 decades now, the actor has been delighting fans and peers alike with an approach to his craft that’s mostly mired in a method style, a naturalistic, realistic approach to his many memorable characters.
The son of an artist and sculptor in his mom and dad, he was born in the bohemian Greenwich Village on August 17, 1943. After appearing as the Cowardly Lion in a school stage production of The Wizard of Oz at age 10, De Niro dropped out of school a few years later to follow that muse and study acting, which he did at the esteemed Stella Adler Conservatory as well as with possibly the chief mentor at that time to his generation of actors, Lee Strasberg and his Actor’s Studio.
His first big collaboration was in 1963, working with Brian De Palma (who he would work with again over 20 years later playing Al Capone in The Untouchables), in a film called The Wedding Party. That film sat on the shelf for seven years until it was finally released. Following that, he got small roles in relatively unknown films like Bloody Mama and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. It wasn’t until 1973 when he played the doomed catcher on a facsimile of the New York Yankees baseball team in the film adaptation of the famous television play from the 1950s Bang the Drum Slowly that he began to get national attention. It took off for him like a rocket when a few months later he co-starred in the first of what was to be a long time collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, playing the reckless, irresponsible troublemaker wannabe small-time hood who was also doomed, one Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets.
Mean Streets changed the game for him, and afterwards, he was soon cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s sequel to The Godfather. Playing a young Vito Corleone, which was already portrayed so memorably by Marlon Brando in the first film as the elder patriarch of his expansive Cosa Nostra family, De Niro shocked everyone with his tight but loose, charming and sinister portrayal of the Don in his formative years, and then shocked the Hollywood community even further by snagging a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work in the film.
After this incredible career coup, De Niro then experienced what has to be the golden age of his career. He starred in the memorable cult classic Taxi Driver in 1976, also directed by Scorsese, propelling his character Travis Bickle, the pained, erratic, insomniac Vietnam Veteran loner whose only catharsis for himself comes by way of violent proxy, into the pantheon of the all-time most memorable movie characters. He also spouted the famous line, in a chilling, ad-libbed sequence in front of a mirror, at the height of the character’s descent into madness, “You talking to me?”
He played another character who went to Vietnam in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, this time however, the more off-kilter mad descent into hell was reserved for his best friend in the film, expertly portrayed by Christopher Walken. De Niro played it rather subdued in The Deer Hunter, in essence a refreshing change of pace for the actor. Two years later, he snagged another Academy Award, this time for Best Actor, for his raw, animalistic, ruthless, and unapologetic masterpiece of a role as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, again directed by Scorsese.
As the 1980s rolled in, he worked with Scorsese again, in the underrated and also cult favorite, The King of Comedy, a tongue-in-cheek surreal, slightly off center picture in which the character he played, Rupert Pupkin, a schlumpy loser who has great aspirations to be a stand-up comedian and even greater aspirations to manifest it on a famous talk show host’s program, (played by the incomparable Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role) drives him in the kind of obsessive manner that became second nature to many of De Niro’s characters. He worked with Scorsese two more times after that a few years later, as the evil and cunning Max Cady in the remake of the chiller Cape Fear and as Jimmy Conway in the wonderful ensemble piece which portrayed a more grassroots style of mafia life, Goodfellas, which is another fan favorite to this very day in the De Niro canon.
De Niro has tried his hand at directing: 1993’s A Bronx Tale found him adapting Chazz Palminteri’s stage play into a theatrical production, and it was done to great success. De Niro even let Palmenteri star as the antagonist and let him chew the scenery in, while he played the more docile and conscientious father of a son torn between his allegiance to him and Palminteri’s more exciting lifestyle as a small Mafia Don who lorded over their Bronx neighborhood. He also directed The Good Shepherd with Matt Damon to lesser fanfare. The actor has also successfully tried his hand at comedy, appearing with Ben Stiller in the Meet the Parents series of films.
De Niro continues to this day to be a large spotlight over the Hollywood landscape, still appearing in picture after picture at a rapid clip, although he arguably has been coasting for years. But once in awhile the great film still comes along, like Michael Mann’s Heat and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin to name two, but he still has yet to do the kind of productions he became so revered for in that aforementioned golden age of his career. Nonetheless and ultimately, De Niro still remains one of the most legendary figures in Tinseltown, now an elder statesman and almost a mythological figure in the industry which historically represented the classic “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, along with his compatriot actors like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Gene Hackman.
So a tip of the birthday cap to the great Robert De Niro, everyone’s favorite acting son, a true master at his craft, a true force to be reckoned with, and an inspiration and a blindingly bright star for all time.