The Kennedy Center

Robert De Niro


(Actor, director, and producer; born August 17, 1943, in New York, New York)

His commitment to his craft is legendary. Is there anything he won't do, any chances he won't take to be true to his characters--no matter how difficult or complex they may be? With his body, voice and soul, Robert De Niro has taken the art of transformation further than just about any living actor of our era. Again and again he has surprised us by testing his own limits. "I don't consider Bob so much an actor as an incarnation of the character he is playing," said his Once Upon a Time in America director, Sergio Leone. He ground his teeth for Cape Fear, mastered not merely Italian but multiple Sicilian dialects for The Godfather, Part II, drove a cab for three months and shaved his head for Taxi Driver, learned to play the saxophone for New York, New York, and most famously, packed on 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta (and trained in the ring enduring bone-crunching physical demands until LaMotta himself declared him a professional fighter) for Raging Bull. The external work is astonishing but these disparate characters also come alive inside the actor and it's these complete metamorphoses from inside out that have made Robert De Niro the heir to Marlon Brando as America's greatest film actor.

The director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made eight films together, many of them considered masterpieces: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). They span three decades and range from gaudy gangster spectacles and disturbing urban dramas to a lavish period musical, a gritty boxing picture, and a very black comedy. Their fruitful partnership is one of the true wonders of American cinema. And yet, "even now," says Scorsese, "I still know of nobody who can surprise me on the screen the way he does--and did then. No actor comes to mind who can provide such power and excitement."

He is best known for his mobsters, losers, loners and psychopaths--but with more than 60 films to his credit, De Niro's roles have actually varied widely. He was a struggling musician in New York, New York, Lucifer incarnate in Angel Heart (1987), the Creature in Frankenstein (1994), a twisted Jerry Lewis-stalking comic in The King of Comedy, a drug addicted ex-felon in Jackie Brown (1997), a repressed priest in True Confessions (1981), a zealous Jesuit in The Mission (1986), a political strategist in Wag the Dog (1997), an arson investigator in Backdraft (1991), and a Hollywood studio mogul in The Last Tycoon (1976). And after decades of portraying men ferociously driven and tormented by inner demons, De Niro's career took a delightfully unexpected turn to comedy most notably in Midnight Run (1988), followed by Analyze This and Analyze That (1999 and 2002) and Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers (2000 and 2004).

De Niro has won two Academy Awards(r) (Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather, Part II in 1975 and Best Actor in Raging Bull), and has been nominated Best Actor for Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter (1978), Awakenings (1990), and Cape Fear (1991). He has also won four New York Film Critics Awards, two Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, and the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1993, De Niro stepped behind the camera to direct his first feature film, A Bronx Tale, a sweet story about the poignant relationship between a father and son. In 2006, he directed his second film The Good Shepherd, which depicts the origins of the CIA. Matt Damon, who starred in the film, commented, "The best safety net in history as an actor is having Robert De Niro watch over your performance."

One of American cinema's greatest artists, De Niro's contributions to film go beyond acting and directing. In the late 1980s, De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Center, a creative resource center for the film and television communities with space for rehearsals, production and editing, and a screening room. Then, with his partner Jane Rosenthal he established Tribeca Productions, which has so far produced more than 20 films. Following the September 11 attacks on lower Manhattan, De Niro and Rosenthal organized the first Tribeca Film Festival in May 2002, as much to celebrate film as to save their neighborhood. That first festival alone infused more than $10 million into the community's economy. A triumph from the beginning, the 2009 edition was recently attended by nearly 350,000 people and boasted 95% attendance to 361 ticketed screenings, panels, and conversations throughout the 12-day festival.

Robert De Niro was born in New York City and grew up in Little Italy, the son of painters. He made his stage debut at the age of 10 playing the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. By age 16, he had quit school and turned his attention to acting, studying under Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. The late 1960s found him acting off-Broadway and beginning his film career in three Brian De Palma indies, The Wedding Party, Greetings and Hi, Mom! More small movies followed and then a breakthrough at the age of 30, in 1973: Bang the Drum Slowly earned him glowing notices as a dying baseball player and then he was re-introduced to a former Little Italy acquaintance who hired him to play a supporting role in Mean Streets. This first collaboration by De Niro and Scorsese was by no means a box office hit, but as the violently stupid Johnny Boy, the young actor was memorably sensational. "He was full of something that he wanted to express," Scorsese recalls, "and when you're young and you've got machinery to express it emotionally and psychologically and you're not afraid…nothing stops you." In 1974, the National Society of Film Critics named him Best Supporting Actor for the role.

A year later he was on screen as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II and earning his first Oscar(r) for playing the young version of the character that Marlon Brando had introduced in The Godfather. "De Niro is right to be playing the young Brando," wrote Pauline Kael, "because he has the physical audacity, the grace and the instinct to become a great actor."

She was, of course, right. With a career that spans more than 40 years, Robert De Niro is one of the most prolific and celebrated actors in Hollywood and he has created some of the most iconic characters in the history of the movies.

September 9,2009
Robert De Niro