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One of the most gifted actors of his generation, and often regarded as heir to Marlon Brando's legacy, Robert De Niro has combined the qualities of exceptional movie actors—danger, unpredictability, magnetism—with a distinctive touch of nihilism. The son of abstract expressionist artist Robert De Niro and painter Virginia Admiral, he studied drama with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and appeared in several off-Broadway productions early in his career. De Niro's first on-screen appearances were in films directed by Brian De Palma: his roles in "Greetings" (1968), "The Wedding Party" (1969) and "Hi, Mom!" (1970) hinted at the defiance and irreverence which later defined his work. Glimpses of later signature characteristics were also visible in his portrayals of a moody, drug-addicted criminal in "Bloody Mama" (1970) and a charming small-time thief in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971).
De Niro was riveting as a dying, dim-witted baseball player in "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973). Many critics, however, have considered his performance as the irresponsible and irrepressible Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973) as his breakthrough role. In "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), De Niro faced the challenge of depicting a young Vito Corleone, originally played by his predecessor, Brando. De Niro's performance, which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, was a masterpiece of nuanced gestures, glances and speech patterns that captured the pride and inner reserve of Brando's mature Godfather. An equally astonishing portrayal was his enigmatic steelworker-turned-Green Beret in Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1978), a compelling central performance that held the film together and brought him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
The De Niro-Scorsese collaboration has produced some of American cinema's most memorable performances: the deranged Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" (1976), for which he was again nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle in "New York, New York" (1977); boxer Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" (1980), which won him the Oscar for Best Actor; frustrated comic Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy" (1983); and small-time mobster Jimmy Conway in "GoodFellas" (1990). In these remarkable performances, De Niro managed to project the reprehensible qualities of the characters without diminishing their humanity. For example, Travis Bickle's psychotic rant to himself in the mirror ("You talkin, to me?") was so chilling because it seemed so real; so human. The scene had since became a touchstone of modern technique.
De Niro was at his best when he suggested a man struggling with his inner demons, as he did with the obsessed but kindhearted bounty hunter in "Midnight Run" (1988), and the caring but mercurial Vietnam veteran in "Jacknife" (1989). A hint of this struggle made the loony terrorist Harry Tuttle in "Brazil" (1985) memorable, and has allowed him to create effective characters in films that were otherwise unsuccessful: the ambitious monsignor Des Spellacy in "True Confessions" (1981); the emotionally complex gangster David “Noodles” Aaronson in Sergio Leone’s "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984); and the militant Jesuit priest Rodrigo Mendoza in "The Mission" (1986). His attempts at playing unambiguously evil characters in "Angel Heart" and "The Untouchables" (both 1987), have been less fruitful than his portrayals of more passive figures—"The Last Tycoon" and "1900" (both 1976), "Falling in Love" (1984), and "Stanley and Iris" (1990).
De Niro has become less selective in his recent film roles, reportedly in an effort to finance his own film and television projects. He contributed little that was new or revealing to Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" (1990)—yet he garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination—and barely broke a sweat for Ron Howard's "Backdraft" (1991). Even his seventh collaboration with Scorsese, "Cape Fear" (1991), was a step down. Improbably combining disparate elements of two celebrated Robert Mitchum performances from the original "Cape Fear" (1962) and "Night of the Hunter" (1955), De Niro created a Max Cady who was more monster than man. His increasingly bizarre and malicious antics as he bedevils the family of Nick Nolte seemed more appropriate for a Brian De Palma black comedy or John Carpenter potboiler. Still, the Academy members honored him with his fifth Best Actor nomination. Meanwhile, the De Niro name became tantamount to quality with many reviewers and audiences. His perceived greatness, however, rarely translated into box-office success with his non-Scorsese vehicles.
Although the early 1990s were challenging for his career—he was in a series of films that made little impact with the press or public—the period did mark his foray into filmmaking. De Niro enhanced his reputation as a champion of New York film production with his TriBeCa Film Center—home to his own TriBeCa Films company, which became a hub of the city's resurgent production community. In 1992, he produced actor Barry Primus, low-budget directorial debut "Mistress", as well as Michael Apted's more ambitious "Thunderheart". The former, in which De Niro portrayed an urbane film financier, was dismissed as a poor man's version of "The Player". The latter, for which De Niro stayed behind the camera, was a well-received fact-inspired story of a Native American FBI agent grappling with his identity while working on a culturally sensitive case.
De Niro segued into television production as the executive producer of "Tribeca" (Fox, 1993), a short-lived dramatic anthology series set and shot on the streets of downtown New York. He employed the talents of several actors turned directors—Primus, Melanie Mayron and Joe Morton—to helm some episodes. He then made his own feature directorial debut with "A Bronx Tale" (1993), on which he was also producer and co-star. Adapted and expanded from a one-man show by actor-writer Chazz Palminteri, the film depicted a boy's divided loyalties between his two heroes in an Italian- American community of the Bronx in the 1960s. Palminteri won notice for his central portrayal of a flashy neighborhood gangster, while De Niro played the less flamboyant role of the honest laborer father. Despite a troubled production, the film earned respectful reviews amid tepid box-office returns.
De Niro had appeared in films produced by Irwin Winkler as far back as 1971's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight", so it was natural for him to star in Winkler's feature debut as a writer-director, "Guilty by Suspicion" (1991). The familiar tale of the Hollywood Blacklist was mediocre in execution, and De Niro failed to rise above the flawed material with his portrayal of a hotshot director. TriBeCa produced Winkler's next directorial outing, an adequate update of the 1950 film noir classic "Night and the City" (1992), starring De Niro as a frenetic ambulance-chaser who tries to score as a boxing promoter. He mainly received positive notices, but some reviewers found him too old for the part and thought there was a lack of chemistry between him and Jessica Lange.
The romantic comedy-drama "Mad Dog and Glory" (1993) offered a change of pace as De Niro played a nebbish crime scene photographer for the Chicago Police Department who saves the life of an exuberant and stylish gangster (Bill Murray). The urbane thug shows his appreciation by lending him a lovely bartender from his club (Uma Thurman) for a week. Of course, the pair fall in love. This role marked a rare instance in which De Niro was competent as a sympathetic romantic partner. His performance in "This Boy's Life" (1993) returned to more familiar psychological territory, albeit with a rustic twist. As Dwight Hansen, the dreaded stepfather of the young Toby Wolff (Leonardo DiCaprio), De Niro segued from an eccentric rube to terrifying authoritarian, though it was the young DiCaprio who won the most recognition.
After the commercial disappointment of "A Bronx Tale", De Niro headlined what seemed a sure thing at the time, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994). De Niro proved effective as an articulate and sympathetic monster, but the film suffered from director Kenneth Branagh's over-the-top operatic pretensions and died an ignominious death at the box office. De Niro rejoined Scorsese and "Goodfellas" co-star Joe Pesci for "Casino" (1995), a violent tale of gangsters in 1960’s Las Vegas. De Niro commanded the screen with his portrayal of a transplanted Chicago bookie who becomes a top casino owner in the fabled desert city, only to see his empire crumble amidst violence and corruption. He then finished 1995 opposite Al Pacino—the first onscreen pairing of this powerhouse duo—in Michael Mann's stylized crime drama "Heat". De Niro played a sympathetic career thief against Pacino’s flawed, but determined police detective.
De Niro returned to playing psychotics with the title role in Tony Scott's artistically bankrupt "The Fan" (1996), arguably the nadir of the actor’s career. Perhaps the original idea seemed palatable enough—create a synthesis of Travis Bickle and Max Cady and stalk a major league baseball player (Wesley Snipes)—but the end result was embarrassing. That same year he produced and played Diane Keaton's whimsical doctor in the comedy-drama "Marvin's Room", as well as contributing his stoic priest to Barry Levinson's "Sleepers". After teaming with Sylvester Stallone in the predictable police drama "Cop Land" (1997), De Niro had a strong finish that year with Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"—adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel "Rum Punch"—and Levinson's "Wag the Dog", which De Niro also produced. In the former, he was Samuel L. Jackson's pot smoking gangster pal, Louis Gara; in the latter, he played Conrad Brean, a political spin doctor who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to stage a phony war in order to divert public attention from a president's sexual indiscretion.
In 1998, De Niro transformed himself from bullying escaped prisoner to refined, engaging benefactor in the modern-day remake of Charles Dickens, "Great Expectations", then became a solid action hero in John Frankenheimer's espionage thriller, "Ronin". For his TriBeCa productions, he turned to comedy as a New York gangland boss experiencing panic attacks in smash hit "Analyze This" (1999). De Niro took a step back in his career when he played a homophobic stroke victim who befriends a drag queen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Joel Schumacher's marred melodrama, "Flawless" (1999). In 2000, he took another misstep in playing Fearless Leader in the combined live-action-animated debacle, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle". He then reverted to police work as a highly decorated detective who joins a fire inspector (Edward Burns) in investigating a murder committed by fame-seeking serial killers in "15 Minutes" (2001). Still looking for a second film to direct, De Niro continued waiting while he finished acting in "Men of Honor" and "Meet the Parents" (both 2000), and Frank Oz's "The Score" (2001), for which he reportedly received $15 million.
The lackluster roles kept coming for De Niro, who starred in three forgettable films in 2002: the limp Hollywood action-comedy "Showtime" opposite Eddie Murphy and William Shatner; the pedestrian "City By the Sea" with Frances McDormand; and the uninspired sequel, "Analyze That”, opposite Billy Crystal. Also disappointing was the sci-fi thriller "Godsend" (2004), in which the actor played a stem cell research expert who clones the dead son of a grief stricken couple ( Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) with disastrous results. His next role was a fun-filled send-up of his wise guy persona with the voice of shark mob boss Don Lino in DreamWork's animated "Shark Tale" (2004). In the follow-up to “Meet the Parents”, De Niro revived his menacing CIA dad, Jack Byrnes, for “Meet the Fockers” (2004), in which he meets Ben Stiller’s parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Despite mediocre reviews for the movie and outcries that De Niro had given up meaty roles for easy money, “Meet the Fockers” proved to be more successful than its predecessor. Weeks later DeNiro's next film was in theaters, the routine thriller "Hide and Seek" (2005) as a widowed father whose daughter (Dakota Fanning) exhibits a disturbing with her "imaginary" friend. Meanwhile, De Niro was set to direct his second film, the spy thriller “The Good Shepherd” (2005), a sprawling history of the CIA as told through the 40-year career of one of its agents.
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