9 Milestones in the Evolution of Robert De Niro

In this weekend's Killer Elite, Robert De Niro plays a special ops vet whose kidnapping sends his former partner Jason Statham out of retirement and into ass-kicking mode. So how did a New York City high school drop-out transform himself into one of our greatest living actors, who, 40-odd years after his film debut, earns applause in second-rate action thrillers for merely appearing onscreen?

You can always trace a direct line through a few important roles to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. As such, let's look at nine pivotal performances that track the evolution of two-time Academy Award winner (and six-time nominee) Robert De Niro.

The Wedding Party (1969)

After first pursuing acting as a means to overcome his shyness, De Niro studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory and Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio before landing his first film role in Brian De Palma's indie The Wedding Party in 1963. At the time, De Niro was 20 years old and credited as Robert Denero. The Wedding Party -- which featured a soon-to-be groom as he interacted with various members of his wedding party prior to the ceremony -- co-starred fellow future Oscar nominee Jill Clayburgh and wasn't released until six years later when De Niro started getting attention for his off-Broadway work.

Mean Streets(1973)

In 1972, De Niro bumped into a former Little Italy acquaintance who would put him on the path to becoming one of the most celebrated actors of this generation: Martin Scorsese. After bumping into each other at a party, Scorsese reportedly offered De Niro four roles in his upcoming drama Mean Streets, about young Italian-Americans struggling to succeed on the mean streets of New York City. De Niro ultimately decided on Johnny Boy -- the violent small-time crook -- and earned critical praise for the marvelous urgency he conveyed onscreen. De Niro and Scorsese would go on to forge a strong working relationship (and earn a number of Oscar nominations) over the next few decades with Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)/Taxi Driver (1975)

We're clumping together this pair of De Niro credits -- which have gone down in history as two of the performances in two of the greatest movies of all time -- because they happened in such quick succession. In The Godfather sequel, De Niro had enormous shoes to fill playing the younger version of Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone character. De Niro was so successful in the Francis Ford Coppola picture that he earned his first Academy Award. Following Brando's win three years earlier, this marked the first time in Academy history that two characters have won Oscars for portraying the same character.

And then came the movie that would forever associate De Niro with the memorable movie line, "You talkin' to me?" Legend has it that the producers of Taxi Driver hired Martin Scorsese to direct Paul Schrader's script on the condition that he get De Niro to play the lead. To prepare for the role of Travis Bickle, the actor reportedly worked 12-hour days driving cabs and studying mental illness. The performance -- as a depressed Vietnam vet with violent impulses -- earned De Niro an Oscar nomination. The film was a box office success and Roger Ebert officially declared that De Niro was "as good as Brando."

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  • Zach says:

    Raging Bull was De Niro's only sports movie. He played a baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly. It was a pretty famous movie. I don't know how you don't know that.

  • Zach says:

    NOT his only sports movie (correction).

  • Mike the Movie Tyke says:

    People are applauding because they'd rather see De Niro stop by a second-rate action thriller than headline yet another "Focker" or "Analyze" movie. It's much less painful.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Also beautifully understated in Wag The Dog - he keeps it afloat longer than it should be. Travis Bickle is a slam-dunk, but it's a slam-dunk role too - he stayed out of its way, plus it worked seeing him so chillingly contemporary after GF2. I must be one of the few who find Raging Bull way too indulgent, but in contrast I confess it took me a long time to realize how good he was in Midnight Run - so straight that even when it's "here come two words for you" it's totally in character, and so generous that he makes Grodin twice as funny.

  • The Cantankerist says:
  • Andrey Min'kov says:

    All killers finish equally.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    wtf The Cantankerist, your has nothing to do with the damn article

  • Tommy Marx says:

    Okay, I laughed my ass off until I saw didn't show up. I understand Alexa wouldn't get the whole "let's turn off the italics" thing, but stupid me, I didn't realize HTML code wouldn't show up to support the punchline. "wtf tommy, your answer has nothing to do with the damn article" is now officially dead. At least on this website. Perhaps it can live again (with Alexa's blessing, of course) on THR.