Considered one of the best actors of his generation, Robert De Niro built a durable star career out of his formidable ability to disappear into a character. The son of artists, De Niro was raised in New York's Greenwich Village. The young man made his stage debut at age 10, playing the Cowardly Lion in his school's production of The Wizard of Oz. Along with finding relief from shyness through performing, De Niro was also entranced by the movies, and he quit high school at age 16 to pursue acting. Studying under Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, De Niro learned how to immerse himself in a character emotionally and physically. After laboring in off-off-Broadway productions in the early '60s, De Niro was cast alongside fellow novice Jill Clayburgh in film-school graduate Brian De Palma's The Wedding Party (1969). He followed this with small movies like Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Sam's Song, and Bloody Mama.
De Niro's professional life took an auspicious turn, however, when he was re-introduced to former Little Italy acquaintance Martin Scorsese at a party in 1972. Sharing a love of movies as well as their neighborhood background, De Niro and Scorsese hit it off. De Niro was immediately interested when Scorsese asked him about appearing in his new film, Mean Streets, conceived as a grittier, more authentic portrait of the Mafia than The Godfather. De Niro's appearance in the film made waves with critics, as did his completely different performance as a dying simple-minded catcher in the quiet baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). Francis Ford Coppola was impressed enough by Mean Streets to cast De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in the early 1900s portion of The Godfather Part II. Closely studying Brando's Oscar-winning performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather, and perfecting his accent for speaking his lines in subtitled Sicilian, De Niro was so effective as the lethally ambitious and lovingly paternal Corleone that he took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.
De Niro next headed to Europe to star in Bernardo Bertolucci's opus, 1900 (1976) before returning to the U.S. to collaborate with Scorsese on the far leaner (and meaner) production, Taxi Driver. After working for two weeks as a Manhattan cabbie and losing weight, De Niro transformed himself into disturbed "God's lonely man" Travis Bickle. One of the definitive films of the decade, Taxi Driver earned the Cannes Film Festival's top prize and several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and De Niro's first nod for Best Actor. Controversy erupted about the film's violence, however, when would-be presidential assassin John W. Hinckley cited Taxi Driver as a formative influence in 1981.
De Niro and Scorsese would reteam for the lavish musical New York, New York (1977), and though the film was a complete flop, De Niro quickly recovered with another risky and ambitious project, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978). One of the first wave of Vietnam movies, The Deer Hunter starred De Niro as one of three Pennsylvania steel-town friends thrown into the war's inferno who emerged as profoundly changed men. Though the film provoked an uproar over its portrayal of Viet Cong violence as (literally) Russian roulette, The Deer Hunter won several Oscars.
Returning to the realm of more personal violence, De Niro followed The Deer Hunter with his and Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull, a tragic portrait of boxer [%Ray La Motta]. Along with his notorious 60-pound weight gain that rendered him unrecognizable as the middle-aged Jake, De Niro also trained so intensely for the outstanding fight scenes that La Motta himself stated that De Niro could have boxed professionally. Along with his physical dedication, De Niro won over critics with his ability to humanize La Motta without softening him. Raging Bull received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Though he was well suited to star in Sergio Leone's epic homage to gangster films, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Leone's tough, transcendent vision couldn't survive the studio's decision to hack 88 minutes out of the American release version. De Niro next took a breather from films to return to the stage, playing a drug dealer in the New York Public Theater production Cuba and His Teddy Bear. During his theater stint, De Palma made De Niro a movie offer he couldn't refuse when he asked him to play a small role in his film version of The Untouchables (1987). As the rotund, charismatic, bat-wielding Al Capone, De Niro was a memorable adversary for Kevin Costner's upstanding Elliot Ness, and The Untouchables became De Niro's first hit in almost a decade. De Niro followed The Untouchables with his first comedy success, Midnight Run (1988), costarring as a bounty hunter opposite Charles Grodin's bail-jumping accountant.
Though he earned an Oscar nomination for his touching performance as a patient in Penny Marshall's popular drama Awakenings (1990), movie fans were perhaps more thrilled by De Niro's return to the Scorsese fold, playing cruelly duplicitous Irish mobster Jimmy "The Gent" opposite Ray Liotta's turncoat Henry Hill in the critically lauded Mafia film Goodfellas (1990). De Niro worked with Scorsese again in the thriller remake Cape Fear (1991), sporting a hillbilly accent and pumped-up physique. It was Scorsese and De Niro's biggest hit together and earned another Oscar nod for the star. De Niro subsequently costarred as a geeky cop in the Scorsese-produced Mad Dog and Glory (1993).
De Niro also revealed that he had learned a great deal from his work with Scorsese with his own directorial debut, A Bronx Tale (1993). A well-observed story of a boy torn between his father and the local mob, A Bronx Tale earned praise, but De Niro was soon back to working with Scorsese, starring as Vegas kingpin Sam Rothstein in Casino (1995) -- based on the story of real-life handicapper Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal -- staged with Scorsese's customary visual brilliance and pairing De Niro with his Raging Bull brother and Goodfellas associate Joe Pesci.
Appearing in as many as three films a year after 1990, De Niro was particularly praised for his polished reserve in Michael Mann's glossy policer Heat (1995), which offered the rare spectacle of De Niro and Pacino sharing the screen, if only in two scenes. After indifferently received turns in The Fan (1996), Sleepers (1996), and Cop Land (1997), De Niro stepped outside his comfort zone to play an amoral political strategist in Barry Levinson's sharp satire Wag the Dog (1997) and a dangerously dimwitted crook in Quentin Tarantino's laid-back crime story Jackie Brown (1997).
De Niro was front and center -- and knee deep in self-parody -- in the comedy Analyze This (1999), aided and abetted by a nicely low-key Billy Crystal as his reluctant psychiatrist. De Niro would continue to lampoon his own tough-guy image in the sequel Analyze That, as well as the popular Meet the Parents franchise. As the decade wore on, De Niro took on roles that failed to live up to his acclaimed earlier work, such as with lukewarm thrillers like The Score, Godsend, Righteous Kill, and Hide and Seek. However, De Niro continued to work on his ambitious and long-planned next foray behind the camera, the acclaimed CIA drama The Good Shepherd.
He continued to work steadily in a variety of projects including Stardust, What Just Happened, and Everybody's Fine. He became a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009. He reteamed with Ben Stiller for Little Fockers in 2010, and played a corrupt politician in Machete that same year. In 2011 he appeared opposite Bradley Cooper in the thriller Limitless, which seemingly laid the groundwork for their reteaming as father and son in the 2012 comedy Silver Linings Playbook. For his work in that movie, De Niro earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi