Tough guy thesp also rules as king of comedy

Most actors, even major stars, experience a gradual decline in the range and type of roles offered them when they hit their late 50s. However, at 58, Robert De Niro, this year’s recipient of Independent Feature Project’s lifetime achievement award, has never been more in demand.

Not only have dramatic roles kept coming, like his recent turn as a master thief in this summer’s mid-range hit “The Score,” but he’s also emerged as a first-rate funnyman in two of the higher-grossing comedies of recent years, “Analyze This” and “Meet the Parents,” which he also produced. Both have sequels in the works.

According to Mary Parent and Scott Stuber, co-presidents of production at Universal, a script for the “Parents” sequel, tentatively titled “Meet the Fokkers,” is due in the next month or so, with producer De Niro keeping a close eye on the project in which he will reprise his role as a stern father.

They both have high hopes for the sequel. “He’s incredibly intelligent and precise,” says Parent, “and he’s mastered every level of this business. What I find so interesting is that he has such eclectic tastes, not only as an actor, but as a producer and filmmaker as well.”

And to all the different facets of his career, he brings an innate and well-honed understanding of the essence of drama, according to Stuber.

“Because of the depth of his acting experience he is able to find the problems in a scene, dissect that problem and solve it by boiling the elements of the scene down to their essence,” adds Stuber. “He understands storytelling.”

He also understands comedy. As an actor De Niro has brought comedic touches to even his most serious roles like Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” as well as his broader turn as the demented fan in “The King of Comedy.” But for many years he rarely ventured into straight-out comedies with the exceptions of 1987’s “Midnight Run” and, two years later, “We’re No Angels.”

So his role in top-flight comedy vehicle “Analyze This” opposite Billy Crystal, was not so much a surprise as a welcome riff on his many roles as underworld types.

“He’s entered this new area recently and I think it’s a surprise to him as well, though he has often demonstrated a wicked, dry sense of humor in his dramatic films,” says director Tom Dey, who recently steered De Niro through another comedy, “Showtime” co-starring Eddie Murphy.

In “Showtime” he portrays a crusty LAPD vet who is forced to participate in a reality show, with Murphy as his star-struck sidekick.

“The guys are great together,” Dey promises. “It was fun to pair him with Eddie. Bob is very technical. He adheres to the script, while Eddie improvises a lot. Eddie, who is a very physical comedian as well, may have the last word in a scene, but Bob usually has the last gesture, something economical, just a facial movement, perhaps.”

In “City by the Sea,” De Niro’s other film already in the can, he portrays a Manhattan detective investigating a murder whose primary suspect is his estranged son. In another drama, “Scared Guys,” he plays an a man who must beat his agoraphobia to save a woman who has been targeted for murder.

“It’s much more of a drama, the kind that Bob made his name doing — quite complex and emotional,” says director Michael Caton-Jones of “City by the Seas.”

What Caton-Jones finds extraordinary about the man he calls “the greatest actor of his generation,” is that he has managed to be both an actor and a movie star — that rare combination.

“He’s a movie star because the camera loves him. But that appeal is based on his considerable acting ability,” he adds. “Most movie stars play variations on the same character or theme. De Niro plays different people all the time. He’s unique in what he does. That’s what sets him apart from the rest.”

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