De Niro’s the hero as film vets rule B.O.

IN A TIME OF EXPLOSIVE CHANGE, there is a case to be made for longevity. Even among actors.

A look at the movie release schedule points up a remarkable dependency on stars who have been around for two or three decades.

Coming up are two Redford pictures and three Hackman pictures. Michael Douglas’ latest film, “Don’t Say a Word,” registered the best opening numbers of his career, and Anthony Hopkins’ “Hearts in Atlantis” was right on its tail.

Sure, also on the schedule are movies with Hilary Swank, Drew Barrymore, Josh Hartnett and even Snoop Dogg, but the old guys, more and more, seem to provide the anchor.

Surprisingly, the role model for the senior set is Robert De Niro, who has two films in the can. I say surprisingly because a few years ago he seemed to be in a rut. I found myself staying away from De Niro movies because they became a blur. I didn’t think “The King of Comedy” was very comedic, and “Cape Fear” and “Ronin” were turnoffs.

De Niro himself seemed bored. After being represented by the same agent for many years (Fred Specktor), he suddenly decided to switch, albeit staying within the CAA cocoon, where Bryan Lourd now artfully handles his affairs.

The newly reconstituted De Niro has been surprising filmgoers and inspiring other actors of his age group (he is 59). For one thing, his price has escalated to between $17 million and $20 million — by far his highest career level.

AND INSTEAD OF STICKING to vintage De Niro roles, he has shrewdly moved into comedy, bordering on self-parody, with the likes of “Meet the Parents” and “Analyze This.” Suddenly we’re seeing the anti-De Niro, and he’s absolutely delightful.

The once-reclusive actor also seems to be everywhere these days, accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Independent Feature Project, helping his partner Jane Rosenthal produce an ambitious slate of films, spearheading fundraisers for the heroes of the Twin Towers tragedy and manning food lines for exhausted firemen. He’s even been granting interviews, which for De Niro is a major departure.

As skilled a performer as he may be, De Niro is one of the world’s worst interviews, and he knows it. Commenting on his inarticulate ways, he once told Time magazine, “After I give an interview, I spend all my time trying to explain what I meant. Besides, what does any of that have to do with acting or with my own head? Nothing.”

The son of an artist and an Actors Studio grad, De Niro has been making movies compulsively since 1966, sometimes churning out more than two a year. He has delivered remarkable hits like “Raging Bull” in 1980 and survived singular embarrassments like “The Untouchables” in 1987. He once said, “I think Hollywood has a class system. The actors are like the inmates. I’ve seen the suits run the asylum and I think I can do as good or even better.”

With TriBeCa he’s tried to do better, admitting, “I have to hang in there to show people that I’m serious and this is not a fly-by-night thing.”

OK, Bobby, I’m convinced.

ON THE SUBJECT OF DURABILITY, Hackman also has me convinced. At 71, he has a few years on De Niro but shares his talent and fecundity, turning out a huge body of work since “Mad Dog Coll” in 1961. Like De Niro, he’s resuscitated his career with occasional comedy turns — witness “Get Shorty” — but more often he’s typecast in flinty, hard-edged roles.

Reporters trying to elicit opinions from Hackman find he is an immensely intelligent man who simply does not see fit to share his ideas. One director who worked with him told me, “He’ll challenge you, he’ll battle you, but he won’t sit around and philosophize with you.”

The same can be said for another member of the longevity club — Redford, a man fabled for his singularly distanced manner. Faced with a creative dispute, Redford’s solution is simply to disappear. Indeed, of all the members of the club, it’s Michael Douglas who is the most articulate and engaged but who, understandably, after years in the public eye, is very cautious about what he says and where.

All have this in common, however: Their films will occupy an important portion of the landscape over the next few months. And the filmgoing public no doubt will register, even more than usual, its willingness to embrace, if not venerate, the familiar.

Some things, after all, do endure.

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