De Niro pals articulate their praise

Peck also remembered at AFI event

Thursday’s 31st annual American Film Institute’s Life Achievement dinner honoring Robert De Niro led with a brief tribute to Gregory Peck, who had died that morning.

In a film clip, Peck mused, “It’s an actor’s vanity that he will do some work that will be remembered. But it’s not a bad ambition to do some work that will bear the test of time.”

Thus were Peck and De Niro linked. The heartfelt look at De Niro’s career clearly demonstrated that the veteran thesp has consistently done work that will stand the test of time.

The black-tie evening at the Kodak Theater kicked off with remarks from AFI chair Howard Stringer, who called De Niro “the czar of Tribeca,” and AFI CEO Jean Firstenberg, who introduced the Peck tribute and reminded the aud that the show will air on the USA Network on June 23.

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Following a Wolfgang Puck dinner, the evening segued into the classic AFI tribute format: a few words from a De Niro colleague then a clip from the film on which they worked together.

High points included Billy Crystal recalling how De Niro insisted they do all their “Analyze This” press junket interviews together “for one simple reason: I talk.”

De Niro’s offscreen inarticulateness was a major theme of the speeches. From what his colleagues said, it appears the thesp speaks as infrequently to his co-stars as he does to the press.

However, writer-exec producer Bob Gazzale cleverly interspersed the clips with filmed segments of De Niro speaking about his roles, in which the actor articulately provided insight into his technique for building a character.

Harvey Keitel spoke about De Niro’s setting up the Tribeca Film Fest as a response to 9/11; and Edward Norton said the honoree “strips the clutter away” in his work and is “the e.e. cummings of actors: poetry that’s oblique but cutting.”

Others speakers included Leonardo DiCaprio, Jodie Foster, William Baldwin, Sandra Bernhard, Blythe Danner, Carrie Fisher, Juliette Lewis, Joe Pesci, Barry Primus, Chazz Palminteri, Sean Penn and Jane Rosenthal. The song “New York, New York” was performed by Beyonce Knowles.

Among the speakers who got the biggest laughs was Robin Williams, who said De Niro’s current mustachioed appearance made him look like Saddam Hussein and said the head table “looks like the Last Supper in Little Italy.”

And James Woods, who did “Once Upon a Time in America” with De Niro, got a laugh when he described the film as “an older man reviewing his life as a thug — not unlike tonight.”

The award presentation was made by Martin Scorsese, who cited De Niro’s “extraordinary ability to transform himself” and showed a five-minute montage of scenes from “Raging Bull” he and editor Thelma Schoonmaker had set to music.

Those on hand for the dinner, underwritten by SBC Communications, included Doug Herzog, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bryan Lourd, Michael Mann, Chris McGurk, Jeff Robinov, Terry Semel, Stacey Snider, Todd Wagner, Jim Wiatt, Ed Zwick, Dick Schulze, Brad Anderson, Ross Perot Jr. and De Niro’s longtime friend and producer Art Linson.

De Niro began his acceptance by saying that giving a speech “isn’t easy for me” but it was delivered elegantly and ended with “Goodnight and goodnight, Gregory Peck.”