As Robert De Niro gets with the wet cement today, it’s not because he’s preparing to sleep with the fishes as a doomed mobster in another Scorsese or Coppola pic. Instead, it’s a fitting recognition for a legendary actor to enshrine his hand and foot prints in front of Hollywood’s legendary Chinese Theater.
It was just 40 years ago that the New York-born-and-raised De Niro first achieved major movie recognition, as a dying ballplayer in “Bang the Drum Slowly.” That same year with his turn in “Mean Streets,” he initiated what became a stunning decades-long collaboration with Scorsese, a partnership that includes his “You talking to me?” Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (’76), an Oscar as lead actor in “Raging Bull” (’80) and memorable gangsters in “GoodFellas” (’90) and “Casino” (’95).
Along the way, De Niro also won a supporting Oscar playing a young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II” (’74) followed by six subsequent noms, including his current Oscar-nommed perf as superstitious Pat Solitano Sr. in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
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This actor’s actor has also produced and directed (“A Bronx Tale,” “The Good Shepherd”), and in the wake of 9/11 he co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival with the goal of bringing business back to a devastated lower Manhattan. He opened his headquarters for his Tribeca Films there, as well as his fave restaurant haunts, Nobu and the Tribeca Grill.
For a younger generation of moviegoers who know De Niro best from the “Analyze This” and “Focker” movies, it may come as a shock that the esteemed thesp was once known for not doing comedy. Back in the late 1970s, the aborted laffer “Bogart Slept Here” project (later resurrected as “The Goodbye Girl”) with De Niro and director Mike Nichols seemed to seal his range as strictly dramatic.
Now De Niro is a comedian, and “Silver Linings” is not only his first Oscar nomination in 21 years but his first for a comedic turn. De Niro’s wit has also come to the fore offscreen lately.
On Jan. 26, he did back-to-back turns at two movie confabs in Hollywood. In the afternoon at the Aussie Academy Awards, his “Playbook” co-star Jacki Weaver gushed, “I’ve slept in the same bed as Robert De Niro.” To which he replied, “I did the same with Jacki!”
And that night at the Producers Guild Awards, De Niro spoke of when Bob and Harvey Weinstein first approached him with a role in “Playbook.” “When they came to me with a movie about mental illness,” he quipped, “I asked which brother do they want me to portray?”
The actor wasn’t always so relaxed — or funny — in public. In a way, the evolution of De Niro is a lot like what has happened to Pat Solitano Sr. going from page to screen. At least as De Niro tells it.
“In the novel, he’s more taciturn, more someone who just doesn’t communicate. A great character,” says De Niro. But as for Pat in the movie: “This is like the reverse, he talks!”
Laffers have, indeed, been good to De Niro in recent years.
“Comedy is fun to do,” he opines. “You can do things you can’t do in a drama, obviously, because they would be funny. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ has the irony of situations being taken very seriously by the people in the story, but as an observer they can be funny.”
Of course, the humor was always there. Take De Niro saying the iconic “You talking to me?”
He admits, “There’s something funny about it too. There’s humor in it. Maybe scary, but you might laugh nervously. It’s just funny in itself — if that’s possible.”