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USA Today Sports Media Group
Robert Zeglinski

Ranking 16 iconic Robert De Niro performances, from Taxi Driver to Goodfellas

Any time we have a conversation about some of the greatest actors in history, Robert De Niro’s name is bound to come up.

The now 80-year-old actor is renowned for wearing many different hats and seemingly being able to play anyone. That’s because, over the years, De Niro has patently absorbed himself into his roles. He’s kept us glued to our seats with enthralling performances as mobsters, isolated sociopaths, and even a family man. He can go from a wholly reserved hermit to an utter raging lunatic on the flip of a coin. And yes, he’s even capable of delightful comedic timing.

In honor of an all-timer, let’s run down some of the more noteworthy and iconic performances from the legendary De Niro’s career. Spoiler alert: The man rarely misses.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

De Niro doesn’t have the biggest role in Silver Linings Playbook but he still manages to squeeze every last drop out. He plays an obsessive and angry older Philadelphia Eagles fan who is the father of an obsessive and angry Eagles fan trying to leave that life behind. It’s not De Niro’s best, but he nailed every football-crazed man parking themselves in a chair each fall Sunday to a tee.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

A veritable epic, De Niro was the perfect main character for Once Upon a Time in America’s four-hour story about childhood friendship and organized crime spanning over five decades. De Niro plays his character “Noodles” in a reserved sense, lending tremendous emotional weight to a person who can’t help but emanate regret about their wayward life.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Few performers can embody the mindset of a restrained psychopath quite like De Niro. He does just that in Jackie Brown, playing Louis Gara, an ex-con who clearly still has a screw loose if you just pay attention. That whole passive act is just that — an act. But I didn’t say De Niro’s Gara was a competent criminal.

Meet the Parents series (2000-TBD)

I didn’t say every film on this was going to be a cinematic masterpiece. Some are simply about retired stiffs (De Niro) who still want the best for their daughter. The original Meet the Parents stands out to me as the quintessential comedy about awkwardly meeting your future in-laws for the first time. And none of it works without a silly performance from De Niro.

The Untouchables (1987)

The movie is about Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness pulling out all the stops to finally bring down Al Capone. For a good reason, it’s known to some as Costner’s best-ever role.  But De Niro’s menacing portrayal of the Chicago mobster almost steals the show — heck, it would’ve been a crime if the person playing Capone didn’t have a magnet on them every time they were on screen. And I, for one, wouldn’t want to be any of Capone’s henchmen.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

A movie that resonated with an American audience still reeling from the Vietnam War, De Niro’s performance as Mike is haunting and soul-shattering. The Deer Hunter is a bit problematic in its portrayal of the Vietnamese, but that does not take away from De Niro breaking our hearts as a broken veteran.

Cape Fear (1991)

It would’ve been hard to top the 1962 original, but De Niro arguably elevates the Cape Fear remake to such heights. He is thoroughly terrifying as Max Cady — a sadistic sociopath who is always three steps ahead and is hell-bent on revenge. This is a movie recommended for daylight hours if only because De Niro’s performance is so bone-chilling.

The King of Comedy (1982)

Seemingly everyone wanted De Niro to play lunatics in the 20th century (because he was great at it), and frequent collaborator Martin Scorcese was no different. In The King of Comedy, Scorcese has De Niro play Rupert Pupkin: a delusional and mentally ill stand-up comedian. Rupert has, you guessed it, an obsession with a famous late-night host. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess where De Niro/Rupert takes this satire.

Mean Streets (1973)

The first time Scorcese and De Niro worked together simply had to be honored. De Niro’s performance as Johnny Boy, a joyful hoodlum that finds everything amusing, was what initially helped elevate his stardom into what we know it today.

Casino (1995)

Arguably De Niro’s most cartoonish acting performance, he is no less a quiet powerhouse as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. In a movie about a gangster dragged to the pits of hell by Las Vegas, De Niro’s rage and despair is palpable.

The Irishman (2019)

A culmination of all the mob work he had done with Scorcese in the past, De Niro is spellbinding as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver turned mafia hitman. The Irishman’s story is very much a slow burn, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen with his character’s rise and inevitable tragedy over the course of his entire life.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

There could’ve been no one better to play Vito Corleone — the flawed but relentless patriarch of Al Pacino’s Michael — than De Niro. In flashbacks, it is clear Vito will pull out all the stops for his family because he just wants them to live a dream of promise. And it is no wonder De Niro won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role.

Goodfellas (1990)

I recognize this might be a controversial place, but Goodfellas is not a De Niro movie. It is very clearly a Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta showcase. Even still, De Niro’s casual Jimmy Conway makes you feel like you could be the best of pals with him. That is, until you cross the line between personal feelings and essential business.

Heat (1995)

Heat is the mold for heist movies, and De Niro’s Neil McCauley helps set the tense template. As a mastermind robber, De Niro’s rivalry with Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, a Los Angeles police officer, serves as a blockbuster stage. Their final showdown remains an action movie classic after an almost three-hour build-up.

Raging Bull (1980)

De Niro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta is what turned him into a living icon. It was also him at his method-acting best. The film famously had to stop production after finishing the first half so De Niro could gain 70 pounds to play an older version of LaMotta. It is a beautiful, gut-wrenching meditation about a man who gave everything to the ring but forgot to tend to the other vital aspects of his life. De Niro deservedly won Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver is one of the most famous movies ever made expressly because of De Niro. As an alienated and lonely taxi driver, you almost feel for Travis Bickle’s plight until realizing he’s thoroughly unhinged. It isn’t until he rescues a teenage prostitute that Bickle has a chance at getting redemption and meaning from his life. While nominated, it is a travesty that De Niro didn’t garner the Best Actor Oscar for his tragic performance.

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