2009 Kennedy Center Honoree: Robert De Niro

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As much as Americans love their matinee idols, most people think acting is a pretty cushy job — a sort of glorified game of dress-up that pays rather better than “real” work.

Robert De Niro really works.

As the 66-year-old actor gets ready to receive a Kennedy Center Honor this weekend, those who would know best marvel at his legendary work ethic.

“As perhaps the greatest realist in American acting, Robert De Niro is the hardest-working artist I have ever performed with,” declares Michael Moriarty, who starred with Mr. De Niro in the 1973 baseball drama “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

Mr. De Niro famously had his teeth ground for the villain he played in “Cape Fear,” the 1991 film he made with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, himself a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2007. The film had set calls between 5:30 and 6 a.m. “He’d get up at 3:30 just to pump up, just to work out, so his muscles would be tight when he came to work,” says Harold Ramis, who directed the actor in “Analyze This” and “Analyze That.”

“He was probably more prepared than any other actor I’ve ever worked with,” agrees Kirk Jones, the director of Mr. De Niro’s latest film, “Everybody’s Fine,” opening in theaters Friday.

“There were occasions when I caught sight of his own personal script, his shooting script,” Mr. Jones says. “When you look at Bob’s script, it’s covered in blue ink. It’s because he has so many thoughts and so many notes that are based on his own instincts of what the character would do. He tries to give as many performances, as many options as possible.”

Jane Rosenthal, Mr. De Niro’s producing partner of more than two decades, speaks the phrase “He likes to work” no fewer than three times in one part of a telephone interview. “Bob’s a perfectionist,” a trait, she says, that affects everything he does.

Mr. De Niro’s single-minded intensity won him his best-actor Oscar for 1980’s “Raging Bull.” He gained 60 pounds to play real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in the Scorsese film. He previously had won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for “The Godfather Part II,” a part he played mostly in Sicilian dialect.

He improvised the most iconic line — “You talkin’ to me?” — in Mr. Scorsese’s searing 1976 drama “Taxi Driver,” an early milestone in one of the most important actor-director partnerships in American film history. “Their collaboration together, it’s where one and one equals ten,” Ms. Rosenthal says.

Mr. De Niro’s apprenticeship started early. The son of two New York painters, he dropped out of high school to study under method-acting master Stella Adler and later attended Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio.

“I’ve never worked with an actor who was so grounded in the method,” Mr. Ramis says. He recalls doing a group interview in which Mr. De Niro was asked what actors had influenced him.

“He started with Montgomery Clift and [Marlon] Brando and Shelley Winters. He named all Lee Strasberg actors,” he says. “I asked, ‘No one from the ‘40s?’ Perhaps Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart? Nah. He wasn’t interested. It was about Strasberg.”

Mr. De Niro shows the same method-inspired commitment to every role. He made his name playing outcasts teetering on the edge of psychosis, making us want to understand them even though we couldn’t love them. But after decades of serious roles, he turned more frequently to comedy, beginning with Mr. Ramis’ 1999 film “Analyze This.”

“Someone once said, ‘In comedy, wear your characters lightly, like a hat,’” says Mr. Ramis, a graduate of Chicago’s famed improvisational comedy troupe Second City. “That’s not Bob. Every detail of everything he does is somehow analyzed. He’s not like an analytical person in an intellectual sense. But he’s very careful with everything he does.”

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