- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

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.”

Mr. De Niro took his comedic role in “Analyze This” very seriously. “For his character, he needed to have all his wardrobe in his closet so he would see what his character sees,” says Mr. Ramis, who says of his film, “Our intention was to make something that felt like you were watching a Scorsese film and Woody Allen enters.”

Mr. De Niro, Ms. Rosenthal says, is currently filming “Little Fockers,” the second sequel to the 2000 hit comedy “Meet the Parents,” in which a deadpan Mr. De Niro hilariously starred as the put-upon Ben Stiller’s prospective father-in-law. Some critics have derided Mr. De Niro’s comedic work, arguing he’s wasting his immense talent on lightweight films.

“Maybe everything wasn’t so life-and-death important. Because he’s already achieved everything you can hope to achieve,” Mr. Ramis says. “And when you see Adam Sandler getting paid twice as much as you are, and you’re considered the greatest actor of all time, it could lead you to want to capitalize a little on your history and reputation. I think more than that for him was, ‘I want to have some fun.’”

Mr. Jones understands the criticism, but Mr. De Niro is “a brilliant comedian,” he says. “People love him, and he’s making films people want to see all over the world.”

These popular comedies also have brought him legions of new fans. “Doing a comedy allowed him to use some of his skills that he hadn’t before,” Ms. Rosenthal says. “It also allowed him to work with different types of actors and do different types of movies that are also going to appeal to another generation that doesn’t know ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘Taxi Driver.’”

Acting is far from Mr. De Niro’s only role: He’s also a restaurateur, a producer and a director (“A Bronx Tale” and “The Good Shepherd”). With Ms. Rosenthal and her husband, Craig Hatkoff, he founded the Tribeca Film Festival to reinvigorate his New York neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“After September 11th, when we looked around, it was a matter of what we can do for our neighborhood,” Ms. Rosenthal says. “We clearly were not police officers or rescue workers or steelworkers. As producers, the only thing we knew how to do was to put on a show. So we did the film festival in an effort to help create that new normal and really give our community something to look forward to.”

In the past eight years, the Tribeca Film Festival has generated an estimated $600 million in economic activity for New York City. The Tribeca Film Institute provides support to struggling filmmakers, and there’s also a youth program.

New Yorkers appreciate it, but Mr. De Niro’s work in front of the camera has touched many more millions.

“He’s absolutely one of our greatest actors in film history,” Mr. Ramis declares, speaking, it seems, for just about anyone who has watched Robert De Niro — whether on the set or on the screen.

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