Despite being known for starring in plenty of crime dramas and for playing a lot of no-nonsense tough guys, Robert De Niro has made the latter half of his career extremely versatile. With great comedic roles usually riffing on his gruff exterior to movies where he’s devoid of any of his patent charisma and his appearances as extreme versions of himself on 30 Rock, he keeps cementing himself as the premier method actor of our time.
Since his early appearance in Mean Streets, De Niro has been inextricably linked to Martin Scorsese. They’re about to reunite for the first time since Casino and they’re bringing Joe Pesci back out of mothballs and Al Pacino for the first time when The Irishman comes to Netflix over the Thanksgiving holiday. To get ready, here are Robert DeNiro’s 10 Most Iconic Roles, Ranked.
10 Vito Corleone
How to make a sequel for the Oscar-winning film The Godfather and make it even better? You add good ol’ Bobby D to the mix. De Niro plays a young Vito in The Godfather, Part II.
While the movie tells about his son Michael’s rise and struggles to keep his power, the movie also features Vito’s initial rise to power. De Niro learned Italian for the role and won an Oscar for his performance.
9 Neil McCauley
Icy, cold, calculating, and willing to leave any situation in 30 seconds flat or feel the heat barreling on you, Neil McCauley’s disciplined approach to life is what has made him a highly successful thief.
In the capable acting chops of De Niro, McCauley was one half of the equation that made Michael Mann’s Heat very special. Along with Al Pacino, two of the most intense actors of all time squared off in one of the greatest heist thrillers in movie history.
8 Travis Bickle
Known for the iconic and much-parodied “You talking to me?” scene, Taxi Driver should be remembered for so much more. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet working as a cabbie at night to deal with his insomnia.
His growing insanity and infatuation for Betsy, a campaign volunteer for Senator Palantine leads to the idea that he should kill the guy. He also adds a pimp, Sport to his list for pushing a 12-year-old girl, Iris around.
7 James Conway
Goodfellas might be the perfect mob movie. No small fete in a world where The Godfather films exist. But the trio of Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and De Niro playing the real-life group of monsters behind the Lufthansa heist and the lives they led up to the heist was expertly told by director Martin Scorsese.
As Jimmy Conway, De Niro was able to shine as a voice of reason for both Henry and Tommy but would also go to hell for either of them. Which he does on more than one occasion.
6 Jake LaMotta
While these are the top ten De Niro roles, Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta is the man’s tour-de-force. He famously gained an incredible amount of weight to play the boxer in later years. But he also gained a heap of muscle mass to transform himself into the pugilist legend in his heyday.
Between Scorsese’s attention to minutiae and De Niro’s complete method deep dive into playing LaMotta, Raging Bull is the best boxing movie not starring Sylvester Stallone.
5 Jack Byrnes
One of Robert De Niro’s later roles also became iconic pretty quickly thanks in part to playing his tough-guy exterior for comedy against future son-in-law. In Meet The Parents, Greg Focker is getting ready to marry Pam Byrnes. He just has to get the approval of her father, Jack, a retired CIA operative.
The pairing became a smash hit and spawned two sequels, which not only saw De Niro continue to work with Stiller, but he also teamed up with both the incomparable Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand for the first time.
4 Paul Vitti
Psychiatrist, Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) inadvertently rear-ended one of mobster Paul Vitti’s cars. Sobel gives him his business card and offers up a favor. Sobel didn’t realize that he now owes the mob a favor.
Analyze This came out the same year as The Sopranos. Both featured a mobster talking to a shrink. But in this movie, De Niro flexed his mobster acting skills in a comedic way. Both the first flick and its sequel, Analyze That helped show a different side to De Niro, while still allowing him to be a tough guy.
3 Max Cady
Most of the time, De Niro’s bad guy roles still show him steely-eyed and reserved. Plus, the sociopathic tendencies, of course. But in the remake of Cape Fear, he turns down all of the hardened tough as nails quiet type of bad guy and trades that all in for a full-on twisted psychopath.
If you thought what he did for Raging Bull was dedication, De Niro did some more here too. He worked out vigorously to get as lean as possible and had a dentist file his teeth in order to play a man hellbent on revenge.
2 Lorenzo Anello
Chazz Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical story, A Bronx Tale is one of the few films that features De Niro as just a regular, average Joe. As Lorenzo, he’s an honest bus driver, making a living for his family.
Meanwhile, his boy, Calogero falls more and more susceptible to the charms of a Mafia Boss. De Niro as a father does all he can to keep his boy on the straight and narrow in the battle for his soul.
1 Detective Eddie Flemming
There are enough great Robert De Niro movies for thirty entries on this list. But very few were head of its time like 15 Minutes. The movie was fifteen years too early. De Niro plays Detective Eddie Flemming, partnered with Ed Burns as Fire Marshall Jordan Warsaw.
The two get wrapped up trying to catch a pair of thugs from Eastern Europe who are committing all kinds of crimes and filming them, hoping to become America’s next great success stories. The movie has some shocking twists and considering some of the mayhem you can watch these days is eerily similar to our current reality.