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De Niro at 70

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This Saturday marks a milestone for perhaps the finest screen actor of our times. Robert De Niro is turning 70.

No longer is he the wiry, squinty-eyed actor with the crooked smile I vividly recall burning up the screen in 1973's Bang The Drum Slowly. Inevitably with time, he has mellowed, filled out, and gone gray, but his enormous range and power as an actor-so evident back then- remain in full force, undiminished.

What he's achieved in his chosen profession since then feels like the work of ten men. He's appeared in close to 100 features, directed two, produced countless more. He's been a key visionary behind the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, and indeed behind the resurgence of that whole neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

The son of artists and an only child, De Niro grew up in the Little Italy section of New York City, blocks away from future collaborator Martin Scorsese. As a kid, his pale complexion earned him the nickname "Bobby Milk".

Acting proved a release for his innate shyness as early as grade school, where reportedly he played The Cowardly Lion in a production of The Wizard Of Oz. A voracious reader of plays and movie fan from childhood, he ended up quitting high school to study the craft of acting under Stella Adler.

With the possible exception of Brando, no actor is more closely identified with the Method approach than De Niro. His obsessive commitment to finding and inhabiting every character he plays is legendary.

He took months to learn the Sicilian dialect for the Corleone part in The Godfather, Part 2, gained (and lost) 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and had an expensive procedure done to make his teeth look rotten in Cape Fear.

(He and predecessor Brando are linked in other ways as well: they are the only actors to win Oscars for playing the same character; and De Niro's other Academy Award win, for "Raging Bull", has him quoting Brando's Contender speech from On the Waterfront -- the film that won Brando his first Oscar.)

Robert De Niro is a famously private man. He has earned that privacy, through his good works and his contribution to film. He owes us, his public, only one thing, and that's a great performance. And on that score, he always delivers.

And good news for us: at 70, he shows no signs of slowing down, with numerous film projects in production or planned.

As superb as he was in last year's Silver Linings Playbook, younger fans who know him best for the Analyze This and Meet The Parents movies should go further back and check out his best work from earlier in his career, which are found in my own top-10 list below.

They will find a lot more to celebrate in the outsize talent of Robert De Niro.

Mean Streets (1973) -- De Niro's breakout turn as pathologically irresponsible Johnny Boy signaled the arrival of a big new star -- and a big new director in Martin Scorsese. Co-star Keitel is also sold, but you can't take your eyes off De Niro's doomed character.

The Godfather, Part II
(1974) -- The actor cements his standing with a vivid, note-perfect portrayal of the young Don Corleone. He very nearly steals it from Pacino as an older, harder Michael.

Taxi Driver (1976) -- He gives haunting life to disturbed outcast Travis Bickle, and audiences had the shivers for months (if not years) afterwards. This will always be the part I remember him for.

The Deer Hunter (1978) -- De Niro provides the glue in Michael Cimino's stunning film, one of the great (anti-) war pictures of all time. The Russian roulette sequence with Walken still causes nightmares.

Raging Bull
(1980) -- The actor hits a summit with his dead-on portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta, capturing the brutality and weakness of that tragic character.

The Untouchables
(1987)- His flashy, terrifying Al Capone made De Palma's film (along with a peppery contribution from Connery). The scene with the baseball bat is indelible.

Midnight Run (1988) -- De Niro shows he can play for laughs with the best of them, in this underrated road comedy co-starring the sublime Charles Grodin.

Goodfellas (1990) -- The Jimmy Conway character, part of an inspired ensemble, stands out for De Niro's truly scary personification of a gangster whose cool, watchful demeanor barely masks a total willingness to kill for principle or profit.

Heat (1995) -- Here the actor is a highly professional-but dangerously weary-career criminal whose isolation is slowly strangling him. Though Pacino's workaholic cop is showier, watch De Niro.

Ronin (1998) -- The actor's portrayal of Sam, an aging, mysterious gun for hire, is masterfully understated. Once again, among a solid ensemble cast, De Niro's skill and magnetism provide just the right ballast for John Frankenheimer's lean, breathless film.

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