Without question, Robert De Niro is one of the iconic actors of his generation. Since he burst onto the screen he’s been an actor that has drawn both eyes and Oscar nominations. Whether he’s working with Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, or some other director at the helm, De Niro has put together some truly memorable roles. Here are the 25 most memorable roles in De Niro's career, in chronological order. Bear in mind, “memorable” and “best” aren’t necessarily the same thing.
De Niro had acted in a few movies before “Mean Streets,” and Martin Scorsese had directed a couple of films, but “Mean Streets” was the breakout for both of them. While Harvey Keitel is the star, De Niro steals the show as “Johnny Boy,” an unhinged loose cannon type that would repeatedly pop up in future Scorsese films. Few can handle that like De Niro, though.
Talk about stepping into big shoes. De Niro plays Young Vito Corleone in the second “Godfather” film, meaning he had to play the same character that Marlon Brando had portrayed in the first film. Brando won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his work as Vito. De Niro followed that up by winning Best Supporting Actor for playing the same character.
This is the first film on this list where De Niro is the clear, unquestioned star. Travis Bickle is a disturbing, disconcerting character at the center of Scorsese’s grimy, grim film. To many, the only thing they know of this film is the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene. Within the context of the film, though, it’s a truly alarming scene, one of many in this complicated, but clearly well-made, watch.
Early in his career, De Niro was popping up often in Best Picture nominees, and even a couple of winners, which includes “The Deer Hunter.” That’s not a coincidence. This epic Vietnam picture featured De Niro as one of a group of friends who enter the Vietnam War and are never quite the same. Michael Cimino used this as a springboard to make “Heaven’s Gate.” That didn’t go as well.
In terms of pure acting performance, this may be De Niro’s most-storied and appreciated work. He won another Oscar for his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta and was one of the first actors to get a lot of attention for making a noteworthy physical transformation. Many consider “Raging Bull” Scorsese’s best movie, though it did not win Best Picture. De Niro’s performance was so good it basically had to win, however.
Whenever Scorsese has tried to make “comedies,” they tend to turn out like funhouse mirror versions of what your average person would consider to be comedy. The movies are somehow usually more dark and twisted than his straightforward dramas. De Niro plays a terrible comedian with big dreams named Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy.” He shares a fair amount of the spotlight with Jerry Lewis in his best acting work, but De Niro definitely still makes an indelible mark.
Apparently, De Niro was gunning for the role that Terry Gilliam gave to his Monty Python partner Michael Palin but had to settle for the role of Harry Tuttle. However, De Niro definitely still makes his mark in this bizarre, borderline psychedelic film. Tuttle is a renegade heating engineer, which in this dystopian world is a problem. He’s not the star, but De Niro threw it all into the role and definitely sings in his performance.
De Niro has been in a ton of mobster movies. However, here he got to play arguably the most-famous mobster in American history. “The Untouchables” is about Elliot Ness and his men trying to take down bootlegging, and specifically Al Capone. Co-starring as Capone? None other than De Niro. Just don’t stand too close to him when he has a baseball bat.
De Niro was not known for comedy early in his career. Like we said, even in “The King of Comedy” things are dark and morbid and not traditionally “funny.” On the other hand, “Midnight Run” is simply a rollicking, rip-roaring action-comedy. The fact De Niro could handle the action is no surprise, but he was surprisingly adept at the comedy, though getting to work off Charles Grodin helped. This is one of the best action comedies ever and a true classic.
Many consider “Goodfellas” the best gangster movie. Hell, it’s an all-time favorite of a lot of movie fans full stop. While it didn’t win Best Picture, way more people are watching “Goodfellas” these days than “Dancing with Wolves.” Joe Pesci walks away with every scene he’s in, but De Niro is a vital part of the movie, and he definitely has his iconic moments as well. He stands out a little bit. A little bit.
“Cape Fear” is a remake, but people these days don’t really remember the original. That’s impressive, given that it starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. De Niro steps into the Mitchum role as Max Cady, a sinister criminal who gets out of prison and sets out to destroy the life of lawyer Nick Nolte. We can still hear De Niro’s drawling “Counselor,” and his look has inspired many a villain (and also a few wrestling characters).
You know, it seems like De Niro and Scorsese like to work together. This is one of many films the two worked on together that are on this list. In fact, it’s the third Scorsese film in a row here. That speaks to the skills of both actor and director. “Casino” is maybe a little overstuffed, but De Niro is top notch once again in the starring role.
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. They are arguably the two most beloved actors of their generation. They have been venerated and feted time and time again. And yet, they never really worked together. Even in “The Godfather Part II” their stories were separate and never interacted. In “Heat,” a slick Michael Mann crime thriller, the two worked together and shared one scene together, and cinema fans of a certain vintage lost their minds. That ensured this movie would be remembered.
Like we said, not every memorable role is from a good movie. “The Fan” is supremely flawed. That a bit surprising, given the run that De Niro had been on. And yet, this thriller about an obsessed baseball fan just doesn’t entirely work. De Niro is appropriately menacing, and the movie got a lot of attention when it came out. We definitely have a strong memory of “The Fan,” which is why the movie, and De Niro’s performance, makes this list.
“Jackie Brown” remains an underrated gem in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. It served as a fine revitalizing role for the careers of Pam Grier and Robert Forster, who actors who deserved it and shined. De Niro’s part is a supporting role, and he has to act alongside Samuel L. Jackson’s bold hair choices, but we definitely remember Louis, in part because we can hear Bridget Fonda’s character razzing him in that parking lot to this day.
If you like car chases and “B” action movies, “Ronin” is a fine option. That’s helps give this film a bit of a longer shelf life than expected. The poster has one name, and one face, on it, and that’s De Niro’s. If you remember this movie, you remember De Niro being in it, and lots of people definitely remember it in this streaming era.
After years of making serious gangster flicks, De Niro flipped the script on his persona to make a comedy. “Analyze This” pairs De Niro as a mobster with Billy Crystal as a therapist, and the film was successful enough to yield a sequel, “Analyze That.” While we like the first one, they probably should have just left it at that.
Having successfully dipped his toe into broader comedy, De Niro decided to go all in. People loved “Meet the Parents.” We have to admit that. There are some funny jokes. However, for a moment there De Niro as the gruff dad became part of the zeitgeist. “Meet the Parents” spawned two sequels with more of the same schtick, but a heavier reliance on the last name “Focker.”
This movie is a true disaster. It flopped critically and commercially. And yet, the movie somehow got De Niro to show up as Fearless Leader, the boss of Boris and Natasha. That was so baffling it became memorable.
“Shark Tale” was a success at the box office, but it’s mostly remembered as an oddity. It’s the only animated film on this list because it is harder to be memorable when you are just voiced. However, when you have De Niro’s voice, and you are lending it to a shark that is a mob boss, people remember it. Scorsese also has a voiceover role in “Shark Tale,” naturally.
“Limitless” is a profoundly goofy movie about a pill that lets you use “more of your brain” to become smarter. It’s also pretty fun, all things considered if you are looking for that particular kind of film. Bradley Cooper is the brain-pill user, but the antagonist of the film is De Niro. We have De Niro saying “I want that pill” etched in our brains, though a lot of that is because of Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins on the “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast.
It’s another Cooper and De Niro pairing, this time with De Niro playing Cooper’s football-loving, gambling-addicted father. David O. Russell’s film was a bit of a coming-out party for Jennifer Lawrence, but it’s critical acclaim and awards love definitely got eyes on De Niro in this movie. He’s gone on to appear in a couple more of Russell’s movies, which also features Lawrence and Cooper as well.
Since the turn of the millennium, De Niro has made a lot of bad comedies. Many of them are totally forgettable. For whatever reason, “Dirty Grandpa” sticks out. Well, we know the reason. The reason is that it’s called “Dirty Grandpa” and is a raunchy comedy starring De Niro. It’s not good, but for better or worse we definitely remember it.
We don’t want to wade into the mire that is the “Joker” conversation. Let’s just say it owes a huge debt to “The King of Comedy.” Given that, it’s not a surprise that De Niro was cast in the film. He basically steps into the Jerry Lewis role, as De Niro plays the longtime host of a popular late-night talk show that Joker has long loved. The two eventually cross paths and, well, it doesn’t go great. For the character, and for the special effects department of “Joker.”
We begin and end with Scorsese films. In “Mean Streets,” De Niro is full of energy and chaos. He’s young and vibrant. “The Irishman” is all about aging and loss. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a man who gets involved in the mob life, and also in the life of Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa is played by Pacino, marking another reunion between those two (and Pacino’s first film for Scorsese). There are some issues when it comes to De Niro and company playing younger versions of themselves, but honestly, this is one of De Niro’s best acting performances nevertheless.