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In director Tony Goldwyn’s highly anticipated comedy-drama Ezra, actor Robert De Niro stars as the father of a standup comedian (Bobby Canavale) who’s pursuing his career while doing his best to co-parent his 11-year-old autistic son with ex-wife Rose Byrne.

With its superb ensemble cast (Rainn Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg and Goldwyn besides the aforementioned De Niro, Canavale and Byrne), Ezra is a homage to the disappearing notion of a traditional American family dynamic overlaid with an upfront portrayal of autism, which is still gaining mainstream attention and understanding. The film has drawn strong reviews, and its official trailer is both compelling and funny, no surprise given the talent involved in the production.


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In sum, it appears Ezra may be yet another feather in De Niro’s already heavily adorned acting cap. Since making his uncredited debut in 1965’s Three Rooms in Manhattan, he’s gone on to accrue more than 130 acting credits, including two Academy Awards and seven additional Oscar nominations. But while movie lovers may best remember him for playing gangsters in movies like The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon, they’re really just a sub-section of his entire body of work.

Here’s our pick of De Niro’s ten best non-gangster roles in a nearly 60-year career. There are, of course, a great many movies to choose from. How would your own list compare?


Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

This drama is an early example of what a one-man acting tour de force De Niro would become. Cast as Bruce Pearson, a Major League baseball player of meager talent and intelligence, he forges an unlikely friendship with his team’s popular new star Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) after being given a diagnosis of terminal Hodgkin’s disease. De Niro’s illness, and how he comes to terms with it, is the story’s backbone. Trying to hide his death sentence, he embarks on the goal of having a memorable final season.



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Taxi Driver (1976)

Perhaps De Niro’s most memorable role, his depiction of insomniac cabbie Travis Bickle earned him his first nomination for a Best Actor Academy Award. Bickle is a loner who descends into psychosis after he becomes a New York City taxi driver, working at night because he simply can’t sleep. Along the way, he befriends a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jody Foster. This psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorcese dives deep into a disturbed man’s obsessions and violent fantasies, and ultimately, his volatile actions.






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The Deer Hunter (1978)

De Niro’s second Best Actor nomination came for playing Mike, one of three Pennsylvania steel worker friends who suffer through the horrors of serving in the Vietnam War and then trying to adapt to life again once they return home. As he returns to Southeast Asia searching for the friend who was left behind (Steve played by Christopher Walken), De Niro and Walken deliver performances that are simultaneously heartbreaking, intricate and scary. Made just five years after the United States ended its military involvement in the controversial conflict, this film was years ahead of its time.



Raging Bull (1980)

Another Scorsese film, this is the biopic that won De Niro his only Best Actor Oscar to date (His win for The Godfather Part II was for Best Supporting Actor). In it he plays Jake LaMotta, an up and coming professional boxer who is on his way to a title shot when the complications of falling in love, and attempts by the Mafia to influence him, expose his inability to connect with or express his feelings. It all serves as a catalyst for LaMotta’s decline from a life that once looked so promising to one consumed by anger, regret and paranoia.



Awakenings (1990)

Proving once again that perhaps nobody is better at the portrayal of a complicated human mind, De Niro stars as Leonard, a patient of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, played by Robin Williams. Based on a true story, this film casts De Niro as one of a number of patients woken from long-standing catatonic states after being dosed with L-DOPA in the 1960s. In what is akin to a second birth, a revived Leonard goes through the trials and tribulations of life and love as his newfound consciousness becomes sadly short-lived. His work earned him yet another Best Actor nomination.



Cape Fear (1991)

There are few lines more chilling in movie history that De Niro’s “Come out, come out wherever you are” as he stalks the target of his obsession. In this remake of a 1962 movie by the same name, he plays violent rapist Max Cady who decides to torment a prosecutor (Nick Nolte) that put him in prison for 14 years. During his incarceration, De Niro remakes himself into a more informed and dangerous version of his former self. His thirst for vengeance knows no bounds as he goes after those closest to the lawyer, including his teen-aged daughter, played by Juliette Lewis, whose performance got her nominated for Best Supporting Actress. De Niro matched her scene for scene, earning his own nomination for Best Actor.






This Boy’s Life (1993)

Although this movie is a vehicle for a young Leonardo DiCaprio starring as a rebellious teen coming of age in the 1950s, De Niro is typically stellar as his abusive stepfather. It marks of several collaborations in which the two stars appear together. Terrifying as De Niro’s character can be, his violent and demeaning ways have an unintended silver lining and force DiCaprio and his mother (Ellen Barkin) to confront his abuse and seek a new life.



Meet the Parents (2000)

Showing his substantial funny side, De Niro delighted audiences by playing a CIA operative and father of a young woman dating an earnest male nurse named Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), who meets her parents for the first time. Not wanting his child to marry someone who doesn’t meet his lofty standards, the rigid, hyper-judgmental De Niro works to break the couple apart. In the process, his entreaties to Greg to expand the principles of milking animals to unlikely species would become a classic viral scene.

Meet the Parents spawned multiple sequels, also starring De Niro.


Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

A down-on-his-luck man (Bradley Cooper) with bi-polar disorder moves back in with his parents (De Niro and Jacki Weaver). Hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife, he instead forges a relationship with a young, unpredictable widow (Jennifer Lawrence) and gets closer to his family in the process. Di Niro is sweet and funny as Pat Solitano Sr., dispensing advice and loving the NFL Philadelphia Eagles in helping to restore his screen son’s happiness. His performance in this romantic comedy was enough to garner his sixth Best Supporting Actor nod.



The Intern (2015)

A guilty pleasure much more than a cinematic triumph, this movie shows that Robert De Niro still has the easy ability to dominate the screen and entertain even with a role that doesn’t give him a lot to do. As Ben, he’s a retiree who decides not to sit around and let life dwindle away once his wife dies. Instead, he goes back to work as an intern for a harried fashion executive (Anne Hathaway) who’s trying–and failing–to balance her burgeoning career and family responsibilities. Along the way, De Niro not only learns a few new tricks and reinvigorates his life, but improves the lives of just about everyone around him with his experience and positive energy. It’s sweet and funny, but not too much of either, making for a very pleasant way to spend two hours.




About the Author:

Born on the East Coast but currently residing on the West Coast, Andrew Martin has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines, blogs and other mediums but most fondly remembers his Master’s thesis exploring the impact of the Boston Red Sox on social identity in New England. He enjoys writing about history, sports, culture and investing. Andrew and recently published his first book–Baseball’s Greatest Players: 10 Baseball Biographies for New Readers, a children’s book about baseball history.

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