The 75 Most Iconic Robert De Niro Roles, Ranked

From ‘Bloody Mama’ to Cat Lady to a whole bunch of Scorsese

August 17, 2018 9:00 am

Happy birthday, Robert De Niro. Yes, we are talkin’ to you.

While the two-time Academy Award-winning actor (and producer, director, activist, restaurateur) might be in a bit of a creative rut at the moment (raise a hand if you saw The Comedian), his film legacy is long since secured.

Just how secure? In honor of his 75th year on this earth, we decided to rank the man’s 75 most memorable roles.

Some iconic. Some surprising (his comedic turns on TV earn their own category). Even a few so-really-bad-they’re-good moments.

Tier 9: “I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey…”

Because even a bad film with Robert De Niro is still a film with Robert De Niro.

75. The Pope, Heist (2015)
74. Hunter, Killer Elite (2011)
73. Jack, Stone (2010)
72. Ben, What Just Happened (2008)
71. Lloyd Barker, Bloody Mama (1970)

Tier 8: Movies That Are Not Heat

70. Mario, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)
Or, what happens when De Niro replaces Pacino in a role.

69. Turk, Righteous Kill (2008)
Or, what happens when De Niro and Pacino need a paycheck.

Tier 7: Sure, Bobby, Whatever Role You Want

68. Fearless Leader, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000)

67. Captain Shakespeare, Stardust (2007)
Don’t think Bobby D. can pull off “flamboyant space pirate,” huh? Think again!

66. Alfredo Berlinghieri, 1900 (1976)
We’ve never actually even seen this film, but do know there is an undeniable thespianic bravery that goes into being simultaneously jacked off on camera alongside Gerard Depardieu. We’re not gonna tell you where to find said scene, but Google will.

65. Archbishop of Peru, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)
64. Creature/Sharp Featured Man, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

63. Jon Rubin, Hi, Mom! (1970)
“Be Black, Baby.” Vibrator shopping, peeping toms, orgies, early Brian de Palma attempting cinema verite … De Niro might be the least interesting part of this.

Tier 6: Won’t be mentioned in an obit, but …

62. Dick Kelly, Dirty Grandpa (2016)
61. Walt Koontz, Flawless (1999)
60. Rudy, Joy (2015)
59. Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, Grudge Match (2013)
58. Victor Tellegio, American Hustle (2013)
57. Paddy Connors, Last Vegas (2013)
56. Fred Blake / Giovanni Manzoni, The Family (2013)

55. Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies (2017)
This was a grating, open wound of a role, and the most recent display of De Niro’s startling range. Even with 100+ different credits to his name, the man can still pare acting down to its most fundamental: make the audience believe it. Scenes where he coolly convinces unwitting investors they’ve struck gold (as they jump from $100 to $250 to $400M and seal their future financial ruin) are as affective as they are chilling.

54. Senator McLaughlin, Machete (2010)
53. Bill Sullivan, The Good Shepherd (2006)
52. Richard Wells, Godsend (2004)
51. Paul Vitti, Analyze That (2002)
50. Vincent LaMarca, City by the Sea (2002)
49. Det. Mitch Preston, Showtime (2002)
48. Nick Wells, The Score (2001)

47. Ben, The Intern (2015)
De Niro plays a seventy-something widower with a disarming closed-mouth grin, a blue-collar work ethic and a desire to get back into the world. He earns an internship at Anne Hathaway’s fashion-forward digital shopping agency (based in a very different Brooklyn than what De Niro’s character once knew) and naturally, 9-5 hijinks ensue. The film does a good job of tackling the baby boomer/millennial generation gap, highlighted by late dinners at the office with warm soda and Chinese food. (De Niro’s character refuses to leave until the boss leaves.) This might be the perfect watch-it-on-a-plane movie.

46. Prisoner/Lustig, Great Expectations (1998)
45. Father Bobby, Sleepers (1996)
44. Ned, We’re No Angels (1989)
43. Harry Fabian, Night and the City (1992)
42. Donald Rimgale, Backdraft (1991)

41. Gil Renard, The Fan (1996)
Underrated gem from director Tony Scott that finally got De Niro back to the creepy unhinged stalker roots of his Taxi Driver day

40. Wayne ‘Mad Dog’ Dobie, Mad Dog and Glory (1993)
39. Stanley Cox, Stanley & Iris (1990)
38. Megs, Jacknife (1989)
37. Frank Raftis, Falling in Love (1984)
36. Father Des Spellacy, True Confessions (1981)

35. Jimmy Doyle,
New York, New York (1977)
The song “New York, New York”? Kander and Ebb didn’t write it for Sinatra, they wrote it for Liza Minnelli (in the film, saxophonist Doyle writes it for Minnelli’s character, a singer). But the real-life De Niro is the reason the song ever got written in the first place.

34. Bruce Pearson, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Tier 5: He’s pretty good on the small screen, too

33. Joey the CPA, AMC Ambassador ad (1970)
“Hey mama, it didn’t cost so much!”

32. Himself, American Express “My Life, My Card” ad (2005)
This Scorsese-directed, Philip Glass-scored and De Niro-narrated love letter to post-9/11 New York City would be an evocative piece of short-form cinema … if it weren’t shilling for a credit-card company. But it is, so any praise for the spot has to be couched with the fact that it’s exploiting the darkest moment in modern American history for commercial gain.

31. Himself, Tribeca Film Festival ad (date unknown)
Or,  “How to Piss Off Robert De Niro in 30 Seconds or Less.”

30. Pilgrim, NYC Tourism Ad during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (2001)

29. Himself, “Mean Tweets” on Jimmy Kimmel Live (2017)

28. Himself, Trump Takedown (2016)
A masterclass in merciless, no-nonsense invective straight from the hip. There is no insult more cutting than being called a “mutt” by Robert De Niro.

27. The Cat Lady, Saturday Night Live (2004)
Bobby plays a deadpan, aggro cat lady complete with stuffed bra, live cats and no other humans. It’s only two minutes and he almost breaks a few times, which makes it funnier.

26. Robert Mueller, Saturday Night Live (2018)
Who better to play a long-faced, tastefully coiffed, bushy browed, Trump-averse New Yorker … than a long-faced, tastefully coiffed, bushy browed, Trump-averse New Yorker. Ben Stiller’s equally convincing portrayal of Michael Cohen puts this Meet the Parents sendup over the top.

Tier 4: They’re Somebody’s Favorite De Niro Film

25. Paul Vitti, Analyze This (1999)
24. Leonard Lowe, Awakenings (1990)

23. Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy (1982)
Via IMDB: “Robert De Niro used anti-Semitic remarks to anger Jerry Lewis while filming the scene where Rupert Pupkin crashes Jerry Langford’s country home. Lewis, who had never worked with method actors, was shocked and appalled, but delivered an extremely credible performance.” Damn.

22. Jack Walsh, Midnight Run (1988)
21. Al Capone, The Untouchables (1987)

20. Don Lino, Shark Tale (2004)
The best early 2000s marine life animated movie. Yeah, we said it. And it’s mostly thanks to De Niro’s voiceover for “dead-serious” Don Lino, a Great White mob boss who wants his vegetarian son Lenny to take over the family business.

19. Louis Cyphre, Angel Heart (1987)
18. Rodrigo Mendoza, The Mission (1986)
17. Harry Tuttle, Brazil (1985)
16. Noodles, Once Upon a Time In America (1984)
15. Michael, The Deer Hunter (1978)
14. Sam, Ronin (1998)
13. Lorenzo, A Bronx Tale (1990)

Tier 3: “I know you don’t want to listen to your father, I didn’t listen to mine, and I am telling you: you gotta pay attention this time.”

12. Jack Byrnes, Meet the Parents (2000)
A mere 24 years after Travis Bickle played god with the political machine of the United States in a performance of misplaced rage, De Niro played Jack Byrnes, the upper-crust ex-CIA officer and father to two daughters, flexing his patriarchy upon a subject he sees as inferior (Gaylord Focker, portrayed by Ben Stiller). It was actually De Niro’s growing acclaim as a comedy actor via projects like Rocky and Bullwinkle that led to his consideration for the role of Jack Byrnes. Memorable quote: “I have nipples Greg, could you milk me?” So relatable, they made two more.

11. Pat Solitano, Sr., Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Unhinged dad who is also cursed, broke, befuddled and ridiculously superstitious. Before the Philly Special, De Niro really captured what we thought it was like to be an Eagles fan.

10. Dwight, This Boy’s Life (1993)
The only time De Niro and DiCaprio have ever chewed scenery together, and it’s terrific: it is flat out impossible not to root for young DiCaprio in his quest to free himself from De Niro’s abusive, small-minded sh*tbag of a stepdad.

Tier 2: “Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.”

9. Louis Gara, Jackie Brown (1997)
In Tarantino’s heist(ish) film, De Niro plays an ex-con with a killer ‘stache, a typically unpredictable sociopath who terrifies you in his ability to remain calm even when killing a person. This role deviates from the De Niro formula in the sense that he’s also a bit of an idiot and not really accustomed to what life is like on the outside. He’s also half of a great criminal buddy duo, with Samuel L. Jackson sporting a chin-hair braid.

8. Vito Corleone, The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Fun fact: De Niro and Marlon Brando are the only two actors to ever earn separate Oscars for playing the same character, that of the titular Corleone patriarch — a role for which young Bobby D. prepared by living in Sicily and learning the dialect firsthand. His quiet, pensive turn not only anchors the film, but retroactively imbues his predecessor’s weighty performance with an even greater degree of depth. Big shoes, and he filled ‘em with aplomb. Not too shabby for a guy who auditioned to be Sonny in the original and didn’t land the part.

7. Neil McCauley, Heat (1995)
Everybody was waiting for it, and when it came, it was every bit as good as we hoped it would be.

6. Sam Rothstein, Casino (1995)
You think you’ve seen De Niro at his ballsiest? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen him running a Vegas casino in his underwear and matching candied-teal shirt, tie and shoes — only deining to put on slacks and a jacket in order to dress down a smug, cowboy-wannabe county commissioner who, he knows deep down, will bury him. Clothe anyone else in head-to-toe pastel, pit them against Oscar-nominated Sharon Stone and peak-mouth-frothing Joe Pesci for three full hours, and you’d need a body bag. But De Niro doesn’t break a sweat.

5. Max Cady, Cape Fear (1991)
“With the power vested in me by the kingdom of God, I sentence you to the Ninth Circle of Hell!” When you find yourself rooting for the antagonist/rapist/stalker/kidnapper, you’ve hit peak acting. Scorsese’s over-the-top remake of the 1962 crime thriller wasn’t necessary, but it sure was fun … and De Niro was having a blast (kudos as well to Juliette Lewis and her thumb, and the Sideshow Bob’s pitch-perfect homage).

4. John “Johnny Boy” Civello, Mean Streets (1973)
Before Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, there was Mean Streets, De Niro’s first collaboration with Martin Scorsese. A foreshadowing of Scorsese’s future as the bard of East Coast criminals and De Niro’s as the quintessential New York ballbuster.

3. Jimmy “the Gent” Conway, Goodfellas (1990)
A truck hijacker by day and a ruthless, greedy thug by nature, Irish goon Jimmy Conway has little chance of rising ranks beyond his status as a mid-level goon, but that doesn’t phase him — partly because he’s not bright enough to figure out how to do anything but steal what he wants. The uber-confident performance from De Niro hammers home that it’s Jimmy’s own commitment to never being a rat that ends up shooting his life in the foot; the film ends with him in prison, testified against by the man closest to him.

Tier 1: The Ones Where He Talks to Himself in the Mirror

Unsurprisingly, the man is at his best when he’s adjacent the best: himself.

2. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)
Shot in 1975, De Niro’s Travis Bickle is the decaying human embodiment of the corrupt ‘70s New York he keeps in motion behind the wheel of his yellow cab. But he can only co-sign the ugliness he sees in the rearview mirror for so long before coming unhinged, and an early 30s De Niro gives a paralyzing portrayal of a deranged vigilante, his embittered ego clashing with the stinking, greasy power dynamics of the day. 

De Niro as Bickle ultimately sheds blood, although not from whom he’d planned. Rather, in a grim twist, he’s lauded by society for murdering the “right” people. And that is what he wants after all, isn’t it: acceptance? Bickle is not a man standing protest against the illicit dealings of the powerful, he’s a man rebuffed, bristling that he hasn’t made this way of life work for him. If Rambo is the traumatized Vietnam vet evading the hawkish patrol of a small country town, Bickle is his urban predecessor, a diseased mind in a rotting heap of diseased minds (there was a garbage strike and heat wave during filming), prodding desperately for a tear to let in fresh air. But it only exposes more garbage.

1. Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull (1980)
What makes De Niro an iconic actor is undoubtedly his range. He has, at times, embodied damn near every personality type and demeanor the old Myers-Briggs matrix could dream up: bad guys, good guys, funny guys, sad guys, poor guys, rich guys, sons, fathers, fathers-in-law, cops, criminals … you name it. But his best roles are the ones that inhabit some grey area in between all the above: emotionally complex anti-heroes from hardscrabble backgrounds to whom De Niro lends a genuine sense of humanity.

Never has this been truer than in his portrayal of former middleweight world champion LaMotta, himself a titan of America’s pop-culture consciousness. De Niro underwent multiple physical transformations for the role, performing 600 crunches a day to become the young, svelte, professional-athlete LaMotta before literally halting production to put on an astonishing 60 lbs. for the old, rotund, amateur-comedian LaMotta who inhabits the film’s first and last scenes. The gulf that a then-36-year-old De Niro managed to carve out between the two characters — not just in terms of physique, but also their apparent age, countenance, cadence, demeanor — is nothing short of a miracle.

And the hard work paid off: De Niro swept Best Actor at all the major American award shows, thanks in no small part to the pair of tense, wry, self-aware monologues that bookend the film.

Additional reporting by Tanner Garrity, Alex Lauer, Walker Loetscher, Athena Wisotsky, Danny Agnew and Eli London.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.