Robert De Niro

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Awkward and private, Robert De Niro was never a fan of the talk-show circuit, especially in his prime when he was turning out one indelible performance after another. But he relented for Merv Griffin in 1981, the year he won Best Actor for Raging Bull. De Niro also discuses the next movie he and Martin Scorsese were collaborating on, The King of Comedy.

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The baseball season, which began last week with a pair of games in Japan, gets going in earnest this week. Welcome back.

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Robert De Niro and the “Singing Mammoths” rock out on the set of the Mets’ erstwhile postgame show, Kiner’s Korner, 1972:

Don’t look back, Satchel–something might be gaining on you, 1971:

“I threw the piss out of the ball the last part of the year,” 1981:

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“But seriously, you should’ve seen my mother. She was wonderful. Blonde, beautiful, intelligent, alcoholic. Once they picked her up for speeding. They clocked her doing 55. All right, but in our garage?”

“The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor,” groaned Leonard Cohen not so long ago, decrying the way the powerful could cajole and pacify the masses when communications was in the hands of the few. But that was before the democratization of the media, before everyone had a channel or two hundred, before Survivors, Idols and Snookis. Back when the playing field was still uneven and a lack of discernible talent was considered a detriment, there was a simple man named Rupert Pupkin who dreamed of storming the gates.

Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an obsessed, delusional fan of New York talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), lives in his mother’s basement and ekes out a tiny existence while thinking big. He’s a peasant who sees himself as a king—the king of comedy, to be precise. Rupert hones his stand-up material in his dank apartment during the night, chatting with cardboard cut-outs of Liza and the like and working on his one-liners. He spends the rest of the time with the stalkerish autograph hound, Marcia (Sandra Bernhard), who makes him seem relatively balanced by comparison.

An awkward meeting with Jerry leads Rupert to believe that he will soon be sharing couch space with the legendary host. But it only brings the aspiring comic rejection and humiliation. Desperate, Rupert schemes with Marcia to kidnap Jerry and keep him until he gets his ransom–the chance to do the monologue on Langford’s show. But will his moment in the spotlight transform Rupert’s life or only confirm his failure? After all, democracy guarantees neither greatness nor meritocracy, only opportunity.•

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing for Robert De Niro in Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!"

Travis Bickle wasn’t the first volatile Vietnam veteran that Robert De Niro portrayed. Years before the blistering violence of Taxi Driver, the great actor twice played Jon Rubin, a Peeping Tom/former soldier trying to make his way in a New York City that had gone to seed. De Niro handled the role in a pair of dark comedies for Brian De Palma: 1968′s Greetings, which was largely forgettable, and 1970′s Hi, Mom!, a raucous if scattershot machine gun of a satire that fired at everything from urban decay to the sexual revolution to guerilla theater to Black Power to white liberals.

Rubin, a demolitions expert in Vietnam, is discharged into a crappy, crime-ridden New York during the start of the city’s slide into economic malaise. After renting a rat trap for forty bucks a month from a disgusting landlord (Charles Durning), the peeper tries to parlay his voyeuristic tendencies into a career as an erotic filmmaker. Rubin talks a blowhard porn producer (Allen Garfield) into giving him two grand so that he can record the sexual exploits of his neighbors using a telescopic lens. When the residents across the way turn out to be bores, the auteur tries to spice things up by seducing his comely neighbor Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt). But a camera malfunction messes up the big scene, and the veteran decides to turn his attention to an extreme guerrilla theater company that hopes to expose the Caucasian silent majority to Black Power. The film really takes off at this point, not only mocking the excesses of the theater troupe but sort of sympathizing with them.

“You know, tragedy is a funny thing,” Rubin says at one point, and sometimes it is in this intentionally crude movie that matched the madness of its time and place with a craziness all its own.•

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