It’s fair to say that the legendary Robert De Niro is best known for his performances in crime movies. It certainly defined his early roles, with him winning his first Oscar for playing a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Another notable early crime role for De Niro was when he played a low-level gangster in Martin Scorsese‘s breakout movie, Mean Streets. It’s his frequent collaborations with Scorsese that have led to many great gangster roles, given he also starred in Goodfellas, Casino, and most recently, The Irishman, among others.
However, it’s not fair to say that De Niro should only be known for his performances where he plays a gangster or some other sort of criminal. He’s an incredibly versatile actor who’s excelled in just about every genre under the sun, as the following films will hopefully demonstrate. They represent some of the best non-crime movie roles the great actor’s had in his 50+ year (and counting) acting career.
Updated on May 25, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
Robert De Niro remains a popular and highly sought-after actor, even now, as he approaches his 80s. 2023 is set to be another big year for the legend of the silver screen, with Killers of the Flower Moon premiering at the Cannes Film Festival before getting a wide release on October 20, 2023. Another 2023 release is About My Father (May 26), which is relevant here, seeing as it’s not a crime film; instead, it’s a comedy starring Sebastian Maniscalco and loosely based on his real-life relationship with his father (who, in the film, is played by De Niro).
15 ‘1900’ (1976)
A gigantic historical epic that runs for over five hours, 1900 tells the story of two childhood friends in Italy who grow apart as they grow older, and butt heads over a variety of things through the early to mid-20th century. Given the runtime – as well as some of its disturbing content – it’s a difficult watch, but it’s not without its merits.
De Niro is great as one of the two main characters, portraying him at various stages of his life. He’s asked to do a great deal throughout 1900, and handles it all admirably, elevating an uneven – yet undoubtedly ambitious – epic film in the process.
14 ‘New York, New York’ (1977)
Right after 1976’s Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro re-teamed to make something very unexpected. The only things New York, New York has in common with their 1976 masterpiece are the New York City setting (obviously) and the jazz-heavy soundtrack.
This is because New York, New York is a musical about a rocky romance between a saxophonist (De Niro) and a young singer (Liza Minnelli). It’s a flawed movie, but certainly an interesting one, further demonstrating De Niro’s ability to slip into various unexpected genres (De Niro also learned to play the saxophone just for the role, in typical method actor fashion).
13 ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997)
Wag the Dog is a comedy that takes a look at the ways a dramatic accusation against the President shakes up an American presidential race in its final weeks. The President takes drastic measures to distract the public from the scandal the accusation causes by hiring a Hollywood producer to stage a fake war, believing that will end up being more dramatic and newsworthy.
In this way, the film kills two birds with one stone, satire-wise: it sends up politics and Hollywood all in one. De Niro plays Conrad Brean, the Hollywood producer, who teams up with Dustin Hoffman‘s spin doctor character, Stanley Motss. The two shine in this darkly comedic movie which has held up surprisingly well, with much of its satire proving shocking relevant, and arguably even prophetic.
12 ‘Hi, Mom!’ (1970)
Before becoming one of the most acclaimed thriller directors of all time, Brian De Palma was known for making very strange low-budget comedies early in his career. He also worked with Robert De Niro shortly before he broke out as an actor, with an early collaboration between the two being the very strange comedy Hi, Mom!
It’s a sequel of sorts to a 1968 film they did together called Greetings, though is overall a stronger movie, following De Niro as he plays a self-proclaimed “adult filmmaker” and engages in some very shady behavior. It’s very dated, and totally of its time, but could be worth a watch for those who like their comedies offbeat, as well as anyone interested in seeing what a young De Palma and De Niro were capable of.
Watch on Tubi
11 ‘Machete’ (2010)
Robert Rodriguez‘s Machete is a throwback to exploitation movies of the past, and as such, is certainly an acquired taste. The titular Machete is shown to go on a brutal rampage of revenge after he’s double-crossed by someone who ordered him to do a hit, with the film essentially being an excuse to show plenty of self-aware sleaze and bloodshed.
Robert De Niro has a small part here, following one of the numerous villainous characters who gets on the wrong side of Machete. He looks like he’s having fun, and it probably didn’t take too long for him to film what’s arguably an extended cameo, so good on him? Maybe? Either way, the film is silly and quite enjoyable for those who know what they’re in for.
10 ‘This Boy’s Life’ (1993)
It’s funny how De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio have gone on to be two of Martin Scorsese’s favorite actors, yet starred in this film together (not a Scorsese picture) some three decades before Killers of the Flower Moon. Rather than being a crime/thriller like that 2023 film, This Boy’s Life is instead a coming-of-age drama.
That being said, it can be pretty hard-hitting and intense at times, given the central conflict of the film is between DiCaprio’s young character and his stern, domineering stepfather, played by De Niro. It’s an effective drama and very well-acted, showing De Niro at the top of his game and helping to establish DiCaprio as a true talent, even from a young age.
Watch on Max
9 ‘Meet the Parents’ (2000)
Meet the Parents might not have been the first comedic movie Robert De Niro starred in, but it might’ve been the first truly broad comedy he featured in. It ended up defining many of the roles he’d end up getting throughout the 2000s (more for worse than for better), but at least this film is pretty good overall.
The plot is exactly what you’d expect, based on the title. Ben Stiller plays a young man who has to meet his girlfriend’s unusual parents for the first time. Hilarity ensues. It spawned two more sequels that weren’t nearly as well-received, but for as blunt and cliché as this original might sound, it still holds up well, and is a good showcase for De Niro’s less serious side as an actor.
8 ‘Awakenings’ (1990)
A drama released the same year as Goodfellas, Awakenings is also notable for having a great performance from Robin Williams. He stars as a neurologist who helps to awaken a group of patients in the 1960s who’d been in a coma for decades as a result of an epidemic between 1915 and 1926.
De Niro plays one of these patients, with the film revolving around his attempts to readjust to a world that’s far different from the one he remembers. It’s an emotional and interesting film, and largely succeeds based on the strong performances of its two lead actors.
Watch on Showtime
7 ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012)
Silver Linings Playbook is a movie that balances comedy, drama, and romance fairly well throughout its two-hour runtime. It centers on a young man (played by Bradley Cooper) who’s trying to get his life back on track after an eight-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, with his father being played by Robert De Niro.
The 2000s hadn’t been the best time to be a De Niro fan, as it was populated by a ton of family comedies and fairly average action movies (plus Scorsese seemed more focused on making movies with his new favorite actor, Leonardo DiCaprio). De Niro’s role in this film was a return to form for the great actor, and even earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars.
Watch on Starz
6 ‘Angel Heart’ (1987)
Combining mystery, religion, and horror into one fascinating cocktail of a movie, Angel Heart is an underappreciated 1980s film that holds up well, 30+ years later. It tells the story of a private detective who’s assigned to a strange case in New Orleans regarding a missing person, but things naturally become more complex as the film goes on.
Despite the private detective protagonist and film noir feel, Angel Heart‘s not really a crime film. It’s more of a psychological thriller/horror movie with a strong mystery element, with much of that coming from De Niro’s character, Louis Cyphre, who sets the main plot in motion. His role in Angel Heart is surprisingly small, but he makes every second count, and emerges as one of the best things about the movie.
5 ‘Stardust’ (2007)
A tongue-in-cheek and very fun fantasy movie about a young man who falls in love with a fallen star (it makes sense in the movie), Stardust is a fairly underrated movie that seems destined to become more and more of a cult movie as the years go on. It’s very The Princess Bride, sure, and admittedly not quite as great, but neither does it feel too much like a rip-off of that 1987 classic.
De Niro’s role in Stardust is limited to just a handful of scenes in its second half, but he makes every minute of screen time count, stealing almost every scene he appears in. He plays Captain Shakespeare, the leader of a gang of pirates who navigate the skies in a flying ship, and looks like he’s having a ton of fun chewing all the scenery around him during his time on-screen.
Watch on Max
4 ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
The Deer Hunter was notable for being one of the first large-scale Hollywood movies to tackle the Vietnam War and depict it as the horrible, destructive, and ultimately unnecessary conflict it was. It does this by highlighting how the war impacts a group of friends through showing their lives before going to Vietnam, their experience fighting in the war, and then what happens once their tour of duty ends.
Robert De Niro plays the lead character, even though it’s arguably Christopher Walken who steals the show in a supporting role that won him an Oscar. Still, De Niro is the one who anchors the film and has the most screen time, and he’s one of the main reasons The Deer Hunter still holds up as an incredibly powerful and hard-to-forget anti-war film.
3 ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)
In what might be the best sports movie of all time, Robert De Niro stars as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. LaMotta’s a skilled boxer who’s shown to be just as violent and aggressive outside the ring as he is inside it. It’s one of the best collaborations between Martin Scorsese and De Niro, and earned the latter his second Oscar, and his first for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
It’s memorably shot in black-and-white, perhaps to best reflect the time period it was set in (1941 through to the early 1960s). It also makes the film look beautiful and striking throughout, and equally powerful is all the acting, especially from De Niro. He somehow humanizes a truly terrible person, making Raging Bull one of the most challenging and rewarding character studies of the 20th century.
Watch on Max
2 ‘The Mission’ (1986)
The Mission might well be De Niro’s most underrated movie and performance. He plays an ex-mercenary in the underappreciated 1986 movie set in the 1750s, and he soon realizes the errors of his lifestyle and undergoes a quest for redemption, finding it at a Jesuit mission that’s being constructed deep in the South American jungle. Things become complicated when colonists object to the mission’s existence, leading the Jesuits and the Guaraní people to fight for the mission’s survival.
It’s a beautifully shot and moving film, with much of the emotional heavy lifting done by Ennio Morricone‘s phenomenal score. De Niro excels without ever overshadowing all the other performances (and other ingredients) that make The Mission so great, making it one of the best religious-themed movies of all time.
1 ‘Brazil’ (1985)
In Brazil, a nightmarish future dystopia is brought to life in a way that’s often very funny, but also sometimes quite disturbing and sad. It follows a low-level bureaucrat whose life is thrown into chaos after he meets a mysterious woman while involved in a case concerning alleged terrorist Harry Tuttle.
De Niro plays Tuttle, and while he’s far from the film’s main character, he’s still an essential part of what makes Brazil such a memorable sci-fi comedy. He perfectly fits into the bizarre and wonderfully surreal world of the film, and like many of his supporting performances, absolutely becomes one of the best parts of any scene he happens to show up in.
NEXT: Actors Who Have Appeared in the Most Martin Scorsese Movies