If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

“His characters are iconic: A Sicilian father turned New York mobster; a mobster who runs a casino; a mobster who needs therapy; a father-in-law who’s scarier than a mobster; Al Capone, a mobster.”

President Barack Obama, awarding Robert De Niro the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016

My earliest memory of Robert De Niro dates back to seeing his wiseguy image loom large on the VHS cover of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic GoodFellas. It was one of those movies in my parents’ side of our VHS collection that dangled like forbidden fruit, reflecting how its titular characters are seduced into a life of crime. De Niro’s appearance in GoodFellas is a fitting first impression of the actor for a kid falling in love with movies, as it represents most people’s immediate image of him — a towering figure of tough-guy cinema. 

By the time I was old enough to see De Niro’s films and fully appreciate his performances, he was satirizing his screen persona, playing a mafioso falling apart on a therapist’s couch in 1999’s Analyze This and “a father-in-law who’s scarier than a mobster” in 2000’s Meet the Parents. Both films poke fun at the crippling insecurity behind his iconic characters’ intimidation tactics. 

Oddly enough, those films proved to be perfect primers for my eventual viewing of GoodFellas, as his performance in the mob classic shows how tough guys come from a potent mix of humor, vulnerability and insulting behavior. 

In GoodFellas, De Niro plays Irish-American gangster Jimmy Conway, who has an avuncular dynamic with younger mobsters Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Although the film is grand in scale, following Hill’s rise through the Brooklyn mafia from the 1950s to the early ’80s, most of the tension comes from the hair-trigger reactions of this trio. 

GoodFellas establishes the mob world as one where ball-busting can quickly lead to bullets flying. The film opens with the main trio driving deep into the night to dump the body of a mobster whose “made” status couldn’t even protect him from the consequences of cracking wise. 

Later, the film shows the incident that led to the murder of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent). At a bar party, Billy makes the mistake of jokingly referring to Tommy’s past as a shoeshiner. In this scene, De Niro masterfully lays down the rules of wiseguys. When Billy confides in Jimmy about what he perceives as Tommy’s overreaction to his jab, De Niro quietly but firmly says, “Nah, nah, nah, you insulted him a little bit. You got a little out of order yourself.” When Billy dismisses this assertion, De Niro accentuates his “OK” with a sinister smile, foreshadowing the brutality that follows. With this seemingly simple yet loaded interaction, De Niro and Scorsese concisely capture the banality of evil.

The beating that follows is as messy as the preceding exchange is clean. Tommy hits Billy in the mouth with a handgun, and after Billy’s knocked to the floor, Jimmy wildly stomps on his face as if trying to kill a kitchen mouse or put out a fire. “Look what this mutt did to my shoes,” Jimmy grumbles afterward. 

Despite participating in the violence that erupted over a petty quip like “Go home and get your shinebox,” Jimmy later acts surprised when Tommy kills a bartender for telling him off. After the neighborhood bartender Spider (Michael Imperioli) bites back at Tommy, Jimmy encourages the ballbusting and taunts Tommy, asking if he’s going to let Spider get away with it. Of course, Jimmy should know by now that Tommy doesn’t let anyone get away with anything. But he’s taken aback. 

“I’m kidding with you! What are you, a sick maniac? I’m kidding with you, and you shoot the guy?” Jimmy asks in disbelief. 

Within De Niro’s reaction lies the film’s most disturbing truth: No rules make sense in the mob world. By this point in the movie, the main trio has killed a made man. They’ve also created a direct line between kidding and killing. At this point, anything goes. 

With his devastated reaction to Tommy’s deadly temper and eventual demise, De Niro shows his greatest strength as an actor. As Obama said, “While the name De Niro is synonymous with tough guy, his true gift is the sensitivity he brings to each role.” 

In 2000, the United States Library of Congress selected GoodFellas for preservation in the National Film Registry. At that time, just 10 years after the film’s release, De Niro was already parodying characters like Jimmy Conway. Now, some of those comedies are just as beloved as GoodFellas

When De Niro’s at the top of his game, his touch can turn a film into an instant classic. Like his most iconic roles, it’s a touch that’s both tough and tender.