On Robert De Niro's 78th birthday, here's looking back at how he improvised one of the most quotable lines in cinema and did it like a 'jazz riff'.
When Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver released 45 years ago, it gave cinephiles around the world a masterpiece that is still regarded as one of the best Hollywood films of all time. As Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro painted a picture of a man who is in the middle of an existential crisis and is struggling to keep his feet in one place. His fury turns him into a misguided hero in people’s eyes when he is actually trying to find an antidote for loneliness in violence.
While Taxi Driver did not end up winning any Oscars that year, it gave Hollywood one of its most quotable lines of all time “You talkin’ to me?” Travis is looking at himself in the mirror as he is mumbling gibberish and practicing pulling a handgun out of his pocket. Staring into his own eyes in the reflection, he says “You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the f**k do you think you’re talking to?” and looks at himself in a way that’s eerily curious.
Robert De Niro deserves full credit for this jaw-dropping performance and not just because of his acting, but also because he came up with the iconic line “You talkin’ to me?” on the spot.
At the film’s 40th anniversary in 2016, Scorsese and De Niro spoke to TODAY and recalled that this line wasn’t even in the script. Scorsese had instructed De Niro to make something up as he looked in the mirror. It was their last week of shooting for Taxi Driver and things were quite “difficult” logistically. To keep the crew members out of their space, they locked the room so De Niro could improvise.
Scorsese recalled, “He kept saying, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it … and the (assistant director) was banging on the door saying, ‘Come on, we got to get out of here.’ And I said, ‘No, this is good, this is good. Give me another minute.’ It was like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.”
Talking about the effect this dialogue has had since the film first released, De Niro said that he had no idea if it was going to be a big highlight of the film even decades later. “You never know with any of that stuff. You just did it.”
Taxi Driver was the second collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro after 1973’s Mean Streets. After Taxi Driver, they continued to work in eight more films – New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, The Audition and most recently Netflix’s The Irishman. The duo is collaborating on Scorsese’s next Killers of the Flower Moon.
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