Robert De Niro’s Most Famous Scene Is Totally Improvised

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Updated

robert de niro

In a montage of iconic scenes from film history, obviously, Taxi Driver’s Robert De Niro staring into the mirror and exclaiming: “You talkin’ to me?” has to be included. But many cinema fans don’t know the immortal line of dialogue was wholly improvised. Indeed, De Niro’s longtime collaborator—and ingenious director—Martin Scorsese recently revealed that everybody’s favorite cabbie came up with the line off the top, on the spot. 

The Director Reveals The Truth

robert de niro

Scorsese conveyed this interesting bit of film lore on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Indisputably, the moment showcases De Niro’s exceptional talent and Scorsese’s directorial flexibility, culminating in an unforgettable slice of cinema culture. 

The Famous Scene

robert de niro

We all know the scene in question: Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, rehearses a confrontation (imaginary, for now) in front of a mirror, interrogating his invisible adversary. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to?”

Scorsese Was Under The Gun

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Scorsese fans will be interested to know that the iconic moment of unscripted brilliance occurred in less-than-ideal-ideal conditions. The director shared that, the day of the shoot, production was significantly behind schedule and enduring major challenges. 

Rather than encouraging his work, his producers voiced frustration with the production’s progress and demanded Scorcese achieve results—and fast. To hear the filmmaker tell it, his producers were literally banging on the door outside the apartment they used for principal photography.

But Scorcese, ever the auteur, insisted Robert De Niro stay and tape keep rolling—despite, as the director revealed on Colbert, not even having a video assistant at the time. 

In Spite Of Everything, Taxi Driver Succeeded

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Thankfully for us, Scorsese sensed greatness and pounced, knowing that prolonging the photography, even for a moment, could capture something immortal: and it certainly did. The line and scene both testify to the spontaneous genius that can occur on a film set, especially when the actor is De Niro and the director Scorsese (see their more recent collaboration, The Irishman, on Netflix now).

Released in 1976, Taxi Driver triumphed.

The film earned enormous critical and commercial success, including four Oscar nominations—Best Picture, Best Actor (for Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (for Jodie Foster, who was all of 12 years old when she shot the film), and Best Score.

Taxi Driver’s Legacy

Moroever, the movie’s enormous impact on the art form was further cemented in 2005; then, the American Film Institute ranked the line in question—”You talkin’ to me?”—as number ten on their “100 Years…100 Years of Movie Quotes” list. 

The Story

Written by Paul Schrader (and considered one of the greatest screenplays of all time), Taxi Driver concerns Travis Bickle, a socially alienated, mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran moonlighting as a cabbie in the gritty, squalid, chaotic streets of New York City. 

Robert De Niro’s character, disgusted and appalled by the crime, sleaze, and decadence he witnesses on the city streets, struggles with debilitating insomnia.

The grime and crime of bankrupt NYC only amplify his alienation and paranoia. Meanwhile, Travis pursues a pretty campaign worker, Betsy, only to lose her in no small part due to his deteriorating mental state.

Soon, Travis endeavors to save a preteen prostitute, Iris (portrayed by Foster), from her circumstances and pimp. 

Taxi Driver At Its Core

The masterful film is a violent meditation on the social and psychological turmoil of the post-Vietnam era, featuring one of the best lines of all time, improvised, as we now know, entirely by Robert De Niro. 

Source: The Late Show With Stephen Colbert