Probably the most mythologised actor of his generation, ROBERT DE NIRO has in recent years stepped up his creative output and broken his notorious silence to the press. With the release of Guilty By Suspicion, in which he plays a Hollywood director whose career falls foul of the anti-communist witchhunts of the 19505, he lets Kevin Bourke in on the joyous successes of his own career.

Robert De Niro play: Hollywood director David Merrill hauled up in front at the WAC in Guilty By Suspicion

he most exciting young American actor on the scene, the one with the greatest potential to combine superstardom with extraordinary creative ability,‘ ran Newsweek as far back as 1977. ‘De Niro is the heir apparent to the post of American Cultural Symbol once occupied by Marlon Brando and the late James Dean. Like Brando and Dean, De Niro seems to embody the conflicting, questing energies of his generation.’

Fourteen years on, there’s still little to quibble with in such an assessment, even if the actor who celebrates his 47th birthday in August could barely be classified as ‘young’ these days. Still, with Jack Nicholson a

practising self-parodist and Dustin Hoffman

intent on brilliant but self-serving fussiness, De Niro sometimes seems the only serious actor who truly matters. Costner and Cruise might command fatter fees and higher profiles, but De Niro is the one male lead whose work almost unfailingly illuminates the most important films of his era.

‘The qualities of an actor must be those which Faulkner said were those of a writer,’ De Niro is on record as saying. ‘Experience, observation, imagination.’ The New York-born actor has certainly demonstrated the experience to choose material ofthe utmost challenge. Witness the barely contained psychosis of those early roles for Scorsese as the half-crazed Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver’s disturbed cabbie Travis Bickle.

He’s specialised too in observation: the ability to inhabit roles as diverse as the tragic powerhouse champ Jake La Motta in Raging Bullor Sicilian immigrant Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part2 (an Oscar statuette his reward in both cases).

And his imagination has always challenged the audience. It’s hard to think ofanyone else who could have brought to King Of Comedy’s deluded chump Rupert Pupkin such a daring array of irritating mannerisms, yet still inscribe the character with an essential sympathy. Take it all into account and it’s little wonder Scorsese called him ‘Mr Perfection’.

Inevitably, ‘the greatest screen actor ofhis generation’ is smaller than you expect, but it turns out that almost everything else you thought you knew about Robert De Niro is a bit offthe mark as well.

His well known reluctance to talk to the press? Here he is, dead on time, to talk about his starring role in his friend Irwin Winkler’s Guilty By Suspicion. If, over the next 45 minutes, he is less than gushing and his sentences have a habit of petering out into an eloquent shrug, that seems more due to diffidence than anything devious.

So, what ofthe fabled intensity? De Niro obviously takes his work seriously, but sees it as a job more or less like any other.

‘From a very practical point ofview, for the twelve years since The Deer Hunter, I’ve always been able to work,’ he calmly offers. ‘Very few actors or directors actually work and most of them are very happy to have the chance. To do what you feel, do what you are lucky enough to get well paid for, and maybe even experiment what more could you ask for?

‘I spent a lot oftime not doing anything,