That finger-wagging, slightly menacing compliment the actor paid to his skittish psychiatrist in the mob comedy "Analyze This" was echoed by The American Film Institute as it honored De Niro with its 31st Life Achievement Award.
The 59-year-old star of "Taxi Driver" and "GoodFellas" accepted the honor Thursday evening at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, site of the annual Academy Awards.
"I don't want to take anything for granted and I'm glad I have this opportunity to let you know how honored I am to work with you and be included in this wonderful tradition," De Niro said, halting frequently during his speech. "I know I'm getting sentimental, but that's what this is all about."
Many of his colleagues — from Jodie Foster, who was only 12 when she played a prostitute in "Taxi Driver," to filmmaker Martin Scorsese — described him as an intensely quiet man who has remained humble and generous.
James Woods, who starred opposite De Niro in director Sergio Leone's 1984 crime epic "Once Upon a Time in America," said the actor suggested Woods wear a set of perfect, bright white teeth to demonstrate the aging character's wealth and vanity. The producers balked at the cost, so De Niro paid for them himself.
"Bob De Niro personally paid so that I could have something that would make my character just a little bit better," Woods told the crowd. "I went up to him and said, 'Bob, why did you do that?' ... He said, 'You know what, if you're not great, I can't be great. So let's all be great together.'"
De Niro won a supporting-actor Oscar in 1975 for playing young gangster Vito Corleone in "The Godfather: Part II" and a best-actor Oscar in 1981 for his portrayal of a broken-down boxer in "Raging Bull."
He's best known for playing men with fiery tempers who try to bury their explosive instincts beneath hardened, controlled facades. He had Oscar nominations for "The Deer Hunter," "Awakenings," "Cape Fear" and "Taxi Driver," in which his disturbed vigilante stares down his own mirror reflection and repeatedly taunts, "You talkin' to me?"
But in recent years, he's softened his image with comedic roles in "Meet the Parents" and "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle." In "Analyze This" and the sequel, "Analyze That," he played an emotionally damaged gangster in therapy, opposite Billy Crystal.
The evening's praise came with some mockery. Woods described "Rocky & Bullwinkle" as an "alimony movie" and AFI screened some of De Niro's less artistic works: a decades-old car commercial and his bit part as a pot-smoking cabbie in 1971's "Jennifer On My Mind."
Last year's AFI honoree was Tom Hanks. Previous winners include Jack Lemmon, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Sidney Poitier and Clint Eastwood.
The De Niro tribute is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. EDT June 23 on USA Network.
By Anthony Breznican