It takes approximately four minutes for Robert De Niro to make his first Robert De Niro face. You know the one. Forehead crinkled, eyes squeezed shut, corners of his mouth turned down, laughing-grimacing like the visual average of the comedy and tragedy masks. One second he's sitting in his sunny, high-ceilinged Tribeca office, surrounded by hundreds of snapshots of his family and friends (his grandkids, Bill Clinton, Man-freaking-dela), chuckling about a dorky turtleneck he wears in his new movie, Silver Linings Playbook – and the next, you're face to face with Jake LaMotta, with Travis Bickle, with young Vito Corleone. He tries to downplay the myth – "Please, call me Bob," he says. (Sure thing, Mr. De Niro.) But the guy can't help it. He has a way.
At an age when most people would be collecting Social Security checks or cruising Costco for Centrum, the greatest American actor of the past 40 years is working harder than ever. The 69-year-old De Niro has had four movies out this year, and at least four more coming early next. "I won't always be working this hard," he says, taking a sip from a white teacup. "The fact is, you get older and you have less time – so you want to take advantage." Even if that means, say, doing a straight-to-DVD crime drama with 50 Cent? "I do them for different reasons," he says. "Sometimes I like the director or the script. Some are short, maybe I shoot for a week. And sometimes they pay very well."
Silver Linings Playbook, though, was one he was excited about. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, two of Hollywood's hottest stars, and is directed by David O. Russell, fresh off his Oscar nod for The Fighter. De Niro plays Cooper's dad, a Philadelphia bookie with OCD and anger-management issues, whose ambition is to open his own cheesesteak restaurant. It's a role that could have been a chance to really ham it up, but De Niro plays it small, even letting himself get verbally thrashed by Lawrence in one crowd-pleasing scene.
He's always been funny (see Midnight Run, Jackie Brown or his interview with Elmo on Sesame Street). But lately, between the Analyze movies and the many iterations of Fockerdom, he's been relishing any chance to mock his tough-guy image. He even has his own favorite De Niro impression: Alec Baldwin's on SNL. "That was the first time I was aware of 'A little bit, a little bit,'" he says, referring to his oft-impersonated GoodFellas line. "The other day I was reading the script for this new movie, and there was a 'little bit' in there. I had to change it."
Mainly, De Niro seems like a man who's loving life. Last night he had dinner at the Italian restaurant he owns (he had a martini and an entree he seems genuinely not to remember; "just say it was the chicken"), went to bed early, woke up around five, worked out, read a little and played with his 10-month-old daughter, Helen Grace. "It's corny to say – but she's like a ray of sunshine. She lights up everything." So is she talking yet? "She's starting to," he says. "A little bit."
This story is from the October 25th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.