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“When I read the script, I really felt that it was something I had to make,” Director Martin Scorsese said of Taxi Driver.
However, the young director didn’t have much of a track record at the time, and it wasn’t until he finished 1973’s Mean Streets that the idea of Scorsese and De Niro made sense to his backers.
Of course, even then, no one could have imagined the impact that the modern classic would have had.
1. Big names were considered.
The cast wasn't set in stone, and big Hollywood names came up. Rock Hudson turned down the role of Senator Palantine. For the role of Iris, Kim Basinger and Linda Blair were considered, Carrie Fisher, Bo Derek, and Michelle Pfeiffer auditioned, and Melanie Griffith turned it down. For the titular role, Dustin Hoffman and Jeff Bridges were both approached but passed on the opportunity. Bridges later said, “[T]here is no way of knowing if the film you turn down would have been as big if you had been in it. The other guy maybe brought something to the part that was just right.”
2. De Niro was dedicated.
Robert De Niro got a cab driver’s license and actually drove a real cab in New York to prepare for the role. Peter Boyle was impressed with his co-star and remembered, “And then I said [to myself], ‘I’m gonna get a cab driver’s license and do the same thing.’ Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s crazy. I’m not gonna do it.’” De Niro was a method actor during the shoot and stayed in character between takes. Shepherd said, “De Niro was so frightening and so convincing once he started to lose it as that character.”
3. Shepherd was unsure.
For the role of Besty, Director Martin Scorsese was looking for a “Cybill Shepherd” type, when super-agent Sue Mengers suggested just going with the real deal. Shepherd remembered, “When I first read the script, I threw it across the room. I was insulted to be offered such a nothing part.” However, the part expanded as Scorsese added improvised lines from rehearsals into the final film. Shepherd said, “Scorsese was just one of my favorite experiences as an actor.”
4. De Niro didn’t shave his head.
For the crew cut, the team flattened down De Niro’s hair using paste and placed the wig on top. His Mohawk was inspired by Vic Magnotta (one of Palantine’s bodyguards), who remembered some soldiers cutting their hair like that when going “commando”. For this look, De Niro wore a bald cap which was then covered in hair particles and a hair strip. They had to create a new cap each time he took it off.
5. The catchphrase was improvised.
It’s become one of the most quoted lines in film history, but it wasn’t in the script. The scene originally just indicated that De Niro’s character talked to himself in the mirror, but it didn’t give him any lines of dialogue. Scorsese encouraged De Niro to play around with it, and eventually, De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me” came out. The phrase is a fan-favorite, and De Niro is often greeted with it.
6. Foster was only twelve.
Jodie Foster and Scorsese previously worked together on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. When he invited Foster to audition for the role, she remembered, “My mother thought he was crazy.” Still, they trusted the director, and she accepted the role. Foster was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award at the age of 12. Describing his co-star, De Niro said, “[She was] smart and a good person to work with at such a young age too.”
7. Foster had a double.
The Board of Education was concerned that playing a prostitute at the age of 12 could be damaging for Foster. As a result, a psychologist was asked to determine if she was capable of doing the role, some of the scenes were changed, and a stand-in was used for provocative scenes. Foster’s double was none other than her sister, Connie. Foster said, “That makes her laugh now.”
8. Keitel wasn’t supposed to play the pimp.
Scorsese originally wanted Harvey Keitel to play the campaign worker, a part that eventually went to Albert Brooks. Keitel said, “When I read the script, I asked him if I could play the pimp.” However, the part was especially small, only approximately 5 lines, so they worked together to develop it more. Keitel also interviewed a real-life pimp for research, and the two of them created the dance scene between Harvey and Jodie.
9. Real life inspired the beginning and end.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader based the main character on his own intense period of depression and isolation. He said, “[The] metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me as a metaphor for loneliness.” The ending drew inspiration from a national news story. In 1975, Lynette Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford, and afterwards, she made the cover of Newsweek. Schrader said, “In the world of media and fame celebrity, there are no values. So once you’re on the cover, you’re on the cover. It doesn’t matter how you got there.”