Before he ascended to his rightful place at the top of American cinema, Robert De Niro hawked cars in a television commercial.
This 30-second spot for the 1970 AMC Ambassador is an unearthed gem. In it, De Niro portrays a young man made good, a college graduate showing off his new wheels to family and friends on the streets of New York.
The commercial jams so many caricatures of Italian Americans into such a short period of time, in fact, it could have been filmed during downtime on the set of Godfather II.
De Niro, of course, wouldn't star in a breakthrough role in that movie for another four years. Which begs the question, did his role in this commercial help launch an epic career that, among other prominent roles, has included playing mob bosses, mob associates and small-time hoodlums in Italian neighborhoods?
You could make that argument. And we will:
His first gangster role came one year after the Ambassador commercial in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," which was followed in 1973's "Mean Street," the movie that first matched him with director Martin Scorsese.
At the very least, the commercial could mark the first time he played a role that prominently featured Little Italy as the backdrop on screen.
Within a decade's time of the AMC commercial, De Niro had become the best actor in America, starring in Taxi Driver (1976), Deer Hunter (1978) and Raging Bull (1980). The Ambassador didn't fare as well. In 1973, American Motors brought the largest Ambassador in its four-decade history to the market, just as the first oil shockwaves of the '70s forced American car buyers toward smaller cars. The last Ambassador rolled off the assembly line in 1974.