Robert De Niro on Saturday night became the latest recipient of the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence In Film at a Black Tie gala at Bacara Resort. The award is presented annually by the legendary actor to benefit the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Past recipients include Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, John Travolta, Ed Harris, Kirk’s son Michael Douglas and of course, Kirk himself in the inaugural year.

De Niro is being heavily Oscar-buzzed for his supporting performance in Silver Linings Playbook and director David O. Russell and co-star Bradley Cooper both made the trip north to help honor De Niro along with Douglas of course. SBIFF President Douglas Stone and Executive Director Roger Durling praised the evening’s honoree as well as the legendary star the award is named for. In fact Durling led the crowd (which included several well-known Academy voters from the area including Carol Burnett sitting at SBIFF Chairman Jeffrey Barbakow’s table) in singing a rousing Happy Birthday to Douglas on the eve of his 96th birthday. He called both stars “heroes” and noted Douglas broke the Hollywood Blacklist in 1960 by hiring Dalton Trumbo to adapt Spartacus, and De Niro helped heal New York by bringing business back to NYC in creating the Tribeca Film Festival in the aftermath of 9/11.

Some very well-chosen clips highlighted De Niro’s long career including The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Deer Hunter, Cape Fear and many others plus the current Silver Linings Playbook which could mark the first Oscar nomination in over two decades for the two-time winner. An especially effective sequence was the juxtaposition of two immortal boxing dramas to open the show: Douglas in his Oscar-nominated turn in Champion (1949) and De Niro’s Jake La Motta biopic Raging Bull (1980). As a special birthday gift for Douglas, De Niro at the end of his acceptance speech presented Kirk with an autographed script of that film signed by himself, Joe Pesci and director Martin Scorsese (“Marty was actually going to sell this on ebay,”  he joked ).

Cooper, who has worked with De Niro twice and considers him a mentor, said “You can see so many different people in all those different roles. What is it about him that affects all of us to celebrate this work? It’s one word: ‘family’… He makes you feel like you are a part of his family. I am so happy Bob you invited all of us into your family”.

David O. Russell shared anecdotes of his earliest meetings with De Niro including seeing him at a Starbucks as he was working on The Good Shepherd. “One of the greatest actors, if not the greatest actor of our time was sitting in a Starbucks, a small, bearded Rabbi-looking man in a hat, and nobody noticed him. As I joined him at his table he couldn’t conceal the joy gleaming in his eyes. The joy at disappearing  into a character. As Picasso said it takes a long time to become young. Inside the accomplished artist of Robert De Niro is a very young, gleeful person very close to the spirits of children who play with fierceness, intensity, passion and committment,”  Russell said.

Douglas, bounding to the stage, told the crowd he had decided after presenting to his son Michael last year that he would no longer present the award, but a few weeks ago he got a call saying De Niro had agreed to accept. “I said, ‘wonderful. Who is going to present?’ They said ‘you’ . I said ‘Me? You talking to me? (laughs). When I first saw Robert in Taxi Driver I was a fan for life. He always wanted to be an actor and studied with Lee Strasberg and worked with actors portraying characters. But Robert De Niro never portrays a character. He becomes the character,” he said in bringing De Niro up to the stage to accept his award.

De Niro, noting he has received many awards (“mostly from foreign countries. I think this is an example that maybe my acting is best appreciated by reading subtitles”, he laughed) but said he was pleased to get this from Kirk and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. “I run a festival myself in New York  and I know how difficult it can be… I should be giving you this award Kirk. I have admired you my entire career, not just as an actor or producer but for your entire life as a philanthropist, good will ambassador, best-selling author and as a moral man of the world… If there ever is a Robert De Niro award, not just for excellence in film but as a human being the first recipient will be Kirk Douglas, ” he said to much applause.

Words from one screen legend to another.