"The graduates in accounting? They all have jobs. Where does that leave you? Envious of those accountants? I doubt it. They had a choice. Maybe they were passionate about accounting, but I think it's more likely they used reason and logic and common sense to research a career," the two-time Academy Award winner said.
"But you didn't have that choice, did you? You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can't fight it. Just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense."
De Niro, who quit high school to pursue an acting career, was the honoured speaker at the raucous ceremony for 1,200 graduates at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. There were bagpipes, student performances in dance and music and deafening cheers.
The actor's 15-minute speech was peppered with expletives as he warned that many in the audience — future directors, actors, producers, musicians, singers, dancers, choreographers, filmmakers, writers and photographers — faced a lifetime of rejection ahead. But he challenged them to keep going.
"Now that you've made your choice — or, rather, succumbed to it — your path is clear. Not easy but clear. You have to keep working. It's that simple," said De Niro, whose wife, Grace Hightower, also attended the ceremony.
The actor, whose credits include "The Godfather Part II" and "Raging Bull," reminded the crowd that he auditioned seven times for the 1973 film "Bang the Drum Slowly."
"I don't know exactly what they were looking for, but I'm glad I was there when they didn't find it," he said.
De Niro urged the new graduates to adopt as their mantra and battle cry: "Next!"
"You didn't get that part? Next! You'll get the next one or the next one after that," he said, closing his remarks this way: "I know you're going to make it. Break a leg. Next!"
New York University is the largest private university in the United States, with three campuses that grant degrees and 12 sites across the globe where faculty and students can study.
Before De Niro got to the microphone, Diane C. Yu, New York University's deputy president, tried to slip in as many De Niro movie titles as she could in her remarks.
"The mission of the arts is to spark 'Awakenings' in the public that remind us all of our humanity and tames that 'Raging Bull' inside of all of us," she said. "So whether you're motivated by 'Mad Dog and Glory,' you help us find that 'Silver Linings Playbook.'"
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