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UPDATED 08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

>Cabbies in the Movies

HOLLYWOOD'S CHECKERED PAST

ROBERT DE NIRO'S TURN IN TAXI Driver may have made cabs as darkly forbidding as Psycho made motel showers. Except to actors, that is, who always relish the chance to climb inside and take the wheel. This week, Conspiracy Theory moviegoers can flag down cabbie Mel Gibson, who joins Bruce Willis (The Fifth Element) among this year's hailable heroes. Why the fascination? Cabdrivers are men of mystery with "a kind of cowboy, gypsy quality," says Conspiracy screenwriter Brian Helgeland. "There's always potentially more there than meets the eye...some past there you don't know about or another life going on when the cab is parked and put away."

Gibson's paranoid, Net-surfing New York City taxi driver may be uniquely '90s, but Hollywood's yellow streak began long ago. In 1928's Speedy, Harold Lloyd took Babe Ruth for a wild ride. Spencer Tracy (1937's Big City) and James Cagney (1932's Taxi!) took spins in the front seat. Recent cabbies have included Mr. T (D.C. Cab, 1983) and Winona Ryder (1991's five-stories-in-five-taxis flick Night on Earth). But few come close to real life, says L.A. cabbie (and comic) Naja Divi, 33. "De Niro was about 30 percent right—slobby and tired and all crazy," he says. But 1989's Look Who's Talking? "They got John Travolta driving a cab, and all of a sudden a beautiful girl gets in, and then la-di-da. Man, stuff like that never happens!"

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