Arts

Ray Liotta in ‘Goodfellas’: How the Right Actor Turned the Right Part Into a Classic

There’s a moment early in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic “Goodfellas” that always tugs at my heartstrings. Scorsese’s movie is brutal and cleareyed and unsentimental, yes. But Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, the viewer’s docent into the criminal world, injects a note of tenderness that’s all the more effective for coming out of the mouth of a slick sociopath. (The movie is based on the true-crime book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi; the real Hill attained some celebrity in the wake of the picture’s release.)

It’s during the voice-over when Henry recalls as a boy envying the wiseguys who hung out at the pizza parlor and taxi stand across the street from his home. The guy who runs the pizza joint is Tuddy Cicero, brother of the mob underboss Paulie Cicero, for whom Henry will be working soon. Narrator Henry says the gangster’s full name and pauses. Then, in an exhalation that has low but strong notes of love and nostalgia, he adds, “Tuddy.”

Now mind you, Tuddy is eventually revealed to be as ruthless and coldblooded a gangster as they come. It is he who puts the bullet in the back of the head of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) at the fraudulent ceremony at which Tommy is to become a “made man.” But here is Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, clearly still besotted with a childhood idol and the life he shared with the man. Liotta, who died this week at 67, fills Scorsese’s movie with dozens of equally revelatory touches.

When I was researching “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas,’” my 2020 book about the film, I asked about that moment in the movie several times. The pause and the repetition of Tuddy’s name was not in the script drafts I saw. It was Liotta’s own touch. No one I spoke with remembered whether Liotta suggested it during the voice-over recordings or just added it himself. In any event, it works. Maybe too well, for people who believe that depiction is endorsement. In a movie that relentlessly examines the lure and transgressive thrill of amorality, Liotta’s depiction of Hill is the hook that draws the viewer in.

If you saw Hill on television or listened to any of his appearances on Howard Stern, you were likely to get the impression that Henry Hill was what your grandmother might call a schnook. While he did commit acts of violence both gang-related and domestic, he wasn’t intimidating. Edward McDonald, the prosecutor who got Hill and family into the witness protection program, and who plays himself in “Goodfellas,” told me that Hill was more a mob court jester than any kind of master criminal.

But Scorsese’s movie isn’t just about real-life gangsters — it’s also about how we mythologize them. “Movie stars with muscle” is how Hill characterizes his crew. And Liotta was a perfect Henry, able to turn on a dime from dry charm to deadly rage. In one of the movie’s famed tracking shots, when Henry escorts his future wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), into New York’s Copacabana nightclub by way of a side entrance, Liotta concocted all the bits of charming business a guy like Henry would use: tip a doorman here, shout out to a cook there, steer your date by the elbow lightly, act like it’s just what you’re due when the waiter flies out from the wings and sets a personal table at the side of the stage. Liotta got suggestions from Hill himself — and more from audiotapes of Hill speaking with Pileggi. But the research Liotta did into Hill’s world, and the inner work he did, was crucial.

The part came at a point when he might have been headed for a career as a character actor. He was unforgettable in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” as an ex-boyfriend of Melanie Griffith’s whose possessiveness explodes in still-shocking violence. And in “Field of Dreams” he played a reincarnation of the disgraced ballplayer Shoeless Joe Jackson. Sometimes the crinkle in his eye reminded the viewer of the man’s corruption, but his portrayal was mostly of an awe-struck love of the game he could now play forever in a Midwestern cornfield turned ballpark.

When “Goodfellas” was announced, more than one of its eventual cast members told me that it was the movie every New York and Los Angeles actor wanted in on. And Liotta was no exception. Everyone liked him for the part save the producer Irwin Winkler. He did not see the actor’s charm. In his book “A Life in Movies,” Winkler recalls Liotta coming to his table at a Santa Monica restaurant and asking for a word. “In a 10-minute conversation he (with charm and confidence) sold me on why he should play Henry Hill,” the producer wrote. When I interviewed Winkler, he said, rather sheepishly, “You heard the story of me not wanting Ray?” I told Winkler I had and said, “I can’t see anyone else doing it.” Winkler responded “Nor can I.”

As it happened, I was not able to interview Liotta himself for my book. Early talks with his publicist were promising. It was possible that I could get some time with him when he was in New York promoting “Marriage Story” at the New York Film Festival; then it wasn’t. We were both represented by the same agency; no dice. He was in a film on which a few close friends of mine were crew members. Can’t go there. And as I worked on the book, I heard several accounts of an intense, serious actor who, upon deciding he wasn’t going to do something, kept to that.

He had spoken about “Goodfellas” in other interviews, including an oral history that ran in GQ in 2010. The shoot had its challenges: He suffered the death of his mother halfway through and felt at least slightly shut out by male castmates like Robert De Niro and Pesci. Going through De Niro’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, I came across a thank-you card from Liotta, and inside was a handwritten note: “Bob, Now I can tell you how much of a trip it was to work with you. You’re the best. Hope we can do it again. But I really mean Do it!” Liotta’s eagerness is palpable. The two did work together again, in “Copland.”

But “Goodfellas” was irreproducible. Because it did show off his range, and it is a landmark film. Liotta’s signature role is one any actor would hope to be remembered by.

Glenn Kenny is a critic and the author of “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas.’”

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