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Ray Liotta’s Bittersweet Return to the Mob

The veteran actor is terrific in ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ but the performance only underlines the long shadow that ‘Goodfellas’ has cast over his career

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

If nothing else, Ray Liotta is very astute about his career. “I’m very, very lucky that I had two movies that I think will live for a long time,” he said in a 2018 interview. You can debate that he’s underselling the longevity of some of his films, but as he prepares to turn 67 later this year — his professional life currently on an upswing — there’s probably no escaping the fact that Field of Dreams and Goodfellas will define his legacy. 

An actor could do a lot worse — those are two beloved films — and yet, both have a bittersweet aftertaste to them when you think about Liotta’s involvement in them. When you or I watch those movies, they could represent, arguably, the greatest baseball film ever made and the greatest mob film ever conceived. But for Liotta, it’s a lot more complicated. And with each passing year, one can’t help but marvel that they came out back to back. Goodfellas, in particular, promised so much — that he didn’t quite live up to it, ironically enough, only makes that film (and his performance) all the more resonant.

He was born a little before Christmas 1954 in Newark, New Jersey. Liotta wasn’t one of those actors who caught the bug as a boy. “I played pretend games as a kid, army, whatever, but I never wanted to be an actor,” he said. “Basically I just played sports all the time. Basketball, baseball, football, you know, whatever the season was. But I remember senior year, basketball had stopped and the drama teacher asked me if I wanted to be in the play. So, all right, I’m not doing anything, I’m used to hanging around anyway, sure, I’ll be in the play.” The experience did not change his life: “I didn’t like it at all,” he said. “I didn’t like anything about it.”

And so he went to the University of Miami, wanting a school that was infamous for its partying. “Well, with my SAT scores where they were at, there weren’t a lot of places I could get in,” he admitted, although a drama coach, Robert Lowery, helped give his life purpose. “He made acting challenging,” Liotta recalled. “He was just great. How he spoke with such depth, how he approached the craft. It resonated with me.”

Liotta moved to New York, bartended, landed a steady gig on Another World and then decided to try his luck in L.A. The move paid off, eventually, after about five years of scuffling, when he landed the role of Ray, Melanie Griffith’s dangerous ex, in Something Wild. That film, which starts off as a sexy, funny romantic comedy, shifts gears radically when Liotta comes on board, and the young actor brought just the right amount of coiled menace, turning the tone far darker. (“Even [director] Jonathan [Demme] didn’t realize how intense the second half had gotten,” Liotta would later say.)

He’d heard about the film from someone in his acting class, but because he was a nobody in Hollywood, he couldn’t get an audition. So Liotta had to get inventive. “I called up Melanie because I had gone to school with her ex-husband,” he recalled. “I called her up and told her I thought I would be right for it. Finally, my agent got me in, but they sent the assistant to the casting director to see me. The combination of being turned down after five years and the anger in the script, I walked in ready to go.”

Something Wild lifted his profile considerably, and he earned his only (to date) Golden Globe nomination. Naturally, though, he was only offered tough-guys roles after that, which is why he chose instead to do Dominick and Eugene, a touching drama in which he plays opposite Tom Hulce, his character’s twin brother who has an intellectual disability. The movie showed off his sensitive side, although it wasn’t a hit. The big success would come with his next film, based on a script that Liotta didn’t initially warm to. “It didn’t really jump out at me,” he said in 1989, “because to read it on the page, you get involved emotionally because, you know, it’s very touching but, as a movie, with coming in the cornfields, I didn’t [get it].”

Liotta was cast late in the process of making Field of Dreams — they shot his stuff near the end of production — but his sports background presumably paid off as Shoeless Joe Jackson, part of the disgraced Chicago White Sox team that was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. The historical inaccuracies are well-known by this point — Jackson batted left-handed and threw right, whereas Liotta did the opposite — but those kinds of quibbles don’t bother the grown men who get weepy even thinking about this film. One of the all-time great male tearjerkers, Field of Dreams allowed Liotta to build on the tenderness he’d shown in Dominick and Eugene, while also conveying the streetwise attitude that worked so well in Something Wild. In a movie that has no problem twisting your emotions, Liotta brought a little edge. Especially in retrospect, Field of Dreams very much feels like an outlier in his career — a sentimental story about fathers and sons and baseball and the Baby Boomers and America — and watching it now, it’s hard to believe that’s Ray Liotta. 

For the record, he’d tried to hit and throw the same way that Jackson did, but after extensive training, he couldn’t do it, and the filmmakers finally decided it wasn’t important enough. “To this day I regret it because I’m a bug, making sure things are accurate,” Liotta has said. “There used to be Monday Night Baseball and they were talking about the movie and how wonderful the movie was and some announcer who shall remain nameless said, ‘Yeah, but Shoeless Joe was batting the wrong way.’ Well, he didn’t come down from heaven either, so…”

The other bit of Liotta trivia associated with Field of Dreams is that he’s never seen the movie. Well, he’s seen part of it: The story goes that he and his mom went to a screening, but she was sick and so they left early. (She actually died of cancer while he was making Goodfellas: “I went back that night, and luckily I was there when she passed, literally in my arms.”) But the memory of the aborted Field of Dreams viewing with his mom has clearly remained traumatic enough that he can’t bring himself to watch the movie even to this day. “It’s on TV a lot, but I just pass over it,” he said recently. “I’ve no desire. That’s it.”

During the promotion for Field of Dreams, Liotta already had his next role lined up, that of a young real-life wise guy, Henry Hill, working his way up the ladder to becoming a key member of the Brooklyn mob in the 1970s and 1980s. Initially, there was some thought that maybe Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Robert De Niro would play Henry, but the Oscar-winning actor knew he was too old for the role, instead taking on the part of mentor Jimmy Conway. Similarly to how he got cast in Something Wild, Liotta wasn’t afraid to be proactive to land a part he craved, introducing himself to Scorsese in a less-than-ideal situation.

“I was walking across the lobby of the hotel on the Lido that houses the Venice Film Festival, and I was there with The Last Temptation of Christ,” Scorsese told GQ. “I had a lot of bodyguards around me. Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behavior at that moment, and I saw, ‘Oh, he understands that kind of situation.’ That’s something you wouldn’t have to explain to him.”

Still, producer Irwin Winkler thought Liotta was a bad idea for the role. “I didn’t think he had the charm to capture the audience after all the drugs, stealing and womanizing that Henry practiced,” Winkler once wrote, “but Marty kept insisting, and I kept putting it off.” The producer changed his mind one night at dinner in Santa Monica: “Ray Liotta came over to our table and asked to speak to me. In a 10-minute conversation he (with charm and confidence) sold me on why he should play Henry Hill. Marty was right.”

It must have been an intimidating experience for Liotta, who was the “new guy” around De Niro and Joe Pesci, two actors with whom Scorsese already had a rapport. (Plus, Liotta’s mother was dying at the same time.) Scorsese advised Liotta against meeting Hill, so Liotta did the next best thing, spending time with Nicholas Pileggi, the author of Wiseguys, which inspired the film. “He gave me the tapes that he used for interviewing Henry for the book,” Liotta said. “I would take my mother’s car and listen over and over and over again.”

Hailed at the time as one of Scorsese’s best films, Goodfellas has only grown in stature since its release in September 1990. Yet what’s odd about the movie is that, as lauded and absorbed into the culture as it is, Goodfellas doesn’t necessarily feel chiefly like Liotta’s film, even though Henry is the main character. This makes no sense because Liotta is terrific in the movie, exuding just the right mixture of brashness and naivety and ambition to the character of Henry, who infamously told us in voiceover, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” You believed Henry because you believed Liotta — there was a fresh-faced openness to the performance that suggested how this aspiring mobster could really believe being a criminal was the greatest life in the world. 

About 15 years earlier, we’d seen De Niro and Harvey Keitel playing up-and-coming hoods in Mean Streets, but Liotta’s Henry wasn’t like either of their characters: He wasn’t tormented or psychotic. Frankly, what’s so jarring about Henry is how normal the guy is, even though he kills people. For all the critics who have long objected to Goodfellas for somehow “glamorizing” the Mafia, Liotta’s shockingly straightforward performance is the reason why they misread the film. Henry’s rise and fall — his descent into drug addiction and greed, and his later decision to go into witness protection — is told as a cautionary tale about the stupidity of people trying to cheat their way into the American dream, turning their back on morality in order to live like kings. Liotta plays the guy with such energy and charisma we’re tricked into thinking he’s got life figured out — until, of course, he doesn’t. As film historian Richard Schickel once correctly said to Scorsese, “What happens to Henry Hill is not tragic; he’s just not having fun anymore.”

So why did I say that Goodfellas isn’t necessarily considered “his” film? These sorts of things are always subjective, of course, but my sense is that the culture tends to more vividly remember Pesci’s volcanic turn as Tommy DeVito, the magnetic hothead with the hair-trigger temper. Goodfellas’ most memorable scene might very well be the “You think I’m funny?” exchange between Tommy and Henry — the one where we’re convinced Pesci’s character is gonna blow the kid’s head off — and its electricity comes from the way Pesci amplifies the malice and then quickly switches to that just-fucking-around laughing energy. Liotta is in the scene, but he has to play the straight man — working off Pesci and De Niro, he was asked to be less colorful than his co-stars. The performance fits the character — Henry is our guide through this seductive, dangerous world — but it tends to make him recede a bit in the background in our memory. (He’s not even front and center on the poster.) The trick to Goodfellas is how Scorsese and Liotta managed to make Henry an everyman even though he’s a gangster, but it also left Liotta from being as memorable as those around him. “The part I played … it wasn’t that violent,” Liotta would later say. “Everybody else was kind of crazy around him.”

The other reason I think Goodfellas doesn’t feel quite like his singular achievement, rightly or wrongly, is that he didn’t get the career bounce that others did from it. Pesci won an Oscar, while some of the smaller supporting players got scooped up by filmmakers who’d loved their work. A young Michael Imperioli, who played the lackey Spider who’s memorably (and cruelly) shot dead by Tommy, parlayed that sequence into more film gigs. “A scene like that puts you on the map,” he said in Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas. “‘I’m in Goodfellas, I’m in this scene,’ and people know exactly what you’re talking about. Spike Lee saw it, and he was casting Jungle Fever, and a lot of Goodfellas people got cast in that movie.” And, of course, a lot of the Goodfellas actors — including Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco, who played Henry’s wife Karen — ended up in The Sopranos, the landmark series that very much seemed to be an extension and refinement of what Scorsese had explored in his film. 

As for Liotta? The 1990s were simply not a fruitful period for him. Some minor hits (Unlawful Entry), some decent indies (Cop Land, where he reunited with De Niro), but mostly a lot of bombs, including Operation Dumbo Drop. Meanwhile, Scorsese went on to make Casino with De Niro and Pesci — and, notably, without Liotta. Suddenly, Liotta’s Goodfellas success started to feel a bit like a fluke — a one-off that maybe wouldn’t be duplicated. “I started out really hot out of the box,” Liotta said in 2016. “Then I’ve definitely had an up-and-down career.”

There were films that suggested his talent. In 2001, he met a gruesome end in Hannibal and was affecting as Johnny Depp’s dad in Blow. The following year, he received great reviews as a frighteningly driven cop in Narc. (And he voiced Tommy in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.) That period could have been radically different, however. He’d been approached to play Joe Pantoliano’s role of Ralphie on The Sopranos — he could have been reunited with many of his Goodfellas cohorts — but “I didn’t want to do another Mafia thing, and I was shooting Hannibal,” Liotta said. “It just didn’t feel right at the time.” (Also, that rumor that he was once considered to play Tony Soprano? Not true, according to Liotta.)

Instead, he too easily slipped into undistinguished crime and gangster films — things like Revolver and Smokin’ Aces — and played off his tough-guy image in awful comedies like Wild Hogs. All the while, Field of Dreams and Goodfellas became cultural landmarks. Liotta was still around and still working a ton, but those older movies tended to blot out anything he was doing recently. He was always “Goodfellas star Ray Liotta.” “For 20 years now, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear somebody mention Goodfellas,” he said in 2010. “Unless I stay home all night. It’s defined who I am, in a sense.” 

Want proof? When the actor did a high-profile 2018 commercial campaign for Chantix, enterprising people on the web made mashup videos that combined the ad with his work in the Scorsese picture. He was always going to be Henry Hill.

Thankfully, Liotta’s been on a roll of late. In 2012, he was in the underrated Killing Them Softly — ironically, Tony Soprano himself James Gandolfini was also part of the ensemble — and he’s superb in The Place Beyond the Pines as an unethical cop who squares off with Bradley Cooper’s straight-shooter. If Liotta was in some ways cursed to always be known as “the guy from Goodfellas,” it also had its benefits, as Pines filmmaker Derek Cianfrance explained in some detail when the film came out:

“My favorite movie — and the favorite movie of my co-writer, Ben Coccio — is  Goodfellas. On the first day we met, we agreed to write a role for Ray Liotta. Flash forward five years and I’m sitting in a room with Ray and he’s actually considering the movie. To me he’s an American treasure — I feel like someday they’re going to carve his face in mountaintops. When he agreed to do the movie, he came over to my house for dinner and I introduced him to my four-year-old son. Within 30 seconds Ray had my kid in tears, crying. He’s like a human knife, and all I could think about was what he was going to do to Bradley Cooper. … Ray has a real ability to unnerve and throw you off your center. He’s actually one of the most beautiful people in the world — gentle, charismatic and just good — but he has an edge to him that was palpable enough for a four-year-old to pick up on real quickly. It was a gift to work with him.”

But it’s also been great to see him break out of bad-guy roles — or, at least, ones involving cops and mobsters. One of the best jokes in Marriage Story, a very dark movie about divorce, is that writer-director Noah Baumbach chose Liotta to play a cutthroat divorce attorney, the one who advises Adam Driver that he’s got to go after his soon-to-be-ex-wife hard before she does it to him. It’s glib to say Liotta portrayed his character Jay like Henry Hill without guns, but the same sort of ferocity he’s always brought was especially honed in Marriage Story. “[Baumbach] told me that the first time he saw me on screen I’d scared him a little,” Liotta later said. “Maybe it was Something Wild.”

More recently, he’s been featured prominently in the sorts of movies you’d expect to see him in. He brings a touch of weathered authority to Steven Soderbergh’s smart, moody 1950s crime saga No Sudden Move and, at long last, he’s part of the Sopranos fold with The Many Saints of Newark, where he plays twin brothers Hollywood Dick Moltisanti and Sally Moltisanti. 

I don’t think Newark works, but there’s something awfully right about seeing Ray Liotta in it, especially as these older men who have been part of the life for a long time. One of the movie’s narrative through-lines involves Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie repeatedly visiting his dad’s twin brother Sally in prison, and it’s impossible not to think of those scenes in Goodfellas when Henry was the young guy and De Niro and Paul Sorvino were the elder statesmen. Now it’s Liotta’s turn, and he’s such a natural that his scenes are some of Newark’s finest — you feel not just the connection to The Sopranos but also Goodfellas, how these projects, and their overlapping characters, have been talking back and forth to each other for a while now. 

And, like in his early days, Liotta got the part because he hustled. “I said to my agent, ‘What’s going on with that? They don’t need me or want me for this?’” he said recently. “I said, ‘Let me talk to [Sopranos creator David Chase]. I’ll fly out to New York and just have lunch with him.’” Liotta bought a ticket and talked his way into being in the film. 

This renaissance isn’t without its sadness. When Scorsese made The Irishman, which was very much billed as a reunion of some of the director’s oldest acting friends, including Keitel, De Niro and a previously-retired Pesci, Liotta admitted to feeling disappointed that he wasn’t invited. “At first I was [bummed], definitely,” he said in 2018. “I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t their cup of tea because I have never really done a movie for him since. No — there was something in The Departed that could have happened. But I had a movie I was already committed to so I couldn’t get out of it. … The parts were just never right. I have seen every movie that he’s done and I can’t say, ‘Oh, fuck, I should have been doing that.’ Like, Wolf of Wall Street — who am I going to play?”

Still, the fact that the director has only worked with Liotta once seems odd. But at the same time, it leaves Liotta, and Henry Hill, perfectly preserved forever in the Scorsese Cinematic Universe. Even if Goodfellas isn’t “his,” in a bigger sense it is. In the film, Henry wants to be a gangster, but he ends up as nothing but a schnook. Because Liotta hasn’t gone on to have a lot of roles that equaled Henry, we see that character in everything he’s done since. And so we’re always thinking about Henry — how he torpedoed the good thing he had by wanting too much. And as Liotta gets older — and especially in The Many Saints of Newark — we watch Henry age, hardened by life and disappointment. In Goodfellas’ final scene, Henry stares at us, and we stare back. Ray Liotta played a ghost in Field of Dreams, but it’s Henry Hill who truly haunts us.