Liotta’s Portrayal of Henry Hill Puts Him in the Pantheon of Actors Playing Real-Life Gangsters

By all accounts, the real-life Henry Hill was neither charming, good looking or intelligent. Unlike his depiction by Ray Liotta in the epic film “Goodfellas,” directed by Martin Scorsese, Hill was a lifelong drug addict, not a lovable party boy as the movie portrayed him.

In Goodfellas, Liotta, who unexpectedly passed away today, gave us one the most memorable performances in gangster movie history and held his own against Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and the underrated but extremely accomplished, Paul Sorvino.

Liotta’s Henry Hill was both charming and menacing. He was tough but appropriately scared of De Niro’s and Pesci’s characters. He was a rotten and yet doting father and husband. Audiences didn’t know whether to love him or hope that he got whacked.

Hill was the only character in the movie who went by the real-life character’s name. De Niro’s “Jimmy Conway” character was based on Irish gangster James Burke. Pesci’s “Tommy DeVito” was based on psychopath Tommy DeSimone, who was 6’2, 200+ lbs. (Pesci was brilliant as Tommy DeVito, but DeSimone was scarier in real life than any actor could possibly depict in a movie.)

As a teenager in the 70s, living outside New York City, I was an avid reader of all the gangster-related incidents which were reported daily in the newspapers like they were sporting events. The civil war between factions of the “Westies” (the Irish gang that ran Hell’s Kitchen) was full of more drama and sadness than an Irish folk song. When the leader of the Westies, Mickey Spillane, was finally killed by Italians in cahoots with Westie rival James Coonan, I remember my Irish American schoolmates offering toasts to his memory. My Italian schoolmates were less sentimental. But for some reason, I too felt sad after his murder.

A year and a half after Spillane’s assassination, the infamous Lufthansa heist depicted in Goodfellas, took place. Everyone in the New York metropolitan area knew it was carried out by the Queens crew of the Lucchese Crime Family. Of course, just like in the movie, we started hearing about the murders of the participants as James Burke covered his tracks.

By the time “Goodfellas” came out in 1990, I had already read the book it was based on, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. Movies, of course, take poetic license for dramatic effect and directors and screenwriters need to decide what to leave out. Some of the stuff left out: Tommy DeSimone was killed by John Gotti, then a captain in the Gambino Crime family, revenge for the murder of “Billy Batts,” who was in Gotti’s crew; Hill had a daughter and a son, not two daughters. Hill’s son didn’t want to be portrayed and Scorsese accommodated him; the Air France robbery was not as simple as shown. The guard was not in on it as the movie implied; he was set up with a hooker and distracted. It took several attempts so the guard must have enjoyed himself.

One other difference between the movie and reality, is that Hill and DeSimone did not grow up together, Hill was seven years older and a bit of a mentor to DeSimone.

But those minor discrepancies don’t distract from Ray Liotta’s memorable performance. The “funny how?” scene is one of the best in movie history and was mostly improvised and initiated by Pesci who had witnessed a similar event in real life. Hill’s descent from cocky on-top-of-the-world gangster to scared, drug addled burnout was convincing. Even his narration of the movie displayed nuance and drama.

There have been other great depictions of real-life gangsters: Warren Beatty as “Bugsy” Siegel, Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, De Niro as Al Capone. But, one could argue that Liotta’s Henry Hill was the best, though. To me, the combination of menace and charm seemed realistic, based on some mobsters I met in passing during my childhood in New Jersey.

If you haven’t seen Goodfellas, I recommend you do. If you have, then you’ll understand that in his next life, I hope Ray Liotta doesn’t order some spaghetti with marinara sauce and end up with egg noodles and ketchup.