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Ray Liotta Made ‘Goodfellas’ As Much As It Made Him

The actor, who died Thursday at age 67, was more than just Henry Hill, even if he knew we were always thinking of his most iconic role

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I ran right for the end of Goodfellas. Sprinted, really. Within seconds of my hearing that the indomitable Ray Liotta had died, at 67—he passed in his sleep while in the Dominican Republic working on a new movie, naturally—there stood Ray Liotta, as vibrant and indomitable as ever, on my computer screen, playing rise-and-fall mob titan Henry Hill, rising from his courtroom seat, staring down the camera, smashing the fourth wall, and long ago having smashed, for me anyway, my lame and tepid prior notions of what a truly great movie, and a truly great movie star, could and should be. All rise.

“Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.” The tiniest pause after the word and. Unbelievable. Possibly you sprinted to Goodfellas, too, when you heard he was gone. Possibly you sprinted to one of, like, 25 other unbelievable scenes. To the very beginning of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, maybe: “As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” No pause, not even a tiny one, after the word remember. Blunt. Swift. All-powerful. To the “Funny how?” scene. Liotta all-powerful here even in his total vulnerability, in his visceral fear, shrinking in the face of a terrifying Joe Pesci, as generous a scene partner as Joe could’ve ever imagined. (Alessandro Nivola, who starred opposite Liotta in 2021’s Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, described Liotta on Thursday as “dangerous, unpredictable, hilarious, and generous with his praise for other actors,” as perfect a four-quadrant description of a movie star as anyone could imagine.)

Ray Liotta versus the neighbor. Ray Liotta versus Lorraine Bracco. Ray Liotta versus the helicopter. Hell, Ray Liotta just walking through the restaurant, not the focal point, not the star of that ceaselessly deified shot, but a generous, balletic, necessary presence all the same. Here’s what a grieving Bracco had to say today; I fully expect to hear similar glowing testimonies soon from the restaurant, the helicopter, and yeah, even the pistol-whipped neighbor.

Shit, I probably missed your favorite Goodfellas scene. I’m sorry. Whichever scene’s your favorite, you’re probably right. It was that kind of movie, that kind of star-making performance. But I’m sticking with the ending. “And that’s the hardest part,” he laments, in voice-over now, with Henry Hill in hiding, in ruins. I’ll tell you a secret you already knew: The sad little ache in his voice on the word part invented Leonardo DiCaprio in his totality. Don’t question it. Just feel it. “I’m an average nobody.” The even sadder little attempted smile that instantly dies on Liotta’s face, in this infinitesimal moment: That’s the saddest, the greatest moment of all. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

He lived the rest of his life like a god. Liotta, a real-life saint of Newark, New Jersey, had by the time Goodfellas hit already proved his mettle as a movie star via his lithe and, yes, terrifying role in the 1986 action comedy Something Wild. (The sad little smile on his face that Liotta kills himself, when Jeff Daniels picks up the check.) In 1989 came Field of Dreams: “Is this heaven?” The gravity it must’ve required for Liotta to even stand upright as an actor in a movie that freighted with Sad Dad Energy. That’s the guy who made Goodfellas every bit as much as it made him.

But yes, yes, Henry Hill was a role so towering and indelible that it would follow Liotta, and visibly live within him, in every role he took from then on. That is a compliment; that is an asset. The charismatic lawlessness of Henry Hill curdling into delicious outright B-movie villainy in 1992’s Unlawful Entry. The lawless charisma of Henry Hill brightening into the goofy screwball romance of 2001’s Heartbreakers. (“Sometimes I get to play goofy guys!” Liotta marveled, on Facebook in 2017, hailing that underrated flick as “one of my favorite movies.”) The charismatic lawlessness of Henry Hill animating his stupendous voice role as Tommy Vercetti in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. (“Dicks! You’re all dicks!”) The charismatic lawlessness of Henry Hill as the subtext for Ray Liotta vs. Miss Piggy. Ray Liotta vs. Hannibal Lecter. (No link, sorry, ew.) Ray Liotta vs. Spongebob. Ray Liotta vs. inferior tequila.

Sheesh, get a load of Ray Liotta vs. 2012. Is this real?

Ray Liotta vs. the window in Killing Them Softly alone! He worked hard, he worked tirelessly, he made everything and everyone around him better. Ray Liotta vs. Adam Driver in 2019’s Marriage Story: “Half of crazy is crazy.” Liotta parachutes into that movie as a divorce lawyer, and your instinctive reaction is Oh, shit, it’s on. Henry’s here. The charisma. The venom. The indomitability. The history of violence. Liotta played into it. He played against it. He turned it against you. He turned it against himself. He always knew that your favorite movie was Goodfellas, and he used that information to turn this new movie you were watching into your favorite movie since Goodfellas. If you’re up for a shootout right now, I want you to watch this climactic shootout from 1997’s Cop Land. Yeah, it’s the end of the movie, but watch it anyway.

Specifically, I want you to watch this and pretend that it’s Ray Liotta’s first scene in the movie. Imagine that he wasn’t in this movie at all until this precise moment. Is it possible that a pretty good macho-shootout Sad Dad–adjacent crime movie called Cop Land was transpiring, and it passed some mystical quality threshold and thus just kinda manifested Ray Liotta into the movie, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the coolest and scariest and most vulnerable human alive, ready to join the fray? Henry’s here. It’s possible. Here’s another one for the Is This Real? files: One of the last movies Liotta completed is called Cocaine Bear. It’ll hit theaters in 2023. The title is not a metaphor: This film is about a bear that goes on a cocaine-fueled rampage. “It’s not clear who Liotta is playing in Cocaine Bear,” reports Variety, which is a tremendously funny sequence of words even under these circumstances. What’s heartening, though, is that you already know what role he’ll be playing: yet another sublime echo of Henry Hill. In other words, Ray Liotta will be playing the best part.