Ray Liotta was so much more than ‘Goodfellas’

Few actors have ever exuded more of a tough guy menace than Ray Liotta – a personality cemented by his groundbreaking performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas as real-life mobster Henry Hill, whose love of wealth and power (and the joys that come with it) drives him to attempt to become a made man, and whose ego and penchant for cocaine contribute to his eventual downfall. Nonetheless, the acclaimed actor had far more to offer than the iconic role, and it is that fact that makes Liotta’s sudden death last night at the far too young age of 67 such a heartbreaking loss.

Tributes invariably focus primarily on Liotta’s Goodfellas And with good reason — alongside James Cagney, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino (as well as his co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci), no one is more closely associated with the mafia genre than Newark, a New Jersey native. Liotta inhabited Hill with a feverish determination that instantly sold the character’s infatuation with the Italian-American hoods of his neighborhood, as well as the amoral greed, entitlement, and villainess that allowed him to rise through the ranks of the underworld. Whether sweating, sneering or – keyword the beloved GIF – laughing with unbridled enthusiasm, his Hill was a character of captivating determination and frighteningly scalpel-sharp intensity. As a result, according to his opening line (“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”), he immediately became the quintessential gangster on the big screen.


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It’s no surprise that Hollywood has reacted to Liotta Goodfellas Achievement – This comes a few years after his fantastic, Golden Globe-nominated work as a violent ex-convict in Jonathan Demmes Something wild– by putting him in the B-grade thriller Unlawful Entry as a psychopathic cop who terrorizes Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe. However, as he had previously exhibited on television (on Another world) and in the 1989s field of dreams (as the ghostly Shoeless Joe Jackson) Liotta wasn’t a one-trick pony. While James Mangold reunited him with De Niro in 1997 cop country (alongside Sylvester Stallone and Harvey Keitel), the writer/director capitalized on Liotta’s bad-boy aura without turning him into a one-dimensional villain. Additionally, the actor quickly began to branch out, whether it was through transporting elephants in the Walt Disney comedy Operation Dumbo Dropbelted out Ol’ Blue Eyes tunes as Frank Sinatra on TV The Rat Packor playing an amusingly weird version of himself during an appearance on the NBC sitcom just shoot me.

By the start of the new millennium, Liotta was a star acting a notch below marquee status, which meant he could do great character work on a variety of very different projects. In Ridley Scott’s 2001, he was famously killed by Anthony Hopkins’ serial killer – conscious! Hannibal. He was the responsible father whose cautionary tales go unheeded by his drug-dealing son (Johnny Depp) on Ted Demme’s blow. Better yet, he was absolutely electrified as a detective (along with Jason Patric) on the trail of a cop killer in Joe Carnahan’s dark, somber, and grossly underrated 2002 neo-noir Narc– a leading role that remains one of his best, full of the wildness, despair and sadness that so often defined his work.

These weren’t the only qualities Liotta was able to bring to the screen, however, as he so ably demonstrated in a variety of comedic roles wild boars opposite John Travolta and Tim Allen, date night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey, Most Wanted Muppets with Kermit and Mrs. Piggy, or a guest on site SpongeBob SquarePants. No one will argue that any of these examples were of superlative form, but Liotta – like so many memorably intimidating stars before him – knew exactly how to use his reputation as a squeezer to amusing effect. Not that he had to be selfish to laugh; his timing in history of marriage as a cutthroat, highly paid attorney is so perfect (as is his entire performance, as anyone who’s been through a divorce will attest) that he elicits amazed giggles just by playing it outright.

“Liotta – like so many memorably intimidating stars before him – knew exactly how to use his reputation as a thug to amusing effect.”

Regardless of the material, however, Liotta exuded a don’t-leg-with-me energy, and so it makes sense that he would be constantly drawn to pieces that benefited from his distinctive presence. Andrew Dominic kill her gently occasionally slipped into clumsiness, but not Liotta, who as a delinquent gambler went toe-to-toe with his illustrious castmates (including Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn). He was similarly impressive on NBC’s shades of bluein which he acted as a corrupt lieutenant for Jennifer Lopez’s corrupt detective and informant, as well as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2021 Gem No sudden movement as a fierce mob boss whose blackmail scheme is the engine driving the thriller plot. While these projects didn’t push him to explore particularly new territory, like everything else, he set them apart with a personality that was never less than appealing and frequently more than a little frightening.

Although we didn’t see the last of Liotta – thanks to some already completed films that will be made over the next year or so – his last performance was certainly great. As “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti, the father of Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltisanti in David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark, Liotta returned to the Jersey mob world that had made him a star decades earlier, and he had a blast munching landscapes as a man of outsized appetites and cruelty. Additionally, he was given the opportunity to do double duty by also impersonating Dick’s imprisoned brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, whom Dickie visits in the files of the Quasi-Confession – allowing Liotta to show the full breadth of his chameleonic abilities by playing two sides of the same (eternal, biblical) coin.

Still, Liotta’s legacy will forever revolve around her Goodfellas, a once-in-a-lifetime feat delivered with such raw and understated charm that it’s almost impossible not to root for his Hill, regardless of the heinous acts he commits, the betrayals he commits, or the unrepentant and repugnant selfishness that defines him on his long, weird gangland odyssey from nobody to nobody to Schnook. However, Liotta herself was anything but: an outstanding, multifaceted and unforgettable talent that always fascinated and whose untimely death is immensely difficult to bear. Ray Liotta was so much more than ‘Goodfellas’


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