Ray Liotta’s performance in Goodfellas is undoubtedly one of the best in the Martin Scorsese Canon. The actor bought a charisma and simmering intensity to the role of Henry Hill. Here, Scorsese explains how a chance encounter with Liotta convinced him the actor was right for the part.
Much of the success of Goodfellas was down to the strength of the performances. Joe Pesci’s performance as Tommy Devito is certainly memorable, but it’s Ray Liotta who stands out amongst the star-studded cast. That’s what makes it so surprising that the film’s producers tried to convince Scorsese to pass on Liotta, even though he’d expressed an interest in the actor taking on the role of Henry. Thankfully, Scorsese won out in the end.
Up until that point, Liotta had been working on a number of TV shows, including the long-running soap opera called Another World. Indeed, it wasn’t until his celebrated role in 1986’s Something Wild, in which he played an ex-convict, that Hollywood began to see the actor’s potential.
Something Wild won Liotta a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Bosten Society of Film Critics award. He also recieved a nod from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics. Things were clearly on the up, and it wasn’t long before directors came calling. Scorsese was one of the first: “I’d seen Ray in Something Wild, Jonathan Demme’s film,” Scorsese told GQ in 2010. “I really liked him.”
But it wasn’t as simple as inviting Liotta in and handing him the role; the director had to convince the producers and Warner Bros first. According to Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, a big fish in Hollywood since the 1960s, believed they “could do better” than Liotta. Barbara De Fina, a long-time associate of Scorsese, confirmed that the producer’s resistance to Liotta was due to him being a relatively unknown actor at the time. He just didn’t have the star appeal they were looking for. Scorsese disagreed; after meeting Liotta at random, he was convinced that he was the only actor who could bring Henry Hill to life.
Scorsese bumped into the actor during the Venice Film Festival shortly after the release of The Last Temptation of Christ. The controversy surrounding the film meant that the director attended festival events surrounded by bodyguards. As Scorsese recalled: “Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him. And [Liotta] had an interesting way of reacting. He held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behaviour at that moment. I saw, Oh, ‘he understands that kind of situation. That’s Something you wouldn’t have to explain to him.'”
After meeting Liotta in real life outside a restaurant in LA, Irvin Winkler was similarly impressed. “We went outside,” the producer recalled. “[Liotta] said, ‘Look, I know you don’t want me for it but I…,’ and he really sold me on [it] I called Marty the next morning and I said, ‘I see what you mean.'” And with that, the role was his.