Good night to a goodfella: the death of Henry Hill is the end of a Mafia story

Henry Hill, the notorious gangster who betrayed the Mafia and inspired a Scorsese film, has died an improbably peaceful death. Guy Adams looks back on his life

There was no hail of bullets or pair of concrete boots. No guns, knives, henchmen, or journeys in a car boot. After a life spent looking over his shoulder, Henry Hill died in the most boring way imaginable: in a hospital bed.

The famous mobster-turned-snitch, whose life was immortalised in Goodfellas, passed away at a Los Angeles hospital on Tuesday afternoon, apparently succumbing to years of heavy smoking and Italian food. "His heart just gave out," Hill's partner Lisa told reporters, adding, with half a smile: "He went out pretty peacefully... For a goodfella."

Of all the hoods, rats and downright scoundrels to have scuttled into the consciousness of the American public, few did more to mythologise the world of organised crime than this 69-year-old former associate of the New York Mafia's notorious Lucchese family.

In endless books, talks and films about his 30-year Mob career, Hill lifted the lid on a hidden world that revolved around extraordinary glamour and sickening violence. A world where an average guy, from a humble background could gamble, drink and womanise to his heart's content – provided he wasn't fazed by guns, torture, or the occasional bloody murder.

On one, now legendary, occasion in the late 1960s, Hill and two "associates" heard knocking from the boot of a car where they had stowed the body of former Mafia accomplice, William "Billy Batts" Devino. Realising that their victim was still alive, they finished him off with a shovel and a tyre iron, and buried him in a shallow grave. In another celebrated incident, Hill helped carry out the 1978 Lufthansa heist in which $5m in cash and nearly $1m in jewellery was taken from a cargo facility at New York's JFK airport. The haul would today be worth roughly $25m [£16m], making it the largest robbery ever on US soil.

Hill's journey through the criminal underworld became the subject of Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film, in which he was played by Ray Liotta.

"All of it is true!" he often said of the movie, which was based on a bestselling 1986 memoir called Wiseguy, telling of his rise from working class Brooklyn boy to the position of trusted lieutenant to Paul Vario, a "capo" in the local Mob.

To prevent US censors from giving the film a prohibitive rating, Scorsese actually toned down the psychotic tendencies of Robert De Niro's character James Conway, who is based on James Burke, one of Hill's colleagues. He also changed heroin dealing to the more socially-acceptable cocaine.

Hill, whose father was an electrician, always insisted the underworld was his vocation. Or, as Liotta famously puts it, at the very start of the movie: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

Born in 1943, and recruited to run errands by Vario in his early teens, Hill began working full-time for the Lucchese family at 14, collecting money on behalf of illegal gambling syndicates.

He gradually moved up the ladder, graduating to arson and minor extortion rackets and surviving an early arrest for credit card fraud. Since he did not boast a Sicilian background, he was never able to become a fully-fledged member of the Mafia. And he claimed he was always too squeamish to carry out cold-blooded murder, a prerequisite for becoming a proper "made man". "There were two very important things about Henry Hill," said Nicholas Pileggi, the author of Wiseguy, recently.

"One was that he was a little cog; sort of a soldier in Napoleon's army. And I said, you know, if you're going to do a book about Napoleon, it might be interesting to see that world from the point of view of the soldier. The second thing was that he was extremely articulate."

Hill's finest hour was perhaps in 1967, when he led a small team which successfully made off with $420,000 from the Air France cargo terminal at JFK airport, after getting a guard drunk, stealing his keys and leaving him with a prostitute in a nearby hotel room.

In a move that further endeared him to the Mafia, Hill volunteered roughly a quarter of the haul to local mob bosses. Two years later, he cemented his trusted status when, after being arrested for extortion in Florida, he chose to serve almost a decade in prison rather than implicate any associates.

After his release, Hill was recruited to the now-famous Lufthansa heist by Burke. But although the robbery went off exactly as planned, it was arguably too successful for its own good: the staggering amount of money the gang escapes with put them at the centre of a huge manhunt.

Worried that one of his accomplices would eventually betray him, Burke began slowly, but systematically, murdering them.

He wasn't quite quick enough, though. In 1980, Hill was arrested for drug trafficking. And after being shown evidence of the plan, agreed to turn FBI informant. He subsequently gave evidence in court against roughly 50 of the organised criminals with whom he had once worked.

In return, he and his family were placed in the Witness Protection Programme. He justified the betrayal of old friends by arguing they were mostly: "homicidal maniacs".

For years, Hill lived and worked in a variety of locations across the mid-west, adopting various aliases and disguises and sometimes wearing fake beards. Blessed with a photographic memory, he collaborated on Wiseguys largely by telephone. Pileggi later said that most of the book was direct quotation from their conversations.

By the time Goodfellas was released, many of Hill's worst enemies had died and he began gradually emerging from the shadows. In a way his hand was forced: he'd been expelled from the Witness Protection Programme after being repeatedly arrested for drink and drug offences and needed to find a source of income.

He duly spent the last years of his life as a sort of celebrity mobster, living in Topanga Canyon, on the outskirts of Malibu, California, selling paintings, giving lectures and appearing as an occasional host of an Italian cooking show on the Food network. He eventually released a recipe book, The Wise Guy Cookbook and a signature brand of pasta sauce.

It wasn't quite the twilight existence predicted at the end of Goodfellas, which closes with the words: "I'm just an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."

But, in the end, Henry Hill confounded all expectations: even his own. And now, as they say, he sleeps with the fishes.

Goodfellas: the next chapter

James Burke inspired the character of Jimmy "the Gent" Conway – played by Robert De Niro. It is alleged he ordered the murders of several people involved in the Lufthansa heist.

Thomas DeSimone, played by Joe Pesci, went missing on 14 January 1979, believed to have been murdered as a reprisal for killing two of John Gotti's friends.

"Paulie" Vario was the head of the Lucchese crime family crew on which Goodfellas was based. He was jailed for 12 years, largely on the testimony of Hill.

Richard Hall

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