Comedies, cartoons and a late-career comeback: Ray Liotta was so much more than Goodfellas

He made his name playing one of Hollywood’s best known gangsters, but we shouldn’t let his turn as Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas’ overshadow the rest of his incredible career. Louis Chilton pays tribute to a great actor who never stopped showing the world new sides of himself

Friday 27 May 2022 09:38
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<p>Ray Liotta, star of ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Cop Land’ and ‘Marriage Story’, has died at the age of 67 </p>

Ray Liotta, star of ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Cop Land’ and ‘Marriage Story’, has died at the age of 67

When it came to Ray Liotta, his eyes were less the windows to the soul and more like a Rorschach test. They seemed at once menacing and lachrymose – eyes that could betray warmth, fear or deadened anger without appearing to change at all. He was like many great actors in this regard, only more so. Often, his characters even appeared to be mysteries to themselves.

Liotta, who died on Thursday (26 May) while filming a new project in the Dominican Republic, was also something of a mystery to himself. As a baby, he was abandoned at an orphanage. He got his family name from his adoptive parents at the age of six months. It was only later in life, when he hired a private investigator to track down his biological mother, that he learned about his heritage, which was mostly Scottish. But in practice, Liotta was a Newark, New Jersey boy, a self-described “jock” who studied acting at college before taking it up professionally. After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Liotta spent five years struggling to make a name for himself. It was only through an acting class he had been taking with Melanie Griffith that he came to be considered for a part in Something Wild, the 1986 crime comedy directed by Silence of the Lambs’ Jonathan Demme. “If I didn’t get that movie then I would have had to go to work, because the money was pretty much spent,” he later confessed.

Describing the success behind his breakout performance as the felonious ex-husband of Griffith’s Something Wild character, Liotta said: “I just did my homework and was where I was supposed to be.” He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts, and the film led to a string of others. Firstly, as disgraced baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (1989), then, the year after, as the Irish gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s crime epic Goodfellas.

Goodfellas was always a film for which Scorsese was given the lion’s share of the credit, but it’s hard to understate how central Liotta’s performance is. He captures every shade of Hill – the young upstart; the complacent gangster; the duplicitous lover; the spiraling drug addict – with total assuredness. There are few images in cinema more indelible then the sight of Liotta’s Henry Hill, strung out on cocaine, squinting paranoidly up at a helicopter. Hill’s downfall is captured wonderfully through the film’s music and Thelma Schoonmaker’s expert editing, but it is Liotta’s performance – that desperate, panicked look of an animal caught in a trap – that stays with you the most.

There was something about Liotta, especially as he grew older, that seemed to exude authority. It’s no wonder he ended up largely playing law enforcement roles. Perhaps the gold standard of this came in 1997’s Cop Land, Liotta playing a broadly well-intentioned cop alongside Sylvester Stallone in a precinct rife with corruption.

While the laughs in Goodfellas were mostly queasy sneers, punctuating or preceding a scene of horrible violence, Liotta also had a surprisingly refined comic sensibility. He threw himself into incongruous projects like Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie or Muppets Most Wanted, as well as dipping his toes in TV comedies like Frasier (as a cameo), Family Guy, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

In 2019’s Marriage Story he was downright hilarious as a hard-bitten divorce attorney. When it came to awards season, the performance was overshadowed by Laura Dern’s kill-em-with-kindness turn as a rival lawyer on the opposite bench, but Liotta’s pitbull attorney was every bit as captivating.

Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco in ‘Goodfellas'

After a string of acclaimed performances in the early 2000s – including a leading role in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which he played the criminal Tommy Vercetti – Liotta spent a few years away from the Hollywood mainstream. Over the last decade or so, he’d made a compelling comeback.

As well as Marriage Story, he devoured roles in A Place Beyond the Pines and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. His last major apperance came in 2021’s The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark. He delivered not just one scene-stealing performance but two: as the brash, lecherous mafioso Aldo "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti, and his pensive twin brother Salvatore ("Sally"), serving a lengthy prison sentence for killing another man. After the success of Goodfellas, Liotta was always cautious about accepting mafia projects – he turned down the role of Ralph Cifaretto The Sopranos for fear of being typecast – but there’s something fitting about him returning to the genre at the end of his life.

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Of course, Newark wasn’t to be his last film. Besides the project he was working on at the time of his death, Dangerous Waters (the future of which is unknown), Liotta had reportedly finished working on a new horror entitled Cocaine Bear, and an untitled comedy written and directed by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day.

Moltisanti the elder: Liotta, right, in the ‘Sopranos’ prequel film ‘The Many Saints of Newark'

In a 2019 interview, Liotta discussed his own relationship with fame, his unwillingness to keep his profile up by “doing showbizzy-type things”. “I’m probably not as big as I’d like to be sometimes, but there’s a method to my madness,” he told SquareMile. “I don’t think an actor should be out there too much because it takes away the mystery of who you are. I think it’s better to stay under the radar.” Of course, Liotta never could manage to stay under the radar when it mattered; he was too good. And cinema was all the richer for it.

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