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'As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster'

Thus begins 'Goodfellas', the film about wiseguy Henry Hill, who has died. By Guy Adams

Thursday 14 June 2012 11:58 BST
Henry Hill pictured in an FBI mugshot from 1980
Henry Hill pictured in an FBI mugshot from 1980

There was no hail of bullets, or pair of concrete boots. No guns, knives, handcuffs, 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-police-informant, whose career was immortalised in the film 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 books, talks and films about his 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 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 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 American soil.

Most famously, Hill's journey became the subject of perhaps the greatest gangster film ever made: Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Goodfellas, in which he was played by Ray Liotta.

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

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 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".

In 1980, Hill was arrested for drug trafficking and agreed to turn FBI informant. He subsequently gave evidence in court against roughly 50 of the organised criminals he had once worked with. In return, he and his family were placed in the Witness Protection Programme. He duly spent the last years of his life as a sort of celebrity mobster, living in California, selling paintings, giving lectures and appearing as an occasional host of an Italian cooking show. 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."

In the end, Henry Hill managed to confound everyone's expectations, even his own.

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