Ray Liotta hops a horse to join 'Texas Rising'

Conscience-stricken mobster. Time-traveling baseball player. But Ray Liotta has never had a role like this

If you happen to run into Ray Liotta while you're out and about, there's no need to worry. He's not going to hurt you.

Sure, a few nervous shudders might be understandable for those who recall Liotta's menacing screen personas. From his roles as the charming but terrifying nut job in "Something Wild" to the wise guy in "GoodFellas," it seems only natural to wonder if Liotta is tapping into a real dark side of his personality. And even those tequila commercials of late that revolve around his shark-like gaze while sitting at a bar only burnish his tough guy image.

But in person, Liotta is more light than dark. In a recent stop in Pasadena to promote his latest project, History's "Texas Rising" miniseries, the 60-year-old actor with the born-to-be-bad face was the polar opposite of his more notorious alter egos. Warm, polite and good-humored, Liotta pointed out that contrary to perception he's actually played more good guys than bad.

After all, his lengthy résumé includes several comedies ("Operation Dumbo Drop"), and he won praise for his softer, more nuanced portrayals as Shoeless Joe Jackson in the baseball classic "Field of Dreams," Frank Sinatra in HBO's "The Rat Pack" and a preacher in last year's "The Identical."

"In the beginning, I would get defensive about it," said Liotta. "But I just think the bad guys stand out in people's minds.

"There's a ton of actors who play both good guys and bad guys. But you remember them more for their bad guys. I just did a Muppets movie with Danny Trejo where we're singing and dancing with the Muppets."

In a diverse career spanning three decades that has included practically every genre imaginable — including a short-lived 2006 CBS drama, "Smith," about a professional thief — "Texas Rising" represents something of a first for the actor: He's never starred in a western.

Directed by Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields"), "Texas Rising" is the cable network's 10-hour miniseries about the Texas Revolution and the rise of the state's legendary Rangers. Produced by the same creative forces as History's widely successful award-winning series "Hatfields & McCoys," the epic tale features a massive cast that includes Bill Paxton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olivier Martinez, Thomas Jane and Kris Kristofferson. The series premieres Monday.

Wearing a full white beard and wildly unkempt hair, Liotta is almost unrecognizable as "Lorca," an Alamo survivor who becomes a self-appointed angel of death after his family is murdered by Mexican general Santa Ana's troops.

"My character is just maniacal about killing these people who killed his family," said Liotta, who based his grim look on historical records. "When you're living out in the woods or in the mountains, there's no grooming, no shaving."

Though down and dirty as a vengeful gunslinger, Liotta said filming, which included riding horses at full speed across the open spaces of Durango, Mexico, marked a career high point.

"This was perhaps the most exhilarating experience I've had on a set," Liotta said. "The scope of this movie is just incredible."

Executive producer Leslie Greif said Liotta brought a dedication and focus to the project that rubbed off on his costars. The producer added that he felt Liotta's portrayal is a key to the series' success.

"He really had the skill set to develop the complexity of the character and try to find the humanity in him," said Greif. "It's a very layered character, and you need an actor who can understand nuance."

Just as Liotta was new to westerns, so he was mostly to horse riding. The actor trained at length to make his many horse-riding scenes stand up to scrutiny.

"He committed to riding every day," Greif said. "He wanted to be fluent and natural on that horse, wanted to feel like he was a warrior."

But it was more than the role that inspired Liotta. He became obsessed with horses.

"I wanted to do as much as I could in terms of stunts and riding," said Liotta. "They set all the actors up with this ranch with this guy who is a stunt guy but also a rodeo guy. When I started, I just couldn't stop. I just loved it. I would go four or five times a week, relentlessly, for hours. At this age, I finally have a hobby. I still go to this guy's ranch and sort cattle."

Herding livestock is a long way from his early career when, as a University of Miami graduate, he got his first break in 1978 on the soap opera "Another World." His character, Joey Perrini, was "the nicest guy in the world," he said.

But the actor was eager to stretch his acting muscles and went after the role that would make him a star. Liotta heard that director Jonathan Demme was looking for an actor to play Melanie Griffith's character's ex-con husband in "Something Wild." He tried to get an audition but was shut out.

Griffith, who was a friend of Liotta's, persuaded the director to give Liotta a look. In Demme's DVD commentary for "Something Wild," the director said that Liotta scared him so much that he "had to cast him."

Other movies soon followed, including "Dominick and Eugene," "Cop Land" and "Unlawful Entry." But his best-known role remains mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster film "GoodFellas." The movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Liotta has already participated in a handful of tributes and retrospectives over the past few months.

"People to this day still come and talk to me about 'GoodFellas,'" Liotta said.

The memory of making the film in the New York area, however, is colored because his mother was dying of cancer during the filming.

"My mom lived in New Jersey," he said. "So every weekend I would go home. She passed away in the middle of filming. Doing that movie and that character was a dream come true. But I do have mixed feelings about it."

Since the career milestone of "GoodFellas," the actor has worked steadily, but there have been plenty of misses too. Some of his films have wound up straight to video.

"It's still a nice trade with nice perks," he said. "The fun thing about these movies is, you get to go to a lot of really great places. And now I'm as hungry and as passionate about it as when I first got to college. It's a great way to make a living, but it can be a horrible business.

"There were down periods for me. But it's always about the work. I enjoy the job. I love playing pretend. I've worked with some great directors and actors, and one of the basic things they have in common is this love of playing pretend. There's this electric energy, and it's so much fun to be around people who find that joy in playing pretend."

He's staying busy these days — he's slated to costar with Jennifer Lopez in a new NBC drama, "Shades of Blue." And he's doing the tequila commercials.

"It's about making a living and keeping your face out there," he said. "It's perfect for me because I'm not jumping around. It's just ordering a drink in a suit."

Asked if there was anything left on his showbiz bucket list, Liotta flashed his trademark smile: "I'd like to kiss the girl without having to choke her first."

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