Not Your Typical Wise Guy : Why Ray Liotta had a tough time getting a deal he didn't want to refuse--a leading role in Martin Scorsese's Mafia movie, 'GoodFellas'

You look at Ray Liotta, and you think that this guy with the premature 5 o'clock shadow and the dangerous eyes would just as soon shove his heaping bowl of bow-tie pasta in your face during lunch as force himself to be pleasant for the next few hours.

You think that, and you are wrong.

In fact, he's as agreeable as a new employee on his first day at work. You don't like avocado. Liotta says he doesn't like avocado. You appear fidgety. Liotta says he's fidgety. You don't smoke. Well, on that one, Liotta can't comply. But you half expect him to stand up and renounce cigarettes from that moment on.

And so, when Liotta starts to tell the story about how he wanted to hang out with Robert DeNiro during the filming of "GoodFellas," you think that anyone this eager to please must now be Bobby's bosom buddy. You think that, and you are wrong.

"It's not so much I wanted to work the character over with DeNiro as much as it was wanting him to like me. I wanted to become one of Bob's friends," Liotta says sheepishly. "I remember I kept saying to Marty (Scorsese) that maybe we should all go out to dinner with Bob. And I said to Joe (Pesci) that maybe he should set something up where all of us go out. And so DeNiro is hearing this from all these other people. And I finally said to him, 'You know, it would be nice to go out to dinner or something like that.' But nothing."

One day, when the actors were getting ready to go home after a rehearsal, DeNiro came up to Liotta, chucked him on the arm and said, "Don't worry about it. This is all going to work out."

"And," Liotta grimaces, "I felt like such a kid. "

At 35, Liotta is anything but a kid. But, just like DeNiro in "Taxi Driver," this not-yet-household-name had to star in almost every frame of a Scorsese movie and earn rave reviews in order to truly become a "goodfella" in the movie community's eyes. "It's interesting that the underground word of mouth has made him a finance-able entity before the film has even come out," points out producer Irwin Winkler.

Hearing this, Liotta rolls his eyes heavenward. "I should be so lucky."

You think after three major film roles, all of them well-received, from the ex-con crazoid in "Something Wild" to the caring normal brother in "Dominick and Eugene," to the pivotal Shoeless Joe of "Field of Dreams," that Liotta wouldn't have had to sell himself quite so hard to the folks making "GoodFellas." You think that, and you are wrong.

While DeNiro is only a supporting actor, Liotta has the central role of Henry Hill, a small-time Mafioso. The film follows Hill from his boyish wonderment at the murder and mayhem of the gangsters across the street, through his initiation into the rites of Mafia manhood, and even into prison--although it looks more like a suburban New York living room. With Lorraine Bracco as his Jewish wife Karen, Liotta plays the real-life half-Sicilian, half-Irish hood who became the subject of Nicholas Pileggi's best-seller, "Wiseguy." (Pileggi co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese.) Being Scorsese's first choice didn't automatically mean Liotta would be cast. "It's just amazing to me that Marty Scorsese says this is who he wants, and they don't buy it. But when a studio's putting this much money into a movie, they would rather have Eddie Murphy in it than me," Liotta explains matter-of-factly. In hot pursuit were Val Kilmer, Nicholas Cage and Alec Baldwin, sources say. Tom Cruise, of course, got first right of refusal.

It had been DeNiro who reminded Scorsese about Liotta's riveting screen debut in "Something Wild." A meeting was arranged. "Marty was really cool, because he just trusts himself and knows what he wants. I never read a scene. We just talked in general."

Their next face-to-face took place a month later in Venice, where Liotta's "Dominick and Eugene" was earning praise for the actor and Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was sparking death threats against the director. So when Liotta went up to Scorsese on the Lido beach, the director's security men jumped all over him. "I wanted to refresh his memory, because, you know, these guys forget all about you. I go to reach for him, and the bodyguards pull me off. Marty looks up real quick, and he says, 'No, it's all right,' and he picks up the conversation like it happened the night before."

Now, Scorsese is leaning towards casting Liotta, but still there's resistance. "I called up everybody I knew that knew somebody," Liotta recalls. The most fateful meeting happened by accident at the 72 Market Street restaurant, when Liotta ran into the film's producer Irwin Winkler at dinner. "I didn't want him," Winkler admits. "I felt that the character needed a lot of sympathy, and I had just seen Ray in 'Something Wild,' so I kept saying to Marty, 'Jeez, are you really sure?' But that night, Ray walked over and introduced himself to me and we started chatting, and I realized that Marty was absolutely right. He was warm and gracious and had a lot of the qualities that Marty wanted for this character."

"That's when I knew I had it," Liotta says. "That night he said it looks like this is going to work out, so I wasn't able to eat for three days after that."

Even now, Liotta calls the process "horrible, horrible, horrible. It has nothing to do with you personally. And then the dream just falls into place. I just couldn't wait to work with people who wanted to play as deeply as I did. Because I really believe it's a game, but I believe that what makes someone stand out is they commit themselves deeper and fuller than maybe other actors do."

The way Lorraine Bracco recalls it, Liotta quickly got over his awe at just being cast in the movie. "I think, initially, we both were: 'Oh-my-God we're here rehearsing with Marty Scorsese .' But then I believe on a set your director and your lead actor or actress sets the tone of the movie. And Ray knew where he wanted to go. So much so that I would say to myself, 'Oh-my-God, I've got to go home and do my homework because otherwise I'm in deep trouble with him tomorrow.' "

You look at Liotta, and you think that here is yet another method actor who gets so into a tough guy role that he was probably kicking small dogs and mowing down pedestrians both off screen as well as on. You think that, and you are wrong.

"Ray supported me and loved me and cared for me," Bracco recalls. "When we did very heavy scenes during the day and I went home blown away, he would call me at night and say, 'Are you all right, honey?' "

But the best story, again, is one Liotta tells about himself.

Researching his latest role for Orion in a film, "Article 99" about a VA hospital surgeon who bucks the system, Liotta had been following around the chief of surgery at Cedars-Sinai. Over the weeks, the actor had gotten so close to heart transplants and liver surgeries that he could reach out and touch the organs. But, on this particular day, he was looking at the inside of a 60-year-old man's stomach when the doctor stuck a 4-inch needle into it.

"I walked out, light-headed, and, BOOM, I was gone." He needed 15 stitches on his chin and dental work on two chipped teeth. But what really outraged him was that "as these Scorseses and DeNiros of surgery were sewing him back together, they were laughing at me! Laughing at me!"

To erase his embarrassment, the actor starts to sing along to the song, "Every Breath You Take" being played by the Muzak-making harpist. When some heads in the room turn towards him, he turns to them and grins. It's not enough that this journalist must like him. He wants the whole room to like him. "I was just joking. Sounded good though, didnit? Thought I was Sting for minute, didnja?"

When he speaks with a heavy accent like this, you think that this guy grew up on the mean streets of New York. You think that, and you are wrong.

In fact, Liotta spent his childhood in the middle-class safety net of Union, N.J. And, instead of a big ethnic family with spaghetti stains on their collars and cabbage smells in their clothes, Liotta was the eldest of two children of an Italian father and a Scottish/Irish mother who together successfully ran an auto parts business and unsuccessfully ran for various political offices.

It was, as he recalls it, "regular, normal." He was even a goody-goody, getting into only one fight in his life, and that was in the 7th grade when kids were staking out territory in junior high. "I never wanted to get in trouble," he recalls.

At first, his acting was an accident. When a classmate fell ill on the day of the 6th-grade play, he stood in and was "a nervous wreck." Too small to be any good at basketball in high school, he joined the drama club.

At the University of Miami, a pretty girl at registration asked if he was going out for the play that night, and next thing Liotta knew, he was auditioning for "Cabaret" by telling a sad story, croaking a song and dancing "like a scarecrow. I had no idea how to do any of this sort of stuff," Liotta recalls. "But my father's philosophy was that you should try everything, see what's out there and decide what you like. And if you make a fool of yourself, who cares?"

Over the next three years, he starred in serious dramas, and after graduating in 1978 headed to New York City. On his third day, he landed a commercial, and within a few weeks he was screen testing for director Robert Zemeckis' first movie, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." He didn't get the part. After only six months of bartending for the Shubert Organization theaters, he joined the NBC soap "Another World," playing "the nicest guy in the world." For the next 3 1/2 years, he didn't worry about the future. "I had no preconceptions about my career. I mean, I didn't need to be a movie star by 22. I didn't know how to go about even getting into the movies. But then, enough's enough, and I quit the soap.

"And there was five years of nothing."

He had parts in two blink-and-you-missed-them TV series--"Casablanca" and "Our Family Honor"--but mostly he saw other acting careers going somewhere and his going nowhere. At least that was the case for his good friend and college classmate Steve Bauer, who starred in "Scarface." Bauer with his then-wife Melanie Griffith was living in Liotta's New York apartment while Liotta camped out in Griffith's beach hut in Malibu.

Liotta also was taking acting classes with Bauer's and Griffith's teacher, Harry Mastrogeorge, and it was there he heard that Jonathan Demme was looking to cast an unknown as the violent ex-con Ray Sinclair in Orion's "Something Wild." But when Liotta's agent didn't have the clout to get him in to read, Liotta called up Griffith, who was already cast in it. "And she said, 'Oh, yeah, what a good idea!' " Liotta remembers. "Why didn't she think of that before, I always wonder?"

But Demme had already narrowed the search down to three actors and didn't really want to interview any more, as Liotta tells it. "So now I was really angry, and the part was really angry, so I had everything going for me." He had no problem being convincing when he had to kick the walls in.

One week later, Liotta landed the role, for which he won the Boston Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination. Big agencies like CAA came acalling (he later signed with them), scripts came aflooding. "And I had offers for every crazy guy around," says Liotta.

Indeed, so frightening was his performance that he almost became pigeonholed as Hollywood's resident psychopath. Not until a year later, among half a dozen or so scripts that Orion had sent him, did Liotta find the role of the brother of a brain-damaged man, played by Tom Hulce, in "Dominick and Eugene." But even after the producers and director decided he was right for the part, he came perilously close to losing it.

"It was really kind of love at first sight," says producer Mike Farrell. "But after we agreed he was the guy, I said, 'You know, I haven't seen this picture 'Something Wild,' and I ought to at least take a look at it. And right after I watched it, I called my partner and I said, 'Wait a minute! This murdering, outrageous satanic bastard guy scares the hell out of me. I'm not so sure he can be the sweet dear brother we need him to be.' So we took Ray out to lunch and talked to him a little more, and he was just so sweet--it's the best word I can think of--that he sort of erased all my fears."

When the reviews came in, it was Hulce's performance that received most attention. Ultimately, the film's producers submitted Hulce for an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and Liotta for Best Supporting Actor even though the two roles had been equal in size. "Ray's smart and he's decent and he understood that it'd be crazy for the two of them to butt heads. And that's why I tell people to see the movie twice," says Farrell. "Because if you watch a second time you'll see that if there's a better performance in the picture than Tom's, it's Ray's."

Liotta's third movie role was even more different from the previous ones--that of baseball legend Shoeless Joe in "Field of Dreams." A little too different for Liotta's taste, at first. "I read that script and said, 'What, are you kidding me? A dead guy who comes back to play baseball?' And I hadn't played baseball since the 9th grade," he laughs. But pushed to take the role by his agent, the actor spent months working out with the USC baseball coach.

Still, even now, it's not a movie he likes to dwell on--"too Hollywood"--even though more people saw him hidden under that baseball cap than all the viewers of his other two films put together. But being in a hit at the box office has never really interested him, he says, even though his own father was pushing him to take any offer for a lot of money. "My father was a Depression baby, so it was that kind of mentality. But I'd rather get lesser numbers and be able to do what I want than to get big numbers and be pigeonholed into choices that you make to fit the personality that you're playing."

He indicates that he couldn't have handled success if it had come earlier. "I think I was not the most pleasant person in the world when I got the soap when I was younger. There's a certain amount of cockiness and arrogance at that age of trying to find out who you are.

"Besides,' he adds, "most of the major people who've sustained are people who've had it happen in their 30s. Because the quality and the depth and the range of the people you're going to get to play at 30 is a lot deeper than someone you're going to play at 20. Not to get philosophical, but everything happens for a reason."

Indeed, success doesn't seem to have shaken up Liotta. He lives modestly in the Valley, drives a not-so-new Japanese sports car, dresses without sartorial elegance, continues with acting classes and hangs out at actor bars. He can't even watch himself on screen. And instead of showing up on the party pages of magazines elbow to elbow with the Flavor-of-the-Month actor and actress, he still hangs with The Guys From Junior High, saying it as if it's some cool club you don't yet know about. "Even from kindergarten," he says proudly.

You think that a guy this sentimental might get emotional when the "GoodFellas" billboard went up on Sunset Boulevard. You think that, and you are wrong.

"It was weird. Right by Spago. It was a trip," he admits. There he was, larger than life alongside the two actors, the director and the editor from "Raging Bull," deemed the best movie of the last decade by movie critics everywhere. "And here I am, my first major role with these guys. The day I saw it, I sat and just twitched a lot.

"And then I said, 'Well, that's OK. Enough.' "

And, for that moment, you think this guy understands how the man he plays in the movie, Henry Hill, must have felt when he saw his life story played out on the screen.

You think that, and, at last, you are right.

"He called me just two days ago telling me he had finally seen the movie. And he had been really afraid, in his words, 'that he would just come off as this scumbag.'

"But he was all choked up and said, 'I can't believe you never met me before. Because you got everything down.' That must be a trip, just to see his whole life passing before his eyes. And then have Scorcese and DeNiro tell your story. And you're just a wiseguy. A punk."

For several minutes, Liotta is focused on that thought.

And then he says in a voice barely above a whisper, "I held my own-- maybe ."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°