A real wiseguy

Times Staff Writer

Henry Hill is at the office doing something he loves and hates -- reflecting on himself.

To the unfamiliar, it would appear that a thin, tanned 60-year-old man with close-cropped gray hair is enjoying an afternoon at West Hollywood’s Palm Restaurant. But to Hill, the steakhouse’s dark wood bar casts him back some four decades when he was a young kid working for the Lucchese crime family in New York.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 5, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Henry Hill -- An article in Friday’s Calendar section indicated that Henry Hill was a co-author with Nicholas Pileggi of “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.” The book was based on Hill’s life, but Pileggi was the sole author.

“I’m used to hanging out in saloons,” said Hill, whose wild life of crime was chronicled in his book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” which became the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie “GoodFellas.” “This is where I work.”

He likes the familiarity of the heavy oak counter, a place in his shadowy past where stories were told, deals were made, disputes were settled and crimes were plotted. But today he is laughing, telling jokes and hoping to capitalize again on the nation’s mob fetish with his new book “Gangsters and Goodfellas: The Mob, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run.”

American pop culture is saturated with images of mobsters, from “Little Caesar” in 1930 to Sunday night’s season finale of “The Sopranos.” In fact, it’s often hard to separate the reality of mob life from the myth of mob life created by Hollywood (characters in “The Sopranos,” for example, regularly refer to lines from “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas”). So Hill, an informant who helped put away many of his former associates, says now he doesn’t live in fear of being murdered by the mob -- they’re too busy using him as a connection into the movie industry.


“I have no idea why people are so interested in gangsters,” said Hill, whose first book (co-written by Nicholas Pileggi) was a national bestseller. “Come on, people are bored.”

Released this month, Hill’s new conversationally written book is an often kaleidoscopic, sometimes darkly humorous fish-out-of-water tale that bounces between his old gangster days and his colorful experiences after escaping organized crime in New York. What he expected was a normal life, to be an average Joe, made anonymous and safe by the federal witness protection program. But what the 262-page book co-written with Gus Russo quickly makes clear is this didn’t happen, and almost certainly never will.

In the first of many stops around the country, Hill was told by federal agents on the airplane departing New York that he and his family were headed to Omaha, recalled Hill, dressed this day in tan cargo pants and a beige-and-white vertically striped shirt. “But that’s it.”

From there, the hoped-for life of quietude quickly spun out of control. As Hill testified in the coming years against his former mob associates in the United States and Italy -- helping to put away some 50 gangsters -- two marriages failed and a third was on the rocks against a chaotic backdrop of affairs, gambling, money woes, illegal schemes and drug and alcohol addiction.

As he sits at the Palm’s bar, feet away from a wall of alcohol, Hill blames his genes for his drinking problem. It’s something he’s battled for more than a decade in 15 treatment programs, one as recent as last month. His father, a working-class man struggling to raise eight kids in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, would regularly down a couple of fifths of whiskey a day. He’d stagger by the schoolyard, steadying himself from one telephone pole to the next, while Henry’s friends laughed.

Hill also blames his situation. “There was a time in my life I would have put a gun in my mouth for even thinking about becoming an informant,” he said. The pressure of court appearances, facing his one-time partners in crime and becoming a turncoat tormented and eventually overwhelmed him.

“It’s not easy getting up on the stand,” he said. “It takes a lot out of you and it drove my addictions. I mean everybody would pat me on the back and say, ‘Here Henry, take some drugs, take some Valium, calm down. Have some of this, have some of that. Have some alcohol.’ ”

“They enabled me,” he continued. “The government enabled me, my friends enabled me, the movie industry enabled me. I didn’t want to be myself, I wanted to kill those feelings.”

Then, less than half an hour into the interview, with his business manager and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor by his side, Hill, who occasionally works as an outreach counselor to substance abusers, announced he was going to order a drink.

“Come on, have a drink with me,” urged Hill, who has three children from two marriages. “You have to drink with me. Come on, one drink.”

He orders a Crown and coke. About 15 minutes later when a photographer arrives, he orders another. “This is my last one. Last one, really.”

Hill isn’t running from the mob anymore, he’s running from himself.

“I just try to be one grain of sand better every day,” he added, taking a sip. “I hope I die sober.”


In hiding

Given the mob’s legendary vengeance against traitors, it may be surprising to some that Hill isn’t dead already, particularly after leaving the witness protection program years ago. He was in the program for about 10 years and there were several close calls in his early years of hiding from the mob, according to Hill, who now spends most of his time in Los Angeles.

After nine months of living in the Midwest, he and his family were ordered by federal agents to pack and leave Omaha almost overnight. There had been what would be one of many security breaches and their lives were in danger. The mob had learned Hill was in the Midwest. His first wife and their two children ended up in Kentucky, where new identities and stories had to be manufactured once again.

“I praise the witness protection program,” said Hill, who was assigned the names Peter Haines and Martin Todd Lewis at different times. “They kept me safe when I didn’t know how to keep myself safe. They kept me alive.”

But over the years his mob adversaries have been felled either by life sentences in prison or by death -- both from natural and unnatural causes. Still, he has security concerns. He said he noticed a couple of cars following him on his way to the restaurant for the interview.

“I’m worried about some stalker or some punk kid trying to make a rep for himself or something,” he said. “The mob? They don’t care about me anymore. Are you kidding? They send me their scripts and treatments to sell in Hollywood.”

Ever since “GoodFellas,” which paid him $480,000, Hill has made an on-and-off living in the entertainment industry, even establishing his own production company.

The glamour of his mob days has often made him a sought-after consultant for movies and television shows. In the new book, Hill says he ran up huge phone bills fielding calls from the set of “GoodFellas.” One call came as Hill’s third child was being born when Robert De Niro needed advice on how to pistol-whip a guy.

After a life in organized crime, Hill wasn’t prepared for the sharks of Hollywood. “What I say is, ‘I survived the mob. I survived the government. I’ll never survive this lunatic town,’ ” Hill writes, blasting Hollywood’s infamous creative accounting techniques. “A little piece of advice for you writers out there: If you’re going to go to a studio, fuhgeddaboutit, don’t go for the back-end [points]. Take the money up front or fuhgeddaboutit. That’s Hollywood.”

Hill loves “The Sopranos,” though he decries inaccuracies in the show every now and then. Like last season, when Mafia members and loved ones staged an intervention for Tony Soprano’s nephew Christopher, who’d become addicted to heroin.

“You know what a mob intervention is?” he said. “They take you away in shackles and handcuffs and put you in some tenement basement in Brooklyn until you kick it. Then they say, ‘You want some drugs? You want to be a wiseguy or a doper?’ Usually though, they’ll just whack you.”

Like everyone else, Hill has his own speculation about how the show’s sixth and final season, slated for production in early 2005, will conclude. He thinks that after Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela, learns Chris’ fiancee has been murdered, she will persuade Tony to work for the government. Then, the couple and their children will disappear in the witness protection program.

“Tony is in a hell of a mess,” Hill said. “He’s fighting the New York mob, he’s fighting his own crew, and he may have no other choice than to flip. You know, Tony is still a human being despite all the bull. Not like that Chris. I thought he was a human being too, but after sanctioning his old lady [fiancee Adriana] being whacked -- he’s a sociopath.”

He finishes his second drink.

“You know, I wish I could take a pill, call a doctor, sit with [‘Sopranos’ therapist] Dr. Melfi or something for all these thoughts in my head,” he said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

He pauses again. “I just want to be a grain of sand better today than yesterday. That’s it, just one grain of sand better.”