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Martin Scorsese Shared the Unexpected Moment He Knew Ray Liotta Would Be The Star of ‘Goodfellas’

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / CaptainOT / MovieStillsDB, colorized with Palette.FM
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / CaptainOT / MovieStillsDB, colorized with Palette.FM

In February 2023 late actor Ray Liotta received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Before his untimely death at age 67, Liotta spent 50 years working in film and television, but his most iconic role in the 1990 film Goodfellas is what made him one of Hollywood’s most magnetic and intense actors.

Recently, director Martin Scorsese reflected on an unexpected encounter that led him to discover that Ray Liotta was made to play Goodfella‘s lead Henry Hill.

The coincidence that led Liotta to Scorsese

Ray Allen Liotta was born in 1954 in Newark, New Jersey. Liotta grew up a successful athlete in high school, playing both basketball and soccer. After graduating in 1973, Liotta studied acting at the University of Miami. His first major role was as Joey Perrini on the daytime soap opera Another World in 1981.

Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams
Liotta as ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures / mdew / MovieStillsDB)

After moving to Hollywood to pursue his burgeoning acting career, Liotta landed the role of Ray Sinclair, opposite Melanie Griffith in the 1986 rom-com Something Wild. Critics and audiences alike fell for the fresh-faced star, launching Liotta’s career overnight and leading him to star in the 1989 classic Field of Dreams. Scorsese recalled in a recent interview with Variety that Liotta’s role in Something Wild impressed the writer-director when considering him for Goodfellas. Still, he worried that Liotta would struggle to “carry the whole picture.”

“He had to look like he could have come out of that world, he had to have a certain innocence, he had to have authority, but most of all he needed charm as a counterweight to the violence and the horrifying behavior,” Scorsese said. At the time, Scorsese put the thought of Liotta as Henry Hill on the back burner, but all that changed during a chance encounter in Venice, Italy of all places.

Finding Henry Hill: the moment it clicked

Scorsese was in Venice promoting The Last Temptation of Christ, a film adaptation of the novel by the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, when he and Liotta unexpectedly ran into one another. “I was staying at the Excelsior Hotel I was crossing the lobby to do an interview and I saw Ray waving to me on the other side of the room – he was there with ‘Dominick and Eugene’. He headed toward me to say hello and he was confronted by a phalanx of security,” Scorsese recalled. “And… he handled it. Perfectly.”

Still of Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Paul Sorvino, Martin Scorsese, and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
The men of Goodfellas with Martin Scorsese (L to R): Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Paul Sorvino, Martin Scorsese, and Joe Pesci. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Zayne / MovieStillsDB)

The director had stepped up his security after receiving several death threats for his adaptation of Kazantzakis’ book, specifically how it portrays Jesus Christ. Scorsese described Liotta’s approach to the barrage of security, explaining he “reacted very quietly, very calmly, politely. He allowed them to observe their protocols and he defused the situation. He looked at me, I looked at him, we signaled to each other that we would talk at a more convenient moment, and we went our separate ways.”

Not long after their Venice interaction, Scorsese gave Liotta the leading role in Goodfellas and the rest is history. “I took a little more time to think about it, but I realize now I was just going through the motions,” the director admitted. “That was when I knew he would be Henry Hill.” Liotta and Scorsese worked closely while filming Goodfellas, especially since Liotta’s character would appear in almost every single scene of the two-and-a-half-hour-long crime drama.

Scorsese has ‘never experienced anything like’ filming Goodfellas

Even through troubling personal issues, Liotta remained aware of the immense pressure of being the lead. Scorsese remembered once on set when he heard Liotta had just been given some bad news. “I went to his trailer and when I walked in he was in tears,” the director said. “His mother was dying.”

Robert De Niro as James Conway and Ray Liotta in Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Zayne / MovieStillsDB)

“I remember his words, repeated over and over: ‘She adopted me and raised me, she’s the sweetest woman, why does she have this terrible cancer?'” Scorsese told Liotta that he should leave the set to be with his mother, but Liotta refused. What happened next was unexpected.

After making sure Liotta actually wanted to stay and finish filming for the day, Scorsese walked back to set with Liotta to shoot a scene where the characters had just nabbed their first “big score.” The director told the other actors on set about the situation before they started rolling. “And the solidarity we all felt with Ray, the feeling of collective mourning, fueled the euphoria of the onscreen moment: tears and sorrow were transformed into laughter and jubilation,” Scorsese reminisced. “I’d never experienced anything like it, and I haven’t since.”

Ray Liotta died in his sleep on May 26, 2022, while filming Dangerous Waters in the Dominican Republic. He left behind his daughter Karsen Liotta and fiancee Jacy Nittolo.

More from us: Remembering Ray Liotta’s Best Movie Roles

Scorsese also talked about Liotta’s legacy, especially his “tough guy” on-screen persona. Divulging Liotta’s true nature beyond the mobster stereotype, the Oscar-winning director spoke about what made Ray Liotta such a potent actor: “Yes, his manner and his appearance and the quality of his voice meant that he was cast more often as ‘tough guys’ than in pictures like Field of Dreams, but that’s true for every actor. It was his fearlessness, combined with his control and intelligence, that made him so great.”

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast