The great director remembers the actor’s astonishing performance in his gangster classic – and the day the distraught star had to play a euphoric scene right after receiving tragic news
‘He had to be dangerous, disarming – and innocent’ … Liotta with Robert de Niro in Goodfellas. Photograph: Warner Bros./Barry Wetcher/Allstar
We had some problems trying to get Goodfellas made. It came at a low moment in my career and the studios were not exactly eager to work with me. And it was a big production, with locations all over New York and many speaking parts. We also needed to find just the right actor to play the lead, Henry Hill. The part required a rare combination of qualities. He needed to be dangerous. He needed to be disarming. He needed to be vulnerable. Within the context of the world we were dealing with, he had to be something close to an innocent, the guy who was always there, witnessing everything, along for the ride. And, it goes without saying, he needed to look and act like he might have come out of that world.
Eventually, it came down to a handful of names. One of them was Ray Liotta.
Like everyone else in and out of the movie business, I was stunned by his performance in my friend Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Halfway through the picture, he walked in and more or less took it over. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. But Ray’s role in Something Wild was finite, and I wondered if he could carry a whole picture.
I found him distraught in his trailer. His mother was dying. He kept saying: ‘Why does she have this terrible cancer?’
Two very interesting things happened. My producer, Irwin Winkler, did not see Ray in the role. He didn’t think he had enough charm to counterbalance all the violence and the excess. One night, while Irwin was having dinner in a Santa Monica restaurant with his wife Margo and his friend Richard Zanuck, Ray politely approached him and asked for a couple of minutes of his time. They walked into a quiet corner, they talked, and right then and there Ray persuaded Irwin.
When The Last Temptation of Christ had its world premiere at the Venice film festival, I was crossing the lobby of the Excelsior hotel on my way to an interview. Ray and I saw each other from across the lobby, and he headed toward me to say hello and check in with me. He came near and then he hit a wall of security. Instead of throwing a fit and demanding that he be allowed through, he reacted quietly and calmly, observed the rules and patiently defused the situation. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we signalled that we would talk, and he walked away. I watched it all very closely, and I saw him handle the situation with quiet authority and a real elegance. Actually, that was just what the role needed. When I look back on it, I believe that was the moment when I knew I wanted Ray to play Henry Hill.
The word “fearless” is used quite often to describe actors, and with good reason: actors need to be fearless. They have to jump in and just go, and they have to stumble and fail and risk appearing ridiculous as they’re finding their way into a role. That’s just part of the work. On Goodfellas, we were working improvisationally in most scenes, and many members of the team had known each other and worked together for years, including my mother and my father. Into that walked the new guy, Ray Liotta, and he never missed a beat. It felt like we’d worked together for years.
I will never forget the day we shot the scene where Henry, Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) bring their tribute money from the Air France heist to Paulie, played by Paul Sorvino. When they were setting up, I got word that Ray had just gotten a call with bad news. I went right to his trailer and found him completely distraught. His mother was dying. I remember that he kept saying: “She adopted me and raised me, she’s the sweetest woman there is – why does she have this terrible cancer? Why?”
I told him that he had to go to be with her, but he was adamant: he wanted to do the scene before he left. We walked to the set together, everyone was told what was happening, and something extraordinary happened when we rolled. The scene was all about the euphoria of the characters after making their first big score, and everyone came together in an emotional bond around Ray: as everyone was laughing and celebrating, they were mourning with him at the same time. Laughter and tears, tears and laughter … they were one and the same. Ray did the scene so beautifully, and then he left to be with his beloved mother. It was a rare experience.
We had many plans to work together again but the timing was always off, or the project wasn’t quite right. I regret that now. When I watched Ray as the divorce lawyer in Marriage Story – he’s genuinely scary in the role, which is precisely why he’s so funny – I remember feeling that I wanted to work with him again at this point in his life, to explore the gravity in his presence, so different from the young, sprightly actor he was when I met him.
I wish I’d had the chance to see him just once more, too – to tell him just how much the work we did together meant to me. But maybe he knew that. I hope so.