Martin Scorsese recalls the chance encounter that led him to cast Ray Liotta as gangster Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Liotta was a relative unknown when he entered the chase to star in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the director’s 1990 return to the gangster genre. But the actor’s lack of cinematic experience ultimately did not deter Scorsese from choosing him to hold down the movie’s lead role alongside such movie heavyweights as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino.
As Liotta’s many fans wait to celebrate the late actor’s posthumous induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Scorsese took a moment to remember the Goodfellas star, and relate a fun story about why he chose Liotta over the other actors up for the role. Speaking to Variety, Scorsese said that he liked Liotta’s audition, but still wasn’t sure if the young actor had the goods to carry a whole movie. Then something happened by chance at the Venice Film Festival that helped Scorsese make up his mind:
“We were thinking about just a few actors to play Henry Hill, and Ray was one of them. I had one concern. I knew that he could handle a role like the one he had in Something Wild, but here he would have 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. I loved Ray’s work, we got along very well whenever we met and I knew we could work together.
“And then, something clicked into place. 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. And… he handled it. Perfectly.”
Scorsese Made The Right Choice Casting Ray Liotta As Henry Hill
Goodfellas is of course now thought of as a genuine Hollywood classic, and Liotta is so integral to its effect that it’s hard to imagine anyone else but him in the role of Henry Hill. Liotta certainly possesses the authority Scorsese says was an important aspect of the character, but he also has that touch of boyishness that makes him convincing in early scenes when he’s still relatively new to the mobster game. And it’s true that he also possesses the charm needed to balance off all the horrific things that happen in the movie. He also happened to be very convincing playing coked-up paranoia in the film’s brilliant final act.
It is indeed somewhat remarkable that Liotta was not recognized more for his great performance at the time Goodfellas came out, but in 1990, he was somewhat overshadowed by co-stars De Niro and Pesci. But as the years have gone on, Liotta’s work in the film has come to be properly recognized for how great it truly is. Goodfellas is indeed a classic, and Liotta is at the center of the whole thing, holding it together just as Scorsese believed he would be able to do. It’s wild to think that Scorsese wasn’t actually convinced by Liotta’s audition, but by something random that happened in real life.
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