Martin Scorsese Remembers the Moment He Knew He Wanted the Late Ray Liotta for ‘Goodfellas’

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Screening of "Goodfellas" - Credit: Ron Galella Collection via Getty
Screening of "Goodfellas" - Credit: Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Martin Scorsese expressed his regret at not getting to work with Ray Lotta again while reflecting on their lone — albeit legendary — collaboration, Goodfellas, in a Guardian tribute to the late actor, who died last month at the age of 67.

While 1990’s Goodfellas was the only film Scorsese and Liotta did together, the director said they frequently tried to find other projects to collaborate on but were never able to get the timing right. The impetus was there again, Scorsese said, after he watched Liotta play a divorce attorney in Noah Baumbach’s 2019 drama, Marriage Story. 

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“[H]e’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,” Scorsese said.

Of course, much of Scorsese’s tribute focused on Goodfellas, with the filmmaker recalling how Liotta embodied the unique mix of danger, charm, and vulnerability necessary to play the mobster Henry Hill. Scorsese even said he first knew he wanted Liotta to play Hill, not while watching him in some other movie (though he noted how much he loved the actor in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild), but when he saw the budding star handle a classic Hollywood situation at the Venice Film Festival. 

Scorsese said the two spotted each other at a hotel, but when Liotta tried to approach him, he was blocked by 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,” Scorsese recalled. “He looked at me, I looked at him, and we signaled 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.”

While making Goodfellas, Scorsese said, Liotta quickly ingratiated himself into a cast and crew that included many people who’d been working together for years. The bond proved crucial when Liotta got some horrible news about his mother’s cancer diagnosis just as he was supposed to shoot one of the most celebratory scenes in Goodfellas: when Hill and his cohorts Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) pay tribute to mob boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino) following their big Air France heist. While Scorsese told Liotta he should go be with his mother, the actor was adamant they shoot the scene first.

“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,” Scorsese said. “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.”

In closing his tribute, Scorsese said of Liotta: “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.”

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