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Ray Liotta, the intense actor from New Jersey best known for his turn as the hustler turned mob rat Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, has died. He was 67.
Publicist Jennifer Allen told The Hollywood Reporter that the actor died Wednesday night or early Thursday in his sleep in his hotel room while in the Dominican Republic making the movie Dangerous Waters. His fiancée, Jacy Nittolo, was with him. He had begun work on the film about a week ago.
The boyish, blue-eyed Liotta also was memorable as Ray Sinclair, the violent ex-convict husband of Melanie Griffith’s character, in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986); as the disgraced Chicago White Sox baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson in the Kevin Costner starrer Field of Dreams (1989); and as the corrupt cop Matt Wozniak on the 2016-18 NBC cop drama Shades of Blue, opposite Jennifer Lopez.
“Ray was the epitome of a tough guy who was all mushy on the inside,” Lopez wrote on Twitter.
Crime stories were his specialty — he was a great choice to narrate Inside the Mafia for the National Geographic Channel in 2005 — and he was superb as shady cops in Unlawful Entry (1992), Cop Land (1997) and Narc (2002) and as the voice of the mobster Tommy Vercetti in the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Amid a career resurgence, Liotta was quite busy recently, with big-screen roles in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move (2021) and Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark (2021) — as two members of the Moltisanti family in the Sopranos prequel — and a gig as a villain on the third season of the Amazon series Hanna.
He starred alongside Taron Egerton on the upcoming Apple TV series Black Bird and, according to IMDb, worked on the still-to-be-released movies Cocaine Bear; The Substance; April 29, 1992; and an untitled Charlie Day-directed film.
GoodFellas (1990) was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s first book, 1985’s Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, which revolved around Hill, a street-level hustler in New York City who decides that the only way to get out of the mob alive is to snitch on his cohorts in the Lucchese crime family.
THR’s Kirk Honeycutt noted in his review that Liotta “fulfills the promise of his [major] film debut in Something Wild. His choir-boy face perfectly masks the character’s dark behavior. As portrayed by Liotta, though, Henry never entirely loses the ‘good’ in the goodfella handle.”
He and co-star Joe Pesci improvised the classic “How am I funny?” sequence after Pesci told a story to Liotta and Scorsese about a situation he got caught in when someone misinterpreted what he was saying and got irate.
Lorraine Bracco, who played his wife in GoodFellas, paid tribute to him on Twitter.
“I am utterly shattered to hear this terrible news about my Ray,” she wrote. “I can be anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is GoodFellas. Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same … Ray Liotta.”
I am utterly shattered to hear this terrible news about my Ray.
I can be anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is Goodfellas. Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same…Ray Liotta. pic.twitter.com/3gNjJFTAne
— Lorraine Bracco (@Lorraine_Bracco) May 26, 2022
Liotta’s résumé included the films Dominick and Eugene (1988), Phoenix (1998), Hannibal (2001), Blow (2001), Heartbreakers (2001), John Q (2002), Identity (2003), Revolver (2005), Smokin’ Aces (2006), Observe and Report (2009), Powder Blue (2009), Killing Them Softly (2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Muppets Most Wanted (2014) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014).
He won an Emmy Award in 2005 for his guest turn as an alcoholic ex-con who comes to County General on the NBC drama ER — an episode that was shot in real-time — then spoofed that performance in Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie (2007).
Raymond Allen Liotta was born in Newark on Dec. 18, 1954. He was adopted by Mary and Alfred Liotta, an auto parts retailer, from an orphanage when he was 6 months old.
“I found my birth mother and found out I have, not an identical twin, but a half-brother, five half-sisters and a full sister that I didn’t know about until 15 years ago,” he told THR in 2014.
“I played pretend games as a kid, army, whatever, but I never wanted to be an actor,” he said in 2012. “Basically I just played sports all the time. Basketball, baseball, football, you know, whatever the season was. But I remember senior year [at Union High School], basketball had stopped and the drama teacher asked me if I wanted to be in the play. So, alright, I’m not doing anything, I’m used to hanging around anyway, sure, I’ll be in the play.”
He studied acting at the University of Miami and graduated in 1978, then worked as a bartender on Broadway before landing the role of nice guy Joey Perrini on Another World; he remained on the NBC soap from 1978-81.
(Years after bartending, he made it to the Broadway stage at the Plymouth Theatre in 2004 in Match, also starring Frank Langella.)
Liotta came to Los Angeles and made his film debut as a rapist in 1983’s The Lonely Lady, starring Pia Zadora, then portrayed a cop in his first primetime series, ABC’s Our Family Honor, in 1985. Three years later, he played Frank Sinatra in the HBO telefilm The Rat Pack.
When he was cast as the vengeful husband in Something Wild — he was tipped about the job because an acting classmate, Steven Bauer, was then married to Griffith — “I was just on pins and needles,” he told THR’s Scott Feinberg during an Awards Chatter interview in 2016. “Remember, I hadn’t done a movie. I was 30 years old.”
GoodFellas, he said a decade ago, “definitely has a life of its own, and it’s only grown over time. People watch it over and over and still respond to it, and different ages come up, even today, teenagers come up to me and they really emotionally connect to it.”
His performances as Sinclair and Hill led to offers to play other rough characters, “but that’s not who I am — I mean, me personally, I’ve never been in a fight in my life, and yet here, now, I’m getting stuck with this tough guy stuff.” Indeed, he said he turned down David Chase’s offer to portray Ralphie Cifaretto on HBO’s The Sopranos (the part went to Joe Pantoliano).
“I may have been managing my career a bit too much,” he told The Washington Post in 2003. “I was an idiot with GoodFellas. I didn’t want to play a bad guy [again] right away, so I let some good things go by before I finally played a good guy.”
Chase got a second chance at working with Liotta in The Many Saints of Newark, and the actor, the producer noted, “created two distinctly separate characters, and each performance was phenomenal.”
In addition to his fiancée, survivors include his daughter, Karsen, and his sister, Linda.
Liotta told People in November that the pandemic had brought him and Nittolo “really, really close. … I’ve heard that there’s a lot of people whose relationship didn’t work out because they were with each other so much. But she’s just great.”
At the Deauville Film Festival in 2014, he characterized his career as a “winding road” in an interview with THR and expressed his love of acting. “At the end of the day, you’re still playing pretend,” he said. “It’s a great way to make a living, just a horrible fucking business.”
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