The Fascinating Life Of The Late Great Ray Liotta
On 26th May 2022, Ray Liotta sadly passed away aged 67 while shooting his new movie Dangerous Waters. Deadline reported that Liotta died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic. The formidable Ray Liotta is undoubtedly best known for his portrayal of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s epic 1990 crime film Goodfellas. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and is often considered one of the greatest of all time, while Liotta’s stellar performance in the groundbreaking movie helped cement his reputation as one of the most inimitable actors around.
Though he had already made appearances in notable films including Field of Dreams and Something Wild, Liotta’s career really took off after Goodfellas. Since then, the actor notched up more than 100 screen credits. Here are some facts you might not have known about the late Ray Liotta.
20. He was adopted when he was six months old
Liotta was always candid about the fact that he was adopted when he was just six months old. In 1955, he was taken in by Mary Miller and Alfred Liotta after a brief spell in an orphanage in Newark, New Jersey. Liotta’s adoptive father was a second-generation Italian immigrant while his mother was of Scottish descent.
Liotta said in interviews that one of his earliest memories was helping his new parents choose his sister Linda from an orphanage when he was three years old. In 2006, Liotta revealed that he had tracked down his biological mother in 1997 through a private detective. He learnt that biologically he was of mostly Scottish descent and that he had one biological sister.
19. Martin Scorsese wouldn’t let Liotta tie his own tie while shooting Goodfellas
Martin Scorsese is a hands-on director, but did you know just how hands-on he was when it came to directing his magnum opus Goodfellas? Liotta revealed in an interview with GQ back in 2010 that Scorsese was so obsessed with detail that he wouldn’t even allow his lead actor tie his own tie on set. “Marty would tie my tie every day. There was a certain way that he wanted it done,” he revealed.
Assistant director Deborah Lupard went on: “[Scorsese] was involved in every detail, every ring that goes on a finger. “If an actor needed money in their pocket [Scorsese makes sure they have] real money. Marty always works the same: It’s always about the actors and whatever they needed.” Scorsese’s attention to detail paid off: Goodfellas went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards, including the awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
18. He worked in a cemetery before he got famous
Liotta attended the University of Miami – an institution where he claims “all you needed to get in was a pulse.” While studying in Miami, Liotta took up acting as a hobby before realising he could pursue a career in it. Liotta didn’t land acting jobs to fund his way through college, though – instead, he worked in a cemetery.
Speaking on The Bonnie Hunt Show in 2010, Liotta explained what it was like to work as a maintenance man in the graveyard. “I cut the grass and stuff. And I set up funerals and the chairs and everything that happens.” Liotta ditched the cemetery job as soon as he made the decision to commit to an acting career and managed to land a role in a commercial just three days after moving to New York.
17. His preparation for Narc involved eating Chinese food until he was ‘puffy’
Liotta plays volatile, ferocious police detective Henry Oak in Joe Carnahan’s 2002 crime thriller Narc. To better inhabit his character’s larger-than-life persona, Liotta gained over 20 pounds to play the role. To bulk up, Liotta gorged on carbs, guzzling down Chinese food even just before shooting commenced for the day.
According to Liotta, the extra soy and water in Chinese food helped to make him appear puffier and filled out. On top of this, Liotta also wore a fat suit, prosthetic skin under his eyes and lifts in his shoes to make him taller. “I put on 25 just to fill the face out, shaved my hair back, and then the goatee makes the face [fuller]. There’s a bunch of tricks,” he explained, speaking to IGN back in 2012.
16. He turned down three different roles in 1989’s Batman – including the lead
Back in the late 80s, Warner Bros were incredibly keen to sign on Ray Liotta for a role in their upcoming Batman movie. Liotta was an up-and-coming star and the production company were convinced he’d soon take Hollywood by storm. The producers had actually been considering casting Liotta in the film’s title role, but he declined.
The studio persevered and tried to offer Liotta the role of the Joker or Harvey Dent – but again, he turned these down. Liotta turned down the roles largely because was unwilling to star in a superhero movie, then a genre still largely in its infancy. It was also partly because Liotta was about to start work on another film – Goodfellas – with the legendary Martin Scorsese.
15. He only did Operation Dumbo Drop for the money
Liotta appeared alongside Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover in the 1995 Disney movie Operation Dumbo Drop. The film sees Liotta and Glover, two Green Berets deployed in Vietnam, attempt to transport an elephant through the jungle to a South Vietnamese village. The film achieved a reasonable degree of financial success but was largely panned by critics.
Liotta admitted afterwards that he only took on the role to earn a bit of extra cash. According to Liotta’s co-star Denis Leary, most of the cast were motivated by money. “The movie was so painstakingly terrible – because it took a long time to shoot – that all of us actually had pictures of the things that we were gonna buy with our money to keep us going,” said Leary. “I had a picture of this property in Connecticut. Ray Liotta had a picture of a house that he was building outside LA.”
14. He also only did Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for the money – then complained he was underpaid
Liotta turned his attention to voice acting for video games in 2002 when he worked on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Liotta took the role of Tommy Vercetti in the game – another role he admits he only did for the money. However, Liotta was unpleasantly surprised when he saw how much he’d be paid for the work. Naturally, it was a lot less than the hefty sums he’d been used to for his work on movies.
Liotta awkwardly referred to the shoddy pay he received from the Rockstar crew in several interviews. On one occasion he was asked what he’d do if he could go back and do anything differently, to which he replied: “ask for more money.” When asked by IGN in 2002 what the main difference between acting on video games and acting on movies was, Liotta simply said “cash.”
13. He was considered for the role of Scar in The Lion King
Jeremy Irons remains a great fit for Scar – with his deep, drawling English accent, Irons’ voice captures Scar’s wickedness perfectly. But before Disney decided on the acclaimed English actor, they considered a range of others. James Caan, Tim Curry, Robert Duvall, Alan Rickman and Malcolm McDowell were all in the running for the role before being pipped to the post by Irons.
Ray Liotta was also considered for the role. His Goodfellas co-star Joe Pesci was asked to voice hyena Banzai, but like Liotta, turned down the role. Liotta went on to star in another Disney film, Operation Dumbo Drop, the year after The Lion King was released in 1995. Unlike The Lion King, Operation Dumbo Drop was a critical failure, released to largely negative reviews.
12. He channelled his anguish over his mother’s death into his Goodfellas performance
By all accounts, in real life Liotta was far removed from the volatile, violent characters he normally played on screen. However, he did draw on some real emotions when it came to portraying Henry Hill in Goodfellas. At the time, Liotta’s mother was dying from cancer, and Liotta channelled his frustration and anguish over this into his impassioned Goodfellas performance.
“When I was doing Goodfellas, my mother was dying – and did die – from cancer in the middle of [filming],” Liotta revealed in an interview with Little White Lies in 2019. “I had to go across the street and pistol-whip a guy, and I just remember thinking about my mother. It really made me angry. I brought outside stuff in and personalised it there. But it’s impossible to personalise [generally], because every character I’ve played is so far from who I am.”
11. To prepare for Goodfellas, he had lunch with a mobster who stole his wallet
A lot of prep work went into Liotta’s stunning portrayal of Henry Hill in Goodfellas. For one, Liotta went to lunch with a real-life mobster during shooting to ascertain how best to play a mafioso. Speaking on Jimmy Kimmel in 2015, Liotta revealed that the made man played an unsettling prank on him.
“I wanted to pay [for our lunch], you know, he’s telling me things and sharing things, but my wallet’s not there.” Liotta then found his wallet discarded on the street. “There’s no question, he took it from me,” he said. When Kimmel asked Liotta why he thinks the mobster did something so cruel, Liotta said simply: “he’s a d**che!”
10. He watched brain surgeries to prepare for his gruesome Hannibal scene
Arguably, one of the most disturbing film scenes of all time is in the 2001 film Hannibal. The thriller sequel, directed by Ridley Scott, sees Liotta star as Justice Department official Paul Krendler. Towards the end of the film, Hannibal drugs Krendler, cuts open his head, and feeds him a piece of his own brain.
There were several reports of audience members rushing out of theatres to be sick after witnessing this disturbing scene. Discussing the scene with Larry King in 2014, Liotta revealed that he watched brain surgeries to prepare for the harrowing moment. “I said, Ridley, how am I supposed to react when he does that?!” he recalled. “I used to watch brain surgeries […] I just kind of took it from that.”
9. He didn’t know Paul Sorvino was going to slap him in Goodfellas
Goodfellas charts the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill as he becomes more and more embroiled in the world of organised crime. He’s taken under the wing of Paul ‘Paulie’ Cicero (Paul Sorvino), who offers him some words of wisdom in one memorable scene. Paulie tells Henry to stay away from drug dealing, earnestly telling him “just don’t do it, just don’t do it.”
Towards the end of his spiel, Paulie says “you see anybody f***ing around with this sh*t, you’re gonna tell me right?”, before delivering Henry a short, sharp slap. Apparently, Liotta had no idea that the slap was coming, as it was in fact completely improvised by Sorvino. Liotta’s shocked reaction in the scene is genuine as Paulie’s slap was nowhere in the script.
8. He admits to being “a d*ck” on set
Although Liotta played a lot of tough guys on screen, it’s clear from watching his interviews that in reality he was a pretty easygoing person. But Liotta himself admitted he could still be a little bit temperamental at times on set. If Liotta didn’t feel like his director was on the same page as him, he didn’t hold back.
“I can tell as soon as I sit down: ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’” Liotta told Metro in 2013. “And there’s nothing worse than working with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing […] It gets really frustrating – then I can be a d**k on set,” he confessed. He also hinted at this more irritable side to his character in an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2012. If I’m playing a nice guy, I’m great on the set. If I’m not, I’m a d**k.”
7. He didn’t know why Scorsese wouldn’t work with him again
Despite Liotta’s great performance in Goodfellas, this was the only time the actor ever worked with Martin Scorsese. He opened up about this when he was asked during an interview with Larry King in 2014 whether he’d thought about making another film with Scorsese. “All the time,” he confessed. “I’m a little miffed it just hasn’t worked out […] I would have loved to do it again.”
In 2018 Liotta admitted to Business Insider that he was “bummed” about not appearing in Scorsese’s The Irishman. “I guess I wasn’t their cup of tea because I have never really done a movie for him since [Goodfellas],” he said. “There was something in The Departed that could have happened. But I had a movie I was already committed to so I couldn’t get out of it.” Since Liotta’s passing, Scorsese has admitted “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.”
6. He was arrested for driving under the influence in 2007
Although Liotta was a saint compared to some of the criminals he played, he did have a run-in with the law. Back in 2007, Liotta was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after he crashed into two parked vehicles in LA. Fortunately, nobody was injured in the collision as the parked cars were empty and Liotta had no passengers in his own car.
He pleaded no contest. His lawyer explained in court that Liotta had been driving under the influence as he was taking prescription pain killers for a sports injury. The medication reportedly made Liotta drowsy. In any case, Liotta was deemed responsible for his actions and punished accordingly. He was sentenced to three years’ probation, ordered to complete a short alcohol education program and fined $300.
5. The last time he saw the real Henry Hill he was “under a tree, drunk as a skunk”
Although Liotta met real-life mobsters in preparation for his Goodfellas role, he did not meet the real Henry Hill while shooting the film. Liotta and Hill did meet after the movie was released, however. Liotta recalled their relationship in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “He was really a troubled guy. He definitely had addiction problems. Every few years or so I would run into him,” Liotta said.
“One time we did a photo-shoot, a magazine was doing actors and their real-life counterparts, and they asked me to do something with Henry. And the poor guy at 3 pm was just looped. Every time I saw him he was drunk. But he was a really nice guy, even when he was drunk he wasn’t mean. Not that I saw.” Liotta went on to say that he remembered the last time he spoke to Hill before he passed away in 2005. “I was in Venice, on the way to lunch, and I heard somebody call my name, and under a tree, drunk as a skunk, laying on the grass was Henry.”
4. He loved shar pei dogs
During a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Liotta revealed that he owned several shar pei dogs. While the breed has a reputation for being high-maintenance, Liotta insisted the animals are just misunderstood. “Because of their pure-bred nature they are often ill. They’re sweet dogs,” he claimed in the interview.
He went on to touch on the breed’s origin as a fighter dog: “Thousands of years ago. Mine aren’t fighters – they’re just lovers. They’re emotional, kind and protective.” Journalist Chrissy Iley went on to ask the actor if his dogs reminded him of himself in any way. “I’m not sick a lot and I don’t have really saggy skin. I think you have to be careful with that one,” he said.
3. Melanie Griffith got him his big break
Liotta opened up about his humble beginnings as an actor in an interview with GQ back in December 2019. He revealed that he had moved to Los Angeles at the age of 25, and while he attended regular acting classes, he had struggled to land any work. Liotta became acquainted with Melanie Griffith during this time as she also attended the same acting classes.
When Griffith landed a role in Something Wild in 1986, Liotta’s parents encouraged him to ask her if she could get him a part in the film too. Liotta was horrified by the suggestion at first, but eventually decided to give Griffith a ring. Griffith was only too happy to help and encouraged director Jonathan Demme to hire Liotta. The film went on to become Liotta’s first major role.
2. He was a keen horse rider
In the 2015 historical miniseries Texas Rising, Liotta played fictional Alamo survivor and PTSD sufferer Lorca. Liotta was required to learn how to ride a horse for the series – and he maintained the hobby afterward. When Esquire asked Liotta in 2015 what he enjoyed most about shooting Texas Rising, he explained his newfound passion for horses.
“I’m pretty much obsessed with [horse riding]. Every chance I had, I was doing something. I had ridden before, but just very basic trail riding and with horses that weren’t as spunky as the ones we had. [For Texas Rising], we learned in LA with horses that were used to doing stunts and working with people. I started easy at first. Each horse is different – they really have these different personalities – and they’re just really beautiful.”
1. He wasn’t actually a fan of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club
Bizarrely, fans of English football club Tottenham Hotspur like to claim Liotta as one of their own. Rumours have circulated for years that Liotta even attended matches at White Hart Lane as often as he could. This was not the case, however, and Liotta put the rumours to bed in an interview with Yahoo! Movies in 2016.
“It’s not that I don’t support them; I just don’t know anything about them,” Liotta explained about the misconception. “I did a commercial that ran here in England and the person who was in charge lived in… is Tottenham a place? They lived there. He asked me if I would like to go to a game. I said sure because I played soccer […] And then I went and watched the game.”