celebrating twenty years…
It’s hard to imagine that the obsessive and frenetic Martin Scorsese ever endured blue periods in his career, but twenty years ago, he was going through one. On the eve of the premiere of his new movie, “GoodFellas”, he was still recovering from the protests, denunciations, and death threats that had accompanied The Last Temptation of Christ. But GoodFellas—based on “Wiseguy”, a nonfiction best seller by legendary crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi—would restore Scorsese’s place in American film, and then some. To mark the film’s anniversary, GQ interviewed nearly sixty members of the cast and crew, along with some noteworthy admirers of the picture, to revisit the making of one of the most endlessly rewatchable American movies ever made.
Michael Imperioli (Spider): I don’t know if I would have had the same career had I not done GoodFellas. Probably not. Would I have been cast on The Sopranos? Who knows if there would have been a Sopranos?
Frank Vincent (Billy Batts): Wherever I go, anytime I go anywhere, they tell me to go home and get my shine box.
Chuck Low (Morrie Kessler): Every fucking guy on the street yells to me, “Hey, Morrie, did you get Belle her Danish?”
Nicholas Pileggi (co-writer): Mob guys love it, because it’s the real thing, and they knew the people in it. They say, “It’s like a home movie.”
Barbara De Fina (executive producer): I don’t remember there being a lot of choices about who could play Henry Hill. There weren’t a lot of actors who could pull it off. He had to do terrible things, and yet you had to somehow care about him. But Ray wasn’t a big star.
Irwin Winkler (producer): Tom Cruise was discussed.
Martin Scorsese (director; co-writer): I’d seen Ray in Something Wild, Jonathan Demme’s film; I really liked him. And then I met him. I was walking across the lobby of the hotel on the Lido that houses the Venice Film Festival, and I was there with The Last Temptation of Christ. I had a lot of bodyguards around me. Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behavior at that moment, and I saw, Oh, he understands that kind of situation. That’s something you wouldn’t have to explain to him.
Liotta: I think I was the first person that Marty met, but it took maybe a year. It was a very, very long process, not knowing anything and really wanting to do this. I was new. I’d only done three movies at the time. All I heard was that the studio wanted somebody else—”What about this?” “What about Eddie Murphy?”
Winkler: Marty wanted Ray very badly. Frankly I thought we could do a lot better, and I kept putting him off saying, “Let’s keep looking.” And then me and my wife were having dinner one night in a restaurant down in Venice, California, and lo and behold, Ray Liotta came over to me. He was in the same restaurant, quite by coincidence, and he asked if he could come talk to me.
Liotta: I just went up and said that I really, really wanted to do the movie.
Winkler: We went outside, he said, “Look, I know you don’t want me for it but I…,” and he really sold me on the role right that evening. I called Marty the next morning and I said, “I see what you mean.”
Liotta: Eventually I got a phone call, and Marty said I had it. I think I broke down and cried. My mom was really sick at the time.
De Fina: Madonna seemed to be in the mix [for the role of Henry’s wife, Karen]. I remember that we went to see her in the play Speed-the-Plow. Marty said hello to her afterwards. There was definitely somebody somewhere wanting to cast her. Can you imagine? Tom Cruise and Madonna? But Marty can get a performance out of almost anyone.
Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill): One of the things that worked for me with Marty was I was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood. So I could relate to Karen Hill as a young girl. Like, I got it: She lives in a Jewish home dominated by the mother—to me, it was all rebellion. Marty wanted to see what Ray and I looked like together.
Liotta: Lorraine is a mighty presence—how she feels, whether it’s good or bad, she’s very free with who she is. We met in Marty’s apartment on West 57th Street, right next to the Russian Tea Room. He was on the fiftieth floor, something high.
Bracco: I thought Ray was really good-looking and very sexy. We all had a drink and we talked about the script and the book and blah blah blah and that was that.
Liotta: Then we all went to Rao’s, this restaurant in Harlem. It’s so exclusive that people have set times and days when they go to eat there.
Pileggi: We’d put the word out [to the Mob guys]: “Anybody who wants to be in the movie, come.” He must have hired like half a dozen guys, maybe more, out of the joint.
Liotta: During dessert, it was like they started auditioning. “I knew a guy who beat somebody up.” “I knew a guy who stole this, who stole that.” They seemed to be talking about themselves, and they kept topping each other.
Ellen Lewis (casting director): We were told I could consider some of them for the film, but others were a little too hot to be considered: “That guy can’t be in front of a camera.” It was actually the least likely-looking guys.
Pileggi: Warner Bros. now had to put them on the payroll, and they wanted their Social Security numbers. The wiseguys said, “1,2,6, uh, 6,7,8, uh, 4,3,2,1,7,8—” “No, that’s more numbers than you need!” They just kept reciting numbers until they were over. Nobody ever figured out where that money went or who cashed the checks.
Lewis: There was a moment when we were concerned about the Jimmy Conway part. Marty had offered it to another actor, and that actor turned the role down.
Winkler: The studio made it clear that they were looking for a star for the role. John Malkovich was discussed.
John Malkovich (actor): It sort of came at a bad time in my life, when I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to think about working. It’s hard to explain why you end up in Eragon and not GoodFellas. But De Niro is fantastic.
Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway): I was reading the book, and I called Marty. We always thought I was too old to play Ray’s part, but I said, “What about Jimmy the Gent?” Marty said, “Yeah, great!” Who else they were thinking of or whoever turned it down, I don’t know. I never knew about that.
“GOODFELLAS” 1990 directed by Martin Scorsese