Ray Liotta was so much more than Goodfellas

OWhen it came to Ray Liotta, his eyes were less windows to the soul and more like a Rorschach test. They looked both menacing and watery—eyes that could betray warmth, fear, or suppressed anger without seeming to change at all. He was like many great actors in that regard, but more so. Often his characters even seemed to be mysteries to themselves.

Liotta, who died on Thursday (May 26) while filming a new project in the Dominican Republic, was also a mystery to himself. Baby, he was abandoned in an orphanage. He got his surname from his adoptive parents when he was six months old. It wasn’t until later in his life, when he hired a private detective to find his birth mother, that he learned of her heritage, which was primarily Scottish. But in practice, Liotta was a boy from Newark, New Jersey, a self-proclaimed “jock” who studied acting in college before going professional. After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Liotta spent five years struggling to make a name for herself. It was only through an acting class he had taken with Melanie Griffith that he was considered for a role in something wildthe 1986 crime comedy directed by Thesilenceofthelambs“Jonathan Demme. “If I hadn’t gotten that movie, I would have had to go to work, because the money was pretty much spent,” he later confessed.

Describing the success of her performance as Griffith’s criminal ex-husband something wild character, Liotta said, “I just did my homework and I was where I needed to be.” He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts, and the film led to a string of others. First, as disgraced baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in field of dreams (1989), then, the year after, as Irish gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s detective epic Freedmen.

Freedmen has always been a film for which Scorsese received the lion’s share of the credit, but it’s hard to underestimate how pivotal Liotta’s performance is. It captures every nuance of Hill – the young upstart; the complacent gangster; the deceitful lover; the spiral drug addict – with full assurance. There are few images in cinema more indelible than Henry Hill’s sight of cocaine-addicted Liotta squinting paranoidly at a helicopter. Hill’s downfall is wonderfully captured through the film’s score and Thelma Schoonmaker’s expert editing, but it’s Liotta’s performance – that desperate, panicked look of a trapped animal – that holds you back the most.

There was something about Liotta, especially as he got older, that seemed to exude authority. It’s no wonder he ended up playing largely law enforcement roles. Maybe the gold standard of this came in 1997 cop landsLiotta playing a largely well-meaning cop alongside Sylvester Stallone in a neighborhood plagued by corruption.

While the laughter in Freedmen were mostly nauseated snickers, punctuating or preceding a scene of gruesome violence, Liotta also had a surprisingly refined comedic sensibility. He embarked on incongruous projects like that of Jerry Seinfeld bee-movie Where Most Wanted Muppetsas well as dipping his toes in TV comedies like fraser (as a cameo), family guyand Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

In 2019 Marriage story he was downright hilarious as a hardened divorce lawyer. As far as awards season goes, the performance was overshadowed by Laura Dern’s cutesy killer turn as a rival lawyer on the opposite bench, but Liotta’s pit bull lawyer was equally captivating.

Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas”

(Warner Bros.)

After a series of acclaimed performances in the early 2000s – including a leading role in the video game Grand Theft Auto Vice City, in which he played the criminal Tommy Vercetti – Liotta spent a few years away from the Hollywood mainstream. Over the past decade, he had made a compelling comeback.

As well as Marriage storyhe devours roles in A place beyond the pines and Sin City: A Lady To Kill For. His last major appearance was in 2021 The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark. He delivered not just one scene-stealing performance, but two: as brash, lustful mafioso Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, and his pensive twin brother Salvatore (“Sally”), serving a long prison sentence for murdering another man. After the success of FreedmenLiotta was always cautious about accepting mafia projects – he refused the role of Ralph Cifaretto The Sopranos for fear of being pigeonholed – but there is something good about his return to the genre at the end of his life.

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Sure, newark was not to be his last film. Besides the project he was working on at the time of his death, Dangerous waters (whose future is unknown), Liotta is said to have finished working on a new horror titled cocaine bearand an untitled comedy written and directed by Philadelphia is always sunnyIt’s Charlie Day.

Moltisanti the Elder: Liotta, right, in the ‘Sopranos’ prequel film ‘The Many Saints of Newark’

(Warner Bros.)

In a 2019 interview, Liotta opened up about her own relationship with fame, her reluctance to maintain her profile by “doing showbizzy-type things.” “I’m probably not as fat as I’d like to be sometimes, but there’s a method to my madness,” he said. Told square mile. “I don’t think an actor should be too present because it takes away the mystery of who you are. I think it’s better to stay under the radar. Of course, Liotta never managed to stay under the radar when that mattered, he was too good, and the cinema was all the richer for it.

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