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Not Your Typical Wise Guy : Why Ray Liotta had a tough time getting a deal he didn't want to refuse--a leading role in Martin Scorsese's Mafia movie, 'GoodFellas'

September 16, 1990|NIKKI FINKE

You look at Ray Liotta, and you think that this guy with the premature 5 o'clock shadow and the dangerous eyes would just as soon shove his heaping bowl of bow-tie pasta in your face during lunch as force himself to be pleasant for the next few hours.

You think that, and you are wrong.

In fact, he's as agreeable as a new employee on his first day at work. You don't like avocado. Liotta says he doesn't like avocado. You appear fidgety. Liotta says he's fidgety. You don't smoke. Well, on that one, Liotta can't comply. But you half expect him to stand up and renounce cigarettes from that moment on.

And so, when Liotta starts to tell the story about how he wanted to hang out with Robert DeNiro during the filming of "GoodFellas," you think that anyone this eager to please must now be Bobby's bosom buddy. You think that, and you are wrong.

"It's not so much I wanted to work the character over with DeNiro as much as it was wanting him to like me. I wanted to become one of Bob's friends," Liotta says sheepishly. "I remember I kept saying to Marty (Scorsese) that maybe we should all go out to dinner with Bob. And I said to Joe (Pesci) that maybe he should set something up where all of us go out. And so DeNiro is hearing this from all these other people. And I finally said to him, 'You know, it would be nice to go out to dinner or something like that.' But nothing."

One day, when the actors were getting ready to go home after a rehearsal, DeNiro came up to Liotta, chucked him on the arm and said, "Don't worry about it. This is all going to work out."

"And," Liotta grimaces, "I felt like such a kid. "

At 35, Liotta is anything but a kid. But, just like DeNiro in "Taxi Driver," this not-yet-household-name had to star in almost every frame of a Scorsese movie and earn rave reviews in order to truly become a "goodfella" in the movie community's eyes. "It's interesting that the underground word of mouth has made him a finance-able entity before the film has even come out," points out producer Irwin Winkler.

Hearing this, Liotta rolls his eyes heavenward. "I should be so lucky."

You think after three major film roles, all of them well-received, from the ex-con crazoid in "Something Wild" to the caring normal brother in "Dominick and Eugene," to the pivotal Shoeless Joe of "Field of Dreams," that Liotta wouldn't have had to sell himself quite so hard to the folks making "GoodFellas." You think that, and you are wrong.

While DeNiro is only a supporting actor, Liotta has the central role of Henry Hill, a small-time Mafioso. The film follows Hill from his boyish wonderment at the murder and mayhem of the gangsters across the street, through his initiation into the rites of Mafia manhood, and even into prison--although it looks more like a suburban New York living room. With Lorraine Bracco as his Jewish wife Karen, Liotta plays the real-life half-Sicilian, half-Irish hood who became the subject of Nicholas Pileggi's best-seller, "Wiseguy." (Pileggi co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese.) Being Scorsese's first choice didn't automatically mean Liotta would be cast. "It's just amazing to me that Marty Scorsese says this is who he wants, and they don't buy it. But when a studio's putting this much money into a movie, they would rather have Eddie Murphy in it than me," Liotta explains matter-of-factly. In hot pursuit were Val Kilmer, Nicholas Cage and Alec Baldwin, sources say. Tom Cruise, of course, got first right of refusal.

It had been DeNiro who reminded Scorsese about Liotta's riveting screen debut in "Something Wild." A meeting was arranged. "Marty was really cool, because he just trusts himself and knows what he wants. I never read a scene. We just talked in general."

Their next face-to-face took place a month later in Venice, where Liotta's "Dominick and Eugene" was earning praise for the actor and Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was sparking death threats against the director. So when Liotta went up to Scorsese on the Lido beach, the director's security men jumped all over him. "I wanted to refresh his memory, because, you know, these guys forget all about you. I go to reach for him, and the bodyguards pull me off. Marty looks up real quick, and he says, 'No, it's all right,' and he picks up the conversation like it happened the night before."

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