Now, Scorsese is leaning towards casting Liotta, but still there's resistance. "I called up everybody I knew that knew somebody," Liotta recalls. The most fateful meeting happened by accident at the 72 Market Street restaurant, when Liotta ran into the film's producer Irwin Winkler at dinner. "I didn't want him," Winkler admits. "I felt that the character needed a lot of sympathy, and I had just seen Ray in 'Something Wild,' so I kept saying to Marty, 'Jeez, are you really sure?' But that night, Ray walked over and introduced himself to me and we started chatting, and I realized that Marty was absolutely right. He was warm and gracious and had a lot of the qualities that Marty wanted for this character."
"That's when I knew I had it," Liotta says. "That night he said it looks like this is going to work out, so I wasn't able to eat for three days after that."
Even now, Liotta calls the process "horrible, horrible, horrible. It has nothing to do with you personally. And then the dream just falls into place. I just couldn't wait to work with people who wanted to play as deeply as I did. Because I really believe it's a game, but I believe that what makes someone stand out is they commit themselves deeper and fuller than maybe other actors do."
The way Lorraine Bracco recalls it, Liotta quickly got over his awe at just being cast in the movie. "I think, initially, we both were: 'Oh-my-God we're here rehearsing with Marty Scorsese .' But then I believe on a set your director and your lead actor or actress sets the tone of the movie. And Ray knew where he wanted to go. So much so that I would say to myself, 'Oh-my-God, I've got to go home and do my homework because otherwise I'm in deep trouble with him tomorrow.' "
You look at Liotta, and you think that here is yet another method actor who gets so into a tough guy role that he was probably kicking small dogs and mowing down pedestrians both off screen as well as on. You think that, and you are wrong.
"Ray supported me and loved me and cared for me," Bracco recalls. "When we did very heavy scenes during the day and I went home blown away, he would call me at night and say, 'Are you all right, honey?' "
But the best story, again, is one Liotta tells about himself.
Researching his latest role for Orion in a film, "Article 99" about a VA hospital surgeon who bucks the system, Liotta had been following around the chief of surgery at Cedars-Sinai. Over the weeks, the actor had gotten so close to heart transplants and liver surgeries that he could reach out and touch the organs. But, on this particular day, he was looking at the inside of a 60-year-old man's stomach when the doctor stuck a 4-inch needle into it.
"I walked out, light-headed, and, BOOM, I was gone." He needed 15 stitches on his chin and dental work on two chipped teeth. But what really outraged him was that "as these Scorseses and DeNiros of surgery were sewing him back together, they were laughing at me! Laughing at me!"
To erase his embarrassment, the actor starts to sing along to the song, "Every Breath You Take" being played by the Muzak-making harpist. When some heads in the room turn towards him, he turns to them and grins. It's not enough that this journalist must like him. He wants the whole room to like him. "I was just joking. Sounded good though, didnit? Thought I was Sting for minute, didnja?"
When he speaks with a heavy accent like this, you think that this guy grew up on the mean streets of New York. You think that, and you are wrong.
In fact, Liotta spent his childhood in the middle-class safety net of Union, N.J. And, instead of a big ethnic family with spaghetti stains on their collars and cabbage smells in their clothes, Liotta was the eldest of two children of an Italian father and a Scottish/Irish mother who together successfully ran an auto parts business and unsuccessfully ran for various political offices.
It was, as he recalls it, "regular, normal." He was even a goody-goody, getting into only one fight in his life, and that was in the 7th grade when kids were staking out territory in junior high. "I never wanted to get in trouble," he recalls.
At first, his acting was an accident. When a classmate fell ill on the day of the 6th-grade play, he stood in and was "a nervous wreck." Too small to be any good at basketball in high school, he joined the drama club.
At the University of Miami, a pretty girl at registration asked if he was going out for the play that night, and next thing Liotta knew, he was auditioning for "Cabaret" by telling a sad story, croaking a song and dancing "like a scarecrow. I had no idea how to do any of this sort of stuff," Liotta recalls. "But my father's philosophy was that you should try everything, see what's out there and decide what you like. And if you make a fool of yourself, who cares?"