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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

Over the next three years, he starred in serious dramas, and after graduating in 1978 headed to New York City. On his third day, he landed a commercial, and within a few weeks he was screen testing for director Robert Zemeckis' first movie, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." He didn't get the part. After only six months of bartending for the Shubert Organization theaters, he joined the NBC soap "Another World," playing "the nicest guy in the world." For the next 3 1/2 years, he didn't worry about the future. "I had no preconceptions about my career. I mean, I didn't need to be a movie star by 22. I didn't know how to go about even getting into the movies. But then, enough's enough, and I quit the soap.

"And there was five years of nothing."

He had parts in two blink-and-you-missed-them TV series--"Casablanca" and "Our Family Honor"--but mostly he saw other acting careers going somewhere and his going nowhere. At least that was the case for his good friend and college classmate Steve Bauer, who starred in "Scarface." Bauer with his then-wife Melanie Griffith was living in Liotta's New York apartment while Liotta camped out in Griffith's beach hut in Malibu.

Liotta also was taking acting classes with Bauer's and Griffith's teacher, Harry Mastrogeorge, and it was there he heard that Jonathan Demme was looking to cast an unknown as the violent ex-con Ray Sinclair in Orion's "Something Wild." But when Liotta's agent didn't have the clout to get him in to read, Liotta called up Griffith, who was already cast in it. "And she said, 'Oh, yeah, what a good idea!' " Liotta remembers. "Why didn't she think of that before, I always wonder?"

But Demme had already narrowed the search down to three actors and didn't really want to interview any more, as Liotta tells it. "So now I was really angry, and the part was really angry, so I had everything going for me." He had no problem being convincing when he had to kick the walls in.

One week later, Liotta landed the role, for which he won the Boston Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination. Big agencies like CAA came acalling (he later signed with them), scripts came aflooding. "And I had offers for every crazy guy around," says Liotta.

Indeed, so frightening was his performance that he almost became pigeonholed as Hollywood's resident psychopath. Not until a year later, among half a dozen or so scripts that Orion had sent him, did Liotta find the role of the brother of a brain-damaged man, played by Tom Hulce, in "Dominick and Eugene." But even after the producers and director decided he was right for the part, he came perilously close to losing it.

"It was really kind of love at first sight," says producer Mike Farrell. "But after we agreed he was the guy, I said, 'You know, I haven't seen this picture 'Something Wild,' and I ought to at least take a look at it. And right after I watched it, I called my partner and I said, 'Wait a minute! This murdering, outrageous satanic bastard guy scares the hell out of me. I'm not so sure he can be the sweet dear brother we need him to be.' So we took Ray out to lunch and talked to him a little more, and he was just so sweet--it's the best word I can think of--that he sort of erased all my fears."

When the reviews came in, it was Hulce's performance that received most attention. Ultimately, the film's producers submitted Hulce for an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and Liotta for Best Supporting Actor even though the two roles had been equal in size. "Ray's smart and he's decent and he understood that it'd be crazy for the two of them to butt heads. And that's why I tell people to see the movie twice," says Farrell. "Because if you watch a second time you'll see that if there's a better performance in the picture than Tom's, it's Ray's."

Liotta's third movie role was even more different from the previous ones--that of baseball legend Shoeless Joe in "Field of Dreams." A little too different for Liotta's taste, at first. "I read that script and said, 'What, are you kidding me? A dead guy who comes back to play baseball?' And I hadn't played baseball since the 9th grade," he laughs. But pushed to take the role by his agent, the actor spent months working out with the USC baseball coach.

Still, even now, it's not a movie he likes to dwell on--"too Hollywood"--even though more people saw him hidden under that baseball cap than all the viewers of his other two films put together. But being in a hit at the box office has never really interested him, he says, even though his own father was pushing him to take any offer for a lot of money. "My father was a Depression baby, so it was that kind of mentality. But I'd rather get lesser numbers and be able to do what I want than to get big numbers and be pigeonholed into choices that you make to fit the personality that you're playing."

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