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A real wiseguy

Henry Hill, whose Mafia past was the basis for 'GoodFellas,' no longer hides from the mob.

June 04, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Henry Hill is at the office doing something he loves and hates -- reflecting on himself.

To the unfamiliar, it would appear that a thin, tanned 60-year-old man with close-cropped gray hair is enjoying an afternoon at West Hollywood's Palm Restaurant. But to Hill, the steakhouse's dark wood bar casts him back some four decades when he was a young kid working for the Lucchese crime family in New York.

"I'm used to hanging out in saloons," said Hill, whose wild life of crime was chronicled in his book "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family" which became the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie "GoodFellas." "This is where I work."

He likes the familiarity of the heavy oak counter, a place in his shadowy past where stories were told, deals were made, disputes were settled and crimes were plotted. But today he is laughing, telling jokes and hoping to capitalize again on the nation's mob fetish with his new book "Gangsters and Goodfellas: The Mob, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Henry Hill -- An article in Friday's Calendar section indicated that Henry Hill was a co-author with Nicholas Pileggi of "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family." The book was based on Hill's life, but Pileggi was the sole author.

American pop culture is saturated with images of mobsters, from "Little Caesar" in 1930 to Sunday night's season finale of "The Sopranos." In fact, it's often hard to separate the reality of mob life from the myth of mob life created by Hollywood (characters in "The Sopranos," for example, regularly refer to lines from "The Godfather" and "GoodFellas"). So Hill, an informant who helped put away many of his former associates, says now he doesn't live in fear of being murdered by the mob -- they're too busy using him as a connection into the movie industry.

"I have no idea why people are so interested in gangsters," said Hill, whose first book (co-written by Nicholas Pileggi) was a national bestseller. "Come on, people are bored."

Released this month, Hill's new conversationally written book is an often kaleidoscopic, sometimes darkly humorous fish-out-of-water tale that bounces between his old gangster days and his colorful experiences after escaping organized crime in New York. What he expected was a normal life, to be an average Joe, made anonymous and safe by the federal witness protection program. But what the 262-page book co-written with Gus Russo quickly makes clear is this didn't happen, and almost certainly never will.

In the first of many stops around the country, Hill was told by federal agents on the airplane departing New York that he and his family were headed to Omaha, recalled Hill, dressed this day in tan cargo pants and a beige-and-white vertically striped shirt. "But that's it."

From there, the hoped-for life of quietude quickly spun out of control. As Hill testified in the coming years against his former mob associates in the United States and Italy -- helping to put away some 50 gangsters -- two marriages failed and a third was on the rocks against a chaotic backdrop of affairs, gambling, money woes, illegal schemes and drug and alcohol addiction.

As he sits at the Palm's bar, feet away from a wall of alcohol, Hill blames his genes for his drinking problem. It's something he's battled for more than a decade in 15 treatment programs, one as recent as last month. His father, a working-class man struggling to raise eight kids in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, would regularly down a couple of fifths of whiskey a day. He'd stagger by the schoolyard, steadying himself from one telephone pole to the next, while Henry's friends laughed.

Hill also blames his situation. "There was a time in my life I would have put a gun in my mouth for even thinking about becoming an informant," he said. The pressure of court appearances, facing his one-time partners in crime and becoming a turncoat tormented and eventually overwhelmed him.

"It's not easy getting up on the stand," he said. "It takes a lot out of you and it drove my addictions. I mean everybody would pat me on the back and say, 'Here Henry, take some drugs, take some Valium, calm down. Have some of this, have some of that. Have some alcohol.' "

"They enabled me," he continued. "The government enabled me, my friends enabled me, the movie industry enabled me. I didn't want to be myself, I wanted to kill those feelings."

Then, less than half an hour into the interview, with his business manager and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor by his side, Hill, who occasionally works as an outreach counselor to substance abusers, announced he was going to order a drink.

"Come on, have a drink with me," urged Hill, who has three children from two marriages. "You have to drink with me. Come on, one drink."

He orders a Crown and coke. About 15 minutes later when a photographer arrives, he orders another. "This is my last one. Last one, really."

Hill isn't running from the mob anymore, he's running from himself.

"I just try to be one grain of sand better every day," he added, taking a sip. "I hope I die sober."


In hiding

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