NEW YORK — Director Martin Scorsese didn’t want Ray Liotta to meet Henry Hill prior to or during the making of “Goodfellas,” so Liotta’s first meeting with the notorious mobster-turned-informant he portrayed took place a few weeks after the film’s release in 1990.
“After the movie, I got a call to meet him at a bowling alley in the Valley in California,” Liotta recalled Saturday at the 25th anniversary celebration of “Goodfellas” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“So … there’s Henry, I recognize him from pictures, and the first thing he said was, ‘Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag,’ and I said, ‘Did you see the movie? You’re dealing drugs and you cheated on your wife …’ ”
So it goes with one of the most beloved movies ever made about some of the most despicable characters of the 20th century. Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci are playing characters based on real-life mobsters who stole and cheated and dealt drugs and killed and betrayed one another — and we love every onscreen minute of it.
Audience members at the sold-out Beacon Theatre were treated to a Scorsese-supervised, remastered print of the original negative of the iconic film that garnered seven Academy Award nominations (the loss to “Dances With Wolves” is not one of the Academy’s finest voting moments) and routinely appears on lists of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Some in the crowd applauded the opening moments of favorite scenes and even took photos. (Not sure what you’re going to do with a blurry screen capture of Tommy’s mom proudly displaying her painting of a man on a boat with two dogs, but there you have it.)
Scorsese was in Taiwan shooting the film “Silence,” but he did send a typically long-winded, hilarious and fascinating Scorsese monologue in which he talked about the making of the “Goodfellas” and the use of popular music as a character to keep the plot wheels turning, as well as recalling, “There was this owner of this nice Italian restaurant in Tribeca we used to go to all the time … and then when the film came out we were no longer welcome … because apparently we had denigrated a certain ethnic group in the picture.”
De Niro read a supposed message from Pesci (who won best supporting actor for his “Funny HOW?” performance in “Goodfellas”), consisting of a string of f-bombs and nothing else.
And they say Bobby D can’t play to a crowd.
Liotta (Henry Hill), De Niro (Henry’s partner Jimmy Conway), Lorraine Bracco (Henry’s wife Karen), Paul Sorvino (mob boss Paulie) and a number of supporting players from the film were in attendance for the screening, after which Jon Stewart moderated a panel that include the aforementioned players as well as Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the non-fiction books that became “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”
Prior to the screening, Liotta told me this would be only the second time he would see “Goodfellas” since its release.
“Maybe 15 years after it came out, I was at a film festival in Aruba. I was there for a different movie; I didn’t even know they were playing ‘Goodfellas.’ My daughter at the time was maybe 12, and they asked me to introduce the movie and I was going to leave because I never watch my stuff, and she kept turning back to the screen and I said, ‘Do you want to stay?’ and she said yes, so we stayed and I kept watching her watching it, and she was just blown away by it. And it was just a real father-daughter bonding.”
Lorraine Bracco told me she always thought a second movie could have been made about the Hill family’s life after they went into the Witness Protection Program, “But alas, it will be a movie of my dreams.”
Years later, Bracco was offered the role of Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela.
“Listen, [‘Sopranos’ creator] David Chase is a really smart man,” said Bracco. “I said to him, ‘Would it really be best for you and the audience if I play Carmela? I’ve played the wife. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch. I want to play … Dr. Melfi. I loved Dr. Melfi, I think it worked out!”
Moderator Stewart asked the obligatory questions about whether the cast knew they had something special a quarter-century ago. Sorvino said after a couple of weeks of rehearsals, just prior to the start of filming, he actually called his agent and begged him to get out — but after Sorvino caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, simply adjusting his tie, he “found” the character of Paulie and changed his mind.
Liotta had done “Something Wild” and “Field of Dreams” prior to “Goodfellas,” but he was still up against much bigger names for the role of Henry — everyone from Sean Penn to Val Kilmer to Tom Cruise (!) had been mentioned — but Scorsese took a chance that paid off.
Even De Niro wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of movie, as he told Stewart during the panel session. “I was off doing another movie in Canada when I re-read the book. … I knew I couldn’t play Henry. … I was too old at that point, but I called Marty and said, ‘Maybe I can play Jimmy the Gent.’ ”