Ray Liotta, the blue-eyed actor best known for playing mobster Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” and baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams,” has died. He was 67.
Liotta’s publicist, Jen Allen, said he was in the Dominican Republic shooting a new movie and didn’t wake up Thursday morning. Police in the Dominican Republic said they received a call just before 6 a.m. Thursday at a hotel where Liotta was staying with his fiancee and found the actor dead.
Robert De Niro, who co-starred with Liotta in “Goodfellas,” said in an emailed statement that he was saddened by Liotta’s passing. “He is way too way young to have left us,” De Niro said.
Another “Goodfellas” star, Lorraine Bracco, who played Henry’s wife Karen Hill, tweeted Thursday that she could be “anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is Goodfellas. Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same…Ray Liotta.”
Liotta was also mourned by Alessandro Nivola, who recently appeared with him in “The Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” and by the film’s writer and producer David Chase. Nivola called Liotta “dangerous, unpredictable, hilarious, and generous with his praise for other actors.” Chase said in a statement that “We all felt we lucked out having him on that movie.”
The Newark, New Jersey, native was born in 1954 and adopted at age six months out of an orphanage by a township clerk and an auto parts owner. Liotta always assumed he was mostly Italian — the movies did too. But later in life while searching for his birth parents, he discovered he’s actually Scottish.
Though he grew up focused on playing sports, including baseball, during his senior year of high school, the drama teacher asked him if he wanted to be in a play, which he agreed to on a lark. Whether he knew it or not at the time, it planted a seed, though he still assumed he’d end up working construction. And later, at the University of Miami he picked drama and acting because they had no math requirement attached. He would often say in interviews that he only started auditioning for plays because a pretty girl told him to. But it set him on a course. After graduation, he got an agent and soon he got his first big break on the soap opera “Another World.”
It would take a few years for him to land his first big movie role, in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” as Melanie Griffith’s character’s hotheaded ex-convict husband Ray. He was 30 years old at the time and hadn’t had a steady job in five years. In an interview in 1993, he told The Associated Press that he wanted to get the part on his own merits even though he knew Griffith. When that didn’t work, he “phoned Melanie.
“I hated doing it, because that’s politics for me; calling someone to help you out. But I kind of realize that’s part of what it’s all about,” he said.
The turn earned him a Golden Globe nomination. A few years later, he would get the memorable role of the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams.” Though it moved many to tears, it wasn’t without its critics. Liotta remembered hearing a baseball announcer during a Mets game complain that he batted the opposite way Joe Jackson did.
“(Bleep) you! He didn’t come back from the dead either!” Liotta recalled thinking.
Liotta’s most iconic role, as real life mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” came shortly after. He and Scorsese had to fight for it though, with multiple auditions and pleas to the studio to cast the still relative unknown.
Scorsese said Thursday that Liotta was “so uniquely gifted, so adventurous, so courageous as an actor.”
“Playing Henry Hill in Good Fellas was a tall order, because the character had so many different facets, so many complicated layers, and Ray was in almost every scene of a long, tough shoot,” the director said in a statement. “He absolutely amazed me, and I’ll always be proud of the work we did together on that picture.”
Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote that “Goodfellas” solidified Liotta (and Bracco) as “two of our best new movie actors.”
“He creates the emotional center for a movie that is not about the experience of being a Mafioso, but about the feeling,” Ebert continued.
In a 2012 interview, Liotta said that, “Henry Hill isn’t that edgy of a character. It’s really the other guys who are doing all the actual killings. The one physical thing he does do, when he goes after the guy who went after Karen — you know, most audiences, they actually like him for that.”
In the same interview, he marveled at how “Goodfellas” had a “life of its own” and has only grown over time.
“People watch it over and over, and still respond to it, and different ages come up, even today, teenagers come up to me and they really emotionally connect to it,” he said.
It didn’t matter the size of the role, or even the genre, Liotta always managed to stand out and steal scenes in both dramas and comedies, whether as Johnny Depp’s father in “Blow” or Adam Driver’s bullish divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.”
Mafiosos seemed to be his specialty (he even narrated an AMC docu-series called “The Making of the Mob”), though he was wary of being typecast. He turned down the part of Ralphie on “The Sopranos” because of it. But he’d still end up playing a mob type with James Gandolfini in Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly.” And later, he would pay his own ticket to audition for “The Many Saints of Newark.”
“I’m really not sure what made me so determined,” he told The Guardian last year. “But I was and luckily it all worked out.”
Liotta also often played various law enforcement types, from cops and detectives to federal agents in films as diverse as “Unlawful Entry,” “Cop Land,” “Narc,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Observe and Report.” Many were corrupt.
He got to be a victim of Hannibal Lecter in the 2001 film “Hannibal” and played Frank Sinatra in the TV movie “The Rat Pack,” which got him a Screen Actors Guild nomination. For gamers, he’s immortalized as the voice of Tommy Vercetti in the video game “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” He also starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in the series “Shades of Blue.”
His only regret, he once told the Los Angeles Times, was turning down a meeting to talk to Tim Burton about starring in “Batman.”
Liotta has one daughter, Karsen, with ex-wife Michelle Grace and was engaged to be married to Jacy Nittolo at the time of his death.
He also had a number of projects recently wrapped and upcoming, including “Cocaine Bear,” directed by Elizabeth Banks, which is supposed to come out in February, and the Apple TV+ crime series “Black Bird,” developed by Dennis Lehane and starring Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser. He was due to start another film soon too: “The Substance” with Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley.
“The business is rough, no matter where you’re at in your career,” Liotta said in 2012. “There’s always some reason for them to say no to you — that part of it is horrible… But the job itself — making people believe that what they’re seeing is really happening–that’s still a challenge, putting that puzzle together. You know, what can I say, I still like playing pretend. And it’s sure a fun way to make a living.”