Martin Scorsese Recalls the Moment He Knew Ray Liotta Was Perfect to Play Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas’ 

On Feb. 24, Ray Liotta will receive a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring almost 50 years of amazing work in TV and on film. Following his turn in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film “Something Wild,” playing Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” was the moment that many moviegoers first discovered his complex, sometimes contradictory charms. When asked about the moment he knew that Liotta was the perfect choice for Hill — a character that was slick, confident, effortlessly charming, but with an edge of danger that made him fearsome and attractive at the same time — Scorsese says it wasn’t during casting, or even on set, but when the two crossed paths ahead of the beginning of production.

“We were thinking about just a few actors to play Henry Hill, and Ray was one of them,” Scorsese tells Variety. “I had one concern. I knew that he could handle a role like the one he had in ‘Something Wild,’ but here he would have to carry the whole picture. He had to look like he could have come out of that world, he had to have a certain innocence, he had to have authority, but most of all he needed charm as a counterweight to the violence and the horrifying behavior. I loved Ray’s work, we got along very well whenever we met and I knew we could work together.

“But still… I wondered,” he admits. “And then, something clicked into place.”

Scorsese says he was in Venice for “The Last Temptation of Christ” when they unexpectedly crossed paths. “I was staying at the Excelsior Hotel. I was crossing the lobby to do an interview and I saw Ray waving to me on the other side of the room — he was there with ‘Dominick and Eugene’,” he remembers. “He headed toward me to say hello and he was confronted by a phalanx of security. And… he handled it. Perfectly.”

Notwithstanding Scorsese’s own celebrity, “Last Temptation” generated a tidal wave of controversy for the filmmaker which required him to enlist additional protection — death threats were issued for daring to adapt Nikos Kazantzakis’ portrait of Jesus. “[Ray] reacted very quietly, very calmly, politely,” he recalls. “He allowed them to observe their protocols and he defused the situation. He looked at me, I looked at him, we signaled to each other that we would talk at a more convenient moment, and we went our separate ways.

Shortly therafter, Scorsese officially selected him for the part. “I took a little more time to think about it, but I realize now that I was just going through the motions,” he admits. “That was when I knew he would be Henry Hill.”

Liotta appears in almost every scene of “Goodfellas,” a responsibility he shoulders with ease and consistency on screen. Scorsese reveals that behind the scenes, he went through at least one significant personal challenge that threatened to undermine the duo’s creative rhythm, much less the actor’s focus in what would prove to be one of his signature roles. “One day, I was told that Ray had just gotten a call with bad news. I went to his trailer and when I walked in his was in tears. His mother was dying,” the filmmaker recalls. “I remember his words, repeated over and over: ‘She adopted me and raised me, she’s the sweetest woman, why does she have this terrible cancer?’ I told him that he had to go there to be with her, and… he said no.”

The story serves as a reminder of the unimaginable tribulations performers sometimes face that challenge them to play roles that contradict how they feel and often who they are. But as Scorsese tells it, playing Henry Hill offered Liotta a chance to elicit support and sympathy from the remainder of the cast and crew. “He was upset, it was a terrible situation, but he was going to stay and finish the day. I made sure that this was what he really wanted to do and he assured me that it was,” he says, recounting the day.

“Ray and I walked to the set together. We were shooting a scene where the characters were celebrating their first big score,” Scorsese says. “We told the crew and the actors, one of whom was my father, what was happening. We started rolling. And the solidarity we all felt with Ray, the feeling of collective mourning, fueled the euphoria of the onscreen moment: tears and sorrow were transformed into laughter and jubilation.

“I’d never experienced anything like it, and I haven’t since.”

When Liotta passed away in May 2022, he left behind not only an immense legacy of classic films and unforgettable performances, but a surprisingly long trail of work that has yet to be released, the first of which, “Cocaine Bear,” opens on Feb. 24, the same day he receives his star. As his remaining projects extend that legacy, the Walk of Fame ceremony offers another public opportunity to celebrate him and his talent.

Says Scorsese, “John Cassavetes once said something that I’ve quoted many times: To make films, you just need to not be afraid of anybody or anything. Period. Maybe a better way of putting it is: it’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let it dictate what you do. An actor needs the same level of fearlessness. They need to really expose themselves as human beings, and to have the technique to use that exposure to their advantage. And they need to be comfortable with trying anything, failing, looking like an idiot, over and over again until they find their way in. Ray had those qualities.

“Yes, his manner and his appearance and the quality of his voice meant that he was cast more often as ‘tough guys’ than in pictures like ‘Field of Dreams,’ but that’s true for every actor,” he says. “It was his fearlessness, combined with his control and his intelligence, that made him so great.”