I’ve Been Waiting for This Phone Call
Before he even started on “Goodfellas,” director Martin Scorsese had decided – nay, vowed – he didn’t want to make any more mafia films. That changed, of course, when he read the Nicholas Pileggi book, “Wiseguy.” Once he read it, he cold-called the writer and said how excited he was to transport the story to the big screen.
“Goodfellas” was based on “Wiseguy”, and Pileggi even wrote the screenplay with Scorsese. When Scorsese called Pileggi, the original author said “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”
To Play Jimmy, or to Play Tommy?
The legendary Robert De Niro was given two different roles as options: the elder and mentor-like Jimmy Conway, or the hyper-violent and brutal Tommy DeVito. De Niro chose to play Jimmy – because he’s De Niro, and could have been a flower girl if he wanted – and Joe Pesci ended up playing the role of Tommy.
Pesci won an Oscar for his role. He had one of the best acceptance speeches ever – look it up. The two roles of Jimmy and Tommy were reportedly based on real-life mobsters James Burke and Thomas DeSimone, respectively.
Robert De Niro’s Cash
At numerous times during the movie, De Niro’s character is seen holding or handing out, money. However, the fake money that movies used back in the day have a distinct feeling, and De Niro hates it. The person in charge of props for Goodfellas handed De Niro five thousand dollars from his own pocket. the entire crew was conscripted to ensure every single dollar remained accounted for.
After filming was done each day, not a single person was allowed to leave the set until it had all been collected and counted.
The Real Fat Andy
The character of Fat Andy was played by real-life NYPD detective Louis Eppolito, who happened to have family ties to the mafia – his father, cousin, and uncle had all been members. His life took a dark turn in 2005 when he and Stephen Caracappa, his police partner, received charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice, extortion, and eight counts of murder, as well as numerous other charges.
In a plot that is straight out of a Scorsese movie, both of them were found guilty and sentenced to life terms in federal prison.
The Real Mafiosos
Original writer Nicholas Pileggi has gone on record stating actual Mafia members were hired as extras in order to help give the movie an authentic feeling – and nobody can deny that it worked. However, the mobsters, to no surprise, didn’t want to garner any high profiles, given the nature of their work.
To that end, they gave Warner Brothers, the film’s distributor, fake social security numbers. You may know that this can cause havoc with receiving payment – and whether or not these real gangsters ran into those troubles or not is unknown, and likely will remain so.
Brando Advised Scorsese To Rethink The Project
After Scorsese, there’s a name that everybody connects to epic mob movies, and that’s actor Marlon Brando, who played the unforgettable Don Vito Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather. It turns out Brando encouraged Scorsese not to take on the project.
Obviously Scorsese ignored this advice, and he was richly rewarded: two Oscar nominations (best director and best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium), plenty of box office money, and a career that will go down as one of the most famous and well-regarded in history. Brando may be a great actor, but he’s just a man.
A Real Reason to be Angry
Ray Liotta’s character is known as one of the most violent and bloodthirsty people to ever show up on screen, with several scenes featuring bloody deaths and unforgettable brutality.
It turns out that Ray Liotta’s mother died of cancer while filming the movie, and Ray channeled his frustrations at losing a loved one into the raw, merciless anger seen in the movie, most notably the scene of Liotta pistol-whipping Karen’s neighbor for making a move on her. Liotta’s face during the scene may be acting, but the anger, frustration, and emotion is all very real.
The Unforgettable Copa Scene
In an early scene, Liotta and Lorraine Bracco take a shortcut into their favored hangout, the Copacabana. It’s the most famous scene in the movie since it’s one long, unbroken shot. It took eight takes to get it just right, and it’s for an unexpected reason: The real nightclub didn’t want them filming the front entrance.
Scorsese has said that the long, unbroken shot symbolized what was ahead for young Henry, and that it had to be one shot because it was not only Lorraine’s seduction of Henry, but the lifestyle seducing him as well. “It had to be done in one sweeping shot.”
The Unexpected Slap
While the movie has plenty of violence, not all of it was planned. One hilarious moment comes when Paul Sorvino, playing the older mobster Paul Cicero, warns Ray Liotta’s character Henry away from getting into the drug deals after Henry gets out of prison. Cicero slaps Henry in the face, and it was never in the script.
When Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) warns Henry Hill (Liotta) not to get involved in drug dealing following Henry’s release from prison, Cicero slaps his face to get his message across. That slap was improvised by Cicero, hence Liotta’s noticeably shocked reaction to it. He had no idea it was coming, and it showed.
Paul Sorvino’s Acting Dilemma
Days before Goodfellas began filming, Paul Sorvino wanted to back out of playing Paul Cicero. He reasoned that he did have what it took – visually – to play a brutal mob boss. Sorvino asked his agent to let Scorsese know, but his agent told him to sleep on it.
That night, Sorvino took a long, hard look into the mirror, and realized he was giving himself the very face of a mafioso. This look appeared numerous times in the film, including the dramatic scene in which Henry points out Cicero at the end of the film.
The Famous Bamboo Lounge
During Goodfellas, Henry, Tommy, Jimmy, and the other members of the gang spend plenty of time at the Bamboo Lounge, owned by Sonny Bunz – played by Tony Darrow. Darrow actually spent plenty of time working at the real Bamboo Lounge in Canarsie, Brooklyn. During a scene in which Bunz complains and asks for help from Sorvino’s character, Scorsese instructed Bunz to improvise, using his knowledge of the lounge.
This change took Sorvino by surprise since no one had told him about the change to the shooting script, resulting in his genuine mystified look during the scene.
If there are any directions famous for their attention to detail in all aspects of a movie, then Martin Scorsese is at the top of the list. According to Ray Liotta, Scorsese spent so much time getting the cast’s wardrobe correct that he didn’t even let Liotta tie his own tie – Scorsese did it himself.
The clothes were required not only to accurately reflect the time period and the geography of New York, but they were also required for portraying the culture of the New York mafia. If you think just making sure a tie is right isn’t all that attentive, then you just buckle up.
Extra Attention to Detail
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are both legends, and mostly thanks to each other. They’ve worked together a number of times, and not only are both of them incredible at their chosen craft, but they both take the film making business quite seriously.
In The Real Goodfella from 2006, the real-life Henry Hill said that Robert De Niro called him seven to eight times a day to ask him about Jimmy Burke, De Niro’s character in the film. He called so often, and requested so much information, that he eventually started asking Hill about how Burke held his cigarettes.
A Crazy Amount of Attention to Detail
Holding a cigarette is one thing, but what about ketchup? De Niro also asked Hill how Burke would apply ketchup to his food, which he used in the scene in which Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy eat dinner at Tommy’s mother’s house.
The real Henry Hill informed De Niro that Burke would rub the glass bottle while applying ketchup, which is exactly what De Niro did during the scene at the dinner table. Like we said, De Niro is a master, and applying all of these details to his character is one of the reasons why people think so.
Liotta Almost Said No
As an up and coming star, Liotta had more than one script on his plate when he chose to star in Goodfellas. He was also offered the role of Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. The decision was probably an easy one, thanks to the almighty cast in Goodfellas.
While Batman has also become a cultural touchstone and a memorable movie in its own right, it didn’t reach to the heights of Goodfellas, and Liotta got to work with De Niro, Scorsese, and Joe Pesci. The role of Harvey Dent eventually went to Billy Dee Williams.
‘How Am I Funny?’
Speaking of Joe Pesci, if there’s one scene you’ve seen from Goodfellas, it’s almost certainly the scene with the reckless Tommy DeVito, Pesci’s character, dressing down Henry Hill, getting more and more threatening. It turns out that Pesci brought this idea to the movie after he lived it in his real life, when Pesci worked at a restaurant.
He told a mobster that he was funny, and the mobster didn’t appreciate the intended compliment. When Scorsese learned about the incident, the director enjoyed it so much they put it in the film – it helped Pesci earn his Oscar.
Pacino As Jimmy Conway?
Al Pacino, who played the main character of the Godfather trilogy, was offered the role of Jimmy Conway, but turned it down, afraid of being typecast. Instead of playing in this legendary movie alongside legendary actors and under the helm of a legendary director, Pacino chose to play Big Boy Caprice in the 1990 movie Dick Tracy.
It was an especially odd decision since Big Boy Caprice is a gangster who ran a criminal enterprise – basically the exact same character as Jimmy Conway, even if the film’s tone is different. Pacino later admitted that passing on Goodfellas was a mistake. You think?
Lorraine Bracco’s Extremely Precious Jewelry
Scorsese and De Niro weren’t the only ones who demanded perfection when it came to the details of the film. Karen Hill, who was played by Lorraine Bracco, demanded that the jewelry her character wore, and the jewelry that littered across her dresser in her home, be authentic.
Against all odds, the film’s production designer came through for her, and ended up renting expensive gold and stoned jewelry for the film. Apparently armed guards stood to watch over the jewelry every day between shots. We hope that all of the authenticity was worth it, though the result of the film certainly makes it seem like it.
While Scorsese had directed both De Niro and Pesci prior to Goodfellas, he had never worked with Ray Liotta. In order to better mold the young actor to the movie’s – and Scorsese’s – standards, the director didn’t allow Liotta to meet with the real-life Henry Hill. His thought process was that the real Henry Hill would influence Liotta too much, and would make it more difficult to get Liotta to act the way Scorsese demanded.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Henry Hill and Ray Liotta met, which is pictured above. Once again, Scorsese’s odd methods ended up producing a movie that has withstood the test of time.
The Real-Life Henry Hill
Despite not being able to meet with the man, Liotta still wanted to get into the mind of the real Henry Hill. While driving, he would listen to interviews Hill did with writer Nicholas Pileggi. Hill would discuss murders and other crimes on the tapes, unable or unwilling to hold his tongue. Hill could even be heard munching on potato chips during the interviews.
Those who listen to the famous radio program the Howard Stern Show will already know some of this information since Henry Hill was a common guest who had no qualms about detailing illegal activities.
Real Life Relatives
Martin isn’t the only Scorsese to appear in the film – there are two more. The first is mama Scorsese – Catherine – who also plays a mother in the film. She’s Tommy’s mother, and manages to hold her own in a scene with De Niro, Liotta, and Pesci. Martin’s father – Charlies – is also in the film, as the prisoner who puts too many onions in the tomato sauce during the prison scene.
Later on in the film, Charles’ character kills Tommy. Careful, Charles. Catherine is going to dislike that, and an Italian mama’s revenge is never sated.
Off the Cuff
It turns out plenty of scenes in this iconic movie have at least a little bit of ad lib in them. One of them is the scene involving Catherine Scorsese – in fact, there was very little in the scene that was planned out. From Tommy asking if he could borrow his mother’s butcher knife to Jimmy’s “hoof” comment, the scene in the script says little more than the characters have dinner.
It’s even been rumored that Martin told his mother to ignore the cameras and pretend he – Martin – and some friends had dropped by for dinner. Good job, mom.
More Family Members
It’s not just the Scorseses who showed up in the van to the set. Lorraine Bracco had a few family members as well, though a generation down instead of up. Her two real-life daughters, Margaux Guerard and Stella Keital, played Judy Hill – the daughter of Henry and Karen.
Margaux played Judy as an older child, around the age of ten, while Stella played Judy as a younger girl, around the ages of four and five. But that’s not all: a pair of sisters also played Ruth, the other Hill child, seen at the ages of eight and eleven.
Who Could Have Been
Plenty of people were up for the lead roles in this famous film. Warner Brothers suggested Tom Cruise for Henry Hill and Madonna for Karen, and boy are we glad that’s not what happened. As far as actors that made the shortlist before Liotta was selected, names such as Sean Penn and Charlie Sheen appear.
Alec Baldwin also auditioned, and as we know Al Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy Conway. Their second attempt at Jimmy, John Malkovich, also turned the role down.
Goodfellas is famous for being one of the most foul-mouthed movies ever. Even now, it sits at number fifteen on the list of movies with the most profanity (Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is at number three). A high number of curse words in the movie come from Joe Pesci’s character, who says about half of them. It got so bad that it carried over into Pesci’s next film: Home Alone.
The director of that kid-friendly Christmas film, Christopher Columbus, had to place a swear jar on set. It’s been said that Pesci filled the jar up in one day. Pesci swore so much in Goodfellas that his mother, after seeing the film, asked why he had to swear so much.
We’ve already heard of plenty of ad-libs and unexpected additions that stayed in the final cut of the film, but one of them is a straight-up accident. Debi Mazar, who played Henry’s mistress Sandy, tripped on the camera track during the scene where she meets Henry for the first time.
Scorsese decided to keep it in, since not only could you not see what it was that Sandy had tripped on, it made it seem like her character was a little bit intimidated by Henry – just the kind of thing that a high-ranking mobster is looking for.
In the movie, Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy murder another mobster named Billy Batts after Batts ends up ribbing the brutal Tommy too much. This is based on the real murder of a mobster by the same name, as related by the real Henry Hill.
The scene in the movie is vivid and violent, but it was much worse in real life – Hill says that he still has nightmares about the murder. It’s an important reminder that while the movie is good, the things the main characters did were still heinous crimes, and as the movie goes to show, no good came of them.
It was impossible for Goodfellas to get by without people making reference to The Godfather, still the most famous film about Italian mobsters. However, it turns out the cast and crew got ahead of them by playing their own joke on Ray Liotta.
Robert De Niro and Tina Sinatra (yes, the daughter of Frank Sinatra) apparently drummed up a fake horse head and snuck it into Liotta’s trailer, an homage to one of the most famous moments in The Godfather. The way they tell it, it was as an initiation to mafioso films. Hopefully, there wasn’t any blood. It’s hard to get out of sheets.
For the use of his name and other details, Henry Hill was paid around $550,000 for the film. However, Hill had long ago gotten used to anywhere from fifteen to forty thousand dollars a week while he was working as a gangster, which totals out to anywhere from $780,000 to over two million dollars a year.
According to him, he blew nearly every dime of his mob money on things like partying, and something that even he calls a “degenerate” gambling problem. As we see from the movie, Henry gets up to plenty of money-wasting shenanigans.
The Single Woman
Goodfellas is a male-dominated movie. And with names such as De Niro and Pesci, it’s hard to justify taking the camera away from them to look at the ladies of the film. Lorraine Bracco is one of the only women in the film, and certainly, the only one who has much influence on the plot of the other characters.
In fact, it was so lopsided that Bracco found the movie difficult to shoot emotionally, thinking that the scenes she was in would be deemed not worth the time unless she was firing on all cylinders every time the cameras started rolling.
Older and Older
Tons and tons of detail was put into each shot of the movie to make it authentic, but a few details are quite unauthentic – the ages of the actors. Despite Joe Pesci being forty-six at the time of filming, his character Tommy was less than half that age, as the movie started when Tommy was in his early twenties.
In the same vein, Ray Liotta (thirty-five years old) plays the twenty-one-year-old Henry. However, since the movie does jump forward in time at several points, this detail was more practical than such age-inaccurate casting usually is.
A Poor Screening
Warner Brothers were initially very nervous about the film, mostly thanks to the extreme violence and ever-present foul language. It’s been reported that the movie had one of the worst preview responses in the studio’s history. Martin Scorsese went on record saying “the numbers were so low, it was funny.”
Somehow the film was released despite these worries, leading to outstanding critical acclaim and a winning box office. It cemented De Niro, Pesci, and Liotta as A-list actors, and turned Scorsese into one of the filmmaking industry’s most celebrated names. No film buff, mafia fan, or Hollywood name will miss a reference to this famous movie.
Not Allowed to Use the Airline
At one point in the movie, a character named Lois pulls something out of her purse. At that point, Lois was acting as a drug trafficker, and the item she pulls out of her purse has a large black bar over it, keeping us from seeing it. It’s a simple airline ticket, but what’s with the censoring?
It turns out that American Airlines, the airline the ticket is for, didn’t want to be associated with the illegal operation (and that sounds fair, honestly), but instead of emitting the shot, Scorsese stuck a black bar over the ticket. It’s certainly an interesting choice, but interesting choices make movies – and everything else – more interesting.
A Genre’s Turning Point
Movies and shows with a gangster or crime theme had been around for years before Goodfellas came out, but Goodfellas did much to lock the ideas many would later use in place. It showed us not only the glamour but the crudity, too. It involved not only the two bosses but the street-level grunts and lieutenants.
The look at the mob life from the seventies and eighties – which is right about when the mob started to decline in influence – was complex and layered. The Sopranos took many details about the writing, direction, and characters from Goodfellas.
Part of the Choir
Speaking of The Sopranos, there are plenty of actors from Goodfellas who also had roles both big and small in the famous crime family television show. Michael Imperioli, who played Tony Soprano’s nephew and protege, also played the role of the waiter that is on the receiving end of Joe Pesci’s legendary “I’m funny how” rant.
Lorraine Bracco played Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist, and sometimes-confidant. Tony Sirico played both one of Paulie Cicero’s henchmen in the 1955 scenes, as well as “Paulie Walnuts” in The Sopranos. Finally, Tony Darrow is the owner of the Copacabana and was one of the five original captains at the top of the television show.
Scorsese got his big break with Goodfellas, even though he had filmed plenty of great films before that. He went on to film a number of incredible films, including his latest, The Irishman.
In a strange twist of fate, Robert De Niro’s character, Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, was sometimes known as “The Irishman.” In an even stranger twist, it was De Niro himself who played The Irishman’s eponymous character.
Get Some Real Criminals
In yet another piece of call-forward trivia, at one point in Goodfellas, as Paulie is being arrested, one of the men he is with yells out: “Why don’t you go to Wall Street, get some real criminals.” More than twenty years later, Scorsese would direct Wolf of Wall Street, which acts as a spiritual successor to both Goodfellas and another later Scorsese picture, Casino.
Like both of the earlier films, Wolf of Wall Street documents rise to power – this time in the trading business – before greed, fraud, and corruption lead to an inevitable downfall.
Eat Like a Mobster
If you’ve ever watched Goodfellas and found yourself with a hankering for some filling Italian-American food, then you’re in luck. Henry’s line at the end of the film about not being able to get decent food in witness protection was rectified when the real Henry Hill, who broke witness protection to brag about his involvement in the film, wrote The Wiseguy Cookbook.
The book describes how to make Italian-American food even without access to the best ingredients. He even writes how to make the meal he was eating on the night he was arrested (veal cutlets, ziti with meat sauce, and green beans with garlic and olive oil.)
In the movie, Henry’s narration states that he, as well as Jimmy, could never be “made” – to become more than just street-level workers, and maybe make their way up to bosses. This is because they weren’t of full Italian descent. This rule was, apparently, changed in 2000 by the Commission, the five New York City families.
The rule now stands that a man can be “made” if his father is of Italian descent, and his last name is Italian. This would, however, still exclude Henry and Jimmy, since Henry’s father was Irish and Jimmy’s last name was not Italian.
Never Rat on Your Friends
At the end of the film, Henry Hill makes a testimony against powerful mafia associates of the Lucchese family, in order to save himself from a lifetime in prison. In real life, doing so led to over fifty convictions. Rule number one in the Mafia is, as Henry learned early on, “never rat on your friends.”
In 2010, the real Henry Hill remarked that “I never thought I’d reach this wonderful age.” After his death in 2012, The Guardian hypothesized that Hill’s fame or bureaucratic disorganization within crime families prevented a murder from being carried out.
Originally, during the climactic courtroom scene in which Henry Hill fingers the cronies of the Lucchese Family, the actor portraying the judge was going to be white. According to actor Edward McDonald (more on him later on), when Scorsese learned that the judge who had presided over the real trial was black, the original actor was let go and a black man was brought in.
This was done for a pair of reasons, the first being accuracy. The second was because Scorsese had received criticism for how he portrayed black people in his films, and wanted to begin working against those criticisms.
Didn’t Believe it at First
We already know how pleased Nicholas Pileggi was when he found out Scorsese had called him about his book Wiseguy, but Pileggi didn’t believe it at first. “I didn’t believe it when Marty left a message,” Pileggi told The Guardian in 2013. “I thought it was my friend David Denby, the film critic, winding me up.
So I just ignored him.” Scorsese finally got Pileggi’s attention by contacting his wife, Nora Ephron. We can imagine it would be pretty easy for someone to assume Martin Scorsese calling you out of the blue would seem like a trick.
Speaking of Nora…
There’s another interesting connection between Nora and Goodfellas. At the end of the film, Henry Hill is placed in witness protection – at which time he bemoans his inability to get good Italian food. His time in witness protection is the subject of a movie called My Blue Heaven.
It’s a humorous look at that period of Hill’s life. The first interesting fact is that it came out in 1990, the same year as Goodfellas. The other interesting fact is the film was written by none other than Nora Ephron herself. This husband and wife duo spent plenty of time with this gangster, it seems.
It wasn’t only the on-screen mobsters who took hits during the film. At one point, Lorraine Bracco’s character points a gun in Henry’s face, after she finds out about him sleeping around (she’s fine with all the other stuff), and the two have a spousal fight.
During one of the scene’s takes, Liotta throws Bracco off the bed. The gun flew out of Bracco’s hand and struck director of photography Michael Ballhaus right in the head. For a movie full of so many violent characters and acts, only one person being hurt in this way seems almost incredible to read.
Near the end of the film, Henry and Karen Hill discuss the witness protection program with a man named Ed McDonald, a federal prosecutor who is hoping for a positive ID in exchange for keeping Henry – and potentially Karen – out of prison. The man playing McDonald is…Ed McDonald.
He’s also the actual prosecutor who spoke with the real Henry Hill. It also turns out that most of his lines were improvised, including the famous “don’t give me the ‘babe in the woods’ routine, Karen.” McDonald is unsure how many times he used the line during the six takes of the scene, but Scorsese liked it enough.
The Camera Shrinks a Few Inches
While Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito is larger than life when he gets into a violent rage, that statement means a little bit more when you hear about the man his character is based on. His name was Thomas DeSimone, aka “Two-Gun Tommy” or “Tommy D.”
While Pesci stands only five feet, four inches, DeSimone was actually quite the giant, standing six feet, two inches, and much more muscular than Pesci’s character. While Pesci’s character received a gruesome death in the film, the real DeSimone vanished in 1979, at the age of twenty-eight, and was never found.
Meanwhile, De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway was based on James Burke, one of the top members of the Lucchese crime family nicknamed “Jimmy the Gent,” because he always had fancy outfits – you may recall the tie pins, watches, and rings De Niro wore in the movie.
Burke was the mastermind behind the 1978 Lufthansa robbery, worth nearly six million dollars, and was also, along with Hill, part of the 1979 Boston College point-shaving scandal. Burke loved to steal – in Wiseguy Hill says if you offered him a million dollars he would turn it down and then try to figure out a way to steal it from you. Burke died of lung cancer in 1996, during a twenty-to-life prison sentence.
The Lufthansa heist, which plays a huge role in the events of the film, was still being prosecuted in New York’s courts even as recently as 2014. Vincent Asaro, a Bonanno family capo, was nabbed at the age of seventy-eight and charged with plotting the hour-long heist with Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill.
While Asaro doesn’t appear in the film, he was actually in the room when the real Tommy DeSimone shot Spider – the young waiter – in the foot. Asaro was apparently the one who took the kid to the hospital – or wherever a mobster might go for such an injury – to get patched up.
He Just Opened a Magazine
The actor for Michael Hill – Henry’s younger brother – recently revealed how he got the job on such a famous movie: he read about the movie in a magazine. He made his agent get him an audition, and when the audition was over, he told Scorsese how much he liked the director’s work.
The actor, Kevin Corrigan, said that working for Scorsese, even in such a small part, was “like getting to be a batboy for the Yankees during the World Series. I didn’t feel like an actual player on the team, but I was given a job to do, and I was allowed to be on the field. It was the greatest feeling I had up to that point. I was twenty.”