By LINDSEY BAHR and MARTIN ADAMES
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. An official at the Dominican Republic’s National Forensic Science Institute who was not authorized to speak to the media confirmed the death and said his body was taken to the Cristo Redentor morgue.
Robert De Niro, who co-starred with Liotta in “Goodfellas,” said in an emailed statement: “I was very saddened to learn of Ray’s passing. He is way too way young to have left us. May he Rest in Peace.”
Lorraine Bracco, who played Karen Hill in “Goodfellas” tweeted Thursday that she was, “Utterly shattered to hear this terrible news about my Ray. I can 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.”
Alessandro Nivola, who recently appeared with Liotta in “The Sopranos” prequel film “The Many Saints of Newark” wrote, “I feel so lucky to have squared off against this legend in one of his final roles. The scenes we did together were among the all time highlights of my acting career. He was dangerous, unpredictable, hilarious, and generous with his praise for other actors. Too soon.”
David Chase, who wrote and produced “The Many Saints of Newark,” said in a statement that his passing was a “massive, unexpected shock.”
“I have been an admirer of Ray’s work since I saw him in ‘Something Wild,’ a movie he wrenched by the tail,” the “Sopranos” creator wrote. “I was so glad he worked on ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ I believed strongly in my heart that he could play that double role. He created two distinctly separate characters and each performance was phenomenal. Ray was also a very warm and humorous person. A really superior actor. We all felt we lucked out having him on that movie.”
Seth Rogen, who Liotta acted with in the 2009 comedy “Observe and Report” tweeted, “He was such a lovely, talented and hilarious person. Working with him was one of the great joys of my career and we made some of my favorite scenes I ever got to be in. A true legend of immense skill and grace.”
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.
His 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.
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.”
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