“We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”-Henry Hill
When most people remember Ray Liotta, they think of his portrayal of mobster turned FBI informant in “Goodfellas,” the movie in which he delivered those lines. His amazing portrayal of the violent criminal turned him into a star, a status that had thus far eluded him despite critical recognition for his roles in “Something Wild” and “Field of Dreams.”
While I am amongst those who will always remember him for that role, I have another memory of Liotta. It was in 2018 and my cable stopped working properly during a commercial for Chantix, for which Liotta was a pitchman. I joked at the time, “My cable froze and Ray Liotta was staring at me for like 30 minutes. It changed me, man.”
Although I wasn’t actually scarred by the experience, the fact that it even occurred was a sign of the actor’s fading star. He’d gone from critically acclaimed newcomer to his breakout performance in “Goodfellas” to a smoking cessation drug spokesman.
Born December 18, 1954, in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in Union, New Jersey, Liotta fell into the world of acting. In high school, a drama teacher convinced him to perform in a school play. After high school, he went to the University of Miami, where he studied acting and earned a bachelor of fine arts before beginning his career.
Why did a Jersey boy travel so far south for school? In his words, “I went to the University of Miami because, basically, at that time, if you had a pulse, you could get in. I was only there because my dad said: ‘Go to college, take whatever you want, just go out and experience things.’”
While there, he honed his craft with a professor known as Buckets. He also took classes with Steven Bauer, who would marry Melanie Griffith. That connection proved crucial to his role in “Something Wild,” as he was able to call Griffith and convince her to get him an audition with director Jonathan Demme.
From there, things started going generally uphill for him, at least for a while. After appearing in a number of well-performing and well-received films such as “Unlawful Entry” and “Blow,” the number of critical failures began increasing. In 2002, he voiced a character in the video game “Grand Theft Auto,” a job he said he took “for the money.” In 2004, he appeared in a direct-to-DVD release. In 2007, he returned to video games, that time portraying a wizard in a live-action rendition of “Dungeon Seige.”
From there, things didn’t improve, at least not until last year, which saw the release of Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move,” a crime period drama with a score of 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 2021 also brought us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos” in which Liotta portrayed twin brothers, one of whom was the mentor to a young Tony Soprano.
There are still at least two films featuring Liotta to be released. “Cocaine Bear,” scheduled to come out in 2023, looks interesting. “El Toro,” a comedy by the “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” actor Charlie Day, has a stellar cast and a solid premise. There are three other upcoming movies listed on his Wikipedia filmography, but only “Dangerous Waters,” the film he was working on when he passed, seems to be far enough along to potentially include Liotta.
In other words, Liotta’s career, despite the doldrums that led him to freezing on my screen during a Chantix commercial, was experiencing a resurgence. Where that resurgence would have led, we will never know, but one thing we do know is that Ray Liotta, unlike Henry Hill, was never a schnook. Rest in peace.