Sometimes he was a guy you loved. Often, he was the guy you loved to hate.
But he was always the guy you watched.
The charismatic Ray Liotta, star of films from “Goodfellas” to “The Many Saints of Newark,” died in his sleep while in the Dominican Republic shooting a new movie, “Dangerous Waters.” He was 67. He leaves behind a daughter, Karsen, and his fiancée, Jacy Nittolo.
Born in Newark in 1954, he was put up for adoption when he was six months old. He eventually left the orphanage with Mary and Alfred Liotta, who brought him back to Union. When I interviewed him a decade ago for The Star-Ledger, he remembered throwing a ball around, a lot, as a kid. The closest he came to acting was playing army games with his friends.
“I never wanted to be an actor,” he insisted. “But I remember senior year, basketball had stopped and the drama teacher asked me if I wanted to be in the play. So, all right, I’m not doing anything, I’m used to hanging around anyway. Sure, I’ll be in the play.”
And he fell in love with it immediately, right?
“Nah,” he said. “I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like anything about it. What happened afterward was, I went off to the University of Miami … I thought I’d stay a year, do liberal arts. But I looked at the requirements, and it sounded really hard. And then I looked over and right next to the liberal arts department was the drama department. And there was this really cute girl in line to register …”
After graduation, Liotta moved to New York and immediately got a job in the Shubert Theaters — bartending in the lobby. But within six months, the boy with the bright blue eyes and hungry smile had landed a part on the soap opera, “Another World.”
He made his film debut playing Pia Zadora’s rapist in the infamous “The Lonely Lady” in 1983, and followed that up co-starring as Melanie Griffith’s psycho ex in “Something Wild.” His fifth movie, in 1990, was “Goodfellas.”
It was a turning point, but it almost didn’t happen. The studio wanted a name, any name. (“I think they would’ve rather had Eddie Murphy,” Liotta joked.) When he did finally get the part, he was so anxious he didn’t eat for days. Then, during the shoot, his mother became really sick, adding to the angst.
“It was a weird experience for me,” Liotta said. “But that movie, it’s amazing. It definitely has a life of its own.”
The key to its popularity, Liotta thought, was that no matter what his character did, the characters around him were even worse. Henry Hill might be sleazy, and stupid, but he’s not a killer.
“Henry Hill isn’t that edgy of a character,” Liotta insisted. “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.”
The role made him famous but also helped type him as dangerous, Although Liotta had done other sorts of parts before — “Dominick and Eugene,” “Field of Dreams” — more and more his movies (“Cop Land,” “Unlawful Entry,” “Narc,” “Hannibal”) had him playing dirty cops, crooks or lowlifes.
Liotta kept working, but he saw the way Hollywood was going. And he didn’t like it.
“It’s changed so much from when I started in the ’80s,” he told me. “I was lucky in that they were still doing a lot of independent movies, and movies with some substance. The dynamic then, and what people were saying … I don’t know, it was a lot different. ‘Something Wild,’ ‘Dominick and Eugene’ — I doubt they’d make those today.”
But he still found good parts, and was often terrific in them. In the “Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” he played a complicated dual role, a murderous mob boss and a philosophical, jazz-loving convict. If there were any justice, it would have gotten him an Oscar nomination. But the movie didn’t thrill audiences, and the chance for late-career appreciation evaporated.
“The business is rough, no matter where you’re at in your career,” he told me philosophically back 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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