The People behind the "Goodfellas" Characters
The smash 1990 hit "Goodfellas" gave audiences a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of three New York mobsters who were attempting to further their careers and cement their places in the Mafia during the 1960s and 1970s. With Martin Scorsese as director and a strong, star-studded cast, the film went on to win an Oscar as well as forty other awards and twenty-three nominations.
Although there are many players in the story, the film revolves around three main characters. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was a local boy who had dreamed of becoming a member of the Mafia's Lucchese family since he was young, despite his mixed Irish-Italian heritage. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) plays a violent and intimidating character who was pretty much born into the Mob and who ultimately becomes Henry's best friend. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) is a smooth-talking jack-of-all-trades who teams up with Henry and Tommy to further his criminal career.
The decision to cast Ray Liotta in the lead role may have come as a surprise to many because he was a relative newcomer to the Hollywood scene. Liotta had just broken into acting in 1980, and most of his experience came from a recurring role on a soap opera, "Another World," and the television series "Casablanca" and "Our Family Honor." Fortunately, director Martin Scorsese had seen Liotta's portrayal of a psychopathic ex-con in the 1986 hit "Something Wild," and he knew Liotta was destined to play Henry Hill. Producer Irwin Winkler didn't agree, stating that whoever landed the role of Henry needed to be able to portray more charm. Liotta finally won the role eight months later by approaching Winkler in a restaurant and convincing him that he was the right man for the role. Liotta wanted to play Henry Hill so badly that he turned down the role of D.A. Harvey Dent in "Batman."
Although he wasn't nominated for any awards for his portrayal of Henry Hill, Liotta gave a convincing performance that was well received by audiences. He went on to star in films such as "Unlawful Entry," "Corrina, Corrina," "Operation Dumbo Drop," and "Unforgettable."
Robert De Niro was ultimately cast in the role of James Conway, but he wasn't Winkler's or Scorsese's first choice. Al Pacino had been offered the part, but he turned it down for fear of being typecast. He quickly regretted the decision and wound up playing the role of gangster Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy" later that same year.
De Niro turned out to be perfect for the role, which ultimately won him several award nominations and a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actor. With an acting career dating back to 1965, De Niro had already proved his acting chops and his ability to play convincing gangster roles. He had already won critical acclaim for his role as Vito Corleone in the 1974 smash hit "The Godfather: Part II" and Al Capone in the 1987 film "The Untouchables."
Robert De Niro has a knack for playing complicated characters, and he has proven this in a series of roles, including Michael in "The Deer Hunter," Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull," and Noodles Aaronson in "Once Upon a Time in America." After "Goodfellas" wrapped, De Niro continued to wow audiences with roles in hit movies such as "Cape Fear," "Casino," "Meet the Fockers," and "Analyze That."
Joe Pesci's acting career is almost as long as De Niro's, and he was a no-brainer choice to play the role of Tommy DeVito. In fact, he played the part so well that he was the only cast member to go home with an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor. The real-life gangster that Pesci's character was based on, Thomas DeSimone, said that the actor's portrayal would have been perfect had he just been bigger in stature.
Pesci and De Niro were certainly not strangers when they embarked on this film. The pair had appeared in "Raging Bull" and "Once Upon a Time in America" together. Pesci has a long string of hit movies under his belt, but he is very well known for his roles in "My Cousin Vinny," the "Lethal Weapon" and "Home Alone" franchises, and "A Bronx Tale."
Lorraine Bracco played the part of Karen Hill, Henry's practical Jewish wife. Like De Niro and Pesci, Bracco also had an established acting career before filming began. She is best known for her role in "Goodfellas," which won her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. In 1999, she took on another gangster-related role in the hit television series "The Sopranos," which won her a Screen Actors Guild award as well as several additional awards and nominations.
The "Goodfellas" cast is rounded out by Paul Sorvino in the role of Paul Cicero, Frank Sivero as Frankie Carbone, Tony Darrow as Sonny Bunz, Mike Starr as Frenchy, and Frank Vincent as Billy Batts.