In 1990, director Martin Scorcese came out with his American crime film Goodfellas. An adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's non-fiction book Wiseguys, it tells the story of mobster Henry Hill and his time in the Lucchese crime family in New York between 1950 and 1980. Over the years, it has earned a reputation as one of the greatest crime films of all time. Although the movie is now a classic, the behind-the-scenes stories and facts about the actors and the real Lucchese family are not as well known. Read on to learn what went into making Goodfellas come to life.
Both of Martin Scorcese's Parents Have Cameos
Scorcese made sure to put a little bit of himself in the film by including both of his parents in cameo roles. His mother played Tommy's mother during the infamous dinner scene. She executed the part of an elderly Italian mother who was far too concerned whether the boys had eaten or not.
She also remained oblivious to the fact that the trio is on the way to get rid of the corpse of Billy Batt, whom Tommy had just savagely "offed." Scorcese's father had a smaller role, as the character Vinny who always put too many onions in the tomato sauce.
Joe Pesci Was Identical To His Character (Almost)
Joe Pesci plays the wildcard gangster named Tommy DeVito. He is a man who has no problem whacking anyone that he's told to, or doing it for his pleasure. The character was inspired by a real man named Thomas DeSimone, who was known to be murderous and ruthless, with a short fuse.
Pesci pulled off the character flawlessly, with just a few exceptions. While Pesci stands at 5-foot 4-inches, the real man was a threatening 6-foot 2-inches, weighing 225 pounds. Also, Pesci was over 40 years old when he played the role, while DeSimone was only 28 before he ended up in a shallow grave.
The 1978 Lufthansa Heist Is Still An Open Case
As depicted in the movie, the Lucchese crime family pulled off the $6 million Lufthansa heist in 1978. It was the largest cash robbery in American history at that point. Jimmy Burke was the mastermind of the operation and is credited with its success. The heist left numerous loose ends dead, and many others in prison after Henry Hill's testimony for other criminal involvement.
However, the case remains open today. The most recent arrest was a 78-year-old Vincent Asaro in 2014. He was believed to have been a lookout and getaway but was later found not guilty. Although Asaro was deemed innocent, the investigation of the heist is still ongoing.
Tommy Cruise And Madonna As Main Characters?
Initially, the producers brought up Tom Cruise and Madonna to play the roles of Henry and Karen Hill. Scorcese even went to her show "Speed-the-Plow" on Broadway to do some personal scouting. However, these weren't the only two considered for leading roles.
There were a lot of A-list actors under consideration for the role of Henry Hill, but Scorcese wanted Ray Liotta after seeing him in Something Wild. Lorraine Bracco ended up playing Karen Hill because she related to Karen since she grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It's difficult to imagine the film with a different cast.
Some Of The Characters Were Toned Down
Goodfellas is estimated to be around 95% accurate with some minor plot tweaks here and there. One major change was that some of the characters had to be toned down. Both Robert De Niro and Paul Sorvino's portrayal of their characters were less violent than their real counterparts Jimmy Burke and Paul Vario.
Vario was described as "one of the most violent and dangerous career criminals in the history of New York" by a federal prosecutor. He had been to jail previously on accounts of rape and violence which were just the tip of the iceberg. Burke, on the other hand, was known to be a cold-blooded killer who personally carried out the murders of at least 60 people.
Henry Hill Made Way More Money Being A Gangster
Although the real-life Henry Hill was paid around $550,000 for Goodfellas, apparently that was nothing compared to what he used to make. Even though he's still making money from the movie, he claims that when he was still in the mob, he was making around $15,000 to $40,000 a week. That's not a bad deal if you're alright with stealing, fixing numbers, and killing people.
One would think that Hill would have accumulated a fortune over the years he was a gangster, but that's far from the truth. He said that during those years he blew all of his earnings on excessive partying and a destructive gambling problem. Luckily for him, Hollywood came to save the day.
Henry Hill Couldn't Settle Down being A "Regular Shmuck"
Even though Hill had "flipped" in 1981 and went into the Witness Protection Program, things weren't as he expected. He believed that he wanted to live a regular life, but he simply wasn't cut out for the average lifestyle. It wasn't long after the US Marshals relocated him that he started slipping back into his gangster ways.
He started getting into contact with old criminal friends and went to jail on drug charges. In the end, his antics got him kicked out of the program for misbehavior. However, this didn't stop him from keeping a low profile as he attended Goodfellas events, released books, and called into radio shows until his death in 2012.
The "Do I Amuse You?" Scene Was Improvised
As it turns out, the classic scene when Tommy puts everyone on edge for being called "funny" wasn't in the script. A similar situation happened to Joe Pesci when he was younger and working at a restaurant. He called a mobster funny and got a less-than-thrilled response.
He related this story to Scorcese and was told to include it in the film. Only Pesci and Liotta knew what was going to happen, so everybody else's reaction was completely genuine. This is one of the film's most memorable scenes because neither the cast or the audience knew what Tommy was going to do.
Goodfellas Had No Problem With Profanity
If you've ever watched Goodfellas, you know that the f-word is said more than a few times throughout the film. In total, it's used over 300 times in just about every combination possible, which averages to be around 2.4 times every minute. It's the 12th film with the most f-words ever used, with some of Scorcese's other films following close behind.
However, this level of profanity wasn't even in the script (which only had the word about 70 times). It was improvised by the actors who went wild with their cursing to give the movie a real gangster feel.
Spider's Death Turned Into A Off-Screen Fiasco
When filming the scene when Tommy kills the kid named Spider, played by Michael Imperioli, an accident happened. Pretending to be shot, Imperioli fell backward into glasses on the bar and severely lacerated his hand. He was rushed to the hospital where the doctors thought that he had been shot several times because of the makeup and special effects equipment.
After they discovered he was okay, he had to wait three hours until he received treatment. Scorcese joked that one day he would be telling the story on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and that's what he did ten years later.
Many Of Henry Hill's Criminal Exploits Weren't In The Film
In the movie, Henry Hill seems like a bonafide gangster, but in reality, he was much worse. He was involved in more than a few big criminal acts that were left entirely out of the film. One, in particular, was the Boston College's 1978-1979 point-shaving scandal, which unraveled into a national sports conspiracy.
Hill, along with Jimmy Burke, recruited Boston College players to manipulate scores to cover point spreads. The documentary Playing for the Mob was based on the scandal. Another scheme he was involved in was the stealing of over $1 million of cosmetic products from Estée Lauder. Hill took her out one evening only to have his friends break into her apartment and steal all of the products.
Frank Sivero vs. The Simpsons
In the film, actor Frank Sivero played Frankie Carbone, the unfortunate mobster who is found dead, hanging on a meat hook in a refrigerator. In 2014, Sivero filed a $250 million lawsuit against The Simpsons which he said stole his looks and mannerisms for a mob character named Louie.
He said that they appropriated his image when he lived next to The Simpsons writers in 1989, a year before the film was released. The character of Louie debuted in 1991 and was in 21 Simpsons episodes. This wasn't the only lawsuit Sivero tried to file over the Frankie Carbon character. He also brought a suit against a Southern California deli because they had a Frankie Carbone sandwich and a picture of his face on their menu.
There Was A Formula To Choosing The Music
Although the musical genres were all over the place, Scorcese had specific rules about choosing pieces for the soundtrack. Every song had to comment on the scene or characters and had to fit the times for the scenes that they were featured.
For example, at the beginning of the film, Tony Bennet's "Rags to Riches" was playing and during the credits, the Sex Pistols' "My Way." The other songs played to fit the decades appropriate to the movie and also helped tell the story. Scorcese's rules worked because the Goodfellas soundtrack has been critically acclaimed by many throughout the years.
The U.S. Attorney Edward McDonald Played Himself
Near the end of the movie, Henry and Karen are discussing their options in the witness protection program with a U.S. Attorney. The attorney is Edward McDonald, playing himself. He had the same conversation with the real Henry and Karen and volunteered to reenact it for the movie.
Initially, Scorcese went to his office to see if he could use it in the movie and McDonald ended up getting the role at the same time. Unsurprisingly, McDonald was great at playing himself and his famous line "Don't give the babe-in-the-woods routine, Karen" was even improvised.
Joe Pesci Was Suprised He Won An Oscar
At the 63rd Academy Awards in 1991, Goodfellas was up for six Oscars, including Best Picture. It was also up against the big movie of the year Dances With Wolves, so nobody sure of a win. Of the six, Joe Pesci took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Pesci was entirely caught off-guard because he was up against Al Pacino and Vincent Mancini who both played mobster as well. During his acceptance speech, all he said was "It's my privilege. Thank you". Pesci commented that he was so brief because the award was unexpected.
Nicholas Pileggi Didn't Believe Scorcese
Nicholas Pileggi, the author of Wiseguy, didn't believe it when Martin Scorcese contacted him about turning his book into a movie. He thought that it practical joke that his film critic friend David Denby was pulling on him. So, initially, he ignored the calls rather than falling victim to the prank.
It wasn't until Scorcese contacted his wife Norah Ephron that he realized it wasn't a joke. That got Pillegi's attention, and the rest is history. Goodfellas also didn't hurt Wiseguy's books sales either, and now Pileggi and Scorcese are good friends.
Ray Liotta Never Met Henry Hill During Filming
While filming, Ray Liotta and Henry Hill never met. Scorcese wanted to keep the two separated until after the movie was complete so that Hill couldn't influence him to portray him a certain way. Robert De Niro visited Conway often to learn as much about his character as possible since Conway used to be his best friend.
Since Liotta couldn't meet with Hill face-to-face, he had an alternate method to get into character. Liotta would listen to countless hours of interviews with Hil that Pileggi had taped for his novel Wiseguy. Liotta said that Hill ate potato chips the whole time which made the interviews hard to listen to.
Henry Hill Lived To An Old Age, Surprisingly
When Hill testified against the members of the Lucchese crime family, it led to the conviction of around 50 people. This was a life-threatening decision because the mob's number one rule is "never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut." To do otherwise is a death sentence, or worse. Even though Hill went into protective custody, that had only given him a small head start against the dangerous organization.
Hill lived to old age and died of natural causes in 2012. In 2010, Henry admitted his disbelief that he had made it this far, but figured it was because most people from his time in the mob was dead. Another theory is that the dissolution of organized crime throughout the years had helped his survival.
There Were Real Wiseguys On Set
To make Goodfellas as realistic as possible, Scorcese hired questionable people to fill the role of other wiseguys in the film. Nicholas Pileggi said that there was an open call for crooks and there were numerous actors who had legitimate connections with the mob.
Years after the film's release, police detective Louis Eppolito, who played the role of a wiseguy, was convicted for carrying out hits for the Lucchese family years prior. He wasn't the only one with a criminal history. Actor Tony Sirico had had more arrests then he had on-screen credits, and there are a lot of questions about the rest of the gangsters on set.
Only Five Murders Happen On-Screen
Goodfellas is regarded as an intensely violent movie and people even walked out of the theatre during preview screenings. With such a reputation, you would expect characters to be dropping like flies, but that's not the case. In total, there are only a total of five deaths on-screen (Billy Batts, Tommy, Spider, Stacks Edwards, and Morrie).
Although there are other acts of violence, five murders is a rather low number. For comparison, Scarface had 44 deaths on-screen and Scorcese's other mob film Casino had 25. It's the discussion and threat of violence that makes Goodfellas seem so extreme.
When Paulie Hit Henry It Was Improvised
In the scene when Henry is released from prison, he has a one-on-one talk with the leader of the mob Paulie. During the conversation, Paulie warns him about the dangers of drugs both using and especially selling. He doesn't want the family to get involved in any business like that and thinks tHenryenry already has.
To prove his point, he slaps Henry across the face to show that he means business. The slap was improvised and Ray Liotta's reaction was real, making it an iconic scene in the film.
Making The Guns As Real As Possible
There are even more unknown facts involved in the scene when Tommy shoots the kid named Spider. Before the scene, Joe Pesci asked the propos department to load his gun with full-filled blanks. This way, the gun would look, sound, and feel like a real gun.
The rest of the cast was unaware of what pesci had asked so when he fired off the gun numerous times, it scared all of them much like real gunfire would have. That’s why in the film, everyone is holding their ears and flinching so well.
Robert de Niro's Character Has A Nasty Habit That He Hates
Although Robert De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway smokes like a chimney in the movie, it turns out that De Niro absolutely despises smoking. This was a bit of a challenge for De Niro because his character was smoking in almost every scene of the film, however, you may notice that he very rarely inhales.
Most of the time you can see him inhaling the cigarette and then quickly blowing it out of his mouth in a plume of thick smoke. De Niro really put his own issues aside to nail the character of Jimmy.
Robert De Niro Now
Robert De Niro was nominated for BAFTA Award for his performance as Jimmy Conway. Since then he's been nominated for a Golden Globe four times for Best Actor and has taken on more roles in crime films, which suit him well.
De Niro has shared his political views, stating in 1998 that Bill Clinton should not be impeached. He's also against fracking and Donald Trump. In 2016 he said of Trump, "He wants to punch people in the face?! I'd like to punch him in the face."
Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) Are Great Friends In Real Life
Even though Tommy beat Billy Batts to the edge of death and then stabbed him in the stomach numerous times with a kitchen knife, it turns out the actors are actually great friends in real life. This isn’t the gangster flick that they have been in together or their first Scorsese film. They take terms “whacking” each other in various other Scorsese films such as Casino where Vincent brutally kills Pesci with a gang of men armed with baseball bats in one of the most violent crime-murders in film history.
Ray Liotta Now
Henry Hill may have been one of Ray Liotta's biggest roles, but he's proven that's not all he's got. Hailing from New Jersey and moving to New York City, Liotta was well-suited for the role of Hill. He's also portrayed Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack and Detective Lieutenant Henry Oak in Narc.
Liotta is now working on Cutman, an indie film following a retired boxer struck with cancer who also works with the mob. He also starred opposite of Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.
Robert De Niro and Tina Sinatra Played A Nasty Prank On Ray Liotta
Ray Liotta was new to the mob genre back when he was filming the 1998 TV movie Rat Pack. So, to give him a warm welcome, Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina Sinatra put a fake horse head on set. The head was a reference to the mafia film The Godfather and is used as a mafia threat.
This happened after he refused to play the role until he was finally convinced. One day on set, the director got serious on Liotta and brought the horse head to Liotta which was orchestrated by Tina Sinatra with a lot of the cast and crew signing it.
Lorraine Bracco Never Watched the Film, Until Now
Goodfellas was released in 1990 but actress Lorraine Bracco, who played Karen Kill, never saw the film until 2017, over 27 years later. She told The Guardian, “Well, I went to the premiere, but I missed the start doing interviews, and then they pulled me out before the end, and then I had another job on a film with Sean Connery in the [expletive] jungle.
And by the time I came home it wasn’t playing. And I never wanted to see it on TV. So, yeah, I didn’t see it until – Mo, when was the 25th anniversary?"
The Prison Cooking Scene is Technically Wrong
In the film, there is a famous scene where the guys that are in jail share a big room that can’t exactly be considered as a prison. Here, they drink, play cards, hang out, and cook dinner every night. In the scene, Paulie, the boss, can be seen shaving incredibly thin slices of garlic using a razor. In the film, this is described as being one of the best parts of the dinner because it helped add to the taste.
However, it has been proven that doing this to garlic would actually destroy a dish. The garlic would end up burning too fast and therefore throwing off the taste of the whole meal. Yet, the scene was made to show that Italian men know what they are doing in the kitchen regardless of the circumstances.
The Ultimate Steadicam Shot
The scene when Henry and Karen go on their second date is a critically acclaimed scene, which many people don’t know. From when Henry and Karen park the car until the time that they sit down, it is one continuous shot with a Steadicam. It is a three-minute scene with numerous different interactions with characters.
It is one of the longest Steadicam scenes to date and was one of the first films to ever pull it off. They had to do the scene eight times because the comedian kept messing up the punchline to his jokes.
Frank Vincent Was Claustrophobic
After Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) is brutally beat down by Tommy and Jimmy as Henry watches in disbelief in the back, they wrap him in a sheet and throw him in the back of the car. While although cinematically it made sense and was as gangster as it gets, there was one problem. Frank Vincent was incredibly claustrophobic.
So, when they open the trunk to see him dying inside, the look on his face is not all acting. He was actually scared and incredibly uncomfortable which worked out for everyone, except for Vincent.
Lorraine Bracco Wanted Real Jewelry
Film has the ability to make us forget that most of the things in films are nothing but props and are completely fake. This goes for weapons, fancy clothing, cigarettes, and more. However, one thing that Lorraine Bracco wouldn’t let be just a prop was her jewelry. She wanted to have real jewelry to wear as well as on her dresser.
Considering that Henry was very well-off this means that she required very expensive jewelry. So, although she did get her real jewelry, there was a production team of armed guards whose job it was to protect the jewelry both while it was being used and after.
The Soundtrack Was Long
We already know that Martin Scorsese had very strict rules on songs that were to be used in the film and how to use them. However, unless you sat down and counted (which most people haven’t done), you’d learn that the soundtrack has a total of 43 songs that are played throughout the movie.
Scorsese also made it clear that he wanted a different song played in almost every scene in the film. Although they all might blend together, each one was specifically selected and served a purpose.
Goodfellas Wasn’t an Instant Hit
Although Goodfellas is considered to be a classic today, and one of the greatest gangster films of all time, that wasn’t always the case. After its release, it received good reviews and was nominated for the Academy Awards, but it was Roger Ebert who really gave the film its name.
He stated that “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime - not even The Godfather.” This got people’s attention, especially after he gave the film a perfect four stars and helped to create the hype around Goodfellas that still lingers today.
Tony Lip Was The Only Actor That Was In The Godfather, Goodfellas, And The Sopranos
The cast of Goodfellas shared many of the same actors that were also featured in The Sopranos. This included Tony Sirico, Lorraine Bracco, Frank Vincent, Michael Imperioli, as well as some others who played small parts in both.
However, actor Tony Lip was the only person to have acted in Goodfellas, The Sopranos, and also The Godfather. The three are known as “The Holy Trinity” of Mafia films and he gets to put on his resume that he was involved with all of them, something nobody else gets to brag about.
Billy Batts Was Supposed To Die In The First Scene
The killing of Billy Batts is a major turning point in the film and is famous for its “shinebox” reference as well as brutality. Although we see Batts stabbed to death in one of the first sequences of the film, the events leading up to his death are given to us later. However, in the original script, the entire sequence in the bar with Batts, Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry was actually supposed to happen at the beginning of the film.
This was the supposed to carry into the scene of the boys at Tommy’s mother’s house. Yet, some changes are made, and the order of the scene ended up getting switched around.
The Preview Screening Did Not Go Over Well
With a film as revered as Goodfellas, you would think that people would brag if they had the opportunity to say they had gone to a preview screening. But this is far from the truth. Author Pileggi said that at the screening in Orange County, there were over 70 people that walked out in the middle of the film.
The movie was too coarse and violent for most of the crowd. So after the screening, the crew went and hid in a bowling alley from the angry audience that felt they had just been subjected to something awful. Luckily for the Goodfellas team, it all worked out and they got the last laugh.
There Was a Tip of the Hat to The Great Train Robbery
In Joe Pesci’s final scene of the film, it is him alone in an ally pointing a gun at the screen and pulling the trigger. What true film buffs would have recognized is that this was taken directly out of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.
The film ends with a similar sequence. The Great Train Robbery is considered by many to be one of the most original outlaw films ever made and helped to establish the genre. So, Scorsese thought it would only be right to include the shot with Pesci as an Homage to Goodfellas predecessors.
Lorraine Bracco’s Performance Almost Got Her The Role of Carmela Soprano
Lorraine Bracco, who plays Karen in the film, did such a good job with her character that she was offered the role to play Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos. As flattered as she was, however, she turned down the role because she didn’t think that she should play a mobster's wife again.
She didn’t think that she would be able to bring anything to the screen that she hadn’t already and passed on the role. Yet, she still played a major part in The Sopranos as Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano's psychiatrist, which is one of the most important roles in the show.
Billy Batts Was Actually Beaten In Real Life
The graphic beating of Billy Batts can be understood as nothing more than a plot exaggeration to move the film forward and for shock value. Yet, as it turns out, in “Wiseguy”, Tommy DeSimone actually did pistol whip a man named William Bentvena to death with a .38 revolver.
The insult was the same regarding Tommy going to get his shoeshine box, but the insult and the murder occurred weeks apart in real life, unlike the film. This also exemplifies that the hitman Tommy DeSimone really was as bad as Tommy in the movie, and probably much worse.