Goodfellas Director Martin Scorsese Pens Heartfelt Tribute To Ray Liotta Following The Actor’s Death

Ray Liotta sitting on the witness stand in Goodfellas.
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

On May 26, Ray Liotta passed away at the age of 67, and celebrities like Seth Rogen and Jamie Lee Curtis paid tribute to him soon afterwards. Days after his passing, Liotta’s fiancée, Jacy Nittolo, went on social media to honor the man she intended to marry, calling him “most beautiful person inside and out” she’d ever known. Now Martin Scorsese, who directed Liotta in 1990’s Goodfellas, has penned his own heartfelt tribute to the actor.

While Ray Liotta put together an impressive body of movie and TV work over his 40+ years of acting, ranging from his time on Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner to starring alongside Jennifer Lopez in the NBC series Shades of Blue, he was arguably best known for playing Henry Hill in Goodfellas, which co-starred Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. In an op-ed he wrote for The Guardian, Martin Scorsese recounted the story behind how Liotta was selected to star in Goodfellas, noting how the part required someone who could be “disarming,” “dangerous” and “vulnerable.” Looking back, Scorsese realized he wanted Liotta to play Henry after meeting him at The Last Temptation of Christ’s world premiere in Venice, and then the filmmaker showered the following praise onto the late actor:

The word ‘fearless’ is used quite often to describe actors, and with good reason: actors need to be fearless. They have to jump in and just go, and they have to stumble and fail and risk appearing ridiculous as they’re finding their way into a role. That’s just part of the work. On Goodfellas, we were working improvisationally in most scenes, and many members of the team had known each other and worked together for years, including my mother and my father. Into that walked the new guy, Ray Liotta, and he never missed a beat. It felt like we’d worked together for years.

Based on the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas (which Pileggi co-wrote with Martin Scorsese) chronicled Henry Hill’s rise and fall through organized crime, albeit with some creative embellishments that come with Hollywood adaptations. In addition to the kind words above, Scorsese also shared an anecdote that exemplified Liotta’s work ethic. On the day he, Pesci, Robert De Niro and Paul Sorvino shot the scene where Henry, Jimmy and Tommy give Paulie the tribute money from the Air France heist, Liotta learned his mother was dying of cancer. Scorsese urged the actor to go be with his mother, but Liotta was adamant he perform this specific scene first, and given the euphoria the actors needed to express, when all was said and done, there were “laughter and tears, tears and laughter.” 

Ray Liotta reportedly passed away in his sleep while he was in the Dominican Republic shooting Dangerous Waters; the cause of death hasn’t been revealed yet. Now that Liotta’s gone, Martin Scorsese expressed regret that he never got to work with him again after Goodfellas, although it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Still, the two men went on to add even more impressive credits to their resume, and some of Liotta's most notable post-Goodfellas films include Cop Land, Hannibal, Identity, Smokin' Aces and Marriage Story. The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos prequel movie, was Liotta's last film appearance before he died.

It is indeed a shame Ray Liotta and Martin Scorsese never collaborated again, but fortunately, their one project together is still considered a cinematic triumph over 30 years later, with Goodfellas’ many accolades including winning one Academy Award (Joe Pesci for Best Supporting Actor) and being nominated in five other categories. While Liotta is no longer with us, along with the aforementioned Dangerous Waters, his upcoming posthumous releases include Elizabeth Banks’ “insane” Cocaine Bear and the untitled Charlie Day movie. Scorsese’s next movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, will come out sometime this November.

We here at CinemaBlend continue to pass along our condolences to Ray Liotta’s family and friends during this difficult time.

Adam Holmes
Senior Content Producer

Connoisseur of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, John Wick, MonsterVerse and Doctor Who lore, Adam is a Senior Content Producer at CinemaBlend. He started working for the site back in late 2014 writing exclusively comic book movie and TV-related articles, and along with branching out into other genres, he also made the jump to editing. Along with his writing and editing duties, as well as interviewing creative talent from time to time, he also oversees the assignment of movie-related features. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Journalism, and he’s been sourced numerous times on Wikipedia. He's aware he looks like Harry Potter and Clark Kent.