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Mafia Movies and the Loss of Ray Liotta

This week the world was shocked when it was announced Ray Liotta passed away in his sleep at the age of 67. He died in the Dominican Republic shooting the movie Dangerous Waters. He made a variety of movies over his career, but most people know him from two major films: Field of Dreams and Goodfellas. Two very different movies that are loved for two very different reasons.

Field of Dreams is a magical and nostalgic look at America’s pastime. About doing something so crazy, even though you know it’s crazy, because it just feels right. Goodfellas on the other hand is about a man’s life-long want to be a gangster and how it ruins his life and the lives of family. Both were selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board as they were considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Go figure.

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta from Goodfellas
Two Italian Jersey boys; Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta
(source: GQ.com)

Born in Newark, Raymond Allen Liotta was abandoned at an orphanage after he was born. At six months, he was adopted. It was never hidden from him he was adopted and he actually brought his adoption papers in for “show and tell” in elementary school. He also had a sister growing up that was also adopted. He learned about 20 years ago he had one biological sister, one biological half-brother, and five biological half-sisters. Ray Liotta was a proud Jersey Boy and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2016.

Of all Liotta’s roles, he will be forever remembered for his portrayal of Henry Hill in Goodfellas; what I regard as the top of heap when you consider all that makes up the mafia movie genre. I mean, there’s The Godfather, there’s Goodfellas, and then there’s everything else in my opinion. If you want to read an amazing interview about the movie, I highly recommend the 2010 GQ article about Goodfellas.

We Americans of Italian descent have a complicated relationship when it comes to mob movies and shows. Most of us watch them, and love them… and hate them. All at the same time. I think it is because there is something familiar about them. Not the killing and the blood and the gore. It’s the Sunday dinners, Grandma always feeding whomever walked in the door, no matter the time of day or night, and the coffee pot always brewing.

One of the lines from Goodfellas that always stuck with me was “no outsiders, ever.” That was my life. It was almost always just the family. Every holiday, every Sunday, every vacation. If I wanted to do something with my friends it was almost always “your friends can come here.” My house became party central when I was in high school. I’m not sure how my friends felt about it. There were times I really liked it and there were times I hated it. Talk about surveillance? The police had nothing on my mother.

Mafia movies are a huge part of Hollywood. They are almost always guaranteed hits. From The Godfather and Goodfellas in the movies to The Sopranos on television. But they only really tell part of our story. But as a guest on a recent episode of The Italian American Podcast said, “no one in Hollywood is interested in casting an Italian as a doctor.” So for now, the stereotype continues.

But right now we stop and say “thank you Ray” for all the great entertainment you provided to us. And thank you for being a Jersey Italian. We get to claim you as our own.

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