With the heartbreaking news that 2022 has seen the deaths of both Ray Liotta and Paul Sorvino, who played Henry Hill and Paul Cicero in Goodfellas, here we take a look a one of the greatest gangster movies ever made and remember those fine performances from two giants of the acting world.
Don’t consider yourself a GoodFellas expert until you’ve digested all of this invaluable trivia...
1. The F-bomb is dropped 296 times during the film, averaging twice per minute. About half of them are by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). After Pesci’s mother saw the film, she said she liked it but asked if he had swear so much.
2. Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway character is based on real-life mobster Jimmy Burke, aka Jimmy ‘The Gent’ or ‘The Big Irishman’, an ex-bricklayer believed to have orchestrated the $6m Lufthansa heist in 1978 and then killed 10 of those who took part. To portray him, De Niro plundered writer Nicholas Pileggi’s unused notes and obsessively asked the real Henry Hill for details about the real Jimmy — how he held his cigarette, used a ketchup bottle, reacted to various situations, etc.
3. When Pileggi pitched the title of his book Wiseguy (that GoodFellas is based on), his publishers suggested he changed it as they had never heard the term before — at that point, it was not widely known.
4. Horses’ heads were left in Ray Liotta’s dressing room, by both co-star Robert De Niro and Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, as a Godfather homage and welcome to the world of Mafia films.
5. Driving to the set each day, Liotta listened to tapes of FBI wiretaps of the real Henry Hill to help him get into character for the day’s filming.
6. Pesci wrote the “Funny how?” scene himself, at Scorsese’s request. Pesci had once seen a similar incident occur between drunk mobsters in Chicago. During the scene, Scorsese chose not to film any close-ups, and packed Mob members around Pesci and Liotta, specifically so that you could “see the affect on those around them”.
7. For the famous montage scene set to Derek & The Dominos’ Layla, Scorsese played the piano coda himself during the shooting of each scene, so they could get the rhythm and movement of the camera right, matching up certain bars of the song with specific shots.
8. After Henry is released from prison and Paulie (Paul Sorvino) warns him off drug-dealing, Sorvino improvised the slap to Liotta’s face — so Liotta’s surprised reaction is real.
9. As you may expect, there are many connections between GoodFellas and The Sopranos. They share two-dozen actors, notably Lorriane Bracco and Michael Imperioli. Sopranos creator David Chase says, “GoodFellas is the Koran for me.” Christopher [Tony’s nephew] lists it as one of his screenwriting inspirations. And when watching films with Father Intintola, [Tony’s wife] Carmela mentions Tony preferring Godfather II to the original, and the priest asks Carmela where Tony rates GoodFellas.
10. Scorsese originally intended to make GoodFellas two years earlier, but when funding for his pet project The Last Temptation Of Christ finally materialised in 1987, he decided to shoot that and postpone the gangster flick.
11. The dinner scene with Tommy’s mother is largely improvised, including Tommy asking if he could borrow her butcher’s knife and the paw/hoof debate.
12. Paulie’s razor-blade garlic slicing isn’t actually very practical. It tends to brown too quickly unless you put it in lukewarm oil. It’s usually easier to mash it with a fork. Still, certain Italian cookbooks suggest you slice the cloves “GoodFellas thin” and to cook them “low and slow”.
13. For a film renowned for violence, GoodFellas has a relatively low body count of 10.
14. At the 1991 Oscars, GoodFellas was up against Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. GoodFellas only won one — for Pesci as Best Supporting Actor.
15. During recording of the film’s narration, Liotta made the sound man sit directly in front of him in the studio so that he could tell the story to someone.
16. The legendary Steadicam tracking shot through the nightclub kitchen was an accident. Scorsese (right, with De Niro), who didn’t even like using Steadicams at first, had been denied permission to go through the front door and had to improvise another plan. He decided to do it in one long shot to symbolise “Henry’s whole life being ahead of him, doors opening to him. It’s his seduction of Karen and it’s also the lifestyle seducing him”. The shot had to be redone eight times — not because of complications choreographing it, but because it ends on comedian Henry Youngman performing, but Youngman kept fluffing his lines, spoiling the close of the scene.
17. Tommy DeVito was based on real-life gangster Thomas ‘Two-Gun Tommy’ DeSimone, renowned for his violent temper. According to the real Henry Hill, Pesci’s portrayal was “90 to 99 per cent accurate”, with two notable exceptions. Firstly, DeSimone was a big, burly enforcer, standing 6ft 2in and weighing 15 stone. Secondly, the film states that Tommy was shot in the face so his mother couldn’t give him an open-casket funeral, but the real DeSimone’s remains were never recovered.
18. The are several anachronisms in the scene captioned ‘Idlewild Airport 1963’: Henry leans on a 1965 Chevy Impala, the Swissair jet is painted in Eighties livery and a Boeing 747 flies overhead, even though the plane didn’t enter service until 1970.
19. When Billy Batts and Tommy exchange “shoeshine” insults in the bar, Billy’s lips aren’t synchronised with the dialogue. He says “What?” and then “Salud Tommy” without his lips moving.
20. Scorsese’s parents both appear in the film. His mother Catherine (below) plays Tommy’s mother during the dinner scene. His father Charles plays the prisoner who commits the cardinal sin of putting too many onions in the tomato sauce. They came on to set every day, and Scorsese let them press all the gangster’s shirt collars, as according to him, only they “knew how to do it properly”.
21. In test screenings, the film received the worst response in Warner Bros history, with audience members leaving in droves, disgusted by the violence, drugs and language. Scorsese said, “The numbers were so low, it was funny.”
22. After the film’s premiere, the real Henry Hill was so proud that he went around revealing his true identity and boasting that the film was about him. The FBI had to remove him from its Witness Protection Programme.
23. Paul Sorvino nearly quit before filming, as he thought he’d ruin the film as he considered himself a “total pussycat” and a “softie”.
24. Young Henry (played by Christopher Serrone) is right-handed. Older Henry (Liotta) is left-handed.
25. When Tommy stabs Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), he clearly uses a rubber prop knife with retractable blade. He plunges it into Batts several times, but gets no blood on his hands or the knife.
26. Scorsese edited the scene where Hill is driving, high on cocaine, specifically for The Who’s version of Magic Bus from Live At Leeds.
27. In the first series of The Sopranos, Tony’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) shoots a bakery employee in the foot for making him wait. As he leaves, the wounded bread-seller yells, “He shot my foot!” and Chrissy replies, “It happens.” It’s a nod to Imperioli’s character Spider getting shot in the foot by Pesci a decade earlier in GoodFellas.
28. When he read Pileggi’s book, Scorsese says he knew straight away how he wanted to shoot it: “To begin like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. It’s the only way to capture the exhilaration of the lifestyle and get a sense of why people are attracted to it.”
29. When Janice the babysitter pulls an airline ticket out of her handbag, there’s a black bar covering it because producers couldn’t get permission to use the American Airlines logo. The company didn’t want to be affiliated with the depiction of drug trafficking.
30. During the scene where the mobsters are celebrating with the spoils of a robbery, Paul Sorvino told a different joke for eight takes just before the director called “action”, so the laughter you see is real.
31. There were five taglines used on various posters: ‘“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” — Henry Hill, Brooklyn, NY. 1955’, ‘Three decades of life in the Mafia’, ‘Murderers come with smiles’, ‘Shooting people was “No big deal”’ and ‘In a world that’s powered by violence, on the streets where the violent have power, a new generation carries on an old tradition’.
32. Frank Vincent is claustrophobic, and had to overcome his phobia when playing Billy Batts to be shut in the car’s boot.
33. When Jimmy makes the phone call about Tommy being made, you can spot the reflection of the camera in the phone booth.
34. The pacy energy of the film was influenced by Scorsese’s love of French New Wave cinema, especially François Truffaut’s doomed love triangle classic Jules Et Jim. He wanted a similar voiceover to open, along with extensive narration, quick cuts and freeze frames. He called it a “punk attitude” towards film convention, mirroring the attitude of the gangsters in the film.
35. Sean Penn was considered for the role of Henry.
36. There are three GoodFellas nods in Swingers. Trent (Vince Vaughn) asks the Vegas cocktail waitress to meet him at the Bamboo Lounge — a reference to a bar Tommy and Henry burn down in GoodFellas. The scene where the boys enter the basement of the Derby is a recreation of Scorsese’s famous Steadicam scene. They even sit around a table discussing films and cheekily dismiss parts of Reservoir Dogs as steals from GoodFellas.
37. Scorsese wanted to depict the violence as “cold, unfeeling and horrible”, but had to remove 10 frames of blood in order to ensure an R rating.
38. To help psyche himself up for the scene where Tony shoots Spider (pictured above), Pesci asked the props department to use fully-filled blank rounds in the gun. “I wanted full loads so I could hear the echo and feel the gun kick like a real .45,” he says. “The silence after that last shot was more deafening than the shots themselves.”
39. The painting that Tommy’s mother holds up during the dinner scene (Tommy: “One dog goes one way and the other goes the other”) is based on a photo from the November 1978 issue of National Geographic, and was painted by Pileggi’s mother.
40. Scorsese was wowed by Liotta’s performance as a maniac ex-con in Something Wild and immediately wanted to cast him as Henry Hill, but producer Irwin Winkler was unconvinced, claiming that he didn’t have enough “charm” for the role. It took eight months for Liotta to finally land the part — he wanted it so badly, he approached Winkler in a restaurant and asked for a minute alone in the bar to tell him why he thought he was perfect. Winkler called Scorsese the next day and told him to go ahead.
41. Al Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy Conway but turned it down due to fear of typecasting. Ironically, later that same year he ended up playing a gangster, Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. He admits regretting the decision.
42. Filming the scene in which his character Spider (Michael Imperiolo) is killed by Tommy, Imperiolo cut his hand on a broken glass and had to be rushed to hospital. Doctors saw what appeared to be a gunshot wound in his chest and tried to treat it. When Imperioli told them it was make-up and what was really wrong, they sent him to the back of the ER queue and he had to wait three hours. Director Scorsese loved this anecdote and told Imperioli that one day he’d be telling that story on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. A decade later, that prediction came true.
43. Scorsese first heard of Pileggi’s book Wiseguy when he was handed an early proof copy while shooting The Color Of Money in Chicago. Although Scorsese had sworn off making another gangster flick after Mean Streets, he immediately called the writer and told him, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” Pileggi replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” They agreed to co-write it there on the phone.
44. De Niro frequently takes drags of his cigarette but never exhales any smoke.
45. Liotta turned down the role of District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman to make GoodFellas. The Dent role went to Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian from The Empire Strikes Back).
46. The final shot of Pesci shooting at the camera is a nod to milestone 1903 Western short The Great Train Robbery, which ends with the bandit leader, played by Justus D Barnes, shooting straight at the camera.
47. Berlin-born director of photography Michael Ballhaus — a long-time Scorsese collaborator — had to leave before the shoot wrapped to work on Postcards From The Edge. Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct Men In Black and Get Shorty, took over for the last few days of filming.
48. Comic Henry Youngman, ‘King Of The One-Liners’, who plays himself in the club scene, was born in Liverpool. His family emigrated to Brooklyn when he was a child and he started out writing gags for greeting cards.
49. The part of Sixties crooner Bobby Vinton, who sings Roses Are Red in the Copacabana club, was played by his son Robbie, who lip-synched to his father’s recording.
50. The film was shot in 72 days between 3 May and 9 August 1989 — over here, the period known as ‘The Summer Of Rave’ or ‘The Second Summer Of Love’.
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