Some screen actors sneak up on you over the course of multiple memorable supporting roles, while others jar your consciousness like a crack of lightning. The latter was my experience with Ray Liotta, in a movie I walked into not even knowing his character would be part of the plot.
The film in question was Jonathan Demme’s 1986 “Something Wild,” which starts as a kooky urban comedy about bad girl (or is she?) Audrey, played by Melanie Griffith, who convinces Jeff Daniels’ upright businessman (or is he?) to go further and further out of his comfort zone. The movie switches from screwball to thriller with the appearance of Liotta as Audrey’s ex Ray, a recently-released convict who will go to any lengths to get her back.
It’s one of those performances that benefit from a new face in the role; without the comfort of familiarity, viewers don’t know what he’ll do or how dangerous he’ll be, and in an instant, I knew that Liotta’s was a name and face I would always remember. (Years later, I would discover that I had seen him in his film debut three years earlier, in the legendary Pia Zadora catastrophe “The Lonely Lady”; suffice it to say that it takes a special brand of performer to launch a successful film career after such an ignominious beginning.)
Liotta will forever be remembered in conjunction with his starring role as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s genre-defying 1990 mobster epic “Goodfellas,” and for good reason: It’s an utterly magnetic role in an unforgettable classic, and Liotta is cracklingly alive throughout. Henry is a man whose priorities and allegiances are perpetually shifting; he pledges fealty to his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and to the mob, and he will betray both over the course of the film. But it’s Liotta’s live-wire narration (written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi) that puts us squarely inside Henry’s head for a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and the performance is so gripping that we have no choice but to follow him every step of the way.
The actor, born in New Jersey in 1954 and raised by adoptive parents, started out in soaps (a three-year stint on “Another World”) and moved back and forth between film and television over the course of his career. His small-screen triumphs include a role as Frank Sinatra in 1998’s “The Rat Pack,” a 2004 guest shot on “E.R.” that earned him an Emmy, and recent lead roles on “Shades of Blue” (as a bisexual cop), “Hanna,” and the upcoming Apple TV+ series “Black Bird.”
His versatility as a performer also served him well on the big screen — one immediately associates him with tough guys and mobsters (up to and including his role as the Moltisanti twins in 2021’s “The Many Saints of Newark”), but his shark of a divorce attorney in “Marriage Story” (2019) didn’t need a gun to make our blood run cold. He’s the only person in the film who looks like they might intimidate Laura Dern’s opposing counsel, and that’s saying something.
Liotta had a softer side as well. His “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in 1989’s “Field of Dreams” might have a somewhat brusque sense of humor (at least when it comes to Babe Ruth), but it’s a performance that fits in with one of the greatest four-hanky movies ever made. He didn’t need to be menacing to be memorable, and films like 1988’s “Dominick and Eugene,” in which he plays the caretaker to his intellectually-disabled twin brother (played by Tom Hulce), or 1994’s “Corrina, Corrina,” as a widower who grows close to his daughter’s Black nanny (Whoopi Goldberg) in 1959 Los Angeles, he’s utterly riveting playing sweet, strong guys trying to do the right thing and to take care of their families.
The actor also apparently had a great sense of humor about his own fame, turning up as parody versions of himself in projects ranging from the sitcom “Just Shoot Me” to the animated feature “Bee Movie.”
It’s always a good time to watch “Goodfellas” again, but Liotta’s filmography highlights his multi-faceted gifts as a performer. (“Dominic and Eugene” is currently unavailable via streaming or on DVD — sounds like a job for the folks at Missing Movies.) The circumstances of his demise indicate that he was a consummate professional to the end: He passed away on a movie shoot, with a half-dozen or so projects ready for imminent release and even more of them in development and now facing an uncertain future. It’s the thespian equivalent of dying with your boots on, and it’s both a testament to his decades of extraordinary performances and an indication that he still had so much to give.