While filming “GoodFellas” — one of the all-time-great New York movies, in the gangster genre or otherwise — Ray Liotta had no clue he was making a classic as he was being directed by a legendary fella: Martin Scorsese.
“During the middle of it, I didn’t know how it was gonna turn out,” said Liotta, 65, who stars as mobster Henry Hill in the real-life story based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.” “It was just a lot of fun playing make-believe with all these other people who loved to play make-believe.”
But 30 years after “GoodFellas” opened on Sept. 19, 1990, it remains an unforgettable experience for the actor. “I don’t know where my keys are right now, but I can remember just about every scene and what happened that day, because a movie like that just had such a big imprint on you,” said the Union, NJ, native.
Indeed, “GoodFellas,” which also stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino, was nominated for six Academy Awards. Although it lost to “Dances with Wolves” for Best Picture and Best Director (Scorsese lost to Kevin Costner), Pesci took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2000, cementing its place in cinema history.
“Martin Scorsese made a masterpiece,” said Bracco, 65, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Henry Hill’s wife, Karen. “He made a great film.”
Liotta first prepared for his role by reading “Wiseguy.” “I read the book, and when I got the role, Marty took myself and Lorraine and Nick Pileggi and the casting agent to Rao’s [restaurant] in Harlem,” he said. “I talked a lot with Nick, and he gave me the tapes that he used for interviewing Henry for the book. I would take my mother’s car and listen over and over and over again.”
He didn’t meet the real Henry Hill before playing him, though. “Marty didn’t want me to meet Henry before, which was fine,” said Liotta.
Brooklyn-born Bracco — who knew Scorsese and De Niro through her then-boyfriend, actor Harvey Keitel — never met the real Karen either. “She was not interested,” said Bracco, who instead drew from her own experience growing up in Westbury, LI. “I knew the whole Jewish thing because I’d grown up in a neighborhood with all Jewish girls.”
Bracco suggested Debi Mazar to Scorsese for the part of Sandy, Henry’s coke-conspirator mistress. The two had previously met while Bracco was in the play “Goose and Tomtom” with Madonna, who had Mazar as her makeup artist. “I love that she got it,” said Bracco.
“ ‘GoodFellas’ was my first big movie,” said Queens native Mazar, 56, who now lives in Florence, Italy. “I was very familiar with the tone of the movie, the characters of the movie. I had relatives that kinda reminded me of some of those people.”
Another Queens native, Christopher Serrone, played young Henry Hill at the beginning of “GoodFellas,” making his acting debut. Only 12 when he started filming, he had to tough it out wearing hard contact lenses to match Liotta’s blue eyes. “Those contact lenses were hand-painted in Italy to be an exact replica of Ray’s eyes: $3,000 per lens, and I had two sets,” said Serrone, now 44. “I could only wear them for about a half-hour to an hour at a time. There was a lot of going in and out of the makeup trailer.”
Mount Vernon native Michael Imperioli, who played the bartender Spider, actually thought he was reading for Pesci’s part of trigger-happy Tommy. “I thought I was auditioning for Joe Pesci’s character because the character Tommy in the book was 21 years old for a lot of that story,” said Imperioli, 54, who was then 23. “I knew Scorsese liked improvisation, so I just started making stuff up, and he loved it.”
Doing his own stunts proved to be dangerous for Imperioli in the scene where Spider gets gunned down by Tommy. “The problem was, I had a glass in my hand as I walked to the table, and the prop person forgot to give me a breakaway glass,” he said. “And when I hit the ground in the first take, the glass shattered and cut open two of my fingers really bad. Some production assistant drives me to the hospital in Queens. I get out at the hospital, and everybody rushes to me because I have three bullet holes in my chest, and I’m trying to explain to the people [that] I cut my hand, but they won’t listen. They think I’m delirious ’cause of these bullet holes, there’s blood everywhere. They think I’m about to drop dead.”
Serrone, who fondly recalls Sorvino singing opera between takes, had his own memorable experience filming a stunt scene when young Henry smashes car windows. After nailing the scene on the first take in the middle of the night, Scorsese rewarded him with a treat. “I go over to him and he hands me a white box. The bottom of the box is still warm,” he said. “I open the box, and there’s a dozen fresh-baked cannoli inside.”
Mazar also survived her own dangerous moment. “I’m cutting the coke with Ray Liotta in my apartment, and it’s a really messy scene, we’re high,” she said. “And then I had to throw a coke scale, and I think I missed Martin Scorsese’s head by, like, an inch! He just let us go for it.”
For her part, Bracco came up with the idea for Karen to reward Henry with a b - - - job after he gives her a wad of cash to shop. “That was my idea,” she said. “They were young! And I felt that when anybody, who’s your husband especially, gives you thousands of dollars, that that would be fun.”
Bracco also got to use both of her daughters, Stella and Margaux, in the film to play one of Karen’s daughters at two different ages. “Marty needed to cast kids, and I said, ‘Could you use my kids? I’d like to see them. I haven’t seen them in weeks,’ ” she said, noting she was concerned some of the tenser scenes would upset her youngest. “Ray and I would talk to Stella before we would do any of these scenes and say, ‘Mommy’s just acting, and we’re really playing around.’ And we’d always hug and kiss each other after the scene, so Stella would see that we’re just playing.”
It ended up lessening the intimidation factor of the more experienced De Niro, Sorvino and Pesci, who came to Liotta’s mother’s funeral. “When you see what the important things are in life,” Liotta said, “you can play pretend with a bunch of people, no matter how big they are.”
Liotta — who appears in the upcoming film “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos” — would finally meet the real Henry Hill after “GoodFellas” opened. “I got a call out of the blue. He said, ‘Hey, this is Henry Hill. I’d love to sit down and talk with ya.’ I said, ‘OK. I’ll meet you.’ And the first thing he said was, ‘Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag!’ And I said, ‘Serious? Did you see the movie? You cheated on your wife, you were dealing drugs when your crew told you not to.’ ”
Serrone, who briefly met Hill on set, would reconnect with him years later through social media and go on to forge a friendship with him. In fact, Lisa Caserta — Hill’s fiancée at the time of his death in 2012 — gave Serrone some of his personal items, including his favorite hat and some paintings he had done, after he passed away. “On Henry’s birthday, I always send her a message,” said the actor, who now lives in Green Mountain, Colo., and still works in film.
Of course, Bracco and Imperioli went on to achieve more mob glory in “The Sopranos.” “People scream out ‘Karen,’ and they scream out ‘Dr. Melfi,’ too,” said Bracco, who will renovate her Sicilian home in the HGTV series “My Big Italian Adventure,” premiering Oct. 30.
But Bracco still has issues with her character’s legacy of standing by her man. “What I didn’t like was a lot of people, or women, glorified her, and I found that really sad ’cause look what happened to her in the end,” Bracco said of Karen. “I mean, going into the Witness Protection [Program] was no fun and games. I don’t think it really ended up great for her.”