When I first watched the movie Goodfellas there were a few standout performances – Joe Pesci doing his best Joe Pesci impression, DeNiro in his latest career-defining role and then there was Ray Liotta; understated, relaxed mob-boss-turned-FBI-snitch. The movie was a box office success and led to 6 academy award nominations – including best picture and best director for Martin Scorsese.
But the interesting part of Goodfellas for me was that little tagline ‘based on a true story’ – usually a misnomer in Hollywood terms and often tacked on for dramatic effect. This movie, however, was a little different…
Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill was a direct on-screen portrayal of the real life Henry Hill – a notorious and highly controversial member of the east coast mafia – a bank robber, drug trafficker and one of the nicest people I ever met.
In 1980, the real life Henry Hill became an overnight celebrity for being the one man brave enough to snitch on the mob. It turned him into a folk hero among the everyman and a lucrative target among New Yorks criminal underbelly.
For years after testifying against the mob, Henry was sequestered in protective custody, always moving from one anonymous location to another as the mob hunted him…until he was sent to prison for trafficking cocaine…while in protective custody.
26 years later, I was In Los Angeles promoting (quite possibly the worst) short movie I had made, as part of the LA International Film Festival. My PR contact had scored me a few tickets to one of the festivals highlights – a documentary on the life of Henry Hill.
My trip to LA was not without incident – I went from dancing with the girls from Grays Anatomy (without having a clue who they were) to being threatened at knife point for wandering into Mexican gang turf near the LA coliseum baseball stadium. So suffice to say…I needed a little downtime and a documentary on the life of one of my favourite on-screen characters sounded pretty good.
In what has to one of the most surreal moments in my life I wandered into the theatre a little early to chat to the director of the movie, only to walk right into the real life Henry Hill – on day release from prison to see the movie.
He was quiet, smaller than I expected and high as a kite on ‘Life’!! We talked for a bit. He wanted to visit Ireland when he got out of jail. Needless to say, I didn’t volunteer putting him up. The show was about to start so we took our seats right in the middle of the theatre.
The theater packed in tight around us but curiously no one was sitting in our isle – prime-viewing spots. I stole a glance to each end of our isle and spotted two federal marshals, guns and all, body guarding us.
So there I was, sharing a Fanta and half a box of salted popcorn with one of the most notorious, celebrated, contested, praised and condemned mafia guys in history, flanked by a couple of federal marshals.
When the movie was over and the lights came back on I said my goodbyes to a man who had ‘witnessed over 20 murders and dug over 10 graves’ and we posed for a quick photo.
When marketers say no publicity is bad publicity…maybe in Henrys case that rings true. He became rich by highly illegal means, lost all his money and assets when he snitched, only to gain a level of celebrity that allowed him to live a life as abundant as Kim Kardashian. Before passing away in 2012, he owned a chain of highly successful Italian restaurants in New York called ‘wise guys’.