Over the nearly four decades he acted in motion pictures, Ray Liotta worked with auteurs from Jonathan Demme to Martin Scorsese to Noah Baumbach — and also appeared in the likes of Operation Dumbo Drop, and Muppets from Space, and Street Kings 2: Motor City. But whether in an acclaimed Hollywood masterwork, a goofy comedy, or a direct-to-video thriller, Liotta’s characters always seem wholly to belong there, exuding his signature mixture of half-bluffing gravitas and erratically magnetic suavity. His death last month has sent many of us back to his varied filmography, some highlights of which the man himself discusses in the GQ video above.
After a few years in the soap-opera trenches, Liotta became a star in 1986 with his portrayal of a rough-hewn ex-convict in Demme’s modern screwball comedy Something Wild. But the chance to play that breakout part, as he explains in the video, only came his way after he worked up the nerve to ask Melanie Griffith — a connection he’d made in acting classes — to get him into the audition.
“I was just ready and wanting it,” he remembers, and surely these feelings stoked the characteristic intensity, sometimes menacing and sometimes comic, that would come through in that role, and for which he would soon become well known. Just three years later, Liotta was playing Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (a beloved picture he admits to never having seen).
The year after that, Liotta put in perhaps his best-known performance as the eager but doomed mafia associate Henry Hill in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Though he could play everyone from a bartender to a commercial jingle-writer to Frank Sinatra, his roles thereafter would include no small number of criminals, police officers, military men, and special agents: each an authority figure in his way, each made vivid by Liotta’s paradoxical air of unstable solidity. It seems that he especially savored the recent NBC crime drama Shades of Blue, in which he played “a bisexual cop that is on the take, but also loves his group of cops that he works with.” With Liotta’s death, we lost one of the very few working performers who could bring such a character to leering, convincing life.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.