He played psychopaths, gangsters, corrupt cops and guys you do not want to mess with. A lot of times in those roles, he was so convincing that you thought in real life, Ray Liotta must actually be crazy.
But that was not all he played. Liotta also played good guys, heroes, sensitive fathers, surgeons, athletes and lawyers. In “Operation Dumbo Drop,” he was an Army captain who helps deliver an elephant to a village in Vietnam. He even did a pair of movies with the Muppets, and he did not pistol whip any of them (at least not on camera).
Liotta, who died May 26 at age 67, did not mount a career measured in awards. He was never nominated for an Oscar – the fact that he was overlooked for “Goodfellas” is a travesty – but when he connected with a role, a part that met his charismatic madness and intimidating intensity, he hit like a bolt of electricity. That’s what made him such a unique, livewire presence in films from the 1980s all the way through to last year’s “Sopranos” spinoff, “The Many Saints of Newark.”
Here’s a look at Ray Liotta’s impressive body of work through the scope of “Goodfellas” and 10 more key roles.
‘Something Wild’ (1986)
Liotta started appearing in soap operas and television movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but his breakthrough came in Jonathan Demme’s screwball comedy action romance “Something Wild,” in which he plays Ray Sinclair, a menacing ex-con and the ex-husband of Melanie Griffith’s wild child Lulu, who is being courted by Jeff Daniels’ straight-laced Charles. It’s an edgy role and Liotta played it with manic energy, and audiences took notice of the loose cannon always ready to go off.
‘Field of Dreams’ (1989)
Playing Shoeless Joe Jackson, a member of the disgraced Chicago Black Sox team that was shunned for its gambling scandal, Liotta appears as a vision to Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, and gets to utter one of the most timeless quotes in all of cinema history: “if you build it, he will come.” Even if he would have never gone any further in his career, his place in movie history would have been cemented.
Instead, Liotta got another immortal line and the role of a lifetime in Martin Scorsese’s glorious gangster epic, in which he plays Henry Hill, a mobster who after a life of crime turns on his mob cohorts and rats them out to the feds. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Liotta’s Hill says out front, and he leads an ensemble cast (De Niro, Pesci, Bracco, Sorvino, etc.) through a timeless crime saga with an impeccable performance built on bravado, swagger and his character’s raw nerve endings. By the end of the movie, you feel like you’ve lived a full life with him. Sidebar: no one has ever said “Ka-ren!” better, ever.
‘Unlawful Entry’ (1992)
In this 1992 thriller, Liotta plays a deranged LA cop Pete Davis, who stalks a couple, Michael and Karen Carr (Kurt Russell and Madeline Stowe), after an intruder breaks into their home. Under the guise of offering protection (and wildly abusing the power of his badge), Pete slowly aims to push Michael away, and Liotta uses his dead-eyed ferocity to challenge Michael’s masculinity and his ability to keep his home, and his wife, safe . Liotta can be threatening without saying a word, and there are scenes here where he conveys everything he needs to with an ominous stare off into the distance.
‘Corrina, Corrina’ (1994)
In this 1950s set drama, Liotta plays a father who is taking care of his daughter after the death of his wife. He hires a nanny, Corrina (played by Whoopi Goldberg), and they slowly develop a romance, despite the politics of interracial relationships at the time. The role allowed Liotta to soften and to show the soul and humanity underneath his unnerving exterior. He also plays the piano, which most of his psycho characters never got the chance to do.
‘Cop Land’ (1997)
James Mangold’s New Jersey crime drama was Sylvester Stallone’s bid into ’90s indie territory, and Sly was surrounded by a top-notch cast that included Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Robert Patrick, Janeane Garofalo, Annabella Sciorra and yes, Ray Liotta. Liotta, a native of Newark, New Jersey, plays Gary “Figgsy” Figgis, a cop on the edge, who delivers the film’s best speech (if not its best line, that belongs to De Niro’s “you bleeeewwwwww it!”) When he explains to Stallone’s character his philosophy of moving through life. “If you move diagonally, you’re going to get perpetual motion, and that’s what you want,” says the actor, who never, ever stopped moving.
Liotta gained 25 pounds and grew a goatee to play homicide (homicidal?) Detective Henry Oak in director Joe Carnahan’s Detroit-set crime thriller, in which Toronto stands in for the Motor City save for a few key shots. Oak is an intimidating figure and has a Liotta character’s familiar, signature violent tendencies, but it’s a strong moral standing that leads to him crossing the line, as he explains in one key scene (see above), in which he speaks with a quiet, measured ferociousness. Liotta believed in the character and in Carnahan’s script so much that he became a producer on the film, and helped land a deal with Tom Cruise’s production company to get the Sundance hit into theaters.
‘Killing Them Softly’ (2012)
As Markie Trattman, a low-level scumbag accused of orchestrating the holdup of a Mafia poker game, Liotta plays a small but crucial role in Andrew Dominik’s crime drama. Markie suffers a violent beating at the hands of a couple of reluctant thugs – they do not want to be delivering the beating any more than Markie wants to be receiving it, but hey, times are tough for everybody – and the humanity in both Dominik’s script and Liotta’s performance make each punch land with a sickening thud.
‘Muppets Most Wanted’ (2014)
Not particularly significant, but Liotta had a cameo role and played a prison inmate who gets to be a part of a chorus of background singers during a Tina Fey musical number. It’s Liotta’s second appearance in a Muppets movie, following 1999’s “Muppets from Space,” so hey, the connection was strong enough there that they brought him back for more. Ray Liotta: Honorary Muppet.
‘Marriage Story’ (2019)
A late-career revelation: Liotta plays Jay Marotta, a vicious, cutthroat (and hilarious) LA divorce attorney, for whom courtroom squabbles are just another Hollywood show. Liotta’s comic chops and timing are never better utilized than they are here, suggesting perhaps he was underused in comedic roles throughout the course of his own Hollywood journey. Liotta steals scenes in the movie from his castmates, but ultimately it was his co-stars Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern who landed Oscar nods, and Dern walked away with the Best Supporting Actress trophy.
‘The Many Saints of Newark’ (2021)
In a haunting dual role, Liotta plays twin brothers “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, making up for the lost time when he should have been in “The Sopranos” all along. As Uncle Sally, Liotta is chilling, a lifetime’s worth of regret and the clarity of someone who has accepted his place in the world seeping into his every word. “As far as your nephew goes, may I make a brief suggestion for a nice Christmas present you can give him?” he asks Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltisanti. “Stay out of his life.” The line hangs there in the air, all the more powerful because of the silence that follows it; it was another performance that should have generated awards talk but ultimately did not. Liotta was on a roll the last couple of years, and “Many Saints” showed the power he still had as an actor, the command he always had of the screen and the hole he now leaves behind. He will be missed.