YOUNG MAN RAY
In the late 1950s and the ’60s, when Ray Liotta was growing up, Union, New Jersey, was a working-class town. Street after street of single-family homes and tidy yards. A busy downtown of mom-and-pops. An hour’s drive to Manhattan in one direction, to the shore in the other. Kids walked to school and, on summer afternoons, criss-crossed the town on their bikes for miles. There was Little League, Pop Warner, stickball, soccer. Ray and his friends did all of it, as long as they were home by dinnertime.
Linda Matthews, Ray’s younger sister: When he was in kindergarten, he did show-and-tell and he told everybody about how he was adopted. My parents told him that, when they adopted me a couple years later, he picked me out. I don’t know if I believe that story, but Ray does. I let him believe what he wants to believe. I just can’t imagine that they let you go into an orphanage and pick you out, like you’re at a kennel.
Gene Laguna, one of Ray’s best friends since grade school: We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have the games, that kind of thing. We had what, six or seven channels? So we were outside all the time playing. And when we got older, we had a movie theater in Union, which is what everybody did. You stayed in your town, you went to the movie theater.
Linda Matthews: My parents always took us to the movie theater. When we used to go to the theater, theaters were theaters. They had the velvet curtains and two movies, and they would show memorabilia in the lobby. It was a different experience. It was like a Sunday, all day—the movies, and then we’d go to dinner. It was a big deal. We saw every single Bond movie—my parents were so into James Bond. We saw Mary Poppins. Ray was big on Clint Eastwood, too. Butch Cassidy. We saw everything.
Jules Geltzeiler, one of Liotta’s best friends since grade school: Back in the day, the only organized sports were baseball and football. But we played stickball, two-on-two football, every day after school. We all went home, did our homework, and then went out and played till it was dark. We would hang out right in front of Ray’s house. Ray lived on a dead-end street. And we would take chalk, and that would become our baseball field, football field. Home plate at the end of the dead-end, first base the driveway over there, then second, third. He lived on Lancaster Road, so we called it Lancaster Stadium.
Anthony Russo, 96, former mayor of Union, New Jersey, who lived diagonally across the street from the Liottas: He loved baseball. It’s strange that he got that role in Field of Dreams, because he loved baseball so much as a kid. Every afternoon I could see Ray with three of his childhood friends playing baseball, hitting the tennis ball. Every afternoon. Every afternoon. My driveway was first base.
Jules Geltzeiler: We’d sing while we walked to school. And it didn’t matter if it was snowing, it didn’t matter if it was raining. In those days, if you lived within two miles of the school, there was no busing. You had to walk. Gene would walk over and pick up Freddy, who lived across the street from me. Then they’d come get me, and my mother would make them wait outside while I finished my breakfast. Then we’d cut through my backyard, which backed right up into the dead-end street and Ray’s house. He’d come out, and we’d walk to school. Singing.
Gene Laguna: We’d wind up doing a harmony. “Going Out of My Head” was one we sang over and over, I don’t know why. We learned that song and it was like, for three frigging years, going back and forth.
Linda Geltzeiler, who was in Ray’s 1st-grade class and married Jules: Ray’s mom took my husband and I with Ray and his girlfriend at the time on our very first date when we were 13. She drove the four of us to the Union movie theater. Ray’s blue eyes—he was the sweetest boy ever, his whole entire life. Nothing like his characters that he played. And since he was little, he was known as Blue Eyes. He’s so handsome. Handsome. Handsome. And just sweet, and good, and kind. I cheered for Ray my whole life. Basketball, soccer, all the sports. I was a cheerleader.
Gene Laguna: He had a job digging graves one summer, between junior and senior year in high school. Believe it or not, it was called Hollywood Cemetery. Back then the guys actually had to dig the graves. He was just the jack of all trades. Picking up dead flowers, digging graves, mowing the lawns.
Gene Laguna: Our senior year in high school, we had to choose an elective. Him and I chose the acting class—thespian, whatever it was called. It was kind of like a kick for both of us to do. We had to perform a scene with a partner, and we picked The Odd Couple. I think he was Oscar and I was the other guy.
We were co-captains of the soccer team that year. We wound up making it pretty far into the state tournament, and it ran into the basketball season. So by the time we got to basketball, they were already two weeks into practice. The coach said we had to work our way back into the starting lineup. So we were in the fourth level of the tryouts, at the bottom of the barrel.
Ray got a little more upset than I did. Meanwhile, with us being in the acting class, the acting teacher asked us to be part of the senior class play. I said I couldn’t do it because we were playing sports—but it was an out for Ray. He said, You know what? I’m going to do this play. Eff the coach. And that was his first jump into the acting thing.
But I didn’t think he felt the bug or anything.
THE SCHOOL OF DRAMA
After graduating from Union High School, Ray went to the University of Miami, where he stumbled into the theater program and found out he was pretty good.
Bob Gentile, roommate, University of Miami: So we’re playing basketball, so we hit it off, right? We go out to eat, and we hang out, and he tells me his whole story about being adopted and whatever.
We got to go register the next day for classes, so we go over to the library. There were no computers or anything; you went in the library and you got in a line. There’s a School of Education, the School of Medicine, the School of Drama. I go, “So where are you going?” He goes, “Well, I hate English. I hate math. I hate everything.” He goes, “I did a play in high school.” He goes, “There’s nobody in the line over there in the drama department.” Me, I’m standing in over by the medical part. I should have gone over with him.
Bob Gentile: Coconut Grove was a cool, old, peace, love, sex, drugs, rock-’n’-roll kind of place. We found this little house with a big side yard—a one-bedroom with a family room, with the jalousie windows.
The guy that owned it pulled up in this big old Cadillac with big fins, and he had this hot-looking girl in there with him. I think his name was Rocco. Ray and I looked at each other and said, This guy’s a drug dealer, no question. It was $300 a month, so $150 each. So we take it.
So he would be doing his plays, and I would be doing my cadavers and that kind of stuff. And then every night I would make him fried salami and pepperoncini. I had a beautiful Doberman called Trajan, which he loved. And we both had red cars. He had a red Cyclone, and I had a Buick Grand Sport, red with gold stripes. And we used to laugh and go, “We got the best two pimp cars on campus.”
It was great.
Bob Gentile: There’s nights when he’d be done doing a play, and then he’d get home and be, like, one o’clock in the morning or whatever, and then we had this little hut on the side attached to the house. We would sit out there, and I’d have some wine and he’d have a couple of beers. Then we were looking at the stars, and we’d sit there and talk, and just talk about life. What the fuck’s going to happen to us someday? What are we going to do with ourselves?
Ray moved to New York and won a recurring role on a soap opera, Another World, making good money for an actor in his 20s.
Linda Matthews: Our father owned a chain of automobile parts stores, and he wanted my brother to take over. But Ray didn’t want that. He wanted to pursue acting. And my parents were like, Do you realize how few actors ever really make it?
The first thing I ever saw him in, he was playing a dead body. He was in a casket. He had no lines, obviously. Then, of course, the soap, Another World. That was very shortly after he graduated from college. The only thing I can remember he did before that was a commercial for ’70s love songs, walking on the beach, holding hands with this girl.
Anthony Russo: Somebody told him he needs an agent, and he got an agreement from an agent. And he came to my law office, was a Saturday morning. He wanted me to look at it. “Mr. Russo, will you look this over?”
I said, “What is it, Ray?” He says, “I want to be an actor. I just got out of University of Miami last week.”
And I looked it over, and he signed it, gave it back to the agent. He was on his way. He was on his way.
Bob Gentile: After college I opened a gym, and I had bought this little condo on Palmetto Golf Course. He would come down sometimes on weekends and hang with me. Once calls me up and he goes, “I’m flying into Lauderdale, can you pick me up?”
So I pick him up, and we hang out, we go to dinner, whatever, and he says, “Listen.” He says, “I picked up the stewardess on the plane. I need to borrow your car.”
I said, “Okay, but you got to be back here by seven o’clock in the morning, because I got to go down and open the gym.” He says, “Okay.” So he takes my car that night, right? I get up at 5:30 the next morning, I’m having breakfast. I’m waiting. Now it’s like seven o’clock. Now it’s 7:15. I’m thinking, “Son of a bitch, I’m gonna kill him.” I got to get out! So I get this lady that lives in my building, I said, “You got to give me a ride, because my friend took my car and he didn’t come back.” Now I’m pissed. I’m pissed.
I’m in the gym, working, signing people up, and all of a sudden I see him walk around the corner. By now it’s 12:30 in the afternoon, and he’s got these two beautiful girls with him.
He walks in the gym and he’s got this shit grin on his face, like he always does—with his laugh. I’m pissed. And he goes, “I brought you a present. Don’t get mad at me!”
I had my manager take over for the rest of the day.
Against the advice of almost everyone, Ray moved west. He swapped apartments with a friend of his from college and the friend’s girlfriend, a young actress named Melanie Griffith.
Gary Hecker, who knew Ray in junior high and high school: I’d finished law school and I was practicing patent and entertainment law in Beverly Hills. Ray was playing handsome Joey Perrini on Another World, but he decides he’s going to quit the soap and move to California to be a movie star. He calls me up. I’m established here. I’ve been practicing for a year, so it’s ’81, ’82. Someone reminded him I lived out here and so he calls me and tells me he’s quitting the soap. I’m like, “Are you out of your mind? We’re from Union, New Jersey. You are on television making a lot of money as a soap star. And you’re quitting? You’re crazy.”
He said, “I’m going to be a movie star.”
Anthony Russo: He was out there, as I recall, maybe four or five years. Nothing was happening. The father was helping him financially, and I can remember talking to the father one spring Saturday morning. He was all upset. I said, “Al, what’s the matter?” He said, “I just came back from the post office. I sent Ray a check. I said, ‘This is your last check. This will hold you to June. Then you’ve got to come home and get a job.’”
Gary Hecker: The first time he came into my law firm where I was working at the time, he was so Ray-like. It’s a law office, and he’s walking around unattended looking in people’s offices. And I’m like, “Uh, Ray, we need some rules.” He just could not believe that I sit at this desk all day. Every time he would walk into the law firm, he would say, “This makes me have to go to the bathroom. This is crazy. I don’t know how the fuck you do this.”
Sigourney Weaver: I met him quite early on, I remember, at an agent’s house, a big agent, who I think represented Ray, but he also represented all the big male stars at the time. We were at the agent’s beautiful house before the Oscars. And I didn’t know Ray, but I saw this very cute guy sitting with a bunch of other guys with the agent—I didn’t know anyone there, because I’m from New York. I couldn’t help listening to their conversation. There was this big, beautiful English painting on the wall. Ray said, Where’d you get that?
And the agent said, That was from a client after I got him a big job.
Ray said, Well, if you get me big job, I’ll get you a painting.
And I remember thinking, Who is this guy? He makes so much sense. Why doesn’t the agent? He was very playful but really serious at the same time. You could tell: This was a kid who was immensely frustrated not to be working all the time.
Andy Garcia: Ray and I, we moved to Los Angeles approximately at the same time. Everybody was aware of what was going down around town. Remember, in those days, there was no cable or anything like that. It was just the three networks. PBS was a fourth, if there was any work there. Then the studios—five studios or whatever there were. So everybody, if you were fortunate enough to even have an agent, you might get wind of what was going on. “Oh, so-and-so is making a movie. There’s a really good part in there that all the actors or actresses”—depending on the part—“want to try to land.” Some of us, like myself, who didn’t have the proper representation, could not even get in on it. Others who could had a shot. So Ray and I and all of us were always discussing what’s going down, what movies were being made.
SOMETHING WILD (1986)
Melanie Griffith: I met Ray in 1980 because I did a little TV movie with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kathleen Quinlan, and it was called She’s in the Army Now, and this guy named Rocky was in it. And that was Steven Bauer. He changed his name to Steven Bauer, but his name at the time was Rocky Echevarria. And he was gorgeous, and I fell in love with him. And he had gone to the University of Miami with Ray. And so in ’81 Steven and I decided to go to New York to study acting with Stella Adler. And Ray had been living in New York, so we traded places. He moved out to live in my little beach house, and we lived in his little tiny apartment on 72nd Street in New York. We switched places for a while.
We were friends for four or five years before Something Wild came along. So all of us were struggling actors and trying to work, and I think Ray worked a lot in television at that time. And so I had just had Alexander, my son, with Steven Bauer, and Jonathan Demme had asked me to do Something Wild. Jeff Daniels was cast, and we were trying to find the Ray character. And Jonathan was seeing everybody, and he had gotten it down to one guy. But Ray called me and he goes, “Melanie, I really want to come in to read for Jonathan Demme, but they won’t see me. The casting people don’t think I’m right. They won’t see me. Can you do anything?”
I called Jonathan and I said, “Can you please see my friend Ray Liotta? He’s such a good actor, and I think you’re going to love him.” And he was like, “Melanie, I finally decided on this one guy, we should just let it go.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. Jonathan, please, please, as a favor to me, will you please see Ray Liotta?”
And so he did, and he calls me and he goes, “He’s amazing, and he is going to be our guy.”
Andy Garcia: I remember when he broke out in Something Wild. He was extraordinary in that part. And it wasn’t like he was the flavor of the month or something like that. He got it because of his talent.
Gary Hecker: He ended up being the guy to do it. He’s terrifying, he’s brooding, he’s an explosive antagonist. It’s a comedy until he shows up, and then it’s a horror show. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for that. He was great in it.
Dennis Lehane, novelist and screenwriter: So many people just wanted him to play the heavy, and he was a thousand times more interesting an actor than that. Even Something Wild works because you can see the little boy in him. The last thing he says when he gets stabbed after trying to kill Charlie, he says, “Shit, Charlie.” It’s so beautiful. It was like a little boy saying, “What? I thought we were playing!”
Melanie Griffith: My best friend, her name was Heidi von Beltz, she was a stunt-woman, and she had been in Cannonball Run, a Hal Needham movie, with Burt Reynolds. And she did a stunt—and this was in June of 1980—and they didn’t have seatbelts on. It was supposed to be a swerve at the end, and the car didn’t swerve, and they had a head-on collision and she broke her neck at the fifth vertebra. She was paralyzed. So she was my best friend so I was always going to see her and being with her. And when I met Steven and I met Ray, I introduced Ray to Heidi, of course. And Ray fell in love with Heidi, and she fell in love with him, and he would carry her everywhere and loved her and was incredibly beautiful with her. I don’t think many people know that. They were in love. It was a strange relationship. It was more, I think, a love between their souls.
Kristin Chenoweth: When you tell people you’re adopted, they immediately get serious. “What was it like for you?” And Ray was like, “I don’t remember. I was a baby!” To us, it was always just something that we’ve known and it’s not a big deal, but we were giggling at the fact that everyone was fascinated by it.
Of course the next question is, “Do you want to meet your birth parents?” At the time we both said to each other, “We don’t really need that to complete us, because we have parents. We have parents.” He said the only time he would ever want to really delve into it is if he became sick or his daughter became sick.
Gary Hecker: Ray didn’t want to be typecast. He did some of these things where he’s a villain or a bad guy or a cop. As all young actors, you want to be rangy and you want to be a leading man so he rejected some stuff. Not that it was any of my business, and I am not by any means an agent or necessarily have any good advice. But I’m like, “You should do whatever makes you the most money and gets you in the door.” That wasn’t his view. I mean, the thing about Ray personality-wise that’s so powerful is that you don’t know if he’s going to kill you or kiss you.
FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)
Gary Hecker: Whichever Shoeless Joe Jackson was, a righty or a lefty, people gave Ray shit for batting from the opposite side that Shoeless Joe did. And Ray was like, “What the fuck? I’m a fucking ghost. I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
Gary Hecker: There’s a restaurant in Venice called 72 Market Street that was there for many years. It was owned by Dudley Moore. Ray and I and a date of his and my then-fiancée, we would go to dinner at 72 Market Street. Ray was not the kind of guy to go up to a group of people and start talking. That’s something that I would do, but it was not something that he would do. But we’re at dinner and he gets up and leaves the table to go talk to somebody at another table. And it was Irwin Winkler, who would go on to produce Goodfellas. So he went up to Irwin. I may have given him a push and said, “You should go talk to these people.”
Ray said, “Irwin, can I talk to you outside?” It’s really ballsy to go up to Irwin Winkler and say that. I remember Ray was gone for fifteen minutes, which was really a long time. It was all happenstance—getting Ray out and going to 72 Market Street, Irwin Winkler being there, Ray going up to him, which he rarely did. But that helped to grease the wheels for him to get that part.
Lorraine Bracco: I met Ray with Marty Scorsese in Marty’s apartment. He wanted to see what we looked and felt like together. I never auditioned for Goodfellas. I don’t think Ray did either. He just wanted to see us together and sit down and talk. Ray was tall. He’s good-looking. He’s got dreamy eyes. It was easy to fall in love with him. And we liked each other. We just did. We flirted with each other. We fought with each other. I mean, it was like a real relationship. I think Marty enjoyed watching us, watching us fall in love, watching us fight. And he captured all of that.
Marty would call us “the kids.” “Bring the kids out.”
Gene Laguna: When they filmed that famous long shot down underneath the bowels of the Copacabana, when he’s walking in with Lorraine, he’s down there and he says hello to a waiter or something and he says, “Hey, Geno, how you doing?” It wasn’t until after that he calls me and he says, it was really Tony or something in the script. And he said, “I changed it to Geno. I just wanted you to know I changed it for you.
Sigourney Weaver: When he played a scary guy, there was no one scarier.
Kevin Corrigan: Few things in show business are conceptually bigger or as unforgettable as shooting a car scene in a Scorsese movie with Ray Liotta in the summer of 1989 in New York City.
Climbing into the passenger seat of that Cadillac was like getting on the Cyclone at Coney Island for the first time—and maybe the only time, for all I knew. I had butterflies. I was just eyeballing everything in the car: the dashboard, the glove compartment, the radio dial, the sun visor, the door handle. I remember how the upholstery felt on my legs. I remember Marty on the flatbed of the truck pulling the Cadillac, and I remember the intensity of my scene partner and being alone in the car with him. I felt like Sissy Spacek in Badlands.
At one point, I said, “You were really great in Something Wild.” It was an unabashed fan moment. And he said, “Well, that’s certainly nice of you to say.” He was looking at himself in the rearview mirror when he said that. Kind of checking his hair.
I sold the original of that drawing I did to Pete Davidson. He’s from Staten Island, and that scene, we’re driving all around Staten Island. We worked together on The King of Staten Island, so if anyone should have it, it was Pete.
Kevin Corrigan: There’s a scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp version of it, where they’re tripping on acid and they pick up a hitchhiker. And they think the hitchhiker’s weird. They can’t tell if he’s real or not. I thought, This is kind of like the scene in Goodfellas where he’s taking his brother home from the hospital. I’m like the hitchhiker from Fear and Loathing. He’s like Hunter Thompson. He’s fucking tweaking. I think it says in the language in the book, Wise Guy, “My brother looked at me like I was on acid.” And in the script, it didn’t say that. It just said, “What, are you nuts?” And then I threw in the line, “Get the fuck outta here.” It was something De Niro says in Raging Bull. “Get the fuck outta here.”
Jules Geltzeiler: So Goodfellas is in New York. This is his first big—it was after Something Wild, and it was a big break for him. He had me and Gene and Linda and Patty, Gene’s wife, there. And we were always the big mouths. At this nice affair after the screening, Scorsese gets up and says some words, and everybody politely applauds. Robert De Niro. When they call up Ray, Gene and I and Linda and Patty stood up and we’re screaming, “Yo, Ro-man! Yo, Ro-man!” We used to call him Ro. And Ray put his head down and was shaking it. But we didn’t care. Because we know deep down, Ray loved it.
Dennis Lehane: The performance in Goodfellas, which I re-watched recently—Pesci and De Niro get all the heat off that film, and you don’t realize how every single minute of that film revolves around Ray’s performance and how perfect it is. Because he’s playing the happy-go-lucky sociopath. He’s not playing the dangerous guy. He’s just playing the guy. But he will laugh when another guy’s getting strangled. When De Niro is strangling Morrie, Ray’s laughing! When he beats up the guy who was giving his girlfriend trouble at work, you see it for a flash and then it’s gone. It’s such a magnetic and kind of boyish performance.
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos and writer of The Many Saints of Newark, in which Liotta played two roles: “…You think I’m a clown?” That’s an incredible scene. And Pesci is the active member, but Ray’s reaction and mystification is really funny, because he knows he’s getting into bad water, dark water.
Anthony Russo: His mother was dying of cancer at that point in time. I can remember her thrill—this poor dying woman—her thrill was in the afternoons or early evening, maybe around 6 o’clock when Raymond came home, they’d walk around the block, mother and son holding hands.
Gene Laguna: Goodfellas was a difficult time because his mom had had cancer, and he was in here in Jersey at a hospital, and on the weekends when he was finished, I’d go in and get him and then bring him out to Union, and he would either spend the night at the house here and we’d go see her the next day, Saturday, Sunday. And then I’d bring him back into the city so he could continue shooting. That was a difficult time.
There was nothing he could do. We’d be talking on the way into New York or out, we’d talk about this stuff. And it would be like, Well, what can we do, Ro? That was kind of my nickname for him, Ro. I said, She’d be in a better place if the good Lord took her, because seeing her just whittle away, it’s too hard. We were in agreement with most of that stuff.
Kevin Corrigan: I remember hearing that his mom had passed away when we were at the hospital of all places, shooting the scene where he picks me up at the hospital. And I remember he was pushing that wheelchair up that hallway like he had to fucking get some guns to somebody. He was not fucking around that day. And I heard later that his mother had passed away the day before.
Beth Holden-Garland, Ray’s manager since 1991: I had kids as I was representing him. I took my daughter to a photo shoot at Ray’s house when she was about four years old. A little intimidated by Ray Liotta. She was quiet and didn’t know what to do. By the end of the day he started screaming at her, “See you later sucker!” She started screaming back at him, “See you later sucker!” She’s waving her arms out of the car and the whole thing.
A few months later we adopted a kitten, and she insisted that we named the cat after Ray.
CORRINA, CORRINA (1994)
Tina Majorino: They took me outside and we were playing this game where one person would take a turn to try to make the other two people laugh. I broke immediately. Whoopi was a little bit more difficult to break, but eventually she did, and Ray was the one who made her break. But then when it came time for it to be Ray’s turn, neither one of us could make him break. He was stone-faced. It was incredible. And even at 8 I was like, Wow, that’s really impressive.
He used to call me Squirt. “Hey, Squirt.” But he doesn’t infantilize kids at all. He treated you like you were an adult and you were smart, and you understood what he was saying. He would pull these little pranks on me when we were going to rehearse, because I would be nervous. There would be like whoopee cushions and funny glasses, and we would be blocking a scene and you’d come around the corner and he’d be wearing something silly or he’d sit on a whoopee cushion. Just anything to take the pressure off and to make you laugh.
The last time that I saw him was when I was 18 and I had taken a break and then I had come back and I went to do a screen test for a movie that he was in. I hadn’t spoken to him in probably like five years at that point, four or five years maybe. And it was the same. I’m not entirely sure that he knew that I was coming, but when I showed up, I had said hi. I had that nervousness like maybe he wouldn’t remember me somehow. I came around the corner and I said, “Hi, Ray.” And he said, “Squirt!”
COP LAND (1997)
Gene Laguna: It was the last scene in Cop Land. They had found their guy, and they were taking him into 1 Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan. I happened to work downtown, and Ray gave me a call and said, “I’m shooting here today. Come on over.”
So it wound up, the assistant said, Would you like to be in this scene? I was in a suit and tie, had my briefcase, and there was two other guys that were—what do you call them?—extras. And so she put me with them and she says, Just stand here and talk.
When they shot the scene, they had closeups of De Niro and Stallone, and they walked right by us. So the camera had to see us, and then they moved the camera way back and up high. I was looking for a way to, like, how can I be recognized? So when they moved the cameras way back and up high, I went to my face like this, to my nose. I was rubbing my nose. When the movie came out, I could say to people, I’m the one that’s doing this to his face, rubbing his face.
Dennis Lehane: Cop Land. That was a performance I love. I mean, I named a character in one of my books after Ray’s character because I liked him so much. There’s a character, a small-town sheriff, in my novel Live By Night, and his last name is Figgis, and it’s from Ray’s character, Gary Figgis.
Giancarlo Esposito: In Goodfellas, Ray was at the height of his home-run swing. When I met him on Phoenix, I was wondering, What could this guy be like?
Ray’s playing a guy who has a lot of gambling debt, and he gets a choice: kill somebody, or go rob this guy with a bunch of tough guys that he’s involved with. But I guess the question I always had was, when I met him, Is he going to be that guy with a twinkle in his eye? That’s how I remember with Ray Liotta.
In Goodfellas, even up against it, he had his twinkle in his eye. And I always felt, when I met him, he still had that twinkle in his eye. He’s the tough guy who could be brutal, but who had this inner life happening that really attracted me because there was this playfulness behind those beautiful eyes. And although it could switch on a dime, it was there.
I didn’t have a lot of scenes with him in Phoenix. But when I met him, and that little twinkle, I knew he was the real deal. Years later, I saw him at an Emmy event. We saw each other across the room. And it was one of those moments where you go, “Ah!” You work with the dude, but it’s just like—he had it in his eyes, I had it in my eyes. It was the acknowledgment that we had worked together. And we started to come together to touch hands.
And that was the last time I saw him. It was a number of years ago, but it was just one of those moments where you go, “This is why I do what I do.” And this is why we have the family of actors who, if you’re the real deal, you—look, as an actor, you can get into a scene with somebody and they’re either trying to beat you, they’re trying to undermine you, or they’re trying to steal the scene, all that shit goes on. But with Ray, he’s a guy who was in his own skin, and it took me time to find my place, be in my own skin and realize it’s the music we make together that makes the difference. In that long walk across the room, when I saw him at this event, all those feelings came up, and we just shook hands, hugged and said, “God, it’s been way too long.”
THE RAT PACK (1998)
Starring Ray as Frank Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis Jr.
Joe Mantegna: They had Ray, and they were going to go after Don Cheadle, but they felt they didn’t have enough in the budget to pay me what my quote was at the time. So they come up with a couple of lists of a couple of other guys.
I was told that Ray and the director both said, “Look, we will take a cut to allow you to meet Joe’s quote.” I didn’t know even know about this at the time, because I’ll tell you the truth, I would’ve done it below my quote.
I did have another offer at the time. They were making the movie out of The Addams Family at the time, and I got offered the role of Gomez. I guess they probably felt they had to at least match maybe the offer I was getting for The Addams Family, but I would’ve done The Rat Pack anyway, even at the lesser amount, as a guy who idolized Dean Martin so much.
All I’m saying is if Ray Liotta hadn’t opened his mouth, from what I hear, it would’ve been Joe Blow from Kokomo playing Dean Martin. I would’ve been Gomez.
Joe Mantegna: Psychologically, Ray took it upon himself to be the leader of the Rat Pack, to be that guy that Sinatra was. You know what I mean? I remember he gifted all of us a sterling-silver letter opener, and engraved on it, it said, “The Rat Pack, from Ray.” As an actor, you have to draw on different things to create a character. When you’re playing a real person, that’s a whole other ballgame because you’re still creating a character, and you can adapt any attributes you can create for that person. Ray was playing the Chairman of the Board. He was playing Sinatra. So he gave us a gift.
David Chase: I traveled from New York to Richmond, Virginia, to talk to Ray about playing the part of Ralphie in The Sopranos. He said he would think about it, and he ultimately passed. So the role went to Joey Pants [Joe Pantoliano], who did a great job. But I had been a fan of Ray’s for a long, long time, and I thought I’d be intimidated. I guess I thought maybe he’d be more like his screen persona, but of course people never are, and he wasn’t.
Kristin Chenoweth: I was doing Wicked the year I met Ray. He was in a play on Broadway at same time and getting rave reviews, and I went to this theater event for people nominated to Tonys and he was there. He came right up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Ray, and who are you?” I said, “I’m Kristin.” And he said, “I want to know you,” and I sort of laughed, and at the end of it he said, “Listen, can I get your phone number?”
I said, “Sure.” I thought I’d like to get to know the person and see just how he is compared to these mobsters that he played.
Gene Laguna: Ray told his wife at the time to go ahead and start looking for his biological mother. And his birth mother happened to be here in Jersey. He was here doing something for work, and he said, Geno, he says, I’m going to stay over for the weekend because I’m going to meet my birth mother.
He said, I don’t know at all what my past is. Could I get cancer? Could I have Alzheimer’s? From that side of things, there was a little interest in medical history—as well as to find out who she was—and so it wound up that he wanted me to go with him. So we went and met them. They were out in a little bit west Jersey from me. We went to the house, saw her, and then she had, I want to say two or three kids, older now. And it looked like they were more of the hunting, fishing type, that kind of stuff.
They had some coffee cake or whatever there, coffee or tea or Coke or something. We talked for an hour and a little bit. Ray was pushing me to ask questions. He just either was embarrassed or shy or both, who knows. And I wasn’t that way at all, as you can tell. It was a nice visit. But it was different than both of us expected. She looked that she had a hard life, a real hard life. And she couldn’t tell us who the father was, the birth father. She just says, I don’t know who it was. So it was kind of that kind of life, I guess. And the best thing that she could do, she said, was give Ray up for adoption. She thought that was the best thing.
We got in the car and he’s driving, and I’m sitting in the passenger seat, and we’re not talking. Five minutes, seven minutes. Everything was quiet.
We were at a red light. I looked over to him, and then he looked over at me. And he said, Geno, he says, I am so damn glad I had the parents that I had. And I just lost it.
In fact, you can hear me now. I just lost it. Him and I just broke down. And one of the reasons why I lost it was because we had just adopted two kids, Patty and I.
Sigourney Weaver: He was such a natural in comedy. It was such a physical flare, and so game, and had such exquisite timing. But underneath he also smoldered and had this really deep heart. And I think that was that combination of—that’s such a rare combination.
The opportunity to use those comic chops and that timing and get beautifully dressed in a tuxedo, and me in these gorgeous gowns instead of running around a spaceship. I think we were both kids at a candy store, so excited we got to do this—and that we got to do it together. And I’m very sorry I didn’t get to do more with Ray. There was no bullshit about him, personally or professionally.
We loved working together. It’s a funny business in that way.
Jason Patric: No one ever sounded like Ray. No one ever talked like him. There’s plenty of intense people who have energy, but he had a specific Liotta energy that infused all these characters that he played—and certainly made them iconic, whether the movies were great or not. There was a ferocity in the way he attacked the actual language and words that came out of his mouth in a way that no one’s done before or since. Even in silence, when he wasn’t talking, that ferocity got transferred to his eyes, waiting to bite.
Kristin Chenoweth: I remember I was getting ready to do a very difficult role on Broadway called On the Twentieth Century, probably the hardest—in my opinion and many other people’s opinion—the hardest role that music theater has to offer for a woman. I had told him that Madeline Kahn had lasted—and she was the originator of the role—and she had lasted a month.
He said, “You’re going to take it month by month and you’re going to finish the run, and you’re going to do it.” And the way he told me that, I felt like, A, I don’t want to disappoint him, and B, it kind of empowered me to do what I know how to do. He gave me permission when I was in a time of doubting. He’s like, “You don’t need my permission, but I’m going to give it to you. You can do this.”
A few months later he came to see the show with his daughter. Afterwards, he came back and he said, “I told you.”
Bob Gentile: So we go to Disney World here in Florida. We’re staying at the Four Seasons, and there’s supposed to be three rooms, but we get up to the rooms and there’s some mix-up. So Nancy, my wife, goes, “Come on, we got to go back downstairs.” Ray and I and Nancy go downstairs to the counter. So we asked for the manager, and this beautiful Scandinavian girl comes up—gorgeous—with a beautiful blue dress on, and she’s got her nails done perfect, but her index finger, she only has half a finger.
My wife starts talking with her, back and forth about the room. Me and Ray are just standing there. Then Ray says to the girl, “So,” he goes, “what happened to your finger?” Just classic him.
She says, “When I was younger, my father closed the garage door and didn’t know that my hand was there.”
So Ray goes, “Wow.” He goes, “Do you still like your father?”
She says, “Yeah, I do. I still love my father.”
So then Ray says to her, he goes, “Do you get a discount when you go for your nails in the salon?”
Jason Patric: I was having lunch with [Narc director] Joe Carnahan in L.A., when he was selling the project to me. Ray showed up surprisingly, as if he was just walking down the street. So it was clearly a set-up. That was the first time I met him.
Jason Patric: Everybody these days acts like they’re in a movie and that’s been acceptable behavior now. And because everybody’s primping and preening on social media and being aware that they’re appropriating other people’s behavior, it’s made real performances in movies that much more difficult to distinguish from crap. And something like Narc, there’s just so much listening and reacting off the other. And when Ray goes in full Ray Liotta mode, I find that my character is absorbing it like a sound tile. And then you feel that, and then when you come back in, you come back in. And so it worked.
LA LINEA (2009)
Andy Garcia: They came to me to play the part I played first, and they didn’t have a lead yet. It was an independent film with a younger director. I said, “Listen, I think the material is good, but someone has to carry this movie. I’m not going to get involved if I don’t know there’s an actor there that can hold this thing together.”
They said, “Who do you recommend?”
I said, “Ray Liotta.”
Ray liked the idea of doing it, obviously. So then I knew the movie was secure. Someone has to compel you to follow me through this story, and Ray is such a compelling actor that you can follow him and watch him do anything. I knew, Ray’s going to take care of the movie. He’s not going to let it go astray. And he’s going to ground the movie in his reality and help the younger director along the way.”
Andy Garcia: My oldest daughter, Dominik, plays the girl that Ray’s character is protecting in La Linea. I’m sure that, for Ray, that added another layer of emotion, when he knew that he was looking after my daughter.
Karsen Liotta, Ray’s daughter from his marriage to actress Michelle Grace, which ended in divorce in 2004: I went to any set. If I didn’t have school I was on any set that he was. It was my favorite thing to do was to go onset, it’s like that’s my favorite thing in the world. It feels like home to me. And being able to have my dad, who is my home, be on a place that feels like home, is just experiences I’ll never forget, and some of our best memories that we have.
YOUTH IN REVOLT (2010)
Jean Smart: We were wearing bathing suits, but we were supposed to be taking a shower together. It was rather a funny way to get to know somebody. And he was asking me, “So, do you and your husband still shower together? Keeping the romance alive?”
And I said, “Well, yes, Ray, we do, actually. Anything else you’d like to know?”
THE ICEMAN (2013)
Based on the true story of a regular guy (played by Michael Shannon) who becomes a successful hitman. Ray plays his boss.
Michael Shannon: I don’t mean to pat myself on the back here, but I’m not easily intimidated by people. And whoever played the part Ray played needed to be able to intimidate me. So he was just the guy for the job, because he’s one of those actors that just possesses this animalistic kind of ferocity.
He just vibrated at a higher frequency.
Ariel Vromen, director: The first day of shooting of The Iceman we did a scene with him and Robert Davi. Ray walked into the set, he sat down in his chair at the desk, and we did a quick rehearsal for dialogue.
And he just looked at me and said, “Okay, let’s roll.”
He sat down the entire scene. At the end of the take, I came to him and said, “That was good. I definitely loved what you did, but there’s a certain point that I felt that this chair that you’re sitting on is swallowing, a little bit, your energy. Maybe you should try to stand up when you say that line.” He looked at me and said, “Are you giving me directing orders?”
I said, It’s a suggestion, and I think we should try it.
And he said, “No, no, no, just go, go, go, go.” And we did a second take and he didn’t do it. And I approached him again, I said, Mr. Liotta it would be very, very nice if we have it. Let’s try one time that you stand up.” And he’s like, “I don’t understand. You’re going to direct me. I thought you’re just going to play with your lenses.”
I said, Okay, listen, we can take five takes, ten takes. I still want to have it. It’s my first day and I think we should do it. And he was like, “Arrhhh”—he was a little bit frustrated. And then we did the third take and he stood up. After, he points his finger for me to come to talk to him. And we went to the side and he’s like, “That felt great.”
Michael Shannon: The scene toward the end, where he’s threatening me in the car and my daughter comes out, and it’s really intense—we didn’t do that too many times. We didn’t need to. That’s not a scene you want to do too many times, and stress yourself out. And Ray didn’t need to warm up.
I don’t want to sound too esoteric here, but if you’re a good enough actor, you can make it so that the other person doesn’t even have to act. It’s just happening. And Ray did that. I didn’t have to manufacture anything or think about what’s my character’s motivation or any of that crap. It was just something that was happening.
Karsen Liotta: He didn’t like to talk about being an actor. He thought it was just so weird. He hated all these words like, “My craft,” or “I’m an actor. My character,” all that fancy woo-woo stuff. He would say, No, you’re playing pretend. That’s all there is to it. It’s playing pretend, like you did when you were 10 years old.
Beth Holden-Garland: He was honored at the Savannah Film Festival, and on the plane back seated, we’re behind Stephen Stills. I’m a fan, but I would never recognize that was Stephen Stills. He looked very normal. Ray gets up with Stephen Stills, takes his earpiece and puts it in Stephen’s ear. He just stands over Stephen almost the whole flight and he’s like, “What does this song mean? What about this one?” All these Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. And it was a long flight. It was from Atlanta to Los Angeles. I was shaking my head, like, “Oh, my God. What’s he doing?” But we got off the plane and they give each other a big hug.
Karsen Liotta: He was my friends’ best friend. My friends would tell my dad everything. My house was always the sleepover house, it was a place where you could say whatever you want, never feel judged by him. Some of my friends had stricter parents, not as laid back as my dad was. They would come in the house and just scream, “Fuuuuuuuck!” And they’d be like, “Ugh, I feel better.” And my dad would just crack up because they knew that my dad would never tell, “Oh, your daughter said fuck,” or shit like that. My dad was the one that my friends would tell him, “Oh, this guy, blah, blah, blah. And oh, guess what happened at this party? And oh, Ray, blah, blah, blah.”
My house was the one where me and my best friends would be sitting in my room just hanging out and my dad would come up and bring us ice cream sundaes. We didn’t even ask. Good ice cream with chocolate syrup, crumble up some Oreos on it, bring it to us. And then a year later we’re older and now we’re telling him about the boys that we saw at the party or the park or whatever it was. And it was always just a judge-free zone. And my dad was somebody who they knew that he actually cared about whatever they were going through.
I’ve got some texts from people saying, “Your dad made me feel more comfortable about certain things than my own parents did.”
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)
Derek Cianfrance, director: When I first started writing Place Beyond the Pines with my co-writer, Ben Coccio, the first question we asked was like, What’s your favorite movie? I said Goodfellas and he said Goodfellas. And as we were trying to figure out if we could do something together, we decided, Let’s make sure to write a role for Ray Liotta. That was day one of our collaboration. Because we spent so much of our first meeting talking about him and that performance.
Flash forward four years, to 2011. I’m sitting in a casting office and in walks Ray. I’m meeting one of my heroes. The first thing I tell Ray was, I told him the story of Ben and I meeting each other for the first time and talking about our favorite movies, it was Goodfellas and we made a pact with each other to write a role for him.
Ray says to me, “Why wasn’t it a bigger role, then?”
Beth Holden-Garland: When he did The Place Beyond the Pines, here Ray’s playing the super, super scary, dirty, intimidating cop. He has this scene with Bradley Cooper, where he intimidates him. I guess Bradley wasn’t getting there, and Derek pulled Ray aside and goes, “I want you to really fucking let loose on him now. Just say whatever you want to say to him.” Ray got in Bradley’s face and said, “You are the luckiest actor in this town. You suck, Hangover II sucked.” He just ripped into him like nobody’s business. Then Derek was like, “Action!” And then they got the scene.
Derek Cianfrance: If you started phoning it in for a second, he would get you. Not only the other actors, but me too. He shot me up into a million pieces on set numerous times. Emasculated me in front of the cast and crew. I would ask him to do things like “explore the boundaries of the material,” and he would say, “What does that mean?” I would say, “I don’t know, surprise me. Find something new in the material.” And he would say, “How am I going to do that?” And I would say, “I don’t know.” I would go to my old bag of tricks that I use with actors, I’d say, “I don’t know. Fail. Get it wrong.” And he would sit there and he would say, “I get it. You’re just one of those directors that just likes to jerk around.” I would sit there in front of the whole crew as he would be just taking me to the wood shed. And then he would laugh at me—and it was that laugh, it was the same laugh from Goodfellas—and I realized I was in Ray’s movie.
But those moments on set that were so emasculating and humiliating, I can say they are some of the greatest moments in my life. Ray was making me better, making me be more clear. He didn’t need three hours to explore the scene. He was there. He came ready, he came good.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: I remember he was, I don’t want to say envious, but I think he looked at me and my wife when we first were hanging out. He was like, “Man, you’re a lucky man.” He knew, you know what I mean? He goes, “Don’t fuck this up.”
Bob Gentile: When Ray met my wife, Nancy, he said to me, “You better make sure nothing happens to you, because if you do I’m taking her.” He goes, “I want to find my Nancy.” Well, when he was here at my house for Christmas, two years ago with Jacy, and everybody, we were all here—bear with me. I’m going to lose it now. Oh, hang on a second. [Pauses, choking up.] He said, “Buddy, I found my Nancy.”
Linda Matthews: Maybe fifteen years ago, Ray was in town with me and our dad, and the three of us went to dinner. This guy came up to the table. “Excuse me,” he says, “my wife keeps saying, That’s Ray Liotta over there. And I keep telling her it’s impossible. What would he be doing here down in Florida in July?” And Ray said, I am. So the next thing, the guy brings his wife over and there’s pictures and this and that.
Ray started asking the guy about himself. That’s what Ray did—he really didn’t like to talk about himself at all. So my brother starts asking the guy about himself, and he says, Well, I’m a retired undersheriff for DEA up in Syracuse or wherever he was from. And Ray said to him, What are you doing down here this time of year, spending your drug money?
And the guy said to him, only Ray Liotta could get away with a statement like that! I mean, we all were shocked. Everyone’s mouth just dropped to the floor and we were laughing. How do you say that to a complete stranger, even as a joke? Of course, it was probably true.
Lorraine Bracco: For the twenty-five-year anniversary of Goodfellas, we were doing an interview on the Today show, I think it was. It was Bob and Paul Sorvino, myself, and Ray. And Ray and I are sitting next to each other. And the interviewer talked to Bob a little bit, and then he was talking to Paul Sorvino. And Paul Sorvino is very serious, talking about the role of Paul Cicero and how it wasn’t really his thing to be a gangster, blah, blah, blah. And all the time, my pal Ray is playing footsies with me. And I’m smiling, trying not to laugh. I look over and Paul is very serious and I’m smiling. I must have had a little kind of giggle because the interviewer says to me, Why are you smiling? And I could not think of a quick enough answer than to say, Ray is playing footsies with me under the table. I felt bad, giving him up, but Ray, deadpan, just looks around at everyone like, No, I’m not. What are you talking about?
Lorraine Bracco: He was a delicious guy.
Bob Gentile: When my mom was in the nursing home, he used to tease her, because my mother had a beehive hairdo from the old days—like right out of Goodfellas. So he would always call her the Beehive. At the nursing home they would have movie nights, and one night they had Goodfellas on. She’s telling everybody, “That’s my son’s roommate from college, his best friend!” And all the old farts say, “Nah, you’re full of it. You know, don’t know nothing,” blah, blah, blah. So I call up Ray, I go, “Ray, do me a favor, sign a picture and send it to me so I can send it up to my brother and he can put it in my mother’s room.” He goes, “We’ll take care of those bastards.” So Ray writes, “Ginny, how’s the Beehive? Love you very much, honey, Ray Liotta.”
Karsen Liotta: He’d pick me up from school. If I had dance or soccer or whatever, he would take me. He would watch me play soccer, watch dance class. We’d come home, we’d put on TV—always Family Guy. He would make me dinner, usually it was pasta with peas—noodles and peas, we called it. It was my favorite. We’d have ice cream. And then when it was time to go to bed—”Good night. Love you.”
On the weekends we’d figure out the movie we wanted to see at Third Street Promenade and then go shopping. We’d go to dinner together. I used to sometimes cancel plans with my friends to hang out with my dad.
Linda Matthews: He was a big shopper. He used to call himself a chick. He goes, “I’m like a chick. I have more shoes and creams.” When he’d come to Florida he’d wind up having to go to the mall just to buy another suitcase, to take all the stuff home that he bought.
Karsen Liotta: Whenever we’d see a baby on the street, he would stop. We don’t even know these babies, but we’d stop, and he had all these baby apps on his phone, where you talk into the phone and then the little character on the phone talks back in a goofy voice. My dad would keep like ten of these apps just on his phone, because god forbid we ran into a baby and he didn’t have something funny to show them. And when they laughed, he would die laughing.
Linda Matthews: He was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. The funniest people I’ve ever met in my life, ever known. Ray was really funny.
Jason Patric: I think he’s funniest when he’s not in comedies.
Linda Matthews: I called him three years ago. I had cancer. I told him I got a cancer diagnosis. And he said to me, Let me call you back. And I remember thinking, Okay? What a thing to say! Let me call you back?
And then he called me back and asked me what the deal was and the treatment plan and blah, blah. And he said, No, you don’t—you’re not getting that kind of surgery and that kind of treatment in Florida. You’re coming to L.A. He got me an appointment with one of the top colorectal cancer surgeons in the world, not just the country. And same with an oncologist, and got me right in there and took care of me. I got my surgery. I was out there for two weeks, and thank God I’m fine. But that was the nicest thing he’s ever done for me. Some of these doctors, you got to wait months to get in.
And you know, later I said to him, What was up with that reaction? “I’ll call you back.” It really hurt my feelings. Well, apparently, what happened was he melted down and he couldn’t comprehend what he was hearing and had to get off the phone. He told me, “I couldn’t even talk.”
MUPPETS: MOST WANTED (2014)
Danny Trejo: We were buds. It was funny because neither one of us thought the other guy could be funny. When two guys meet who have hard reputations, even if they’re not true, you kinda look at each other like, Really? But man, all week, all we did was laugh! One time we were at the big palace. Buckingham. We were right at the gates, and there was a huge crowd. I just started screaming, “Elizabeth! Elizabeth! It’s me! You remember Juan, the gardener? I’m his son!” And Ray was laughing so hard—I love Ray because he didn’t care who was around. If it was funny, he was gonna laugh his ass off. Then he said, We’d better go before we get arrested.
But then I had a deal where, when we were London, my mother passed away. I was on set when I found out. I went into the bathroom, trying to be John Wayne. All alone. And Ray came into the bathroom and just put his arms around me and said, Hey, God’s got another angel. Ray carried me that day.
It was like, how do they say it? A bromance. I loved him.
BLACK BIRD (2022)
Paul Walter Hauser: The first time I met him was over Zoom, for our table read with all the cast members. I did some practical joke where, during a bathroom break for this table read, everybody was new to the Covid stuff, and people were asking, “What one did you get? Did you get Moderna? Did you get Johnson & Johnson?”
I had told Ray and a couple people, “I got the Johnson & Johnson,” and someone asked, “How was it?”
I had a full glass of water sitting near me from the table read and I said, “Honestly”— and I grabbed the water and I said, “I don’t really feel any side effects.” And I went like I was taking a sip of water and I poured the entire glass over my face and chest and lap.
Eventually, much later when we were on set, I had been approaching him gently, knowing he’s one of the old-timers and he plays a lot of grizzly characters. I don’t know the guy, so I was just trying to be respectful and chill. And he was the one who pulled me over and was like, “Get over here, man,” and shook my hand and gave me a hug. He didn’t compliment my acting or anything. He just said, “You’re the guy that poured the water all over himself. That was hilarious!”
Making him laugh the Liotta laugh, nothing is cooler than that. I’m dead serious. One of the highlights of my entire career was making Ray laugh his patented Ray Liotta laugh.
Paul Walter Hauser: I’m still trying to develop and construct myself as this artistic person, as this actor. Ray Liotta could do a movie like Cop Land and then he could show up on Modern Family. And I look at myself like that’s what I want to be. I want to be the guy who can star in something, I want to be the guy who can come in for two scenes, I want to be the guy that can scare you, I want to be the guy that’ll help make you laugh. Ray was all of those things. And those guys like Michael Shannon, Sam Rockwell, Ray Liotta, these are my guys. These are my Pacino, Brando, De Niros, you know?
Dennis Lehane: One of the last things he ever said to me was on the phone call we had. He says, “Is there a part for me in your next thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course there is. Of course. I’ll write you in anything.” He goes, “Make it a bigger part.”
SHADES OF BLUE (TV series, 2016–2018)
Jennifer Lopez: The first time we walked on set to do our first scene together, there was an electric spark and a mutual respect, and we both knew this was going to be good. I felt lucky to have him there to work with and learn from. Like all artists, he was complicated, sincere, honest, and so very emotional. Like a raw nerve, he was so accessible and so in touch in his acting.
Gary Hecker: Ray used to call me immediately after each episode of Shades of Blue. I’d watch the show, and he’d call me and he wanted to debrief, and we’d debrief for an hour. And he wanted to talk about the different scenes, how I thought it looked, how much time he spent on a given moment. And the interaction with J. Lo, whether it was too much, too little, just right. Whether he should have been included more or less. He wanted serious candid feedback in real time, which was not that typical for him. I’d tell him, in the same way he’d look at my stomach if I gained a few pounds and say, “Gary, you got to get rid of that fucking gut.” He wanted candid feedback.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (2021)
David Chase: Before the movie got started, I had a birthday party for me at my house, and Ray was there. Probably forty people, outside. And Ray was in the dining room alone, in a corner, in a chair, eating by himself. And people had to say, Ray, come on out and sit at a table. He didn’t know anyone there.
Alessandro Nivola: Even when he was off-camera or not in a scene, he would sit on set and watch. It’s funny, I felt him scrutinizing my performance the whole time. It was both unnerving and flattering at the same time because I felt like he was taking an interest in what I was doing. And then of course, because of his legacy and everything, I was desperate to impress him.
David Chase: When they said cut, Ray would sit quietly, kind of looking into space. When it was a big cut and they said, You can go to your trailer, or, Go ahead, Ray, he would go and he would be in his trailer. He hung out with nobody the entire shoot. I didn’t expect that. He was very quiet and by himself only.
The two parts he played did not have to be cast with the same actor. That wasn’t the plan all along. It could have been Ray as Hollywood Dick and somebody else as his brother. But we took a gamble, and I said, “Are people going to say this is a gimmick?” But I don’t think anyone ever said it was a cheap stunt. No one objected, because he played those roles so well and so differently and so deeply.
Linda Geltzeiler: When my husband got sick in the hospital, he cried to me. He called me and said, “Jules can’t die. Not Jules. Not Jules.” That was just a couple years ago. And he cried to me. He let it all out.
Jules Geltzeiler: No, it wasn’t that dire. Listen, it was a heart attack. And I had to have emergency stent surgery.
COCAINE BEAR (2023)
Keri Russell: We were laughing. We were laughing our heads off. Through the whole movie, we were laughing. It’s so stupid and great.
Alden Ehrenreich: He had some improv lines when we were in the cave that he would run a bunch of different ones. I think the one that ended up in the movie was, “When did everybody get sand in their pussies?” But he did a bunch of super, super bawdy improv lines that were a lot of fun to hear him do.
Keri Russell: Oh, oh! Yes, a Ray original. “Sand in their”—little kids around, and he’s just going for it. It’s Ray Liotta! What do you think? He’s not going to hold back.
Elizabeth Banks, director: A hundred percent original, that line. And it was just so correct. Look, the problem with Ray Liotta is he’s a likable villain for the first half of the movie. You’re kind of like, “I like seeing Ray Liotta in this movie,” and I have to create a moment in the third act of this movie where your sympathies turn to the bear—and Ray becomes the true villain of the movie. That line, it’s a turnoff for so many people in today’s world. But it so worked for the moment that I needed. I needed people to start getting turned off by him.
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: He’s a smart ass. There were some times where he’d mess with crew. He’ll pretend like he didn’t hear what they said, something he didn’t want to do—but then look over to me and give a wink, because he knows: Ray Liotta, they’re going to take their time with him. And he’d go, “What?” pretending like he didn’t hear. Then he’d look over at me and hit me with one of those Ray winks.
Keri Russell: The little kid had a scene where he says to Ray, “You’re a bad dad.” The wind machines are going, and we’re all running around and there’s guns, and the kid comes up and says it to Ray. And Ray says, “What’d you say?”
He was trying to say to the kid, “Do it again. Do it again. But you’ve got to say it to me.”
Elizabeth Banks: When he said “What’d you say?” I think Ray was trying to find the moment so that Henry could land the line properly. He’s fighting with an 11-year-old, and I think he was like, “Give it to me.” Frankly, he was treating Henry as a co-star. That’s really what it was. He was like, “Come on, kid. Come up to my level for a second. Really give it to me.” He was really trying to pull something out of the kid so that Ray would have something to react to, because Ray couldn’t do a false take if the kid didn’t give it to him. He can’t pretend the kid did, he wants the dynamic in the scene to be right. He wants the actor to be at his level, give him what he needs in the scene.
Keri Russell: We shot the movie in Ireland. And we all know him from those Italian movies, but I guess he was adopted, and he was talking a lot about how he had found out that he was actually Irish and he was trying to find where his family was from in Ireland. My mom’s adopted, so I just know that it doesn’t matter how much your family loves you and wants you, there’s always this thing. And you just saw that in his sensitivity.
He was working with somebody on set who was helping him find someone who knew about genealogy and that kind of stuff. So he was really investigating that. I did tell him about my mom. She’s in her young mid-seventies, and it’s just this open-ended thing that you just have these unanswered questions about yourself, who you are and where you belong. I just think it’s a sensitivity that you really feel in him, in his work.
Elizabeth Banks: He wrapped his last scene, and he was covered in blood and guts—and then he gave this beautiful speech. He said, “I’m adopted. My last name’s Liotta, and because of my career, everybody assumes I’m Italian, but I recently found out that I am actually mostly Irish.” And we’re in Ireland. He said, “So this trip has been so special to me because I didn’t understand the connection that I actually had to this place and to the Irish people. And everybody’s been so nice.” I could tear up thinking about how moved everybody was. He truly brought tears to the eyes of the crew, because he talked about how special the time was in Ireland.
He came to ADR [automated dialogue replacement, the process of re-recording dialogue in a sound studio to replace a bad recording during filming]. I saw him eight days before he died. He was early to his ADR session. Not every actor shows up on time, let alone early. And he drove himself. At ADR he got to see the bears. Because remember, when he’s kicking the bear cub, he’s kicking a ball on a stick. And if the bear didn’t work—if the bear was Sharknado or Jar Jar Binks or pick your bad VFX—then the movie is terrible. But he thought the bear was awesome.
We hugged, he told me that he was going to Dominican Republic with Jacy. He told me they were planning some other trips. He was talking about getting a wedding on the books, all of that stuff. And then we hugged and said goodbye.
Ray died May 26, 2022, at age 67, in his sleep. He was in the Dominican Republic with his fiancée, Jacy, to shoot a movie called Dangerous Waters.
Ray’s daughter, Karsen, was friends with Jacy’s son, and they had set their parents up a few years earlier.
Beth Holden-Garland: He was always so old-fashioned. We’d walk on the street, and he’d always walk on the street side. He’d say, “This is proper, because if a car jumps, they take me out as opposed to you.” He’s always conscious of those little details.
I had two flat tires within two weeks here too, because of all these rains. He called me at the office and they said, “Oh, she’s got a flat tire.” He said, “Where is she?” And he calls me and says, “I’m coming to get you now.”
He pulls up in his silver Bentley. I had AAA and I was with Ray Liotta and in his silver Bentley. I’m like, “No, I’ve got the towing company coming. It’s okay.” He said, “No, I insist.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: He was always mad at me for texting and not calling. He hated fucking texting. He gets furious at me if I ever did more than a sentence.
Gary Hecker: Curiously, we talked a lot about mortality in the last three, four years. When an actor would die that was somewhat young, in his fifties or sixties, or people that we know that passed, we would just be like, “Holy shit. What are we going to do about this?” Nothing. Time moves in one direction. We would talk about it a lot humorously. But if somebody passed, one of us would call the other immediately, like, “Did you hear who just died?”
Gene Laguna: We would get a good New York steak from a really good steakhouse and then we’d be walking back to his hotel, wherever it was, to walk it off. He was so into working out and keeping his body. Oh my God. I mean 65 years old. You’d hug him, and then I would always tap his side or his stomach or something and it would tickle him, and he says, What are you doing? I says, I want to see if you’re getting that little bulge. And he’d say, Yeah, yeah, go ahead, feel it. And he’s like a freaking rock. He was a nut-job working out, ever since we were little. From junior high on, he would be able to run the mile, no problem.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: My wife and I got married in 2019 after being together for a hundred years. I called him and said, Hey, Ray, I’d love you to come to the wedding. And he was right in the middle of doing press for Marriage Story, and he couldn’t come to my wedding. But I said, “Well look, we’re doing a rehearsal dinner. We don’t have a wedding party, but we’re having a dinner for our family and a couple of our closest friends the night before.” And he’s like, “Ah, fuck. Press junket. No way I’m going to be able to make it.”
Cut to the night of the dinner, and we’re sitting there with maybe twenty people at Il Buco in New York, and it was great. And in walks Ray and just fucking steals the show. I mean, it was like my wife and I weren’t even there anymore. All of our families just clawed onto Ray. And he only stayed for maybe an hour, but he stole the show. And he had Karsen with him. Saved the day all at once. It was just awesome. He knew it too. It was like he was fucking Superman with his hands on his hips coming in the door.
And it was the last time I fucking saw him, too.
Beth Holden-Garland: He was always at the gym. He had trainers. He was taking Pilates for a while. He was always into his diet and taking care of himself and going to different doctors. We had an EKG done two weeks before this happened and nothing showed up. It just doesn’t make sense. And you see other people and it’s like, why is that—I’m sorry—fucktard still alive, and Ray’s not?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think Ray, underneath everything, was a storyteller. He’ll tell you a situational story about his life, how he forgot something at home and he doubled back to get it, and he got a ticket on the way, and all these circumstances happened to him between, by the time he got back, he forgot his phone, and in between that, getting a ticket, then he realized he didn’t have his wallet, and the guy wants to arrest him—he’s a storyteller! I remember him telling me that story, and I went, “Wait a minute, this can’t be real.” But it had to be, because one circumstance led to another. He’s telling you a circumstantial story, but it’s true that it happened to him. Maybe a little embellishment with the greatest joy, as if he’s reliving it—and that’s a great storyteller. Describing the panic in the moment, but not quite as panicked in this moment, telling it as he was then. I found him to be masterful in that way.
Alessandro Nivola: The thing is that he was having a real career renaissance just at the time that he died. He was giving some of the best performances he’d given in his life in these recent years. He was totally brilliant in Marriage Story. And in Many Saints of Newark, particularly as my uncle. I’m glad for him that he could have been feeling that way in his last few years of his life, that the world was paying attention to him for all the right reasons, and that he had something to contribute. But I’m also heartbroken that, even just selfishly, that I keep imagining all these performances that he might have given over the next ten, twenty years. He even said that to me that he felt that some of the acting opportunities he was having now were more rewarding than stuff that he’d done when he was in the prime of his youth.
Kristin Chenoweth: He was proud to be an actor.
Karsen Liotta: He was the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life.
David Chase: I’m just really still kind of bewildered that he’s dead.
Elizabeth Banks: I went to the memorial service at Jacy’s house after he passed away. And the fact that his best friends were still his grade school buddies. They were all there. Isn’t that just the measure of a man, though? Who has friends from third grade who are their best friends still, like brothers?
Ariel Vromen: He literally passed away four days before he was supposed to see the film we did together, 1992, because he had a weekend off from the Dominican Republic where he shot this movie and he would come to L.A. and I had organized a screening. He only wanted to see things on the big screen. He didn’t want to see any of the cuts in the editing room. He didn’t want to see it on his TV or any links that I offered to send to him. So I had to organize a theater. And then obviously the tragic call arrived, so he never saw 1992.
Jeff Daniels: The last time I saw him was backstage after To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t seen him in decades. We spent about half an hour in my dressing room just talking. Less about the performance and more about how we were both still here. Still working. Still in the business. We talked about longevity, how so many who had broken into film in the ’80s were either done, had quit, or, sadly, were no longer with us. I remember him saying he still enjoyed it. It’s what kept him going, living in that imaginative world between action and cut. “We’re still here, Ray,” I said. I remember him nodding, “We’re still here.” And he was proud of that.
Beth Holden-Garland: I have this frame in my office, something he wrote and he said, You need to keep this on display. It says, “Ray Liotta is my favorite client. I will not stop until he reaches the heights he deserves. I put him before all! Family, husband … this I can have before God.”
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: He was just a naturally cool-ass fucking dude, without trying.
Gary Hecker: I’ve gone as far as being in my car and picking up the phone and dialing his number because I want to talk to him about something. You do that for little funny things like that. It’s like a reflex. But he can give me advice now without being here. I know it sounds a little corny but I’ll be in the office, and he’ll say, “How are things going over there, asshole? You’re still doing the same fucking thing?”
Karsen Liotta: I hope everybody gets to have a Ray in their life, because it’s an impression on your life that will never go away. Just such a beautiful person inside and out. I hope everybody gets a Ray, because if you got a Ray, you’re lucky as fuck.
Sigourney Weaver: We never really got to the end of Ray.
Ryan D’Agostino is Editorial Director, Projects at Hearst, and previously served as Editor-in-Chief at Popular Mechanics and Articles Editor at Esquire.