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Ray Liotta: 10 roles that made him a great, irreplaceable actor

From baseball legends and alpha-male lawyers to sinners, saints and yes, good fellas — the highlights of Liotta’s long screen career

By Alan Sepinwall & Andy Greene & David Fear & EJ Dickson & Elisabeth Garber-Paul

From 'Goodfellas' to 'The Many Saints of Newark' — the best of Ray Liotta (Picture: Everett Collection, 2; Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros)

He specialised in tough guys — cops, crooks, convicts, killers, and guys who immediately gave you the impression they’d seen and/or started their share of shit. But Ray Liotta was an actor with soul even when he played a legion of broken men who’d lost theirs, and the star — who passed away today at the age of 67 — had a range that went far beyond mobsters, madmen and maniacs. Name someone else who could easily pull off the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the gangster-movie version of Candide, a Rat Pack-era Frank Sinatra and a foil for the Muppets? (Twice!)

Here’s a celebration of 10 of the late, great Liotta’s roles — from sinners to Saints, a baseball legend to the world’s toughest divorce lawyer.

Something Wild (1986)
It’s all fun and games in Jonathan Demme’s road-trip rom-com, in which wild-child Melanie Griffith teaches straight-laced Jeff Daniels how to loosen up — until Liotta’s ex-con ex-boyfriend shows up at her high school reunion, and then things get real dark real fast. His character (also named Ray) is like James Dean reimagined as a psychopath, all greaser charisma and bad-dude vibes. It also introduced audiences to the Liotta laugh, that signature staccato chuckle that was enough to send chills down your spine. The actor quickly turned what could have been a stock villain role into one of those legendary “whoa, who is that?” performances — the kind that earns someone a Golden Globe nomination right out of the gate and helps put them permanently on the map. —D.F.

Dominick and Eugene (1988)
Liotta always had a soft spot for the little movie he made right after wowing audiences in Something Wild; it was an early indicator that he was more than just a guy with an ice-cold stare. The actor plays Eugene Luciano, a Pittsburgh native who’s studying to be a doctor. His brother, Dominick (Thomas Hulce), is a mentally disabled trash collector who Eugene cares for. The chance for a relationship with Jamie Lee Curtis’ nurse-in-training and a Stanford education are within Eugene’s grasp…but that would mean leaving his beloved brother behind. It’s a lovely counterpart to the rougher, cops-and-crooks roles that would later dominate Liotta’s career, and demonstrated the Newark native could play nice just as well as nasty. —D.F.

Field of Dreams (1989)
“If you build it, he will come.” From the moment Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson steps out onto Kevin Costner’s cornfield, he doesn’t even need words — the White Sox player looks up at the lights, down at the grass, and his eyes capture the wonder of baseball. And when he does open his mouth, his monologue about his love for the game (“getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated”) sets the tone for the rest of the film. Despite the emotional resonance that writer-director Phil Alden Robinson’s sports movie had for a generation of men (he’s referred to it as “The Notebook for guys”), Liotta admitted that he had never seen it. His mother was sick at the time it came out, he said, and she couldn’t sit through a screening. “We sat down to watch it but she couldn’t really enjoy herself, so she left. I just equate it with that,” he said. —E.G.P

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Liotta has already established his tough guy bona fides by the time Martin Scorsese had cast him as Henry Hill, the real-life mobster who goes from alpha crook to a Grade-A “schnook.” It’s impossible to think of anyone else who could have nailed the exact mix of menace and entitlement, irony and dead-seriousness that makes his tour guide of the underworld such a perfect gangster-film archetype. Watch his face when Joe Pesci keeps grilling him about exactly why he’s “funny,” or when he realizes Robert De Niro is sending him to his doom in that diner scene. Don’t even get us started on the bravura cokehead-running-errands sequence. Of course the movie made him a star! It would become the role he’d be most associated with for the rest of his life. “There’s not a day that goes by somebody doesn’t mention Goodfellas to me,” he said in 2010. “Unless I stay home all night.” —D.F.

Unlawful Entry

When Liotta’s LAPD officer Pete Davis first appears in Jonathan Kaplan’s domestic-nightmare thriller, we’re happy to see him. A young couple, Michael and Karen Carr (played by Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe), have just endured a violent home invasion. Davis is the cop who arrives on the scene to help them. Then he becomes infatuated with Karen and begins plotting ways to remove Michael from her life. Liotta is brilliant as he slowly reveals the true madness of Davis, as well as the deep loneliness that drives him. When we played a violent killer in Goodfellas, audiences rooted for him to get away with it. Here, you’re rooting against him the entire time. Rarely has a big screen cop been quite so frightening. —A.G.

Corrina, Corrina (1994)
This tearjerker family film charts the burgeoning relationship between a Black nanny (Whoopi Goldberg) and the hunky Jewish widower (Liotta) who hires her to watch his grieving daughter (Tina Majorino). Yes, it glosses over the realities of interracial relationships would have been like in uber-segregated 1950s Los Angeles. But you’re probably made of stone if your heart doesn’t surge during Goldberg and Liotta’s first kiss, as witnessed by a jubilant Majorino. It’s a far cry from the frenetic energy people usually associated with Liotta — and introduced his blue-eyed, smoldering charms to a generation of millennials and zillennials. —E.J.D.

Cop Land (1997)
James Mangold’s neo-noir about a beta-male sheriff (Sylvester Stallone) in a small New Jersey town features one of the ultimate stacked, who’s-who casts: The Italian Stallion is joined by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Frank Vincent, Anabella Sciorra, Janeane Garafolo, Method Man and Deborah Harry, among others. But it’s Liotta who arguably sticks in your memory the most — his corrupt NYPD officer “Figgsy” Figgis is quite a piece of work. His tipsy speech about life (“You move diagonally. You jag”) suggests a singularly Zen, cracked philosophy, but then you see the way he snaps and sticks a dart up Robert Patrick’s nose…and you know this is a man who’s not to be fucked with. The man could hold his own on screen with anybody. —D.F.

Narc (2002)
Liotta was always great with volatile characters — and they did not come more hair-trigger than Detective Henry Oak, the Detroit homicide detective in writer-director Joe Carnahan’s crime thriller. Paired with Jason Patric’s narcotics cop, Oak is trying to find out who killed an undercover policeman under some shady circumstances; soon, his partner begins to think he’s not getting the full story from the veteran officer. It’s a role that allows for plenty of opportunities for explosive, violent outbursts, which Liotta delivers with his usual gusto. But it’s the quieter moments that the actor gives this scarred, seen-it-all cop that really knock you out. His monologue about finding a abused girl in the middle of a drug bust is just devastating. —D.F.

Marriage Story (2021)
Liotta’s role is brief in Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama — but his lawyer is a Exhibit A in the case for there being no such thing as small parts, just small actors. Hired by Adam Driver for what promises to be a tough custody battle, Liotta’s slick legal eagle is, in animal-kingdom terms, closer to a great white shark. Even after he’s warned Driver’s character that things are going to get ugly in court, you’re still shocked by the way he tears into his counterpart (that’d be Laura Dern, who won the Oscar). Shocked, and a little awed: The man is a high-paid professional, and worth every penny if he’s on your side. Asked later about his role, Liotta mentioned an L.A. lawyer he’d read up on, and which gave him the key to unlock the character for him: “It was all about winning — at any cost.” —D.F.

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)
The Sopranos creator David Chase had once tried to hire Liotta to play sociopath capo Ralphie Ciffaretto, but the actor wasn’t ready to do TV back then. Still, he always wanted to work with Chase, and quickly agreed to join prequel movie’s cast as Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, father to the film’s main character Dickie and grandfather to the show’s Christopher. Hollywood Dick is very much in Liotta’s wheelhouse: a loud man in every sense of the word. But when the movie couldn’t close the deal to hire another actor to play Dick’s incarcerated brother Sal, Liotta was given the chance to do it. It is the performance of the film, and one of the best of Liotta’s career. Sal is his brother’s temperamental opposite: a quietly intense Buddhist and jazz fan who seems to see through every lie his nephew Dickie tells him. Liotta lost a little weight and cut his hair in between playing the two parts, but the transformation seems to go much deeper. Sal and Dickie’s final conversation — where Sal invokes John Coltrane in suggesting that many of the things Dickie does aren’t God’s favorite — is utterly riveting. —A.S.

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