This article originally appeared on VICE UK
(Top image: Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in 'Goodfellas'. All images copyright Warner Brothers)
Goodfellas is among the best gangster films ever made. Maybe the best. A recent, and very comprehensive, list ranking Martin Scorsese's films put Goodfellas in the top spot. It also topped this list made by an anonymous – and therefore completely reliable – IMDB user. Plus, it was nominated for six Academy Awards, it was sampled in no less than two Shy FX songs and it features Joe Pesci being absolutely terrifying throughout, but mainly during that scene where he repeatedly stabs a blood-gargling man who's been stuffed in the boot of a car.
Driving the car with the bloody body in the trunk was Ray Liotta's character, Henry Hill, the protagonist. Hill was a real life mobster turned-FBI informant and the subject of Nicholas Pillegi's 1986 book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Pillegi wrote the screenplay for Goodfellas (as well as Scorsese's 1995 film, Casino), and here he talks about a lifetime spent reporting on the mob and the making of the film as it returns to UK cinemas as past of "the Scorsese season".
Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta
VICE: Hi Nicholas. When did your interest in the Mafia begin?
Nicholas Pileggi: I grew up in mostly a first generation Italian-American neighbourhood. We lived in what you would look back on now and call a ghetto, and organised crime guys were very common – they were part of the local social structure. So I grew up knowing that world, being fascinated by it. Then when I became a journalist I started covering it, so got even more interested in it. I then slowly developed a knowledge in it as well as getting an instinct to talk to people who were from that world.
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster" is the famous opening line from the film. Was that an aspiration you ever shared growing up in the neighbourhood?
No, not even remotely. I'd never heard that in my life, so when I was interviewing Henry and he told me that I just wrote it down and underlined it; I knew that was going to be the opening line of a chapter or something. His dream was to be a gangster, mine wasn't. I made it very clear that I didn't like the violence; I couldn't deal with those guys. He loved it. He started out as a little kid – my parents would never let me near a thing like that. Our lives began very differently. His life was very unique – very few youngsters of his age would be allowed to do what he did – and he saw these guys as like his baseball heroes; they were everything he dreamed of. It was totally sincere.
What was your approach to covering the Mafia as a journalist?
I never used a personal pronoun in my stories. It was never an "I" – I kept my eye on the story and as a result I think I wasn't really judgmental of any of them. The gangster was never the loathsome individual or the slime ball that you quite often read in copy. I never did that. I never demeaned them; I tried to cover it like an anthropologist. I was fascinated by them as a criminal subculture. I kept endless notes and files on anyone who got arrested, and anyone I knew. I updated them constantly. I would have little tags if someone was involved in a murder or somebody was involved in illegitimate business. It was more as an anthropologist than as an investigative reporter.
Was there an element of fear that crept in for you at any point?
No, never. People were concerned, the FBI were concerned and a cop friend of mine gave me a bulletproof vest, but I never wore it.
I don't know. Even as a reporter I was only beaten up once or twice, and never badly. They don't go after journalists, and I was never an investigative reporter – I never exposed anything. I was the clean-up man. I came in after all the bodies had gone to the funeral parlour. When doing the Henry Hill book, his sworn enemy was Jimmy Burke. I still called Burke's wife and she was extraordinarily nice to me, and my reputation was good. It was all very… I don't want to say jolly, but friendly. I had no fear of anything. I wasn't participating in anything in that world; they would have been wasting a bullet on me. I was of no value alive or dead.
What was the response from the Mafia community when the film was announced?
A lot of them got into it. They liked my book. When the book came out I had guys from that world who liked it and introduced me to mob bosses who liked it – I even autographed copies. They liked the book because it portrayed their lives, which most of those books don't. There was a human element to the way they all lived, and they got a kick out of it. When we were going to cast, Marty [Scorsese] asked me to speak with people in the world, and I asked if anyone wanted to be in the movie, and a bunch of them who could be – a lot of them couldn't because they were either wanted or made members – but a lot of the associates said "sure". A lot of the guys you see in Goodfellas are certified mobsters who were cast out of a restaurant.
After knowing the guy personally, who did you envision as being the perfect casting for Henry Hill?
I never thought who it could be. I just didn't go to many movies or know that many actors, I didn't have that resource. I was totally delighted when they came up with Ray Liotta. He is perfect. The casting was superb: Lorraine Bracco as Karen – because I knew Karen – she just caught that so brilliantly.
Would you consider yourself friends with some of these mob people during that period?
Henry and I became very chummy. We'd spend weekends together; I would go and meet him in secret places that the FBI didn't know about. We weren't supposed to do that. They said very plainly, if they find Henry they're going to kill him, and I was sitting next to him. Those meetings were the basis of the book.
How did that film impact on your life and what sort of response was there from the mob?
Most of the people depicted in the film had died – they were murdered. I had stayed in touch with Karen and Henry, and also distantly with the Burke family. A lot of the tangential people from the film I remained friendly with. Then I went on to move onto another story, which turned out to be Casino, so I began to pay more attention to Las Vegas and those characters. It's a trilogy, really. Mean Streets was about gangsters trying to get their foot out, trying to look like big shots. Like the idiots learning. Goodfellas was they were now gangsters, they knew how to make money, they could rob $460,000 (£370,000) from Air France and they would kill people – they were gangsters, but street gangsters; thugs. With Casino that was the gangster world at the very top – you can't do better in the gangster world than run Las Vegas, which is what they did, and then screwed it up, which is so classic gangster world. They had the dream they always dreamed and they fuck it all up – they can't leave the gangster behind; it follows them.
How did you feel on a personal level when Henry Hill passed away?
It was sad. I felt he was so committed to his drugs that he could never really be sober again, no matter how hard he tried. The real sadness with Henry was that in order to save his life he had to become an informant. That was worse [for him] than putting Henry in jail. Henry in jail would have gone right back to running dope deals and eating well, but Henry outside of that environment was one he couldn't stand. But of course he wouldn't have been able to stay in jail for long – he would have been killed.
Is there still an active mob in New York?
There are active mobs still going on in gambling and the labour unions and construction, but it's so limited compared to the power it once had. I think one more generation and it's gone altogether. They have no bench – nobody to take over and nothing to take over. Illegal gambling was the big thing, and now states have multi-million dollar lotteries. You don't need to go see Angelo on the corner and give him your number; you can go and scratch off a card right there and get money in the drug store. The state realised there was a fortune to be made in gambling, so they legalised it. It's the same numbers scam that the mob guys ran for years, but now it's legal. The only thing left to have a real hand in illegal activity is narcotics, but that comes with heavy sentences if you get caught, and people tend to inform. From 1910, when it started, to 1965 or so there hadn't been one real informant for organised crime because the sentences were so small that guys would happily do the time because they had friends in there and they would know and bribe the guards; it was a get together and [a chance] to play cards all day. There were no complaints. The minute narcotics came in and they got caught they were facing 25 years with no parole – that's different. All of a sudden everyone started to inform. It changed and weakened the culture enormously, and it's on its last legs.