Lots of actors get great roles, iconic roles. But not many get roles in the kind of movie that people cry over, obsess over — watch over and over. Movies that become part of the culture.
Ray Liotta, the quintessential Jersey actor who died Thursday while on location in the Dominican Republic, got not just one such role, but two.
As Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox player whose name was tarnished in the 1919 World Series fixing scandal, he was summoned from the other world by the faith of Kevin Costner in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.” “If You Build It, They Will Come” Kevin was told. So he Built It. And Liotta came. And millions of sentimental baseball fans wept into their popcorn.
Then, just a year later, he was Henry Hill, the part-Irish mobster in a world of Italian “Goodfellas” (1990) — the one who got the best tables at the club, the best cocaine, and the worst punishment to ever befall a criminal: “having to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” “Goodfellas,” along with the “Godfather” films, is the great American gangster epic, endlessly quotable. And most of the quotes belong to Liotta.
“He had those two movies back to back, at the beginning of his career,” said Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. “That’s a good twin bill there.”
Engaged to Jacy Nittolo
Liotta, 67, born in Newark and raised in Union, apparently died in his sleep while in the Caribbean filming the movie “Dangerous Waters.” A 2016 New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee, he was engaged at the time to hairstylist Jacy Nittolo.
“It was a gut punch,” said Steven Edwards, president of the New Jersey Hall of Fame. “Ray was too young to lose him like that. My heart goes out to his sister Linda, his fiancée Jacy and his beloved daughter Karsen.”
Others are comparing Liotta’s sudden death to that of another great Jersey actor who passed suddenly, shockingly.
“This has hit me with the same force as when James Gandolfini died,” Gorelick said. “Both Jersey boys through and through.”
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A number of his films were made on location in New Jersey, including “Cop Land” (1997) “Turbulence” (1997) and most recently “The Many Saints of Newark” (2021). Parts of “Goodfellas” were filmed here too.
“Those scenes where he was driving around in a cocaine-fueled state, that was done in Fort Lee,” Gorelick said.
Ray Liotta movies
Liotta, who also appeared or did voice work in such films as “Something Wild” (1986), “Dominick and Eugene” (1988), “Hannibal” (2001), “John Q” (2002) “Smokin’ Aces” (2006), “Bee Movie” (2007) and “Muppets Most Wanted” (2014), as well as doing theater, television and voice work for video games, was an adopted child.
He and his sister, also adopted, were raised by Alfred and Mary Liotta of Newark. His father, an auto parts store owner, was involved in local Democratic politics; Liotta recalled as a kid handing out campaign flyers for his dad. He grew up in Union — as it happens, very near Edwards. “He lived up the street from me in my hometown of Union, and his dad Al was actually campaign manager when I ran for school board, another lifetime ago,” Edwards said.
Liotta graduated from Union High School in 1973, studied acting at the University of Miami, and then went back to New York to break into TV and film. But he remained Jersey to the core, Gorelick said.
“There’s a lot of legendary actors from New Jersey, but he was one of the greatest and most beloved,” Gorelick said. “He always talked about his Jersey roots and never strayed far from them. Even in a lot of characters he played, there was a lot of Jersey. He played Frank Sinatra in ‘The Rat Pack.’ (1998; HBO) You can’t get more Jersey than that.”
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There was one memorable instance where Liotta proved his Jersey bona fides, Edwards said. It happened when he was inducted into the state’s Hall of Fame.
The real ‘Field of Dreams’
“He was salt of the earth, like his dad,” Edwards said. “When we were inducting him into the Hall of Fame, we were encouraging him to get some A-lister to induct him. Ray insisted that we get his childhood friend, Gene Laguna, who he played baseball with. That’s who he wanted to induct him.”
Liotta left three movies to be released posthumously: “Cocaine Bear,” “The Substance,” and the movie he was currently shooting, “Dangerous Waters.” But whatever else he did, or what other legacy he leaves, “Field of Dreams” and “Goodfellas” will probably remain at the top of his list. Of all our lists.
“There are some movies you watch, and they go through you like Epsom Salt,” Gorelick said. “You don’t remember them the next day. Then there are the movies that stick with you forever, you remember them almost scene for scene.
“Those are both great movies. And he’ll be missed.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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