Scorsese apparently watched Rescue Me, a very popular show about New York City firefighters, which ran for seven five seasons, because after the Newark, New Jersey-native Liotta turned it down, the role of Dignam was offered to Denis Leary, another Boston native. Movies are like that. Nicholson wasn’t Scorsese’s first choice for the role of the Whitey Bulger stand-in either. The director saw Al Pacino as Frank Costello. They had never worked together, and wouldn’t until The Irishman.
Robert De Niro also nearly signed on to The Departed for an unspecified role, according to the 2017 Vanity Fair article “Can Martin Scorsese Just Make a Movie with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio Already?,” whose title sums up the problem. Scorsese and De Niro enjoyed a long, steady collaboration on such films as Mean Streets,Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, New York, New York, Cape Fear, and Goodfellas. The Departed was the third straight film DiCaprio and Scorsese made. So far, they have made five movies together.
So while it seems Liotta could have brought some of the magic his Henry Hill added to another gangster classic, perfect movie scheduling is harder to pull off than the Lufthansa heist. The real crime is Scorsese and Liotta didn’t get the chance to pull something out of the hat one last time.
“The parts were just never right,” Liotta explained in a 2018 nterview with Business Insider. “I have seen every movie that he’s done and I can’t say, ‘Oh, fuck, I should have been doing that.’ Like, Wolf of Wall Street, who am I going to play?”
Wahlberg’s take on Dignam is blunt, vengeful, spiteful, and hilarious. He doesn’t speak in words so much as in insults, heavy as bricks. He respects nothing and nobody, and his repartee is an unlevel playing field. Dignam is the one who can hear DiCaprio’s troubled young police academy reject has more than one accent.
Watching Wahlberg spar verbally with Sheen or Baldwin is beyond joyful. It is tempting to envision the fun Liotta would have had in the part. Maybe he could have won the award for which Wahlberg was rightly nominated.