Ray Liotta, who broke out in Hollywood in the mob classic “Goodfellas” and starred in “Field of Dreams,” has died. He was 67.
The actor died overnight in his sleep in the Dominican Republic while shooting the film “Dangerous Waters,” his spokeswoman, Jennifer Allen, confirmed to the Los Angeles Times Thursday.
No health issues or foul play were suspected, Allen said.
In a decadeslong, genre-spanning career, Liotta played criminals, cops, a baseball star, a preacher and even Frank Sinatra. He also starred in “Something Wild,” “Corrina, Corrina,” “Operation Dumbo Drop,” “Narc” and “Charlie St. Cloud.”
"[I]t’s always about the work. I enjoy the job. I love playing pretend. I’ve worked with some great directors and actors, and one of the basic things they have in common is this love of playing pretend,” Liotta told the L.A. Times in 2015. “There’s this electric energy, and it’s so much fun to be around people who find that joy in playing pretend.”
The soft-spoken New Jersey native had acted steadily since graduating from the University of Miami in the late 1970s. For six months, he worked as a Broadway bartender, serving drinks to theatergoers during intermissions of the Shubert presentations of “Dancin’ ” and “I Love My Wife.”
He got his first break in 1978 on the soap opera “Another World.” It was his first professional role in New York and he described his character, Joey Perrini, as “the nicest guy in the world.”
He then moved to Hollywood with the hopes of starting a film career. He worked regularly in television on a number of short-lived series, including playing bartender Sacha in David Wolper’s “Casablanca” series in 1983. He spent about five years on the Hollywood casting circuit before meeting director Jonathan Demme and becoming the lean, mean menace of the 1986 film “Something Wild.”
The character of Ray Sinclair, Melanie Griffith’s ex-con husband in the crime comedy, would make him a movie star. But he was shut out of the audition process until his pal Griffith persuaded Demme to consider him. Later, in DVD commentary for the film, Demme said that Liotta scared him so much that he “had to cast him.”
He landed several movie roles after that, including “Dominick and Eugene,” “Cop Land” and “Unlawful Entry.” In 1989, he played baseball’s ultimate outsider-hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, in Phil Alden Robinson’s “Field of Dreams.”
Liotta read the script and couldn’t believe the premise — he also hadn’t played baseball since he was in ninth grade. But his agent encouraged him to take the role, and Liotta spent months working out with USC’s baseball coach.
The sports fantasy, about an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball field in his backyard to attract ghosts of past players, was voted the greatest sports movie of all time in a 2019 survey of L.A. Times readers and was included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2017.
But it was a movie that Liotta said he never actually saw in full.
“My mom was really sick during that period, so it brings back other things,” Liotta told the Huffington Post. Then, in an appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show” in 2021, he said that he tried to watch it with his ailing mother but she “she couldn’t really enjoy herself so we left, and I just equate it with that.”
Liotta‘s best-known role remains mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film “Goodfellas” alongside Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Liotta was tapped to narrate the Oscar-winning tale of Hill’s growth into the Italian American crime syndicate adapted from the nonfiction book “Wiseguy.”
“People to this day still come and talk to me about ‘Goodfellas,’” Liotta told the L.A. Times in 2015.
Though he was Scorsese’s first choice for the part, Liotta also had a hard time locking it in. Famed producer Irwin Winkler pushed back because of the actor’s menacing performance in “Something Wild.” Ultimately, it was Liotta’s agreeable, warm and gracious demeanor in person that eventually won them over — and was exactly what Scorsese wanted for the role. (Val Kilmer, Nicolas Cage, Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise were also reportedly in consideration.)
In a 1990 interview with the L.A. Times, Liotta called the audition process “horrible, horrible, horrible.”
“It has nothing to do with you personally. And then the dream just falls into place,” he said. “I just couldn’t wait to work with people who wanted to play as deeply as I did. Because I really believe it’s a game, but I believe that what makes someone stand out is they commit themselves deeper and fuller than maybe other actors do.”
Liotta also made that film in New York while his mother was dying of cancer, which shaped his memory of the role.
“My mom lived in New Jersey,” he told the L.A. Times. “So every weekend I would go home. She passed away in the middle of filming. Doing that movie and that character was a dream come true. But I do have mixed feelings about it.”
Heavy accents aside, Liotta grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Union, New Jersey, as the elder of two children. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish and Irish, and they ran an auto parts business and later attempted to run for political offices.
He described his upbringing as “regular, normal” and considered himself to be a goody-goody who “never wanted to get in trouble.”
He got into acting as an accident when he had to fill in for a sick classmate in a sixth-grade play and felt like “a nervous wreck.” And because he was too small to be any good at basketball in high school, he joined the drama club.
While in college, he told the L.A. Times, a pretty girl at registration asked if he was going out for the play that night, and the next thing he knew, he was auditioning for “Cabaret.”
“I had no idea how to do any of this sort of stuff,” he said. “But my father’s philosophy was that you should try everything, see what’s out there and decide what you like. And if you make a fool of yourself, who cares?”
In 2005, he won a Primetime Emmy Award for a guest role as Charlie Metcalf on NBC’s “ER.” More recently, he played a dirty cop in NBC’s crime drama “Shades of Blue” and starred in the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” Netflix’s “Marriage Story” and in the upcoming Apple TV+ crime thriller series “Black Bird.”
According to Deadline, Liotta had just finished work on the Elizabeth Banks-directed “Cocaine Bear” and was due to star in the Working Title film “The Substance” opposite Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley.
Liotta is survived by his fiancee, Jacy Nittolo, and daughter Karsen.
(L.A. Times staff writer Christi Carras contributed to this report.)
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