Ray Liotta's essential roles: 'Goodfellas,' 10 more key performances

Adam Graham, The Detroit News on

Published in Entertainment News

He played psychopaths, gangsters, corrupt cops and guys you don't want to mess with. A lot of times in those roles, he was so convincing that you thought in real life, Ray Liotta must actually be crazy.

But that wasn't all he played. Liotta also played good guys, heroes, sensitive fathers, surgeons, athletes and lawyers. In "Operation Dumbo Drop," he was an Army captain who helps deliver an elephant to a village in Vietnam. He even did a pair of movies with the Muppets, and he didn't pistol whip any of them (at least not on camera).

Liotta, who died this week at age 67, didn't mount a career measured in awards. He was never nominated for an Oscar — the fact that he was overlooked for "Goodfellas" is a travesty — but when he connected with a role, a part that met his charismatic madness and intimidating intensity, he hit like a bolt of electricity. That's what made him such a unique, livewire presence in films from the 1980s all the way through to last year's "Sopranos" spinoff, "The Many Saints of Newark."

Here's a look at Ray Liotta's impressive body of work through the scope of "Goodfellas" and 10 more key roles.

'Something Wild' (1986)

Liotta started appearing in soap operas and television movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but his breakthrough came in Jonathan Demme's screwball comedy action romance "Something Wild," in which he plays Ray Sinclair, a menacing ex-con and the ex-husband of Melanie Griffith's wild child Lulu, who is being courted by Jeff Daniels' straight-laced Charles. It's an edgy role and Liotta played it with manic energy, and audiences took notice of the loose cannon always ready to go off.


'Field of Dreams' (1989)

Playing Shoeless Joe Jackson, a member of the disgraced Chicago Black Sox team that was shunned for its gambling scandal, Liotta appears as a vision to Kevin Costner's Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, and gets to utter one of the most timeless quotes in all of cinema history: "if you build it, he will come." Even if he would have never went any further in his career, his place in movie history would have been cemented.

'Goodfellas' (1990)

Instead, Liotta got another immortal line and the role of a lifetime in Martin Scorsese's glorious gangster epic, in which he plays Henry Hill, a mobster who after a life of crime turns on his mob cohorts and rats them out to the feds. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," Liotta's Hill says out front, and he leads an ensemble cast (De Niro, Pesci, Bracco, Sorvino, etc.) through a timeless crime saga with an impeccable performance built on bravado, swagger and his character's raw nerve endings. By the end of the movie, you feel like you've lived a full life with him. Sidebar: no one has ever said "Ka-ren!" better, ever.


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