Ray Liotta: He Created Intense, Memorable Characters in “Goodfellas,” “Field of Dreams” and Other Films

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Ray Liotta, of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Field of Dreams,’ Dies at 67”:

Ray Liotta, who created intense, memorable characters in “Goodfellas,” “Field of Dreams” and other films as well as on television, died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic.

His publicist, Jennifer Allen, said that he was filming a movie, “Dangerous Waters,” and died in his hotel room.

Mr. Liotta was known primarily for having played Joey Perrini on the soap opera “Another World,” a character he once called “the nicest guy in the world,” when he landed an entirely different kind of role in the 1986 comic crime story “Something Wild.” His friend Melanie Griffith leaned on the film’s director, Jonathan Demme, to consider him, and he got the role of her character’s menacing husband, an ex-con.

“Mr. Liotta, a newcomer, nearly walks off with his sections of the film,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times — and suddenly he was in demand for such parts.

“I had offers for every crazy guy around,” Mr. Liotta said in 1990.

But he resisted being “pigeonholed as Hollywood’s resident psychopath,” as one newspaper account put it. His next film after “Something Wild” was “Dominick and Eugene” (1988), in which he played a man whose twin brother (played by Tom Hulce) is mentally impaired as a result of a childhood accident.

“The two leading actors do a superb job of bringing these characters to life,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. “Mr. Liotta, such a menacing villain in ‘Something Wild,’ makes Gino a touchingly devoted figure, a man willing to sacrifice almost anything for his brother’s welfare.”

The next year he won acclaim as the baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, the spectral figure who appears on the ball field built by Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams” and later brings along his teammates. Mr. Liotta showed a quieter type of intensity in embodying Jackson than he had in “Something Wild.”

“Ray Liotta makes him ethereal and real at once,” Caryn James wrote of his portrayal, “a relic of an earlier age much more than a ghost from the past.”

Though Mr. Liotta played sports in high school, he admitted that he didn’t quite get the concept of “Field of Dreams” at first.

“I read that script and said, ‘What, are you kidding me? A dead guy who comes back to play baseball?’” he said in 1990.

One role defined Mr. Liotta’s career more than any other: the gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 1990 film “Goodfellas.” That sprawling film was based on the real-life story of Mr. Hill, and Mr. Liotta said it challenged him like no job before.

“In this film, I had to show jealousy, rage, happiness, anger — everything was there,” he said in 1990. “You want to take that challenge as an actor. It was pretty intense.

“I had 80 costume changes, one day’s in the ’50s, the next day’s in the ’80s. Emotionally, it was all different things. One day I’m sweet. Then the next day I’m coked out of my mind. We’d span 20 years at one location.”

Mr. Liotta said that acting alongside Robert De Niro and other Scorcese regulars was daunting. But he more than held his own in the film, which quickly came to be regarded as a classic.

“Ray Liotta, best known for his role as Melanie Griffith’s explosive husband in ‘Something Wild,’ brings an oddly appropriate quality of innocence to Henry,” Mick LaSalle wrote. Mr. Liotta’s performance, he said, was “likely to make him a major star.”…

A wide range of roles followed “Goodfellas,” many of them in crime dramas like “Hannibal” (2001), “Narc” (2002) and “Killing Them Softly” (2012). Last year Mr. Liotta appeared in the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark.” He played his share of comic parts too, including in “Muppets” movies and “Operation Dumbo Drop” (1995), but intensity was his defining feature.

“Ray can be very still, almost like a cat,” Howard Deutch, who directed him in the 1992 comic drama “Article 99,” once said. “He’s very powerful in his stillness. You have the sense that he’s combustible.”

Mr. Liotta  was born in Newark. At 6 months old he was adopted by Alfred and Mary Liotta, who together operated an auto parts business. He grew up in Union, N.J.

Mr. Liotta often said he got his start in acting by accident. An argument with his basketball coach got him tossed off the team, the drama teacher asked if he needed something to do, and he found himself in a stage production of “Sunday in New York.”

He studied acting at the University of Miami and, after graduating, settled in New York, where he quickly landed the part on “Another World.”

“I loved the soap,” he said in a 1994 interview. “I had an opportunity to make dialogue that wasn’t good seem bearable. The acting challenge was greater than if I was doing Tennessee Williams.”

In 1998 Mr. Liotta took on the assignment to portray Frank Sinatra in an HBO movie, “The Rat Pack.” It was a challenge he hesitated to accept.

“At first it was like, ‘Do I look enough like Sinatra?’” he said. “Finally, I had to say: ‘I’m from Jersey, I’ve got blue eyes, I’m close enough.’”

His television résumé also included the mini-series “Texas Rising” in 2015 and the crime drama “Shades of Blue,” with Jennifer Lopez, which ran for three seasons beginning in 2016. In 2005 he won an Emmy Award for outstanding guest actor in a drama for an appearance on “ER.”

Mr. Liotta didn’t do much stage work, but he did appear on Broadway in 2004 in the Stephen Belber comedy “Match,” opposite Frank Langella and Jane Adams. The show, however, ran for only seven weeks.

Mr. Liotta, who lived in Los Angeles, is survived by a daughter, Karsen Liotta, from his marriage to the actress Michelle Grace, which ended in divorce; a sister, Linda Liotta Matthews; and his fiancée, Jacy Nittolo.

Though Mr. Liotta was most identified with roles of smoldering intensity, he said he always tried to avoid being typecast.

“You want to do as many different genres as you can, and that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said in 2018. “I’ve done movies with the Muppets. I did Sinatra. I did good guys and bad guys. I did a movie with an elephant. I decided that I was here to try different parts and do different things.

“That’s what it’s really all about. That’s what a career should be.”

Neil Genzlinger is a Times writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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