Recently, I was browsing Netflix and saw that Martin Scorcese’s classic film Goodfellas had been added to their collection. The film was released in 1990 and nearly thirty years later, it still captivates audiences while remaining part of American pop culture. Surprisingly, I have come viewers of the film who were unaware that the film based based on a true story and was adapted for the silver screen from this best-selling book by author Nicholas Pileggi. Aptly titled Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the book chronicles the life of Lucchese Family associate Henry Hill (1943-2012). Several years ago I read the book to satsify my curiousity about the real life characters that are in the film. A few days ago while watching a short documentary about the real-life story, I realized that there were some things I could not quite recall and realized that I needed to take another look at the story behind the film.
The movie does follow the book quite closely, although some events were rewritten for the big screen. As a kid, Hill adopted as a fatherly figure, the Mafia figure Paul vario (1914-1988). In the film, he is played by actor Paul Servino, and his last name is changed to Cicero. Further, the film mentions very little about Vario’s brothers Lenny, Tommy and Salvatore, who were all involved both legal and illegal ventures. The author explains their presence and dominance in my old neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn. Hill quickly learns the tricks of the trade and Mafia code, and in the process becomes a full fledged gangster to the dismay of his parents Henry, Sr. and Carmela HIll. But as he explains in the book, his father could never understand what he was apart of and how it made him feel as if he belonged. I could not help but wonder if Hill would have taken a different path if the relationship he had with his father had been different.
The differences between the book and movie diverge greatly when it comes to the characters in the story. Some of the names were changed by filmmakers but the core group of Karen Hill, Jimmy Burke (1931-1996) (last name changed to Conway in the film), Thomas “Tommy” DeSimone (1950-1979) (last named change to DeVito in the film) and the crew at Robert’s lounge are all here, with each playing a different role in the story. However, Hill is the main focus and his story is told spot on in the film. I personally think Liotta nailed the role perfectly with the only exception that the real-life Hill was a far heavier drinker and more reckless.
In the film, only the biggest schemes that took place are shown, most likely due to time constraints. Hill goes into more detail here about how he learned to score and bring in money for the family through dozens of smaller schemes that range from credit car fraud to cigarette hijacking. Many of the schemes are low-level but Hill made a name for himself with the Air France robbery in 1967 and later Lufthansa heist in 1978. The latter placed the Lucchese family on a level of infamy from which is has never returned. And on a side note, the money and jewelry taken from the heist were never recovered. Exactly what Burke did with money and jewelry remains a mystery. And because all of the major players involved are now deceased, whatever information could have been gleaned is most likely lost for good.
There is one aspect of the book that might confuse some readers. In the story, Henry and wife Karen have two daughters and the same is portrayed in the film. However in real life, the couple had a son Gregg and daughter Gina. Hill later had a third child Justin with Kelly Alor, but that took place long after the film had been released and this book had been published. The most reasonable explanation that I can think of is that at the time the movie was released, Hill’s family was still in the Federal Witness Protection Program and keeping their identities secret was of utmost concern as the Mafia still had an open contract on Hill’s life.
As I read through the book, I felt that Hill’s story was even more dysfunctional than we see in the film. Between the stormy relationship with his wife, threat of death on the streets and large amounts of narcotics and alcohol, Hill was a walking timebomb. When he is arrested for the last time, he makes a comment in the book that sums up the exhaustion that comes with a life that moves at the speed of light. Karen Hill also narrates in the book, giving her side of the story about the life she shared with Hill. But unlike her former husband, she has stayed out of the public sight since entering the witness protection program and her current location is unknown publicly. In the film, she is played actress Lorraine Bracco. He words support Hill’s story and also should remove all doubt as to the surreal existence their life became. Those who have never lived “the life’ as they call it, will find their words had to understand and accept. But this was their life in the mob and all that came with it.
I may watch Goodfellas again in the near future, to see what I may have missed in prior viewings. And I will probably watch many more times in the future as my nostaglia for history related films kicks in. And when I do, I will keep the real story in mind as I watch Henry and Karen’s life on screen. Good read.