Born: December 18, 1954, in Newark, New Jersey
Died: May 26, 2022, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2016: Performing Arts
Ray Liotta may have been the softest tough guy Hollywood ever minted. Best known for his portrayal of real-life mobster Henry Hill, Liotta was equally comfortable playing a doting dad or a tragic baseball idol. And those who worked with him are universal in their praise of Liotta as an all-around nice guy.
Adopted from an orphanage at age 6, Liotta was raised in Union. He attended Union High School and the University of Miami, where he studied acting, performed in musicals and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree. After college, he moved to New York City, hooked up with an agent and landed his first important role on the soap opera “Another World,” appearing from 1978-1981.
Liotta’s film breakthrough came in 1986 when he portrayed a crazed ex-con in the Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” His over-the-top performance earned Liotta a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. In 1989, he scored further acclaim as the ghost of the legendary baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson in the fantasy/drama “Field of Dreams.”
Next came Liotta’s signature role as the mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s universally acclaimed 1990 classic “Goodfellas.” Throughout the film, the relatively green Liotta held his own in pivotal scenes with Hollywood heavyweights Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (a fellow New Jersey native).
In retrospect, Liotta’s career peaked early with “Goodfellas,” but he never stopped working in major film and TV projects. Among key films were the thriller “Unlawful Entry” (1992); the Jersey-based crime drama “Cop Land” (1997); the Demme-directed “Blow” (2001); the star-studded “Killing Them Softly” (2012); and “The Many Saints of Newark,” a 2021 prequel to “The Sopranos,” in which Liotta played the twin Moltisanti brothers.
On the small screen, Liotta portrayed Frank Sinatra in the 1998 TV movie “The Rat Pack,” for which he received a Screen Actors Guild nomination. In 2004, Liotta’s appearance on the medical series “ER” earned him an Emmy for outstanding guest actor in a drama. He also roped in a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his work in the History Channel miniseries “Texas Rising” (2015). From 2016-2018, he was featured opposite Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt New York City cop in the NBC series “Shades of Blue.”
Liotta died in his sleep in 2022 while working on a film project, “Dangerous Waters,” in the Dominican Republic. In one of his final roles, Liotta played an ill-fated drug lord in the 2023 comedy-thriller “Cocaine Bear.”
Liotta’s gravelly voice, piercing eyes, powerful jaw and broad shoulders made him a natural for the tough-guy roles in which he thrived, but even he acknowledged that wasn’t the real Ray.
In 2021, he told People magazine: “I have never been in a fight at all, except for during sports, and that’s just pushing and goofy kid stuff.”