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“As Far Back As I Can Remember, I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Gangster.”
Martin Scorsese first heard of Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy when he was handed an early proof copy while shooting The Color Of Money in Chicago. He immediately called the author and told him, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” Pileggi replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” They agreed to co-write it there on the phone.
Scorsese says he knew straight away how he wanted to shoot it –
“To begin like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. It’s the only way to capture the exhilaration of the lifestyle and get a sense of why people are attracted to it.”
In 1988, after reading a new script of Scorsese’s entitled Wise Guys, producer Michael Powell sent Scorsese the following enthusiastic letter and declared it ‘one of the best-constructed scripts [he had] ever read.’ That movie’s eventual title was GoodFellas. Powell sadly passed away in February of 1990, just months before the completed film’s theatrical release.
Scorsese originally intended to make GoodFellas two years earlier, but when funding for his pet project The Last Temptation Of Christ finally materialised in 1987, he decided to shoot that and postpone the gangster flick.
According to Scorsese, Marlon Brando tried to persuade him to not make GoodFellas. He thought Scorsese would be just repeating his work done in Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980). But he still made it as everyone in the crew believed that GoodFellas was a fresh and funny take on the Gangster genre.
There were many actors who were eyed to play a part in this film; John Malkovich and Al Pacino were considered for the role of Jimmy Conway, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise were considered to play Henry Hill and Alec Baldwin auditioned for the role of Henry Hill.
Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy but turned it down due to fear of typecasting. Ironically, later that same year he ended up playing a gangster, Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. He admits regretting the decision.
Robert De Niro was offered to pick one from the two characters Jimmy and Tommy DeVito. He chose the former.
Scorsese was wowed by Ray Liotta’s performance as a maniac ex-con in Something Wild and immediately wanted to cast him as Hill, but producer Irwin Winkler was unconvinced, claiming that he didn’t have enough “charm” for the role.
It took eight months for Liotta to finally land the part — he wanted it so badly, he approached Winkler in a restaurant and asked for a minute alone in the bar to tell him why he thought he was perfect. Winkler called Scorsese the next day and told him to go ahead.
Liotta turned down the role of District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman to make GoodFellas. The Dent role went to Billy Dee Williams.
“But I’m Funny How? I Mean Funny Like I’m A Clown, I Amuse You? I Make You Laugh, I’m Here To Fuckin’ Amuse You?”
The classic “Funny how” scene is based on an occurrence that actually happened to Pesci. When he was working in a restaurant years ago, he complimented a gangster by telling him he was funny, but the remark was met with a less than impressed response.
Pesci told this to Scorsese, who implemented it into the film, and the scene was directed by Pesci himself and not included in the shooting script of the film, meaning his and Liotta’s interactions would elicit genuine reactions from the supporting cast.
Tommy DeVito was based on real-life gangster Thomas ‘Two-Gun Tommy’ DeSimone, renowned for his violent temper. According to the real Henry Hill, Pesci’s portrayal was “90 to 99 percent accurate”, with two notable exceptions.
Firstly, DeSimone was a big-framed enforcer, standing 6ft 2in and weighing 15 stone. Secondly, the film states that Tommy was shot in the face so his mother couldn’t give him an open-casket funeral, but the real DeSimone’s remains were never recovered.
In the first series of The Sopranos, Tony’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) shoots a bakery employee in the foot for making him wait. As he leaves, the wounded bread-seller yells, “He shot my foot!” and Chrissy replies, “It happens.” It’s a nod to Imperioli’s character Spider getting shot in the foot by Pesci a decade earlier in GoodFellas.
De Niro’s Jimmy Conway character is based on real-life mobster Jimmy Burke, aka Jimmy ‘The Gent’ or ‘The Big Irishman’, an ex-bricklayer believed to have orchestrated the $6m Lufthansa heist in 1978 and then killed 10 of those who took part.
To portray him, De Niro plundered writer Nicholas Pileggi’s unused notes and obsessively asked the real Henry Hill for details about the real Jimmy — how he held his cigarette, used a ketchup bottle, reacted to various situations, etc.
When Jimmy is handing out money to everyone, De Niro didn’t like how the fake money felt in is hands. He wanted real cash to be used, so the props master gave De Niro $5000 of his own money. No one was permitted to leave the set at the end of each take until the money was returned to the props man and counted.
When Henry is introducing mobsters to us in the bar, one of them is a character named Fat Andy. This character is played by Louis Eppolito, Eppolito was at the time a former NYPD detective whose father, uncle and cousin were in the mob. 15 years after the release of GoodFellas, Eppolito, along with his police partner, were arrested and charged with racketeering, obstruction of justice, extortion, and up to 8 murders. They were both given life sentences, with an added 80 years each.
After seeing the film, Henry Hill thanked Liotta for not making him look like an asshole. Liotta response was to think to himself –
“did you even watch the movie?”
In the original shooting script of the film, the Billy Batts shine box scene was the very first scene in the film, followed by the dinner at Tommy’s mother’s house.
Frank Vincent, the man who plays Batts and is beaten and stabbed to death by Pesci, and who also starred with Pesci in two other Scorsese films, Raging Bull and Casino, actually has a long history with Pesci.
The two used to be bandmates and a comedy duo in the late 60s. They also starred in the low budget 1976 mafia film The Death Collector, where they were spotted by De Niro and Scorsese, and eventually hired for their roles in Raging Bull.
US attorney Edward McDonald, the fed who explains the ins and outs of the witness protection programme to Henry Hill and his wife, is actually playing himself in this scene, re-enacting the conversation he had with the real Henry Hill. McDonald volunteered to play the role and won a screen test when Scorsese was location scouting his office as a possible filming location.
“Never Rat On Your Friends, And Always Keep Your Mouth Shut.”
In test screenings, GoodFellas received the worst response in Warner Bros. history, with audience members leaving in droves, disgusted by the violence, drugs, and language. According to Pileggi, one screening had around 70 people walk out, and in another, the film’s team had to hide at a local bowling alley as a result of an audience angry at the film’s level of violence. Scorsese said-
“The numbers were so low, it was funny.”
Scorsese wanted to depict the violence as “cold, unfeeling and horrible”, but had to remove 10 frames of blood in order to ensure an R rating.
The infamous Steadicam tracking shot through the nightclub kitchen was an accident. Scorsese , who didn’t even like using Steadicams at first, had been denied permission to go through the front door and had to improvise another plan. He decided to do it in one long shot to symbolise “Henry’s whole life being ahead of him, doors opening to him.”
“It’s his seduction of Karen and it’s also the lifestyle seducing him”. The shot had to be redone eight times — not because of complications choreographing it, but because it ends on comedian Henry Youngman performing, but Youngman kept fluffing his lines, spoiling the close of the scene.
The F-bomb is dropped 296 times during the film, averaging twice per minute. About half of them are by Tommy. After Pesci’s mother saw the film, she said she liked it but asked if he had to swear so much. As a nod to that discussion, five years later in Casino, Catherine Scorsese, who played Pesci’s mother in GoodFellas, complains to her son in Casino about swearing too much. At the time it was made, GoodFellas held the record for the most amount of profanity in a single film.
Scorsese’s parents were both heavily involved making the movie, in the the scene where the three main characters eat with Tommy’s mother (Catherine Scorsese) was almost completely improvised by the cast, including Tommy asking his mother if he could borrow a butcher’s knife and Jimmy’s remark about the animal’s hoof. Prior to filming the scene, at no point did Scorsese tell his mother that Pesci’s character had just violently beaten a man.
For authenticity, he only told her that Pesci’s character comes home for dinner and that she was to cook for them.
Scorsese’s father Charles also appears in the film, he plays the prisoner who commits the cardinal sin of putting too many onions in the tomato sauce.
Both Charles and Catherine came on to set every day, and Scorsese let them press all the gangster’s shirt collars, as according to him, only they –
“knew how to do it properly”.
The film’s ending, where Pesci fires several bullets staring at the camera, is a homage to the landmark 1903 short film The Great Train Robbery, widely considered one of the first narrative pictures. Scorsese saw his movie as part of a tradition of outlaws in American pop culture and noted that in spite of the fact that the two films are separated by almost a century, according to the director –
“they’re essentially the same story.”
At the 1991 Oscars, GoodFellas was up against Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. GoodFellas only won one Oscar. And its winner, Pesci, was so surprised, that his winning speech was one of the shortest in Oscar history, simply saying –
“It’s my privilege, thank you”
After the film’s premiere, the real Henry Hill was so proud that he went around revealing his true identity and boasting that the film was about him. The FBI had to remove him from its Witness Protection Programme.
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