How Do You Figure a Guy Like Ray Liotta? (1954-2022)
Updated: May 28
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Though Ray Liotta launched his career in the late Seventies on a soap opera playing a character he described as “the nicest guy in the world,” the actor would soon become known for his intense and often criminal big screen portraits that stretched over the next 40 years.
Liotta died in his sleep on Thursday, May 26 in a hotel room in the Dominican Republic where he was filming his latest movie, a thriller named Dangerous Waters. He was 67.
There has been no announcement yet as to the cause of his death.
Following his recurring three-year gig on the Brooklyn-based soap Another World, a few other TV gigs and a tiny part in the Pia Zadora vehicle The Lonely Lady (1983), Liotta snagged what was to be his breakout role in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 genre mash-up Something Wild. The New Jersey-born actor seethed with menace as Ray Sinclair, the dangerous ex-con husband of Melanie Griffith’s zany party girl Audrey. Liotta’s entrance at the two-thirds mark turns what had up until that point been a pleasantly romantic road movie into a violent crime-fueled thriller.
Following a climactic brutal fight sequence between Liotta and co-star Jeff Daniels in a suburban bathroom, another character comments, “How do you figure a guy like Ray Sinclair?”
That’s exactly what I was thinking when I first absorbed the ferocity of Liotta’s performance, which propelled the film into a whole new direction for its final third.
Something Wild proved to be a warmup for Liotta’s role as a real-life gangster turned rat Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 working-class Mafia epic Goodfellas. One of the greatest gangster films ever made—and without a doubt one of the finest Hollywood films of the past 50 years—Goodfellas offered Liotta the opportunity to take on the richest and most complex character of his career.
Following the young Hill’s initiation into organized crime and the subsequent highs and lows of his life over the next three decades, Goodfellas remains a wildly engaging and ceaselessly watchable film. Much of that is due to the performance of Liotta, who appears in nearly every scene as narrator and guide through his 30 years in the Mafia.
Though Liotta cycled through dozens of over-the-top, crazy-angry roles (2002’s Narc is a particular standout), he also proved he was adept in other kinds of films. His comedy chops were fully formed for his roles in the romantic crime comedy Heartbreakers (2001) and the darkly comic Observe and Report (2009), just as he delivered capable dramatic portrayals in such pictures Dominick and Eugene (1988), Youth in Revolt (2009) and sports fantasia Field of Dreams (1989), where he played the spirit of the baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson.
While he was best known for his film roles, Liotta also held a healthy batting average on TV. Most recently, he starred opposite Taron Egerton on this year’s Apple TV+ prison thriller series Black Bird. Prior to that, Liotta had a regular role in the third season of Prime Video’s action thriller Hanna (2019), and starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in the 2016-18 NBC cop drama Shades of Blue. He even won an Emmy Award in 2005 for his guest stint as an alcoholic ex-con on ER.
Following a relatively low-key period a decade ago when Liotta appeared in a slew of direct-to-cable/DVD genre crime thrillers with names like Bad Karma (2012) and The Son of No One (2011), he appeared to be resurging in a juicier cross-section of films. Some of his latest, most commendable work includes: Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed Marriage Story (2019) and the high-profile Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark (2021). Liotta also recently wrapped the Elizabeth Banks-helmed drug-runner thriller Cocaine Bear, which is due in early 2023, and was scheduled to star in the feminist-themed body horror offering The Substance, opposite Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley.
Clearly, Liotta liked his work and showed no signs of slowing down.
One of the actor’s more intriguing assignments was the part of Frank Sinatra in the 1998 HBO movie The Rat Pack, a role he hesitated to accept.
“At first it was like, ‘Do I look enough like Sinatra?’” Liotta said in an interview at the time of the film’s release. “Finally, I had to say: ‘I’m from Jersey, I’ve got blue eyes, I’m close enough.’”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.