According to Henry Hill, whose life was the basis for the book and film, Joe Pesci's portrayal of Tommy DeSimone was 90-99% accurate, with one notable exception. The real Tommy DeSimone was massively built.
Al Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy Conway, but he turned it down, due to fears of typecasting. Ironically, that same year, Pacino ended up playing an even more stereotyped gangster, Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy (1990). He admits he regrets this decision.
According to Nicholas Pileggi, some mobsters were hired as extras to lend authenticity to scenes. The mobsters gave fake Social Security numbers to Warner Brothers, and it is unknown how they received their paychecks.
Robert De Niro wanted to use real money for the scene where Jimmy hands out money, because he didn't like the way fake money felt in his hands. The prop master gave De Niro $5,000 of his own money. At the end of each take, no one was allowed to leave the set until all the money was returned and counted.
In the documentary, The Real Goodfella (2006), which aired in the UK, Henry Hill claimed that Robert De Niro would phone him seven to eight times a day to discuss certain things about Jimmy's character, such as how Jimmy would hold his cigarette, et cetera.
Martin Scorsese first got wind of Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguy" when he was handed the galley proofs. Although Scorsese had sworn off making another gangster movie, he immediately cold-called the writer and told him, "I've been waiting for this book my entire life." To which Pileggi replied, "I've been waiting for this phone call my entire life."
The studio was initially very nervous about the film, due to its extreme violence and language. The film reportedly received the worst preview response in the studio's history. Martin Scorsese said that "the numbers were so low, it was funny." Nevertheless, the film was released without alteration to overwhelming critical acclaim, cementing Scorsese's reputation as one of America's foremost filmmakers.
Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay, and over the course of the twelve drafts it took to reach the ideal script, the reporter realized "the visual styling had to be completely redone. So we decided to share credit." They decided which sections of the book they liked, and put them together like building blocks. Scorsese persuaded Pileggi that they did not need to follow a traditional narrative structure. Scorsese wanted to take the gangster film, and deal with it episode by episode, but start in the middle and move backwards and forwards. Scorsese would compact scenes, and realized that if they were kept short, "the impact after about an hour and a half would be terrific."
For the scene where Sonny Bunz complains to Paulie, Martin Scorsese secretly told Tony Darrow to improvise more lines for his character without telling Paul Sorvino. Sorvino's confused reaction was real.
The character of "Fat Andy", whom Henry introduces in the bar, was played by Louis Eppolito, an ex-NYPD detective whose father, uncle, and cousin had all been in the Mafia. In 2005, Eppolito and his police partner were arrested and charged with racketeering, obstruction of justice, extortion, and up to eight murders. They were both sentenced to life in prison plus 80 years.
The "f" word and its derivatives are used 321 times, for an average of 2.04 per minute. About half of them are said by Joe Pesci. At the time of the films' release, this was the most profanity of any movie in history. It is currently the fifteenth most f-bomb laden film ever released. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is third on the list, also directed by Martin Scorsese. The script only called for the word to be used seventy times, but much of the dialogue was improvised during shooting, where the expletives piled up.
The "How am I funny?" scene is based on something that actually happened to Joe Pesci. While working in a restaurant, a young Pesci apparently told a mobster that he was funny, a compliment that was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. Pesci relayed the anecdote to Martin Scorsese, who decided to include it in the film. Scorsese didn't include the scene in the shooting script, so that Pesci and Ray Liotta's interactions would elicit genuinely surprised reactions from the supporting cast.
Paul Sorvino wanted to drop out of the role of Paul "Paulie" Cicero three days before filming began, because he felt that he lacked the cold personality to play the character. He called his agent and asked to be released from the film. Sorvino's agent told him to think about it for one day before making a final decision. That night, Sorvino looked in the mirror and was frightened by the look on his face. He realized that that look was the look he needed to play Paulie.
According to Joe Pesci, improvisation and ad-libbing came out of rehearsals wherein Martin Scorsese let the cast do whatever they wanted. He made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines the cast came up with that he liked best, and put them into a revised script, from which the cast worked, during principal photography.
The dinner scene with Tommy's mother was almost completely improvised by the cast members, including Tommy asking his mother if he could borrow her butcher's knife and Jimmy's "hoof" comment. The painting on the wall in the background shows The Last Supper. Martin Scorsese previously directed The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
According to Debi Mazar, when her character trips after meeting Henry, it was actually Mazar tripping over the camera dolly track. Martin Scorsese liked it, because it looked like she was overwhelmed by Henry, and left it in the film.
It was claimed that at the time, the real gangster Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert De Niro play him that he telephoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying De Niro and Burke had never spoken, but admitted that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.
The first scene filmed was the Morrie's Wigs commercial. Martin Scorsese was inspired by a low-budget commercial that ran in New York City for a replacement window company. Scorsese contacted the company and found that the spokesperson in the ad was Stephen R. Pacca, who owned the company and created the ad himself. Pacca was hired to write, direct, and edit the commercial for Morrie's Wigs, so it could look like an authentic local ad.
While driving to and from the set, Ray Liotta listened to cassettes of interviews that Nicholas Pileggi did with Henry Hill. Liotta noted that Hill casually discussed murders and other crimes while eating potato chips.
Ray Liotta came into view for the main lead after Martin Scorsese saw him in Something Wild (1986) and Field of Dreams (1989), and especially loved his "explosive energy" in the former film. However, according to Liotta, the casting process took over a year, in which he had to audition several times. The deal was finally sealed during the Venice Film Festival, which Liotta and Scorsese were visiting. Scorsese was protected by bodyguards after receiving several threats from religious groups, due to his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). When Liotta wanted to take the opportunity to talk to Scorsese about the role again, the bodyguards kept pushing him back. When Scorsese noticed that Liotta remained very calm under this, he knew he had found the right leading man, because the real Henry Hill was also better known for being a calm and silent observer than an aggressive responder.
One of the little girls who plays Henry and Karen's daughters (specifically, the one in Karen's arms, who was too shy to give Paulie a kiss when they arrive at his house for dinner) is Lorraine Bracco's daughter with Harvey Keitel, Stella.
Louis Eppolito wrote "Mafia Cop", a true story about growing up in a mafia family, and becoming an NYPD officer. In April 2006, he was convicted of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, and racketeering, for working as a mafia informant and hitman. The conviction was overturned, due to a technicality, then reinstated on appeal in 2008. In 2009, he was sentenced to life plus eighty years in prison.
For the famous "Layla" montage, Martin Scorsese played the "piano coda" section of the song during the shooting of each scene, so that certain bars of the piano piece would match up with certain shots.
Robert De Niro was so obsessed with authenticity that during the infamous dinner scene, he asked how the real Jimmy would apply his ketchup. This eventually got passed to Henry Hill, who informed De Niro. As such, the way De Niro rubs the bottle of ketchup is how the real Jimmy Burke did so in real life.
While directing his mother Catherine Scorsese, Martin did not tell her that her character's son Tommy DeVito had just killed someone, and the body was in the trunk of his car. He only told her that her son was home for dinner, and to cook for them. James Conway is eating an Irish meal.
Henry states that he and Jimmy could never be "made", because they weren't of full Italian descent. This rule was changed in 2000 by the Commission (the five New York City families). A man can now be "made", provided his father is of Italian descent, and his last name is Italian. Nevertheless, this would still exclude Henry and Jimmy, as Henry's father in the film was Irish; while Jimmy's surname, Conway, is not Italian.
At first, producer Irwin Winkler disagreed when Martin Scorsese cast Ray Liotta as Henry Hill. One night, Liotta approached Winkler in a restaurant and asked for a minute alone. They walked into the bar area, and Liotta told Winkler why he thought he was good for the role. Winkler called Scorsese the next day and told him to go ahead.
In the book "Wiseguy", Henry Hill noted how Mafia-run neighborhoods were interestingly safe. On one occasion, an old lady was followed closely by a thug who later forced himself in her apartment. Hill said the entire neighborhood was watching, and within a minute, numerous people rushed over to the lady's apartment and grabbed the thug and assaulted him.
The long tracking shot through the Copacabana nightclub came about because of a practical problem: the filmmakers could not get permission to go in the short way, and this forced them to go round the back. Martin Scorsese decided to film the sequence in one unbroken shot in order to symbolize that Henry's entire life was ahead of him, commenting, "It's his seduction of her (Karen), and it's also the lifestyle seducing him". This sequence was shot eight times.
Joe Pesci's Oscar acceptance speech is the sixth shortest in the Academy's history. All Pesci said was "it's my privilege, thank you", later admitting that he didn't say very much, because he genuinely felt that he didn't have a chance of winning. (The shortest acceptance speeches are "Thank you", made by Patty Duke in 1963 when she won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Miracle Worker (1962), "Thank you", made by Louie Psihoyos in 2010 when he won Best Documentary for The Cove (2009). Gloria Grahame and Alfred Newman both said "Thank you very much" in 1953, and William Holden who said "Thank you. Thank you", in 1954. "Thank you. Very much indeed", was all that Alfred Hitchcock said when he won an Honorary Oscar in 1968, putting him one letter longer than Pesci.)
Ray Liotta had said on a documentary special that his first person narration for the film was often done by him actually saying his narration to another person in a room. That way it felt more authentic, and made it easier for him to tell a story.
Henry Hill was paid roughly $550,000 for the film. According to Hill, it was chump change compared to the $15,000 to $40,000 a week he made during his gangster days. He claims he blew almost all of his mob money on partying and a "degenerate" gambling problem.
In the movie, Henry and Tommy are seen together many times. In real life, Henry's best pal, in his younger years, was Paulie, Jr., son of mob chief Paul "Paulie" Vario (renamed Paul "Paulie" Cicero in the movie).
Martin Scorsese originally wanted to use Frank Sinatra's version of "My Way" at the end. However, Sinatra would not allow Scorsese to acquire the rights to his version of the song. He had to use the version by Sid Vicious instead.
Michael Ballhaus said that the scene when Henry walks across the street to beat Karen's neighbor in the face, with the butt of his gun, was the most violent scene that he felt he had ever filmed in his career.
Lorraine Bracco found the shoot to be an emotionally difficult one, because it was such a male dominated cast, and she realized if she did not make her "work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor".
During one of the final scenes, Henry Hill opens his front door and picks up a newspaper. Close inspection reveals that the newspaper is the Youngstown Vindicator. Martin Scorsese included it as an homage to Youngstown, Ohio, which has been called "Mobtown, USA".
Henry Hill's testimony against some of the most powerful Lucchese crime family associates led to over fifty convictions. As Hill learned at the very beginning of his career, Mafia rule number one is "never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut." In 2010, he told The Telegraph he has no idea why he was allowed to live as long as he did. "It's surreal, totally surreal, to be here. I never thought I'd reach this wonderful age." He theorized that he hadn't been murdered, because "there's nobody from my era alive." Following his death in 2012, The Guardian hypothesized that fame or bureaucratic disorganization in the criminal underworld might have been the reason.
The film has 43 songs, the equivalent of about four albums. Martin Scorsese had thought about all the songs and where they would appear long before he started filming, "three years before he shot the film", to be precise, according to music editor Christopher Brooks.
The film was met with very positive reviews and scored some major award nominations, but it took a few years to catch on as a critical classic. However, Roger Ebert was an early adopter when it came to calling this movie an all-time great, writing, "no finer film has ever been made about organized crime, not even The Godfather (1972)", all the way back in 1990.
When Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco filmed the scene where Karen points a gun in Henry's face, during one take, Liotta threw Bracco off the bed, and the gun flew out of Bracco's hand and hit director of photography Michael Ballhaus in the head.
Joe Pesci and his character's name-sake Tommy DeVito are both featured as characters in the musical and film Jersey Boys (2014). At one point in that film, Joey (Pesci) remarks "Funny how?", just like Tommy in this film.
Henry's last day as a wiseguy was the hardest part of the film for Martin Scorsese to shoot, because he wanted to properly show Henry's state of anxiety, paranoia, and racing thoughts caused by cocaine and amphetamine intoxication, which is difficult for an actor (who had never been under their influence) to accurately portray.
According to the book "Wiseguy", Paul Vario was so secretive about the Lufthansa heist that he did not even reveal to his own brother that his crew was responsible for the heist. When his brother Tuddy mentioned the large score was made by some crew, Henry Hill was amazed by Paul Vario's secrecy and silence.
While the film showed one visit from Karen Hill to see Henry Hill in the prison visitor area. In reality, Karen had visited Henry numerous times on the outskirts of the prison grounds. This was due to Henry's job in the prison, where he worked on the prison grounds as a farm hand that did rough and odd jobs. They even had a picnic together one night, where she brought him rare meats and wine.
The film's soundtrack did not include many of the songs featured in the film, most of them being the tracks played during the lengthy scene where Henry rushes around trying to make his drug deal. The songs sampled during the scene are, in order, "Jump Into the Fire" by Harry Nilsson, "Memo From Turner" by Mick Jagger, "Magic Bus" by The Who (from the Live at Leeds album), "Monkey Man" by The Rolling Stones, "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, "What is Life" by George Harrison, "Mannish Boy" again, and "Toad" by Cream.
Paul Sorvino had no problem finding the voice and walk of his character, but found it challenging finding "that kernel of coldness and absolute hardness that is antithetical to my nature, except when my family is threatened."
When Frank Vincent went to meet Martin Scorsese about being cast in the film, Scorsese asked Vincent which character he wanted to play, and he said he wanted the role of Paulie. Scorsese then said "Don't play Paulie, play Billy Batts."
In a interview for Reddit, Kevin Corrigan revealed how he was cast. Corrigan first learned about the film in 1989, when he read about it a magazine. He called his agent, told him he was a big fan of Martin Scorsese, and insisted that he become a part of this movie. He auditioned for Scorsese a month later, and before leaving, told Scorsese how much he loved his work. Corrigan said "Filming Goodfellas, for me, was like getting to be a bat boy for the Yankees during the World Series. I didn't feel like an actual player on the team, but I was given a job to do, and I was allowed to be on the field. It was the greatest feeling I had up to that point. I was twenty."
According to Edward McDonald, in the last courtroom scene, the original person who was going to portray the judge was white. However, Martin Scorsese found out that when that real trial was held, the judge was black. So Scorsese decided to have a black man portray the judge for accuracy, and also because Scorsese was always criticized for portraying black people in a negative way in his films.
In the book "Wiseguy", Henry Hill noted that, despite Paul Vario being a big and overbearing man, he could move really fast. He mentioned that Vario once successfully chased someone with a baseball bat.
Nicholas Pileggi said that he and Martin Scorsese each wrote their own outline for the screenplay. Pileggi said that when they read each other's outlines, they realized that they were both very similar.
In October 2014, Frank Sivero filed a $250 million lawsuit against The Simpsons (1989) for using his looks and mannerisms to create a little-seen Springfield mob associate named Louie. According to Sivero, The Simpsons (1989) writers lived next door to him in Sherman Oaks in 1989. Louie debuted on the show during the episode The Simpsons: Bart the Murderer (1991). As of 2017, he has appeared in twenty-one episodes.
Unusually for a R-rated movie, this was spoofed as a weekday afternoon cartoon segment from Animaniacs (1993) called "Goodfeathers", about three pigeons, Squit, Bobby, and Pesto, resembling Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, respectively, in the streets of New York City trying to survive. Not only do they look and sound like the three leads, but there's even voice-over narration, and a statue of Martin Scorsese. The cartoon also incorporated a spoof of The Godfather (1972), with the character of "The Godpigeon", who was drawn to resemble Marlon Brando, and speak in unintelligible mumbles that only Bobby can understand.
In the movie, Henry and Tommy hung around a lot. In the book though, Tommy and Henry knew each other, but, the latter actually hung out more with Paulie, Jr., son of mob chief Paul "Paulie" Vario, who is Paul "Paulie" Cicero in the movie.
In the book, "Wiseguy", Henry Hill said he often supported Karen Hill and the family from prison by dealing in drugs using contacts he made in prison. Karen was even involved in smuggling drugs when she visited the prison. Since Henry was in jail when Karen went to visit the people that owed Henry money, they refused to pay or pled poverty. Henry sent the money he made in prison to support Karen and their children.
According to the book "Wiseguy", when Henry Hill angrily approached Karen's jealous neighbor who harassed her, the neighbor was with two of his brothers who each owned Corvettes. In the film, only one Corvette is present. Karen Hill's account of the event in the book was Henry had to be escorted in his car by police cars out of the neighborhood after the incident.
While Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy are having a late supper at the home of Tommy's mother, Jimmy can be seen pouring ketchup on his meal. This is accurate, and Henry remembers Jimmy liking ketchup over all his meals, including his steaks.
Joseph Bono has a small role as a gangster in this movie and Raging Bull (1980). Guido, Bono's character in Raging Bull (1980), only has a couple of lines. During the pool scene, Guido hears about a guy who was hitting on Vickie. He says, "That's the same guy..? I gotta break his legs... No, I'll catch him." In this movie, Bono has a cameo as a mobster named Mikey Franzese, who appears briefly as the camera pans through the Bamboo Lounge near the start of the movie. Mikey's only line was: "I haven't saw that guy. Yeah, I wanna see him."
Director of photography Michael Ballhaus said that the reason that he decided to shoot the film was because it was directed by Martin Scorsese, and he filmed it as a favor to him. He also said that had it been directed by someone else that he would not have filmed it. He also said that the material was not something that he would normally be interested in filming.
John Gotti's lawyer, Bruce Cutler, was not a fan of the film, and told Newsday in 1990 that John Gotti wouldn't have liked it either, saying, "He is too intelligent to waste his time to see nonsensical movies like that."
When the camera cranes up to reveal the dead bodies in the pink Cadillac, the piano exit of Derek & The Dominos' "Layla" starts to play. Originally played in C major, the tape speed of the coda was increased during mixing. The resulting pitch is somewhere between C and C sharp.
In the movie, mob chief Paulie had a brother named Tuddy. While this is true, Paulie actually had one older brother Lenny, and a few younger brothers, the youngest of whom was Tuddy; Paulie was the second eldest.
To research her role, Lorraine Bracco tried to get close to a mob wife, but was unable to, because they exist in a very tight-knit community. She decided not to meet the real Karen because she "thought it would be better if the creation came from me. I used her life with her parents as an emotional guideline for the role."
Compton's Most Wanted sampled the lines, "For most of the guys, killings got to be accepted.. Murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line. You got out of line, you got whacked, everybody knew the rules" and "But sometimes, even the people who didn't get out of line, they got whacked. Hits just became a hazard for some of the guys. Shooting people was a normal thing, no big deal" for their song "Def Wish II".
The final confrontation with John Wayne in Red River is cited by Martin Scorsese as a direct influence on the scene in Goodfellas, where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walks across the street, attacks the neighbor who had upset Karen and walks back in one continuous shot.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Martin Scorsese's mother, Catherine, played Tommy's mother. She and the cast ad-libbed the dinner scene. Scorsese's father, Charles, played Vinny the prisoner, who put too many onions in the tomato sauce, and later murdered Tommy.
During filming of the scene in which his character is killed by Joe Pesci, Michael Imperioli broke a glass in his hand and had to be rushed to the emergency room. When doctors saw what appeared to be a gun-shot wound in his chest, they tried to treat it. When Imperioli told them what was really up, he was made to wait for three hours. Martin Scorsese told Imperioli that some day he'd be telling that story on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992). The prediction came true in March, 2000.
Henry states that Tommy was shot in the face so that his mother could not give him an open-casket funeral. Tommy's real-life counterpart, Tommy DeSimone, was killed in January 1979. His remains have never been recovered.
In January 2014, several New York City organized crime figures were arrested as part of a federal investigation into a series of unsolved crimes, the most famous of which is the central caper in Goodfellas (1990), the 1978 Lufthansa robbery at JFK Airport that netted over $6 million in cash and jewelry.
Joe Pesci didn't judge his character, but found the scene where he kills Spider, for talking back to his character, hard to do, because he had trouble justifying the action, until he forced himself to feel the way Tommy did.
As he enters the Witness Protection program, Henry requests not to be sent to a place that is cold. In the final scene, Henry is shown picking up the Youngstown Vindicator, which is the newspaper for Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown gets below freezing temperatures in the wintertime, so Henry's request was apparently not granted.
In the book "Wiseguy", Henry Hill cites a few reasons why Tommy was killed. The main reason, of course, was because he killed Billy Batts and a guy named Foxy. Another chilling reason is probably because he once stated that mob chief Paulie "didn't like having Tommy around".
Late in his life, Henry Hill launched a website devoted to the film and life in the mob, called GoodfellaHenry.com. Many of the people visiting the site derided Hill as a snitch. Hill died in 2012. As of fall 2016, the site is still up selling memorabilia from the film.
The film left out a crime that eventually became a national sports controversy: Boston College's 1978-1979 point-shaving scandal. The only reference in the film is when Morrie asks, just before he is killed, "Did you hear about the points we were shaving up in Boston?"
In this film, Frank Vincent is killed by Joe Pesci. Both appeared in Casino (1995), where Pesci is killed by Vincent at the end. Off-screen, however, the two go way back, having started their entertainment careers as bandmates and equal halves of a comedy duo in the late 1960s. But it was their appearances in the low-budget Mafia film The Death Collector (1976) which got the duo noticed by Robert De Niro and, ultimately, Martin Scorsese.
The house where Tommy was killed is located at 80th Street and Shore Road, in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. The interior of the house was re-created on a soundstage after the scenes shot on-location were deemed unacceptable.
Martin Scorsese's father appeared in the film. He is one of the two men who take Tommy DeVito to be killed. He is not the one who pulled the trigger. He later appeared in prison, where he made spaghetti sauce. The character played by Martin Scorsese's mother is often seen making spaghetti sauce outside of prison. Off-camera, they pressed the collars on all of the suits.