Martin Scorsese is considered by most to be one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and “Goodfellas” is often cited as his best film. That standing makes the film significant on its own, but “Goodfellas” is in the debate with the first two “Godfather” movies for being the best of the mob movie genre. If you can’t turn off “Goodfellas” whenever you see it on TV, here are 20 facts you need to know.
“Goodfellas” is based on a book
Nicholas Pileggi got a rare opportunity as an outsider to find out something about how the mob works. He was granted a chance to talk with Henry Hill, a former mobster who was living out life after entering the Witness Relocation Program. Pileggi decided to chronicle Hill’s life in a non-fiction book called “Wiseguy” that came out in 1985.
Pileggi’s interactions with Hill inspired another movie
When Pileggi was doing his research for “Wise Guy,” he was in a relationship with the screenwriter and director Nora Ephron, who he would be married to from 1987 through her death in 2012. Both Pileggi and Ephron got something out of Hill, actually. Pileggi, of course, left with “Wiseguy.” Ephron, meanwhile, turned Hill’s story into the screenplay for the movie “My Blue Heaven.”
Scorsese and Pileggi had a mutual admiration society going
After seeing a review of “Wiseguy” while directing “The Color of Money,” Scorsese decided to check out the book and loved it. In fact, he pretty much immediately wanted to adapt it into a film. Through the retellings of the story, Pileggi says that Scorsese called him and said, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” Pileggi, in turn, replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”
Shooting “Goodfellas” got postponed
Scorsese planned to make “Goodfellas” in the ‘80s pretty much right after reading the book and talking to Pileggi. But as luck would have it, he finally got the funds for his top passion project, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” That film came out in 1988, and after finishing off his controversial film about Jesus the director moved on to “Goodfellas.”
Pileggi entered the movie business with “Goodfellas”
Pileggi was a journalist and non-fiction author throughout his career. Then, “Wiseguy” happened. Scorsese is not typically a director who writes scripts by himself, and is rarely even given screenwriting credit on his movies. In this case, Scorsese offered Pileggi the opportunity to collaborate on the screenplay for the adaption of his book, which they both received credit for. The same held true when Scorsese adapted another Pileggi book for “Casino.”
The movie had a title change
As we noted, the book is called “Wiseguy.” The initial plan was for the movie adaptation to have the same title. However, there was a problem with that. There was already a 1986 Brian De Palma movie called “Wise Guys” and a successful ‘80s TV show called “Wiseguy” as well. Thus, the title was changed to “Goodfellas.”
Robert De Niro helped get the movie made
The main character of “Goodfellas” is Hill, who is played by Ray Liotta. However, Liotta was not the first actor attached to the movie, and on top of that his hiring wasn’t a big enough get to greenlight the movie. Instead, it was frequent Scorsese collaborator De Niro signing on as Jimmy Conway that secured the funding the movie needed.
It was actually hard for Liotta to get the role
Scorsese really wanted Liotta for the lead role in his movie, as he was wowed by the actor’s turn in “Something Wild.” In fact, the actor first auditioned for the film in 1988. Liotta had read “Wiseguy” and really campaigned hard to get the job. Unfortunately, he was not a big name at the time, and the studio wanted a star they could sell the movie with. In the end, Scorsese won out.
Both of Scorsese’s parents cameo
Martin Scorsese’s mom Catherine often showed up in his movies, and fans of his can always point her out. Her best acting work probably is in “Goodfellas” where she plays Tommy’s mother. This movie was a bigger family affair than that, though, as Scorsese’s father Charles plays Vinnie as well.
A lot of future familiar faces are in “Goodfellas”
Watching the movie now, you will see a lot of actors you recognize, but in 1990, that wasn’t necessarily the case. The biggest future star was Samuel L. Jackson playing the small role of “Stacks”. Some other actors you might recognize are Kevin Corrigan, Michael Imperioli, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Genealogy played a role in another casting decision
“Goodfellas” is a period piece, starting in 1955 and ending in 1980. Some notable people, like Henny Youngman and Jerry Vale, play themselves. They didn’t try that with crooner Bobby Vinton, though, who was too old to portray a young version of himself in 1990. Fortunately, Scorsese had another option. Vinton is played in the movie by Robbie Vinton, who happens to be Bobby’s son.
Actors from the movie had different approaches
De Niro was fastidious about trying to bring the real mobster his character was based on – Jimmy “The Gent” Burke – to life in his role. He apparently called Henry Hill constantly to ask questions about how Burke walked, held a cigarette, and so on. Meanwhile, Lorraine Bracco, who played Karen Hill, decided not to meet her real-life counterpart at all.
Scorsese allowed for plenty of improvisation
Though he co-wrote the script, Scorsese did not consider every word precious. In fact, he allowed the actors to improvise and adlib as they saw fit, working though creating scenes via rehearsal. One scene that came through improvisation? That would be perhaps the movie’s most-famous scene, Tommy’s “Funny how?” rant.
The iconic tracking shot took a few tries
If Tommy asking how he’s funny isn’t the movie’s iconic sequence, it’s probably the tracking shot through the Copacabana. Henry is whisking Karen through the back of the famed spot until they arrive at their front-row seat, all to the tune of “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals. It’s all one big shot, which made it difficult. Scorsese shot eight takes of the sequence before he was satisfied with it.
That ending is a reference to a very early film
At the end of the movie, seemingly apropos of nothing, Joe Pesci fires a gun directly at the camera. It may seem random, but anybody who studied film in college probably got the reference. This is also how the movie “The Great Train Robbery” ends. Don’t fret if you didn’t see it, as the movie is before your time. As in, the film came out in 1903. It’s one of the earliest successful narrative movies.
The movie actually wasn’t a big box office success
“Goodfellas” is often considered an all-time great movie. People say it should have won Best Picture. Millions of people love it, yet many of them apparently didn’t see the movie in theaters. “Goodfellas” only made $47.1 million off of a $25 million budget.
Scorsese didn’t win an Oscar, but he won another award
“Goodfellas” was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Looking back, a lot of film fans will say that it should have won for both of them over the Kevin Costner directed “Dances with Wolves”. Not everybody snubbed Scorsese, though. He won the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, it’s equivalent of Best Director.
Joe Pesci was brief at the Academy Awards
“Goodfellas” won one Oscar, and it went to Joe Pesci for his turn as the unhinged wild card Tommy DeVito. After winning for Best Supporting Actor he took the stage, and before we knew it he was off the stage again. We can reprint Pesci’s entire Oscar speech in full right here: “It’s my privilege. Thank you.”
Morrie’s ad was inspired by a real ad
We all have our favorite low-budget local commercials, right? Scorsese is no different. For Morrie’s ad for his wig shop Scorsese was inspired by a New York-area ad for a window company. The director reached out to the company to find out who made the ad, only to find that the company’s owner Stephen R. Pacca had made and starred in it himself. Scorsese then enlisted Pacca to write and direct the Morrie’s Wigs commercial to give it that authentic feel.
One mistake made it into the film
Sometimes a mistake can yield positive results in film making. Happy accidents happen. Just ask Steven Spielberg about making “Jaws.” Scorsese had a moment of that in “Goodfellas.” Debi Mazar, who played Sandy, tripped over the dolly track in the scene where she meets Henry. Instead of reshooting it, Scorsese felt that it played like Sandy had tripped because she was overwhelmed by Henry. He kept it in, and you’d never know a dolly track was responsible.