When author and poet Jim Carroll wrote his memoir The Basketball Diaries, he could have easily been describing actor Ray Liotta’s brilliant turn as mobster turned informant Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s classis film Goodfellas when he wrote of his own prowess on the basketball scene: “You gotta have presence on the court. Presence like a cheetah rather than a chimp…The shy cheetah moves with total nonchalance, stickin’ it to them in his sexy, slow strut. Me? I play like a cheetah.” Liotta brought the same dangerous and unhinged energy to his portrayal of Hill and – miracle of miracles – made audiences fall head over heels for his efforts; Ray Liotta played like a cheetah, after all.
Ray Liotta passed away in his sleep on May 26 at the age of 67, according to Variety.
The Newark, New Jersey native made an inauspicious debut in the entertainment industry with the 1980 TV movie Hardhat and Legs before quickly moving past that spot of mediocrity to make his real mark in such celebrated works as Something Wild, Dominick and Eugene, Field of Dreams, Article 99, Unlawful Entry, Corrina, Corrina, Cop Land, Hannibal, Blow and Narc. Of course, Liotta’s signature role has always been Goodfellas and as other pop culture wags have pointed out in the last handful of hours, if the erstwhile Marriage Story actor had chosen to retire after that career-making role, he would still be rightly acclaimed for that one stellar credit alone.
Speaking of Goodfellas, director Martin Scorsese was among the scores of Hollywood luminaries who issued statements in the hours after the news had broken about Liotta’s sudden passing: “I’m absolutely shocked and devastated by the sudden, unexpected death of Ray Liotta. He was so uniquely gifted, so adventurous, so courageous as an actor. Playing Henry Hill in Goodfellas was a tall order, because the character had so many different facets, so many complicated layers, and Ray was in almost every scene of a long, tough shoot. He absolutely amazed me, and I’ll always be proud of the work we did together on that picture. My heart goes out to his loved ones, and it aches for his loss, way too early.”
Raw, effervescent, hard-hitting and infinitely likable: All of these qualities and many, many more made Ray Liotta compulsively watchable in any work he committed to screen. Ray Liotta always had presence on the court; he played like a cheetah, after all.