For most of his life, Ray Liotta was searching for a family. The adopted son of a working-class New Jersey couple, Liotta was never one to complain and kept his inner longing to himself. But after haphazardly falling into the lead role of a college musical, he found his family in the land of make-believe, and eventually, in the movies. And for those of us who grew up on hardnose crime films, we grew up with Liotta.
There was always something slightly sad and slightly menacing hiding in his glacial blue eyes. He had a penetrating stare, what the Japanese call sanpaku eyes, with the whites showing below his irises whenever his gaze intensified – as if the world was out to get him. The out-of-balance symmetry of his glare was like a lit fuse, an inner avalanche, with no telling how close to blowing he was at any given moment. He was a livewire, impossible to take your eyes off of.
To some, his unique energy made him a caricature. But Liotta was much more than the danger lurking on his surface. He was a devoted actor who constantly dug deeper, layering his performances in scene-stealing ways that appeared effortless. Put him up against the best in the biz and he would shine. Hell, put him up against the worst in the biz and he would still shine. His performances always felt grounded. Dialogue exploded from his mouth with natural ferocity. And he could make you shiver or break your heart in five seconds flat with equal prowess. Today we remember the late actor with a brief stroll through his best performances.
10. Blow (2001)
One of Liotta’s trademark moves was to show up in a minor role that lifted the entire film in a major way. Blow is the perfect example of this. Liotta’s brief appearances as the protagonist’s father bookend the film, injecting the only real emotion this surface-deep study of famed cocaine importer George Jung has. That’s gravitas.
9. Hannibal (2001)
Hannibal is not a great movie. It was not a beloved sequel to the serial killer classic Silence of the Lambs. However, the penultimate scene where Hannibal Lecter feeds Liotta his own brain is one for the ages. (It’s age-restricted for a reason.) File it somewhere under creepy cinematic entrees NSFW and an unexpected feast for gore fans.
8. Killing Them Softly (2012)
This Brad Pitt indie crime thriller about a hitman working through the great recession falls pretty flat. Aside from one great line at the end, the social commentary baked into this flick misfires. And most of the great actors who appear in it feel underwhelming. All except for Ray Liotta, whose performance as a mid-level career criminal feels immensely grounded and real, and whose roughing up scene is one of the most brutal ever captured on film.
7. The Many Saints of Newark (2021)
Liotta famously passed on his chance to star in The Sopranos. Luckily, creator David Chase got a chance to rewrite history by casting Liotta in dual roles for the prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark. While the movie itself felt like a scattered origin story at best, Liotta’s portrayal of Salvatore Moltisanti captured the heart of the film and prevented it from being a mob massacre.
6. Marriage Story (2019)
In real life, Liotta was a nice guy. Marriage Story shows off this softer side (kinda). Though his character of divorce attorney Jay Marotta (subtle) is still a ruthless operator, it’s purely professional. He plays hardball for $950 an hour and barks in court with the best of them. And in a film full of great arguments, that courtroom dogfight between Liotta and Laura Dern just about takes the cake.
5. Cop Land (1997)
The Goldilocks of corrupt cop movies, James Mangold’s second feature stars Sylvester Stallone as the good cop, Harvey Keitel as the bad cop, and Ray Liotta as the sweet spot in the middle. Liotta performs this balancing act like a champ, lifting the overlong saga with his intensity and psychologically nuanced deliberations about the difficulties of being an honest cop. If you’re in the mood for a great meditation on the joys of taking the path of least resistance, look no further than this beautifully acted scene.
4. Field of Dreams (1989)
Liotta’s iconic laugh and thousand-yard stare were fully intact in his brief and whimsical appearance as the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in this fairytale baseball classic. Possessing the perfect blend of Americaness and Depression-era good looks, Liotta gave a face to eponymous “dreams” and grounded them in some semblance of reality (all things considered) as he told Kevin Costner to wake the F up. Classic knuckleball.
3. Something Wild (1986)
Director Jonathan Demme gave Liotta his first big break when he cast him as the psychotic ex-con husband in this screwball comedy starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels. When we watch Liotta effortlessly juggle the raw nerves of a violent psychotic with the wink of a dark comedy prodigy, we wish he would’ve gotten a chance to play the Joker.
2. Narc (2002)
Nobody goes full psycho quite like Ray (see Unlawful Entry for details). But sometimes he scales things back to reveal the more textured torment of a very normal human being. Narc is probably the earliest moment in Liotta’s career when he drops all the masks in favor of a more naturalistic performance. And it works, elevating this Fincheresque crime drama about two discordant detectives searching for a cop killer to the status of the greatest American thriller no one has ever seen.
1. Goodfellas (1991)
Goodfellas is mandatory viewing. And not just for Ray Liotta’s pitch-perfect performance as wiseguy-turned-snitch Henry Hill but for the kinetic and frenzied heights of filmmaker Marty Scorcese. But smash cuts and fast dolly zoom-ins aside, the film wouldn’t sing the way it does without its actors, at the center of which stands Liotta, the paragon of a paranoid wiseguy. And what about that dinner scene with Joe Pesci? It will always be a prime example of an actor turning on a dime from a lion, into a hyena, into a mouse. Liotta could sure steal a scene but he was always more than willing to share the goods.
Honorable Mention: ER – ‘Time of Death’ (2004)
Special shoutout to a small screen gem. During the tail-end of ER’s mighty run as the most-watched show on NBC, Liotta appeared as an alcoholic patient full of regrets. The premise of the episode was conceptual: To watch a sick patient being treated in real-time, with all the bedside minutiae we normally don’t see. In lesser hands, the conceit would have come across as gimmicky. But watching the final 45 minutes of a dying man’s life through Liotta’s all-in performance was transcendent. (Skip to minute 13:30 to see Liotta’s performance.)