Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lopez Remember ‘Original Good Fella’ Ray Liotta Ahead of Star’s Walk of Fame Honor
On Feb. 24, Ray Liotta is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just shy of a year since his death at the age of 67. The honor comes the same week as the release of “Cocaine Bear,” the sensational based-on-a-true-story film directed by Elizabeth Banks in which he plays a character she describes as “a gangster … but he’s also an unfit grandpa as well.” That characterization also encapsulates the breadth of his accomplishments on both film and TV as an actor, which range from mobsters and tough guys to loving fathers — and plenty in between.
Ahead of the ceremony, Banks tells Variety that she cast Liotta after remembering her experiences working with him on the 2011 film “The Details.”
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“He really left an impression on me,” she says. “I love the opportunity that I get to give actors to show other sides of themselves or to have a little more fun maybe than people are used to seeing. I knew Ray had a little twinkle in his eye and a little mischievousness about him that we could use to great effect in ‘Cocaine Bear’.”
It’s that mischievousness that first made him a star, beginning with Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” where he played Ray, the volatile ex-husband of Melanie Griffith’s character Audrey. His skill in the film is in first charming the audience, as he does Jeff Daniels’ unsuspecting Charlie, and then switching on a dime to convey the danger and menace of the character’s criminal past. That performance attracted the attention of Martin Scorsese when the director was casting “Goodfellas,” a film whose main character, Henry Hill, had to possess a similar kind of sharp-edged charm even as he committed one violent or law-breaking atrocity after another. That viewers can watch him beat a man senseless with a gun, ask his then-girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to dispose of the weapon and still understand why she remains attracted to him is a testament to how seductive he was, even at his character’s worst.
If Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him over the next few years, he exploited the industry’s uncertainty by taking on roles that showcased other sides of his personality: playing a rebellious doctor in Howard Deutch’s “Article 99,” a grieving widower who falls for his daughter’s nanny in Jessie Nelson’s “Corrina, Corrina,” and an Army captain engaging in an act of unconventional diplomacy in Simon Wincer’s “Operation Dumbo Drop,” all by 1995. He also persuaded director Rob Cohen to cast him as Frank Sinatra in HBO’s “The Rat Pack,” conveying Ol’ Blue Eyes’ scrappy Hoboken, N.J. upbringing if not quite his polished, diminutive stature.
As with his co-star Sylvester Stallone, James Mangold’s “Cop Land” proved to be another turning point for Liotta, this time playing a strung out, corrupt officer; though the story follows Stallone’s character Freddy Heflin’s redemption, Liotta’s Gary “Figgsy” Figgis embodies the rot of their insular community, and the actor wears the cost of his crimes on his face even as he helps Freddy do the right thing — for everyone.
Liotta would later make appearances in not one but two “Muppets” movies (1999’s “Muppets From Space” and 2014’s “Muppets Most Wanted”), and further reinvent his tough-guy screen persona in films including “Blow,” in which he plays the father of the drug-dealer main character, and “Heartbreakers,” in which his feckless small-time hood falls prey to a mother-daughter con artist team played by Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt. This time also marked the beginning of his work as a producer on films such as Joe Carnahan’s “Narc,” in which he also enjoys a juicy role as a police lieutenant unafraid to cut corners to secure convictions.
Over the next two decades, he leveraged his reputation as a gritty, uncompromising screen presence to play a number of intimidating figures — some a version of himself — in guest spots on TV shows such as “ER,” “Just Shoot Me!,” “Hannah Montana,” and “The League.” But in 2016, he joined “Shades of Blue,” Adi Hasak’s drama series about corruption in the New York Police Department, also starring Jennifer Lopez.
“Ray was my partner in crime on ‘Shades of Blue,’” Lopez says. “He was the epitome of a tough guy who was all mushy on the inside … that’s also what made him such a compelling actor to watch. The original good fella.” Lopez indicates they shared some intense moments on set during the series’ three seasons. “When I first heard he took the job on ‘Shades of Blue,’ I was thrilled, and the first time we walked on set to do our first scene together there was an electric spark and a mutual respect, and we both knew this was going to be good.“I felt lucky to have him there to work with and learn from,” she adds. “Like all artists he was complicated, sincere, honest, and so very emotional. Like a raw nerve, he was so accessible and so in touch in his acting and I will always remember our time together fondly.”
His well-earned transition into authority figures — both good and bad — reached a pinnacle in 2019 with his turn as an unscrupulous lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” and then not one but two performances, each the opposite of the other, in David Chase’s “The Many Saints of Newark.” Chase’s iconic “The Sopranos” felt in many ways like a serialized version of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” so casting Liotta to play both flamboyant mob boss “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and his incarcerated, contemplative twin Salvatore felt like a coup for the prequel film that secured Liotta’s pedigree as one of the best and best-known movie gangsters of the modern era. And in 2022, he delivered a heartbreaking, cathartic performance opposite Taron Egerton in Dennis Lehane’s “Black Bird,” as a dying father wrestling with his culpability in his son’s crimes.
Seemingly always working (he earned 90 credits on film and dozens more in TV), Liotta left behind several more projects to be released in the next few years: “Fool’s Paradise,” a comedy written and directed by Charlie Day; the horror film “The Substance,” with Demi Moore; “April 29, 1992,” with Scott Eastwood; and Banks’ “Cocaine Bear.”
Despite an authority and experience that he could easily have wielded like an 800-pound gorilla on set, Banks remembers his enthusiasm and gratitude he displayed during filming. “He just did it with such gusto, and he did everything I asked,” she says. “He made me feel so respected on set and he set such a great tone for everyone. Everyone there just adored him. He gave a beautiful speech thanking the cast and crew afterwards when he wrapped.
“It’s still shocking to me to this day that this movie’s going to come out and he’s not going to be able to celebrate with us, but his spirit is in the movie. He came really joyfully to do this, I don’t know, dumb movie about a bear high on cocaine,” Banks says. “I mean, it kills me, but he’ll be remembered for lots and lots of things — and he’ll be remem- bered in our hearts for just being a great guy on set.”
Watch the ceremony below:
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