Ray Liotta: A look at the 'Goodfellas' star's life behind the camera and as a Hollywood legend

Liotta went on to star in dozens of film and television projects, including “The Many Saints of Newark,” “Hannibal,” and “Shades of Blue,” and worked with Johnny Depp in the 2001 movie “Blow.” Behind the camera, Liotta was a doting dad to daughter Karsen, 23, whom he shared with ex-wife, Michelle Grace. 

At the time of his death, Liotta was engaged to Jacy Nittolo. He died at the age of 67 on Thursday in the Dominican Republic.

Actor Ray Liotta posed for a portrait circa 1980

Actor Ray Liotta posed for a portrait circa 1980 (Michael Ochs Archives)

A Star is Born

Raymond Allen Liotta, born in New Jersey on Dec. 18, 1954, pursued a career in the entertainment industry after receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Miami in 1978. 

His first big break was starring as Joey Perrini on the daytime soap opera “Another World” from 1978-81. He worked on “St. Elsewhere” and a few episodes of the television adaptation of “Casablanca” in 1983.

Liotta pivoted into movies that same year with his first film role, and worked alongside Pia Zadora in “The Lonely Lady,” which turned out to be a box office bomb and was panned by critics. 

Only three years later, he was cast in his first major movie role in “Something Wild” with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels. Liotta earned his first Golden Globe Awards nomination for best supporting actor — motion picture, but lost out on the trophy to Tom Berenger in “Platoon.”

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Ray Liotta worked with Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1988 drama about twin brothers.

Ray Liotta worked with Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1988 drama about twin brothers. (Orion Pictures)

“If You Build It … “

Liotta received high praise for his role as the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the classic ‘89 baseball film “Field of Dreams,” which also starred Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan, and Burt Lancaster in his final film role. 

The sports fantasy drama about an Iowa corn farmer, who builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his crop, was nominated for three Academy Awards, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2017 as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Almost as soon as he left the outfield, Liotta hit a homerun with his arguably most famous performance as Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” working alongside Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Liotta said as Henry Hill in the opening line of the movie. 

The Scorsese-directed flick based on the ‘85 nonfiction book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi about the rise and fall of a notorious mob boss, was nominated for dozens of awards and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Director David Chase said the gangster flick inspired him to create the hit HBO television series “The Sopranos,” which also shares nearly two dozen of the same characters.

Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Joe Pesci for the film 'Goodfellas', 1990.  "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," Liotta said as Henry Hill in the opening line of the movie. 

Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Joe Pesci for the film ‘Goodfellas’, 1990.  “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Liotta said as Henry Hill in the opening line of the movie.  ( Warner Brothers)

Ray Liotta died at the age of 67 on Thursday, May 26 in the Dominican Republic. 

Ray Liotta died at the age of 67 on Thursday, May 26 in the Dominican Republic.  ( Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma)

Ray Liotta, winner of Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for "ER" in 2004

Ray Liotta, winner of Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for “ER” in 2004 (Mathew Imaging/Film Magic)

Liotta continued to work on action films with “Unlawful Entry” and “No Escape,” before changing pace into the family feature film realm with “Corrina, Corrina” with Whoopi Gholdberg in 1994, and “Operation Dumbo Drop” the following year.

He went back to work with De Niro in the 1997 neo-noir crime drama “Cop Land” also starring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel and Michael Rapaport. Liotta felt comfortable wearing a badge in front of the camera, where he worked as a detective on “Phoenix” with Anthony LaPaglia, Anjelica Huston and Daniel Baldwin in 1998.

Liotta switched gears while portraying Frederick “Fred” Jung in “Blow” with Johnny Depp, a 2001 film based on the real-life stories of George Jung, Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. That same year he worked on “Hannibal” and “Heartbreakers.”

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He had a soft spot for the neo-noir, crime drama genre, and worked on “Narc,” “Identity”, “John Q.” with Denzel Washington, “Powder Blue” with Patrick Swayze, and “Hero Wanted” with Cuba Gooding, Jr.

In 2011, Liotta worked with Channing Tatum and Al Pacino in “The Son of No One,” and followed that up in 2012 with “Killing Them Softly” with Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, “Wanderlust” with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, and “No Sudden Move” with Benicio del Toro, Don Cheadle, Jon Hamm and Brendan Fraser.

His voice lives on in infamy as Tommy Vercetti on the 2002 Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game, and he narrated “Inside the Mafia” for the National Geographic Channel in 2004, in addition to the AMC docu-series “The Making of the Mob” in 2015. 

Brad Pitt and Ray Liotta attend the 'Killing Them Softly' after party hosted by Chopard, Matchless and Johnnie Walker Blue Label at Villa St George on May 22, 2012 in Cannes, France.

Brad Pitt and Ray Liotta attend the ‘Killing Them Softly’ after party hosted by Chopard, Matchless and Johnnie Walker Blue Label at Villa St George on May 22, 2012 in Cannes, France. (Dave M. Benett)

Small Screen Success

Not only was Liotta known for his dozens of film roles, he left a mark on television, too. Liotta earned an Emmy Award in 2004 for outstanding guest actor in a drama series for his role as Charlie Metcalf on an episode of the medical drama “ER,” and was nominated for multiple Screen Actors Guild Awards for various roles.

He portrayed Frank Sinatra in the television film “The Rat Pack” in 1998 and worked on five episodes of the historical “Texas Rising” miniseries in 2015.

His most notable television show was starring on the American crime drama “Shades of Blue” with Jennifer Lopez and Drea de Matteo, which ran for 36 episodes from 2016-18.

Liotta recently gotten back into mainstream acting with “The Many Saints of Newark,” and was also a staple alongside Taron Egerton in the Apple TV+ series “Black Bird.”

Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta worked on "Shades of Blue" for 36 episodes before the show was canceled in 2018.

Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta worked on “Shades of Blue” for 36 episodes before the show was canceled in 2018. ( James Devane)

Liotta Leaves Legacy

The New Jersey-native married producer Michelle Grace in 1997, and the couple has one daughter, 23-year-old Karsen. Grace and Liotta divorced in 2004.

He reportedly met fiancé Jacy Nittolo through his daughter at a party, and the couple became engaged around Christmas 2020.

“Christmas wishes do come true,” he wrote in the caption of an Instagram post shared at the time. “I asked the love of my life to marry me, and thank God she said yes!!!”

Nittolo has four children from a previous relationship: sons Dax, 24, Chazz, 22, and Joey, 11, and daughter Jade, 19.

Liotta died in his sleep at the age of 67 in the Dominican Republic while filming the movie “Dangerous Waters.” Nittolo was with him at the time of his death.

The late actor proposed to Jacy Nittolo in 2020 after years of dating.

The late actor proposed to Jacy Nittolo in 2020 after years of dating. (Amy Sussman)

Karsen Liotta and Ray Liotta attend Netflix's "Marriage Story" New York Premiere at Paris Theater on November 10, 2019

Karsen Liotta and Ray Liotta attend Netflix’s “Marriage Story” New York Premiere at Paris Theater on November 10, 2019 (Arturo Holmes)

Ray Liotta and Michelle Grace attend the world premiere of "Philadelphia" on December 14, 1993

Ray Liotta and Michelle Grace attend the world premiere of “Philadelphia” on December 14, 1993 (Ron Galella, Ltd.)

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His “Goodfellas” co-star Joe Pesci told Fox News Digital in a statement, “God is a Goodfella, and so is Ray.”

Robert De Niro told Fox News Digital, “I was very saddened to learn of Ray’s passing.  He is way too way young to have left us. May he Rest in Peace.”

Martin Scorsese said: “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 Good Fellas 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.”

“I am utterly shattered to hear this terrible news about my Ray,” Lorraine Bracco wrote online. “I can be anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is Goodfellas. Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same…Ray Liotta.”

John Travolta jumped on the back of a motorcycle for the 2007 premiere of "Wild Hogs" with Ray Liotta and Tim Allen.

John Travolta jumped on the back of a motorcycle for the 2007 premiere of “Wild Hogs” with Ray Liotta and Tim Allen. ( Fred Duval/FilmMagic)

Jamie Lee Curtis wrote on Instagram: “Ray Liotta has died. What a gentle human. His work as an actor showed his complexity as a human. A beautiful artist. We made the lovely film, Dominic and Eugene in 1986. Sad news.”

“Shocked and saddened to hear of Ray Liotta’s passing. Beyond the tough guy exterior and the tightly wound emotions of his signature characters, he was a sweet, playful and passionate collaborator and brilliant actor. RIP,” director James Mangold said.

“RIP Ray Liotta. I feel so lucky to have squared off against this legend in one of his final roles,” wrote “The Many Saints of Newark” star Alessandro Nivola. “The scenes we did together were among the all time highlights of my acting career. He was dangerous, unpredictable, hilarious, and generous with his praise for other actors.Too soon.”

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