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The Hollywood Insider Ray Liotta Tribute

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Photo: Ray Liotta/Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

An Origin Story Seemingly Cooked Up By Hollywood

Ray Liotta had a very unique upbringing, extremely far and removed from the Hollywood stardom he would one day see himself achieve. Liotta was born in 1954 in Newark, New Jersey, and was immediately given up to an orphanage. He was adopted by his parents around the age of 6 months and was raised with a fellow adopted sister in Union, New Jersey. Liotta’s parents were of Scottish and Italian descent and were heavily involved in local politics, with both running for local office at different points. 

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Liotta found his home and a formidable background growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the big city of New York just across the river. Liotta was bound to his ties on the Eastern seaboard and went off to college at the University of Miami after graduating high school. During his undergraduate years, he studied acting and theater and left with his Bachelor’s of fine arts in 1978 as a well-trained and seasoned performer. As most do with arts degrees, he needed to find a job to support himself while he pursued acting. 

Liotta relocated to New York City and got himself a job working as a bartender at the Shubert Organization to both keep the bills paid and to keep himself immersed and available to the world of performing. A very wise move to keep himself around the world he wanted to make an entry to be able to network and get his name out there. Liotta quickly got himself an agent within his first year in New York, and then booked steady work on a soap opera, ‘Another World’ for three years. As it does for all the greats whether they are ready or not, the opportunity came for Liotta to relocate to Los Angeles to begin pursuing a real-life bonafide film career. 

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Ray Liotta – “Dream” and Career Defining Roles

Liotta made his way to Hollywood and began the journey that many do, with most ending in heartbreak in the opposite fashion of Liotta. Liotta got his first role in a feature film with 1983’s ‘The Lonely Lady’ only a few years after moving to LA. His next and biggest break to date came in the form of Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film ‘Something Wild’, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, in which he co-starred with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith. Liotta received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor for his role as Ray in the film. This would prove as Liotta’s biggest break to date and his first time finding himself truly on the map in Hollywood. 

Liotta’s career took off in the right direction, with him booking a part in his most mainstream and beloved movie to date, ‘Field of Dreams.’ With Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones also starring, Liotta plays the pivotal part of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie. The plot revolves around Costner’s character Ray having a vision of Liotta as Shoeless Joe in his cornfield playing baseball, and is encouraged by Joe to build a baseball field where his existing corn crop is now. A tough film to summarize, but ‘Field of Dreams’ is a very engaging and heartfelt film about love, family and loss that Liotta finds himself smack dab in the middle of. He is more than game for the task and finds himself fully capable of mastering his character who is at the heart of it all. Liotta brings a delightful mix of levity and heaviness to the role of the keeper of the secret games, playing the part of the shamed Shoeless Joe as a young man who just wants to play the sport he loves with the people he loves. There’s a real beauty and calming presence brought by Liotta, who finds himself responsible and involved in nearly every major scene throughout the film and proves himself to be one of our finest actors. 

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After proving his value as a film actor in both ‘Something Wild’ and ‘Field of Dreams’, it was time for Liotta to take on the role that would define his career. Liotta was cast in the lead role as mobster turned informant Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s mafia masterpiece, ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990. The film is consistently ranked if not in the top five, certainly the top ten of many greatest of all time lists, and is one of those rare events where a film has a great script and actors and the director(s) at the very peak of their powers. Liotta is an absolute standout rockstar in the film, and we follow his life’s journey from a young bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed new guy to a coked-out mobster whose life of crime and debauchery has caught up to him and he has nowhere left to turn. That is a severe over-simplification of the plot, but the story is truly a study of the character of Hill and Liotta provides a masterclass in acting to demonstrate this very complicated person. It is no surprise, but ‘Goodfellas’ like ‘The Godfather’ before it is a seminal piece of the work in the mafia movie database, and Liotta’s role is fondly remembered as one of the greatest for any actor, ever. 

Ray Liotta Evolved

After absolutely crushing the late 1980s and early 1990s, Liotta was in high demand in Hollywood. He soon began running off an incredibly impressive and prolific acting resume, including roles in ‘Unlawful Entry’, ‘Cop Land’, ‘No Escape’, ‘Phoenix’, and ‘The Rat Pack’ for HBO. He didn’t stop there however and continued to find success on the small screen in parts on shows like ‘ER’ for which he won an Emmy, and numerous cameo appearances including in  ‘Just Shoot Me.’ 

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Liotta continued his incredible career into the 2000s, finding himself at home in many gritty action films, such as ‘Smokin Aces’, ‘Identity’ and ‘Blow’. He followed up over the next two decades by making appearances across seemingly as many genres as he could, never afraid to take on a new challenge while also not being worried about making fun of himself. He most recently appeared in ‘The Sopranos’ prequel film ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ in 2021, and wrapped shooting for ‘Cocaine Bear’ which is due in 2023. Sadly, he passed away in his sleep while on location filming the upcoming feature ‘Dangerous Waters.’

Liotta will be remembered for his incredible chops as an actor, but also for his charismatic and incredible presence. A strong voice in any room he was a part of and an absolutely prolific performer who loved the process and the art he created. Ray Liotta was a brilliant actor and collaborator who will be sorely missed. Fortunately, he has a massive body of work for us all to look back and remember him by. 

By Mark Raymond

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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