Born: 18 December 1955
Where: Newark, New Jersey, USA
Awards: 1 Golden Globe nomination
Some guys get all the luck. Where the likes of Cage and DiCaprio hit big early in their career, and get to broaden their scope and image in a wide variety of roles, for most the path to creative freedom is infinitely harder. Take Ray Liotta. A TV soap star in his early twenties, he then struggled for years to break through into movies. And when he did, he immediately found himself typecast as a loveable charmer prone to extended bouts of violent psychosis. That he fought so hard against that typecasting, reaching his most prolific (and varied) period in his mid-forties, is testament to the man’s genuine class.
Ray was born on the 18th of December, 1955, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, unmarried, had just had an unplanned child and, though poor, had decided to keep it. Looking after Ray, though, was going to be too hard, so they put him up for adoption and, at 6 months old, he was introduced to his new parents, Alfred and Mary Liotta (they’d later adopt a sister for him – Linda). From here on, Ray lived a comfortable life in Union, New Jersey, attending High School there. Not much of an academic, he was a major jock, starring at soccer and basketball. He’d also help out in one of his dad’s chain of automotive stores, would canvass, along with his parents, for the local Democrats, and enjoyed many exotic family holidays – to Japan, Hawaii and Europe.
When it came time for college, he didn’t want to go. Didn’t want a future working with his father either. Fortunately, Alfred managed to persuade him to continue his education, so he enrolled at the University of Miami, at the time an easy college to enter – “All you basically needed was a pulse to get in” says Ray. Disliking the harsh discipline of the basketball coach, he soon dropped out of the team and, believing he ought to do SOMETHING after class, took up drama, despite having next-to-no interest in the subject. Encouraged by a “cute” student to audition for a play, he performed disastrously, forgetting the words to his song. Somehow, he got in – that charm, probably – and debuted in a production of Cabaret, moving on to West Side Story, The Sound Of Music (as one of the Von Trapp kids, alongside Gail Edwards, later to be a TV star) and The Taming Of The Shrew. Then came tougher projects like Death Of A Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, in which he excelled. Studying Liberal Arts, he was forced to take history and maths, but quickly chose to major in Theatre. He also worked in a cemetery, and made one very important friend in Steven Bauer.
Leaving university with a degree in Fine Arts, he moved to New York. Not remotely serious about acting, he had nothing better to do, so pursued it anyway. And got lucky – ridiculously fast. Within three days of reaching New York, he accompanied a friend who was going to sign a film contract, was spotted by casting people and landed a TV ad for K-Tel’s Love Songs Of The ’50′s. One day later, he had a manager, a week later an agent. Within a month, he was screen-testing for movies, working in his spare time as a bartender in theatres run by the Shubert Organisation. Then, within 6 months, he was a soap star.
The show Ray got into was Another World. Concerning the lives, loves and exceptional traumas of the townsfolk of the mid-western Bay City, it had been running since 1964. Many stars served part of their apprenticeship here. Charles Durning, Morgan Freeman, Kelsey Grammer and Tony Soprano’s mother Nancy Marchand all appeared. Following Ray into the series would be Anne Heche, Ving Rhames, Kevin Williamson (creator of Dawson’s Creek and Scream), and even Brad Pitt. Ray became the second incarnation of Joey Perrini and served three years as a hunky heart-throb. He recalls visiting a peep-show in New York where the naked girl before him stopped dancing, shouted “Oh, my God! JOEY!” and called her friends over. Such is the quality of Liotta’s eyes that they are clearly recognisable, even through a letter-box-like slit.
Moving on from a soap is always hard and Ray spent the first half of the Eighties struggling. There were two TV movies directed by Lee Philips (veteran TV helmsman of Kung Fu and MASH), one of which, Crazy Times, saw Ray starring alongsideMichael Pare and David Caruso. Next came Casablanca, a TV series based on the classic movie, starring David Soul in the Bogart role, with Ray as Sacha, the bartender. Filmed in LA, the series forced Ray to move to the West Coast, so he called Steven Bauer and agreed to stay at his Malibu house, while Bauer moved into Ray’s New York apartment.
Bauer’s wife of the time, Melanie Griffith, advised Ray to look up her old friend Heidi von Beltz, a model and stunt-woman who’d been paralysed from the neck down in a car accident on the set of The Cannonball Run. Ray shied away from the notion but, finding the numbers of all Griffith’s friends scribbled on the back of a cupboard door, Heidi’s name jumped out, so he called her, saying he knew nobody in town and could he come over. Heidi had yet to re-enter society after the accident, but eventually assented to his request. They became friends, then lovers, Liotta taking her everywhere. For a year, they were never apart.
But the relationship took its toll on Ray. He’d auditioned for a few parts, but not made a serious effort. So, mindful of his future, he broke with Heidi. Getting back into work was not easy. He played Officer Ed Santini in the TV series Our Family Honour, but things were slow. Then came the big break. Via Griffith, he got an audition for a part in her next picture, Something Wild, and got in as her maniacally jealous jailbird ex-hubbie, menacing poor Jeff Daniels. Ray had earlier portrayed a bit of a nutter on film, when he assaulted Pia Zadora with a garden hose in The Lonely Lady, but no one could have expected his performance in Something Wild to be so edgy, so schizoid, so upsettingly explosive. Tellingly, Ray won the Boston Film Critics Award, tying with Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
Realising from the scripts he now received that he was everyone’s favourite basket-case, Liotta instantly attempted to change his image. He was wonderfully sympathetic when caring for retarded brother Tom Hulce in Nicky And Gino, then brilliantly hurt and bewildered as Shoeless Joe Jackson, the innocent caught up in the Chicago Black Sox scandal, banned from the game and given a post-death chance to play on by Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams.
Riding high, Liotta aimed higher still. Noticing Martin Scorsese at the Venice Film Festival, he made a beeline for him, hoping to score a part in the upcoming GoodFellas. Scorsese, having suffered many death threats due to his Last Temptation Of Christ, was surrounded by bodyguards, who roughly intercepted the onrushing Ray. Ray stayed cool and explained his position calmly and forcefully, impressing Scorsese who, like most other directors, thought Ray to be a psycho loose cannon, like his character in Something Wild. Thus Ray got the part of Henry Hill – scamming, swearing and snorting elephantine portions of cocaine. He was superb, easily holding his own beside De Niro and a hilariously unpleasant Joe Pesci.
Now Liotta was a star and, to keep it that way, he stayed on the psycho-path by playing Officer Pete Davis in Unlawful Entry. Here he followed the classic Liotta route as a nice-guy policeman who saves Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe, then becomes weirder and weirder till something simply HAS to be done. In researching the role, he spent time with the police, at one point having to seek a body part in a blown-up building. One detective, recognising him from Field Of Dreams, asked for an autograph. Another, having found the body part, asked to be photoed with it and Liotta. Ray refused.
Now top of the bill, Liotta turned nice, playing a good guy sent to a wild prison colony in the futuristic thriller No Escape. Then he played a widower, raising his daughter with housekeeper Whoopi Goldberg in Corrina, Corrina. And he kept mixing it up, appearing as a memorably suicidal psycho killing everyone on a jet-plane bar feisty stewardess Lauren Holly in the air-borne drama Turbulence, alongside De Niro again in Cop Land, then as Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack.
Now came marriage. Ray had been connected to many women in the past. On Another World, there were co-stars Vicly Dawson and Susan Keith. Later there were Cher and Brooke Shields. But for a couple of years, Ray had been dating Michelle Grace, 15 years his junior. He’d met her some time before that, at a baseball game when she was married to baseball star Mark Grace, longtime first baseman with the Chicago Cubs, now of Arizona Diamondbacks (coincidentally, Mark Grace would later date Lauren Holly, Ray’s co-star in Turbulence). After filming Cop Land, Ray proposed, Michelle accepted and the couple were married in a Buddhist temple in Thailand, with nine monks chanting and wrapping them in ribbons. As the marriage was not recognised under US law, they then tied the knot again, this time in Vegas, with Michelle being given away by an Elvis impersonator. Formerly a model, Michelle would appear with Ray in The Rat Pack and A Rumour Of Angels, the latter also featuring their new daughter, Carson. Michelle would also form a production company, Tiara Blue, with Ray and Diane Nabatoff, producing Ray’s Narc, and the HBO series Baseball Wives.
The birth of Carson set Ray on a further path of discovery. Making use of an Oregon law giving people access to information about their biological parents, he tracked down his own mother. She was thrilled to have a film star for a son, he was vaguely disappointed, and very glad to have been adopted. They still speak occasionally.
These days, one of modern cinema’s finest nut-jobs gets to vary his roles at will, and does so with considerable perversity. There was the Nova Scotia-set weepie A Rumour Of Angels, with Vanessa Redgrave: Muppets From Space, with Miss Piggy: and one of the most memorably repulsive scenes in history. Researching his part as a surgeon in Article 99, back in 1992, Ray had watched operations and even got to touch a beating human heart. Now, as FBI agent Paul Krendler in Hannibal, he got to eat his own brain. Yes, having had the top of his skull taken off by Hannibal Lecter, he sat chatting with Julianne Moore while Lecter fried a slice of his grey matter and fed it to him. Mmm MMM.
Appearing as drug-dealing Johnny Depp‘s dad in Blow, and as the severely suckered husband of Sigourney Weaver in Heartbreakers, Ray Liotta was becoming one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood. He moved on to Narc, a gritty cop movie where he played an amoral and unstable drug squaddie whose roughhouse tactics shock his new young partner Jason Patric. Bearded and deliberately overweight, Liotta was convincingly unpleasant in one of his best recent performances. Critics considered his work to be as deep as that of Brian Cox. And the movie nearly didn’t get made. Liotta, as producer, was having a hard time bringing it to the screen. Then Patric sent the script to his old buddy Tom Cruise and, well, there you go.
Narc was followed by TV drama Point Of Origin, where he played an arson investigator from the Glendale Fire Department, the film being based on a string of real fires in Eighties California. Then came John Q where he was a police chief grandstanding for the TV cameras while Denzel Washington holds up a hospital at gun-point, demanding to get his sick child looked after. 2003 would see just one appearance, in Identity, a smart, Agatha Christie-style thriller where ten people find themselves storm-bound in a remote hotel as the bodycount rises – Ray playing a cop transporting killer Jake Busey.
These days Ray Liotta is doing so well he could even turn down a 2-year contract with The Sopranos (he figured he’d already covered the Mob with GoodFellas). Now capable of convincing onscreen exhibitions of sorrow, remorse, longing, joy and hangdog effort, he’s become one of his generation’s most versatile actors. Not bad for a guy labelled as a looney-toon for 15 years.
- Dominic Wills
RAY LIOTTA FILMOGRAPHY
Arriving first as a soap star in Another World, Ray Liotta came to the attention of film fans as Melanie Griffith’s psycho ex in Something Wild, then struggled for years to escape being typecast as a genial guy prone to bouts of extraordinary violence. And escape he has, putting in memorable performances in Field Of Dreams, Goodfellas and even Hannibal, where he chatted to Julianne Moore while Dr Lecter friend and ate his brain. The list below contains many such gems.
Observe and Report (2009)
Crossing Over (2009)
Powder Blue (2009)
La Linea (2009)
Chasing 3000 (2008)
Hero Wanted (2008)
Bee Movie (voice) (2007)
Battle in Seattle (2007)
Wild Hogs (2007)
Smokin’ Aces (2006)
Chasing 3000 (2006)
Comeback Season (2006)
Local Color (2006)
Even Money (2005)
Slow Burn (2005)
The Last Shot (2004)
Saturday Night Live (TV series, one episode, host) (2003)
The Hire: Ticker (short) (2002)
Just Shoot Me (TV series, one episode, as himself) (2002)
John Q (2002)
Point Of Origin (TV)(2001)
Just Shoot Me (TV series, one episode, as himself) (2001)
Family Guy (TV series, one episode, as himself, voice) (2001)
A Rumour Of Angels (2000)
Muppets From Space (1999)
Forever Mine (1999)
The Rat Pack (TV) (1998)
Cop Land (1997)
Operation Dumbo Drop (1995)
Frasier (TV series, one episode, voice) (1995)
Corrina, Corrina (1994)
No Escape (1994)
Unlawful Entry (1992)
Article 99 (1992)
Women And Men 2 (TV) (1991)
Field Of Dreams (1989)
Arena Brains (1988)
Nicky And Gino (1988)
Something Wild (1986)
Our Family Honour (TV series) (1985)
Our Family Honour (TV) (1985)
Mike Hammer (TV series, one episode) (1985)
The Lonely Lady (1983)
Casablanca (TV series) (1982)
Crazy Times (TV) (1981)
Hardhat And Legs (TV) (1980)
Another World (TV series) (1978-81)