Goodfellas, directed by the renowned Martin Scorsese, is arguably the greatest film of its decade, if not one of the most seminal pieces of American cinema regardless of decade or director. The star-studded cast, including Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Braco, gave some of the greatest performances of their careers and were instrumental in the film’s success.
Pesci and Braco even received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, with Pesci winning the award.
The Extensive Casting Process That Went On Behind the Scenes
The casting process for Goodfellas was a painstaking one, with Warner Bros. Pictures initially wanting a well-known actor to play Henry Hill, a role eventually given to Ray Liotta. Hollywood legends like Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Val Kilmer, and Tom Cruise were considered, but ultimately, it was Liotta who fit the role perfectly. Robert De Niro played Jimmy Conway, based on the real-life gangster Jimmy “The Gent” Burke. Other gangsters in the film had their names changed for the credits, like Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, whose real name was Tommy “Two Gun” DeSimone.
De Niro’s decision to play Conway was crucial in securing funding for the project, and other actors like Al Pacino and John Malkovich were also considered for the role. De Niro went to great lengths to research his character, meeting with Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book on which the film is based, and Henry Hill himself.
Lorraine Braco played Karen Hill, Henry Hill’s wife, and gave a performance that exceeded all expectations. Madonna was even considered for the role, but Braco proved to be the perfect fit. She attempted to form relationships with the wives of former mob bosses to prepare for the role and convey a sense of authenticity.
Goodfellas is one of the most revered and iconic films of the 1990s, receiving widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike upon its release. It has since been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Without the perfect casting choices, Goodfellas may not have been the success it is today.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas is arguably the greatest film of its decade. Among the best at the very least, and in fact, it’s commonly considered among the most seminal pieces of American cinema regardless of decade or director.
Plenty of that acclaim is due to the performances of its star-studded cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Braco, for example. This is perhaps the single greatest product from everyone involved, with Pesci and Braco picking up nominations at the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. And the former actually walked away with a golden statuette, which you might recall via his world-famous acceptance speech.
But just because those two were the only ones nominated at the Oscars for their efforts, it’s worth noting that each performer herein filled the shoes of their respective, real-life counterparts to absolute tees. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the actors at hand portraying these characters so close to the hearts of film fans everywhere. But as is the case with plenty of Hollywood pictures, the casting phase of production proved to be quite the painstaking process.
Casting the Gangsters
Originally, Warner Bros. Pictures wanted a well-known actor to portray Henry Hill, and Liotta didn’t at all hold the name value the production studio was searching for. A long list of Hollywood legends were considered for the role, like Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Val Kilmer, and Tom Cruise. A couple of those are quite fascinating to consider in hindsight, but there’s ultimately no doubt that they found the perfect fit in Liotta.
The other gangsters had disparate names than their real-life counterparts. For example, Robert De Niro plays Jimmy Conway, who’s based on the real-life gangster Jimmy “The Gent” Burke. And he isn’t the only one whose name was changed for appearances in the credits of Goodfellas itself. Pesci plays Tommy DeVito, but the character’s real name was Tommy “Two Gun” DeSimone.
His casting process wasn’t nearly as laboring as the other two titular characters. With regard to De Niro as Conway: this was the decision amid casting that finally garnered Scorsese the funding he needed for the project, as De Niro was a massive name at that point in time thanks in particular to his past collaborations with Scorsese himself.
The likes of Al Pacino and John Malkovich were also considered for the role, the former of which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Pacino’s penchant for crime films. On the other hand, the notion of Malkovich as Jimmy Conway is an intriguing one to consider, with the role being a bit out of left field for that particular actor’s propensities.
But in hindsight, it seems like De Niro was the only logical choice, the one man capable of the job. He went to extensive lengths to convey a full range of understanding regarding his real-life counterpart’s mannerisms and general demeanor. He even met with Nicholas Pileggi — the author of the book on which the film is based — to ask about his research. Plus, he met with Henry Hill and discussed the gangster’s many noteworthy experiences. But the biggest story worth writing home about in this regard would be the casting of Henry’s on-screen wife.
Casting Karen Hill
In the final product, Henry Hill’s wife Karen was portrayed by Lorraine Braco, who got her start in the eighties by appearing in French and Italian films such as Camorra (1986) by Lina Wertmüller. That particular film also featured her then-husband Harvey Keitel, a name you should without a doubt recognize as fans of the gangster subgenre. Braco then appeared in English-language projects like The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Sing (1989), and The Dream Team (1989). And at the turn of the decade, she was cast in Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese.
To prepare for her soon-to-be famous role, Braco attempted to form relationships with the wives of former mob bosses. It proved difficult to puncture their tight-knit communities, and thus, Braco didn’t even attempt to meet the real-life Karen Hill. She also cited as a reasoning in that regard her wanting to convey a sense of authenticity, almost originality to a person that truly existed.
And there’s an easy argument that she exceeded all expectations, just like Liotta as her character’s husband. Famous American singer-songwriter Madonna was considered at one point to portray Karen on screen, which would have been quite the sight. But in the end, just like with the rest of its legendary cast, there’s no doubt that the team behind the scenes found the perfect fit in Braco.
Each of these featured performers in the end lent their chops to creating one of the most revered and iconic films of the entire 1990s, if not cinema as a whole. It received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike upon release, and since, it’s been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Just imagine the potential lack of success in an alternate timeline of cinema had Goodfellas not found the right feet to fill its respective shoes.