It is regularly voted as one of the best films of all time, has dialogue to die for and one of the all-time greatest casts ever assembled: but how much do you really know about Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic ‘Goodfellas’?
It’s a f***ing record breaker
On release in 1990, ‘Goodfellas’ was officially the sweariest movie in history. It featured the most profanities uttered on film: the f-word (and all of its creative varieties) was used 321 times, even though the script only featured it 70 times.
This is because much of the dialogue in the movie was improvised by the cast on the day, and swearing apparently came naturally to them – Joe Pesci was particularly foul-mouthed and his character Tommy contributed approximately half of the f-bombs in the entire movie. Scorsese beat his own record in 2013 with ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’, which featured 569 f***s.
The famous long take was an accident
That iconic Steadicam shot that takes Henry Hill through the bowels of the Copacabana nightclub? It was never planned that way. The club owners denied Martin Scorsese permission to enter via the front door, forcing the director to get creative. Using the unbroken shot from Brian De Palma’s ‘The Untouchables’ as his inspiration, Scorsese decided to follow Ray Liotta through the club’s side entrance and the kitchen instead, showing his prominence as an up and coming character in the Mob world. It was shot eight times, but one of them was abandoned when actor Henny Youngman forgot his lines.
Real gangsters worked on the film
According to Nicholas Pileggi, writer of the book ‘Wiseguy’ on which the film was based, Martin Scorsese hired actual mobsters as extras to give the film the feel of authenticity. Upon later inspection, said mobsters were found to have given fake Social Security numbers to the studio so it’s likely they didn’t have to pay any tax on the earnings from their paycheques. Scorsese also liked to have around associates of the real people the film was based on for reference, given that so many of the real mobsters were dead or in jail. Robert De Niro in particular benefited from having known associates of Jimmy Burke (Jimmy Conway in the movie) on set to guide his performance.
It previewed badly
It’s known as a modern masterpiece now, but Warner Bros were allegedly very nervous about ‘Goodfellas’ in the months leading up to its release, due to the violent content and the extreme language. The film apparently scored the lowest scores Warner Bros had ever received during a preview; Scorsese admitted “the numbers were so low it was funny”. However, despite a few frames of blood removed to secure an R-rating, the film was released uncut as it was intended to be seen, and audiences went crazy for it. That should teach filmmakers a very important lesson: never listen to the general public.
Its most famous moment was improvised
The famous ‘How am I funny?’ scene, featuring Joe Pesci’s Tommy faking a psychopathic rant at Ray Liotta’s character, was largely improvised; the scene didn’t appear in the film’s shooting script, which is why Liotta genuinely seems shaken when Pesci starts to question him – he had no idea what was happening. According to Pesci, he lived this scene for real but on the other side of the table: while working at a restaurant, Pesci told a gangster he was funny, but didn’t exactly get the grateful reaction he was hoping for. Scorsese loved the anecdote so much he added it to the movie.
No life of a schnook for the real Henry
‘Goodfellas’ ends with Henry Hill in the Witness Protection Program, living the rest of his life like a schnook eating egg noodles and ketchup. However, that’s not where his story ends on film. Nicholas Pileggi’s wife, Nora Ephron, used Hill’s post-gangster life as the inspiration for the comedy ‘My Blue Heaven’, starring Rick Moranis as an uptight FBI agent tasked with looking after Steve Martin’s gangster in Witness Protection. Both films were released in the same year.
It nearly starred Tom Cruise and Madonna
Several big names were attached to star in ‘Goodfellas’ but either didn’t meet Scorsese’s standards, ducked out or were replaced at the last minute. Al Pacino wanted to play Jimmy Conway but turned down the part out of fear of being typecast; ‘CSI’ star Wiliam Petersen was sought after for a role, as indeed was John Malkovich; Alec Baldwin auditioned to play Henry Hill, but the studio wanted a young Tom Cruise, hot off of ‘Top Gun’ – at the start of the movie, Hill is supposed to be in his twenties after all. Most bizarre of all was Scorsese tracking Madonna for the part of Karen Hill.
‘Sopranos’ star Michael Imperioli has a small but memorable role as Spider, the bus boy who gets on the wrong side of Tommy and gets shot for his trouble. During the filming of his death scene, Imperioli accidentally broke a glass in his hand and was rushed to hospital; when he was taken in for treatment, however, doctors were understandably more concerned by the giant gunshot wound in his chest and began to treat it before they eventually realised it was part of his character’s costume. Miffed, they then made him wait three hours to have his hand seen to.
Scorsese couldn’t do it his way
Martin Scorsese originally wanted to close the movie with Frank Sinatra’s classic version of the song ‘My Way’ but the legendary crooner didn’t want his music associated with the extreme violence in the movie and was keen to avoid a connection with the Mafia. Undeterred, Scorsese instead pursued the Sex Pistols and eventually secured the rights to use the snarling Sid Vicious version instead. Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker admitted Sinatra denied them, saying: “Sinatra would never let Marty use his music, which is too bad because Marty may do the ultimate biopic of him… He didn’t want to be associated with the Mafia. Which, of course, he was!”
The Simpsons case
One of the more bizarre events to surface in the wake of the film’s release was a $250 million lawsuit by ‘Goodfellas’ actor Frank Sivero against Fox, the creators of ‘The Simpsons’. Sivero’s suit claimed that the mobster character of Louie in the show was a direct rip-off of his ‘Goodfellas’ character Frankie Carbone, and that during filming of the movie, while he was developing the character, he was living next door to writers working on ‘The Simpsons’ who “based this character on his own personality”. The lawsuit was dismissed in August 2015 after judges claimed Fat Tony’s subordinate Louie was clearly a composite of several mob characters.
‘Goodfellas’ is getting a UK-wide re-release in a 4K restoration on 20 January, 2017. The Martin Scorsese season is on at BFI Southbank Jan – Feb 2017.