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As ‘Goodfellas’ Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary, 8 Highlights from the Tribeca Reunion

As 'Goodfellas' Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary, 8 Highlights from the Tribeca Reunion

On the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie’s star and festival co-founder Robert De Niro joined the cast on stage. 

When narrator Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) declared “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be gangster” at the start of the unveiling of a gorgeous re-mastered 4K print of “Goodfellas,” the packed Beacon Theater erupted in enthusiastic applause. Many others followed throughout the screening as the huge crowd nostalgically revisited the film and its most famous moments. Predictably, the “funny how” scene between Hill and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) nabbed the most rapturous laughter and clapping.

The screening was also an affirmation of Scorsese’s authentic and energetic depiction of amoral and despicable behavior. The debate that erupted at the opening of Scorsese’s non-didactic yet cautionary and often laugh-out-loud funny take on gangsters was not dissimilar from the reaction to last year’s instantly controversial “Wolf of Wall Street,” as naysayers accused the filmmaker of glorifying excessive behavior. “Goodfellas” famously scored one the worst test screening results in Warner Bros. history, but went on to earn critical acclaim and six Oscar nominations (with one win for Joe Pesci). Now it’s a classic.

The biggest treat of the night was the reunion panel after the screening, moderated by Jon Stewart, with Scorsese’s co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi as well as actors De Niro, Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. Stewart’s questions could have been sharper and more fine-tuned, yet the Q&A session did yield choice and little-known behind-the-scenes stories.

Here are eight highlights:

1. No-shows Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese greeted the audience in style.

Currently shooting his new film “The Silence” in Taipei with Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, Scorsese saluted the crowd before the screening with a pre-taped video message. When the film came out, Scorsese recalled, the controversy drove the owner of the Tribeca restaurant he and Nick Pileggi frequented to bar them both. “Apparently we degraded a certain ethnic group in the picture,” he said.

Scorsese also revealed that the music in “Goodfellas” –from Tony Bennett to Darlene Love– represented the way his own life was musically scored. One of the best times they all had on set was during the breakfast scene with his mother (Catherine Scorsese, playing Tommy’s Mother): “There were only one or two lines that were written out. The rest was what it was like to be around my mom, Joe, Bob, and Ray. But we didn’t tell her about the body (in the trunk).”

Pesci’s pre-screening message was more concise. “Joe Pesci couldn’t be here, but he sent this email,” said Robert De Niro, reading: “Fuck, fuck, fuckadie, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“I’ll translate,” he went on. “Dear Bob, I am sorry I can’t be there. Love to all. Best, Joe.”

2. De Niro: “We feel connected when we get back together, as we are tonight.”

The Tribeca Film Festival co-founder’s sentiment was seconded by actor Paul Sorvino. “We sometimes run into each other. What happens is, you see each other 10 or 15 years later, and it is as if the time has not passed. Because we got to know each other so well at an emotional or spiritual level; and it never goes away.”

3. Running into Scorsese at the Venice Film Festival helped Ray Liotta to land the leading role.

“I was the first person they met,” the actor recalled, noting that De Niro recommended him and that it took a year to get it. “I think what sealed it is – I did a movie called ‘Dominick and Eugene,’ which was at the Venice Film Festival. Marty was there with ‘The Last Temptation of the Christ,’ walking across the lobby of the hotel. I went to him and said “Hey Marty, it’s me! I wanted to say hello!” “The way I said hello…it just seemed to happen.”
4. Nora Ephron helped to connect Martin Scorsese with her husband Nicholas Pileggi.
The author of the bestselling book “Wiseguy” (from which “Goodfellas” is adapted) said that Scorsese kept calling him, wanting to connect. “I was getting these pink slips that said: ‘Call Martin Scorsese.’ But I thought it was my friend David Denby (playing a trick), so I didn’t respond.” Scorsese couldn’t figure it out, and finally called Pileggi’s wife Nora Ephron. “I got home that night and she said: ‘Are you crazy? Martin Scorsese is trying to reach you and you won’t call him back.’”

5. Henry Hill loved Ray Liotta’s portrayal.

Scorsese didn’t let Liotta talk to Henry Hill before the film was completed, thinking that his real persona would interfere with his portrayal. But after the movie, Liotta got a call to meet Hill in a Bowling Alley in the San Fernando Valley with his brother. “The first thing he said was: ‘Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag.’ And I said: ‘Did you see the movie?’”

6. Paul Sorvino almost quit the film, three days before shooting began.
Worried about not being able to find the spine of his character, Sorvino apparently called his manager three days before the shooting began (after he already spent four weeks in prep), asking him to get him out of it. “I am a poet, an opera singer, author, sculptor…none of it is gangster,” the actor explained. “I was lost. And one day I was going to fix my tie and I saw this guy (referring to his image in the mirror), and I scared the hell out of me.”

7. Lorraine Bracco got a little help from her background in creating Karen.

Although she didn’t know anyone in real life close to the character she portrayed or the women Karen hangs out with, Bracco said her upbringing was helpful. “I have an Italian father, but I have an English mother. So I learned a lot about being Italian from my dad. And we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, which helped to create Karen. I just did my homework. Being surrounded by a great director and crew and Ray… It was easy.”

8. Nick Pileggi on Martin Scorsese, perfectionist.

As tight-lipped De Niro was unwilling to tackle the question of what Scorsese would want to change in the film today if he could, Stewart turned the mic to Pileggi. Recalling the night of the film’s New York City premiere, he noted that Marty had many more editing ideas in mind: “We were at the Ziegfeld, I was sitting next to him, and he said –pointing to an elbow- “We should have cut that.” “Marty, I said, we’re at the Ziegfeld, it’s the opening of the movie, and the editing is over.”

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