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Remembering Henry Hill, A Real Wiseguy

Henry Hill sits in the dining room of the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Neb., in 2005. A portrait of actor Ray Liotta portraying Hill in the movie Goodfellas hangs on the wall behind him. i i

Henry Hill sits in the dining room of the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Neb., in 2005. A portrait of actor Ray Liotta portraying Hill in the movie Goodfellas hangs on the wall behind him. Nati Harnik /AP hide caption

itoggle caption Nati Harnik /AP
Henry Hill sits in the dining room of the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Neb., in 2005. A portrait of actor Ray Liotta portraying Hill in the movie Goodfellas hangs on the wall behind him.

Henry Hill sits in the dining room of the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Neb., in 2005. A portrait of actor Ray Liotta portraying Hill in the movie Goodfellas hangs on the wall behind him.

Nati Harnik /AP

Henry Hill died this week of cancer at the age of 69, which is kind of young, but quite a few years older than what you might have thought he'd make.

Hill was a wiseguy, a member of New York's Lucchese crime family for 25 years, until he turned state's evidence and went into hiding. He became a kind of celebrity mobster after Martin Scorcese's film Goodfellas came out in 1990, starring Ray Liotta as Henry Hill.

Henry Hill had started running errands as a teenager for Jimmy "The Gent" Burke, a mobster who peeled 20s from his sleeves and slapped them in the palms of busboys, waiters and judges.

"I was intoxicated by their lifestyle," Hill told Britain's Sun newspaper in 2010. "They were the guys with the Cadillacs and diamond rings and a girl on each arm."

His gangland reveries became a pop culture image of mobsters. Sure, wiseguys may whack people. But — so the legend goes — they tip well and love their mothers, pasta puttanesca and Francis Albert Sinatra.

Henry Hill insisted that he never killed anyone. But he told the London Daily Telegraph in 2009, "I shot at people. I busted a lot of heads, and I buried a lot of bodies ... some just got whacked for absolutely no reason at all."

He also sold drugs, shook down storekeepers, heisted jewelry and sacks of cash, including the record-breaking 1978 score from the Lufthansa air cargo terminal in New York's Kennedy Airport.

When Henry Hill figured he might be whacked for knowing too much about that robbery, he agreed to testify against Jimmy Burke and was placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Hill and his wife and two children changed names and moved to half a dozen or more places, beginning in Omaha. Scorcese's artful film depicts the Hills as urban fish floundering in suburban waters, Henry wary about having to eat shopping mall spaghetti and wear drip-dry suits from Sears.

But the real Henry Hill was eventually bounced out of the program, after he was convicted of burglary, assault, drunken driving, and drugs while under the government's protection. Even when given what amounts to a Get Out of Jail Card, Henry Hill couldn't stop scheming. The feds changed his name; he couldn't change himself.

In later years, Henry Hill gave interviews, wrote a cookbook and called in to the Howard Stern Show, but he continued to get drunk, saying, "I've been on every drug humanly possible, and I can't get a handle on alcohol."

It's astonishing that the wiseguy who ratted out the Lucchese crime family lived long enough to reminisce about old hits, whacks and scores in front of audiences, like some aging old ballplayer.

But I wonder how well he slept.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small