Ray Liotta On 'Goodfellas,' Acting And His Return To TV
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")
RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) We always called each other goodfellas, like you'd say to somebody, you're going to like this guy. He's all right. He's a goodfella. He's one of us.
DAVIES: On today's show, we conclude this week's series of favorite recent interviews with Ray Liotta, who starred in Martin Scorsese's classic 1990 film "Goodfellas." He played Henry Hill, a wise guy, a member of a New York crime family who testified against the family after he was arrested and went into the Witness Protection Program.
Liotta had already played a tough guy in his first major role in the 1986 film "Something Wild." He's since played a range of roles in commercial and independent films and even played Frank Sinatra in the HBO movie "The Rat Pack." Terry interviewed him last January about his starring role opposite Jennifer Lopez in the NBC series "Shades Of Blue."
They play corrupt New York cops who take bribes, plant evidence and shake down drug dealers in their precinct. The criminals pay off the cops. And in return, the cops let the dealers do their thing, as long as they don't get too close to schools or cause any other trouble. Before we hear about Liotta's life and movies, let's hear a scene from the premiere of "Shades Of Blue." Liotta's character, Lt. Matt Wozniak, is using a little coercion to keep one of his dealers in line.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADES OF BLUE")
LIOTTA: (As Matt Wozniak) I need to remind you about our understanding, Raul?
OTTO SANCHEZ: (As Raul Mendez) Oh, I remember. You wanted to protect parks and schools from the drug trade. I trusted your assurance that no one else would push into that territory.
LIOTTA: (As Matt Wozniak) This isn't about your turf. The dope's cut hot. I need to get it all off the street. You cracked the skull of my only lead.
SANCHEZ: (As Raul Mendez) I don't think you're appreciating my situation. I can't look like a [expletive].
LIOTTA: (As Matt Wozniak) You don't dispense street justice in my precinct. Now, where is he?
SANCHEZ: (As Raul Mendez) The girlfriend never gave him up - tough girl. Don't worry, I'll find him.
LIOTTA: (As Matt Wozniak) No more mayhem, Raul.
SANCHEZ: (As Raul Mendez) We both want what's best for the community, Lieutenant. I think you know what that's going to take...
LIOTTA: (As Matt Wozniak) Let me explain to you how this works. I tolerate you because you keep your business contained and you don't cause me any aggravation. We both know that if I brought you down tonight, some punk phoenix would rise from your ashes. And I'm already starting to like him better. How's that for a reminder?
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Ray Liotta on "Shades Of Blue." (Laughter) Ray Liotta, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're going to go easy...
LIOTTA: Thank you.
GROSS: ...On me, right?
LIOTTA: Yes, I will.
GROSS: You're going to be nice to me, right? (Laughter).
LIOTTA: I will.
LIOTTA: I think I was throwing ashes on him - is - I think is what I did.
GROSS: You were, yeah.
LIOTTA: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: And they were getting in his eyes and his nose and his mouth. And he was, like, choking and burning and not really liking...
LIOTTA: He deserved it.
GROSS: ...Your particular form of interrogation (laughter). So are you often cast as cops and criminals because of "Goodfellas" and because of "Something Wild" before that? Like, did that get you started in a certain trajectory?
LIOTTA: Yeah, I guess it did. The first thing I ever did was a soap opera. And I played the nicest character in the world, Joey Parini. I got it right - about six months out of college, I got the soap. I did it for three years. And then I came to LA. For five years, nothing happened. And then the first thing I got was "Something Wild." So that kind of put me on the map as - 'cause that was kind of a crazed character.
But then I did "Field Of Dreams," where I was a nice guy in that. And then along came "Goodfellas." And maybe that kind of started it. But Henry Hill, the part I played - he really didn't - it wasn't that violent. Everybody else was kind of crazy around him. But yes, I've definitely played my share of them.
GROSS: So you said that you wanted, you know, a 13-part series, which is why you signed on - one of the reasons why you signed onto "Shades Of Blue." What do you want from a series? Like, why did you want one?
LIOTTA: To get better movie parts, to tell you the God's-honest truth. I - you know, I've been lucky enough to do and work in this business for years. But I wasn't getting the exact kind of parts that I wanted. Usually, it wasn't about if I had the ability to do it. It was more about - did I have enough umph behind me to put butts in the seats or eyes on the tube? I just started seeing people's careers.
And the whole business changed from when I first started. There were a lot of people that were getting movies that were coming out of television. You know, I started out really hot out of the box. Then I've definitely had and up-and-down career. And when things started cooling off again, it frustrated me. So I was just watching what was going on. And that seemed to be the way things started to be going.
GROSS: Swell. So "Goodfellas," of course - a 1990 film. You played Henry Hill. And it's based on the Nicholas Pileggi novel, "Wiseguy," in which Henry Hill tells his whole story, starting from when he's a kid. And he aspires to be like the small-time gangsters in the neighborhood. He ends up being their assistant and ends up being, you know, really, like, a part of that whole ring and ends up in the Witness Protection Program. I know that you listened to tapes of Henry Hill.
GROSS: What interested you in his voice? What were you able to pick up from - and I assume - were these FBI tapes? Was this him being debriefed by the FBI?
LIOTTA: No, these were the tapes of - that Nick Pileggi gave me...
GROSS: Oh, for his book.
LIOTTA: ...from when he was writing the book about - right. So he talked to Henry for hours. And once I got the film, I went and talked to Nick to just - to start to get - you know, start doing my homework. And he said, here, listen to these tapes. Well, I listened to the tapes of Henry. And I listened to them every day. And that was back when everybody - everything was on cassette, so you would just put - I'd just put it in my mother's car and listen to Henry for hours.
The problem was all he did was eat potato chips. And if you've ever listened to anybody eat potato chips for, like, hours as he's talking, it's an extremely annoying thing (laughter). And the biggest thing that I learned from it was just how casual they were - how casual Henry was about what happened. It was just like he was telling a story of what his kids were doing and how they played in a park, except they were talking about, you know, people getting killed or beaten. It was very, very casual, though.
GROSS: So your voice is very important in this 'cause you're not only portraying the character on screen, but you're doing voiceover throughout the film. So let me play the opening voiceover of the film in which - this is a flashback where your character is young. But you're doing the voiceover as an adult looking back on your childhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cab stand for an afterschool job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. And to me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren't like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant, and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.
GROSS: That's my guest, Ray Liotta, in "Goodfellas." It's just so interesting to me how low his sights were set as a kid. You know, like...
GROSS: ...he wanted to be the guy that could park - like, double-park in front of the hydrant. And you're not going to get a ticket, you know?
LIOTTA: Yeah, well...
LIOTTA: I guess different strokes for different folks. I guess when you grow up like that, when you're growing up in New York, and your father isn't making a lot of money, to see people who are - have a lot of money and power. You know, that kind of shows a power that they're parking wherever they want when you're not supposed to do that. That really influenced him a lot.
GROSS: So listening through the potato chips when you were listening to the tapes of Henry Hill - did you pick up a lot of slang that he used - 'cause there's, you know, expressions through the film that you assume were a part of that, you know, "Wiseguy" culture. So did you pick up, like, language kind of things that you thought were really interesting?
LIOTTA: I'm a big believer that the script is your bible. And the script - and a good one - tells you everything that you need to know. And I just committed to the script. I learned everything. I learned - I had so much time to learn it. And I was home in New Jersey 'cause my mother was sick at the time. And Marty was just getting ready to launch "Last Temptation Of Christ." And so the movie was pushed so I had more time.
So I just listened to the tapes. But I didn't get anything in terms of slang. I just know what it's like being an East Coast person, being from New Jersey. But also, just the script was great. What Marty and Nicholas wrote - I just committed to that, to the words that was on the page.
GROSS: Martin Scorsese was very close with his mother and even did a documentary about his mother. I assume he really understood what it was like for you to have a mother who was very sick.
LIOTTA: Yeah, I'm sure maybe personally he did. But I didn't really bring that to the set until - I mean, to be totally honest, my mom passed away in the middle of the movie. And they told me on a particular day during a particular scene that I really had to get home that night because things took a turn for the worse. And, you know, I broke down. I went into my trailer.
I had to get myself together 'cause we had to, you know, get ready and still do the movie. And I had a scene to shoot. I grew up only 45 minutes from the city. So the crew, Joe Pesci - they came to my mom's funeral. It was really, really - it wasn't special. But it was special and nice. But that's the reality of what happened.
DAVIES: Actor Ray Liotta speaking with Terry Gross in January. We'll hear more stories about shooting the film "Goodfellas" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry Gross recorded with actor Ray Liotta. It's part of our end-of-summer series of favorite recent interviews.
GROSS: When we left off, we were talking about "Goodfellas." And you had mentioned the scene, which is a very famous scene - the laughing scene, in which you and a bunch of the small-time gangsters that you hang out with, including Tommy, who's played by Joe Pesci - you're at your favorite, like, restaurant, bar, hangout.
You're at a table. And the Joe Pesci character, Tommy, is telling this story. Everybody's laughing at the story. You're laughing the hardest. And after the story ends, he looks at you and he says, what's so funny? So let's play part of that scene, and the scene starts with you just laughing a lot at the end of his story.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")
JOE PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Pow, ping - I mean, I wish I was big just once.
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) We're the big cops.
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Really funny - you're really funny.
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) What do you mean, I'm funny?
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) It's funny, you know, that story - it's funny. You're a funny guy.
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) What do you mean? You mean the way I talk - what?
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) It's just, you know - it's - you're just funny. It's - you're funny - you know, the way you tell the story and everything.
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Funny how? I mean, what's funny about it?
FRANK ADONIS: (As Anthony Stabile) Tommy, you know, you got it all wrong. See...
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Whoa, whoa, Anthony, he's a big boy. He knows what he said. What'd you say, funny how?
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Just...
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) What?
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Just - you know, you're funny (laughter).
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) You mean - let me understand this 'cause I don't - you know, maybe it's me. I'm a little [expletive] maybe, but I'm funny how? I mean, funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I'm here to [expletive] amuse you? What do you mean funny - funny how? How am I funny?
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Just - you know, how you tell a story. What...
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) No, no, I don't know. You said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the [expletive] am I funny? What the [expletive] is so funny about me? Tell me - tell me what's funny.
LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Get the [expletive] out of here, Tommy.
PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I almost had him. I almost had him. You stuttering prick, you. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.
GROSS: That's Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in a scene from "Goodfellas." So that's such a crazy scene. Like, the Joe Pesci character is so crazy. Like, that's an example of it because you had every reason to think that he was actually threatening you because that's how crazy he is. There's a scene where he shoots the Michael Imperioli character in the foot just kind of for no reason and later just kills him. So what was behind that scene? Like, what's the difference between how that scene looked in the original script and how it looked on screen?
LIOTTA: That was totally improv during - Joe was telling a story - we had two weeks of rehearsal, which is basically unheard of with making movies. But we had two weeks of rehearsal...
GROSS: You mean 'cause that's a lot of rehearsal or a little rehearsal?
LIOTTA: Yeah, yeah...
GROSS: That's a lot, OK.
LIOTTA: And you don't usually rehearse like that. It was just Lorraine, Bob, Joe and myself and Marty. And Joe is a great storyteller. And he was telling a story - that actually happened to him at a restaurant once. And he was telling that story. And Marty thought, wow, that would be a great place to put a scene like that. And, you know, Marty just - you know, he's a genius. So during rehearsal, Joe and I just played around with it. And then we would keep working at it and shaping it. And the improv became part of the script.
GROSS: What our listeners can't see is that in that scene, you're not only laughing loudly. But it's like visually, you are laughing. Like, your mouth is, like, way open as you laugh - like, your whole face is shaped like a laugh. It's as if, like, you're trying to prove, like, this is funny. I am enjoying myself. I'm all in on this joke. And there's even a collage on YouTube of your laughter through the movie. Was that a thing for you when you were making it - that you thought that this character had to just, like, demonstrate that he thought something was funny and that he was enjoying life?
LIOTTA: (Laughter) No, that's the way I laugh. That's just the way...
GROSS: Is that the way you laugh (laughter)?
LIOTTA: Yeah, if I think something's funny, I think it's funny. And I just let it out. I'm amused by a lot of things. I love humor. I'm constantly joking around. It blows my friends' minds that I've never been in a fight in my whole life, and I play all these kinds of characters. It might seem exaggerated, but it's not. I just - you know, some people just have some very full laughter - full of joy - and have no shame or fear of letting that out.
GROSS: So you told us about the potato chip-eating interviews on cassette that you listened to of Henry Hill. Did you meet him in person, like, in a secret location when he was in the Witness Protection Program?
LIOTTA: No. I got a call from him after he saw the movie. Marty didn't want me to talk to him at all. He just wanted - we're just going to go by the script now 'cause he knew that maybe if I met him, he might embellish or - he didn't know what was going to happen. They just wanted me to just go by the script and not to meet him. I got a phone call that he wanted to meet me at a bowling alley in the Valley with his brother. And I said, oh, boy, what the heck is this going to be?
So I went. And he was there. And I met him for the first time. He had just seen the movie. And basically, he says, yeah, I wanted to meet you. You know, thanks for making me not look like a scumbag, to quote him. And I'm thinking to myself, oh, my gosh, did you really watch the movie? You pretty much were a scumbag. You ratted on your friends...
LIOTTA: ...You were doing all this blow. You were beating people up. But - and then I would see him for years. He had a rough life towards the end of his life. And I would see him, a lot of times, in Venice. And he was just, you know, out of his mind on - you know, doing something - usually pretty loaded. I would see him leaning against trees or just sleeping on the beach. And I would bump into him every once in a while.
GROSS: You're pretty well known now. And probably your most famous film is "Goodfellas." But people who are young don't necessarily know much about anything except current films. And that's kind of the joke in an episode of "Modern Family" that you just guest-starred on. And I want to play a clip from that. It's a really funny episode. And in this episode, the three kids from the family - they want to treat their uncle to a special gift for his birthday. And it's kind of last-minute. So the three teenage Dunphy kids decide to buy a map to the stars' homes in Hollywood and take their uncle, who loves Barbra Streisand, to Barbra Streisand's house. So they take him there. And the uncle's played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson. They take him there. And instead of seeing Barbra Streisand in front of the house, they see you in the front yard - you, as Ray Liotta. But only the uncle recognizes you. The kids have no idea who you are. So you're trying to tell the kids who you are by listing some of your biggest films.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")
LIOTTA: (As himself) "Goodfellas," "Something Wild," "Field Of Dreams."
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) "Field Of Dreams."
NOLAN GOULD: (As Luke Dunphy) Never seen it.
SARAH HYLAND: (As Haley Dunphy) We're really not that old.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Look, Ray Liotta is a very fine actor. And we have taken up enough of his time, so...
LIOTTA: (As himself) Stop saying my full name like you have to keep telling them who I am.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Well...
ARIEL WINTER: (As Alex Dunphy) So wait, you live with Barbra Streisand?
LIOTTA: (As himself) You got the map. She lived here for about two months 15 years ago.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Oh.
LIOTTA: (As himself) You'd think the bastards would update these things to reflect the current movie star owners.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Thank you. Come on, kids. We're very sorry to have bothered you.
LIOTTA: (As himself) No, no, no, no. I don't want you to leave empty-handed. Come on in for a selfie.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Oh, all right.
LIOTTA: (As himself) Here.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) OK.
LIOTTA: (As himself) When you see my movies later, you're going to realize that this is a special moment. Come on. And... Cheese.
FERGUSON: (As Mitchell Pritchett) Cheese.
LIOTTA: (As himself) See, that's an old actor's trick for a perfect smile.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Ray Liotta guest-starring on an episode of "Modern Family." That's really funny. So...
LIOTTA: As far as what you were saying to begin with, in terms of kids knowing or not knowing, I do have kids that age coming up to me - mostly young boys. From their fathers - the fathers passed along music and books or whatever that affected them when they were younger. You know, a lot of times you pass it on to your kid. So they'd pass on "Field Of Dreams" to their sons who played baseball. And some of the fathers that, you know, show their young sons - like, I've had 13-year-old kids come up to me and say, oh, my gosh, you were so good in "Goodfellas." And I'm thinking, oh, my gosh, what kind of parents do they have? That's a little too young to see that one.
DAVIES: Ray Liotta speaking to Terry Gross in January. He plays a corrupt police detective in the NBC series "Shades of Blue," which is now shooting its second season. After a take short break, he'll talk about his college years when he was a jock performing in musicals and about getting started on the soap opera "Another World." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies back with the interview Terry Gross recorded with Ray Liotta. He stars with Jennifer Lopez as corrupt police detectives in the new NBC series "Shades Of Blue." He starred in Martin Scorsese's 1990 film, "Goodfellas" with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. When we left off, he told Terry that he's met 13-year-old kids who told him, to his surprise, that they've seen the film.
GROSS: I wonder if it's, like, a rite of passage, like an initiation thing into manhood, where fathers sit down their sons and go, son, you're old enough now to see "Goodfellas." It's a great film.
LIOTTA: It could be. I don't know. All I can say is my career has been up and down. And I like it much better being up. And when it's up, part of that is people coming up to you and saying things. I remember when I first started - like, I'm an actor. I don't want that sort of thing. All - I just wanted - it's all about the work. And that's just a bunch of B.S.
LIOTTA: You want people to watch what you're doing. What's the point? There's a personal side to me of challenges as an actor that I like to take on myself. And I do certain things that, maybe, nobody else knows why I'm doing. But it's all - it all has to do with - to grow as an actor. I really believe that you never stop learning. And you never really ever get there. Just like in life, the older you get - you don't arrive at - it's all right, I'm 60 now. I've arrived. It's not true.
It just keeps going. You're always - you're constantly learning things if you're the type of person who stays open and current. My dad, who - God bless him - just passed away at 98 - he was hip to everything because he read, 'cause he would watch TV. He wasn't - he wasn't closed down about anything. And he passed that on to me - or the way to talk to people. You can have a conversation with anybody. He kind of passed that on to me. He didn't pass music onto me 'cause I couldn't stand - the ironic thing is I once played Frank Sinatra. And I remember my parents listening to that. And I said, oh, my God, who is this guy? Turn this off.
LIOTTA: And then I end up playing him. And now I can't - you know, now if he's on - you know, I listen to the Frank Sinatra station the majority of the time.
GROSS: Yeah, I listen to that a lot, too. And I, too, didn't like that music when my parents listened to it all the time.
LIOTTA: Yep, yep.
GROSS: But yeah, you played Sinatra in "The Rat Pack," the HBO movie, in which Don Cheadle was Sammy Davis Jr.
LIOTTA: Yeah, he was great.
GROSS: Yeah. Joe Mantegna was Dean Martin. And you had to play Sinatra. That's not easy. (Laughter).
LIOTTA: I turned it down a bunch of times. I wouldn't do it. I was first asked to play him by Tina Sinatra or Nancy - one of the Sinatra - his daughters back when they did movie of the weeks. And they were doing a movie of the week of it. And I turned it down because I just didn't want to do it at that time in my career. Then it came along.
And it was during this down period of - for me. And they asked me - it was HBO. Rob Cohen directed it. And he called and asked if I would play it. And I said no - no thanks, I don't want to take on playing somebody that so many people knew - that I just felt the judgment would be too much.
And I was down in my career. So to take on something if it didn't work - maybe it would make things worse. And then I said, wait a second. The whole point of me doing this is to take on challenges, to keep growing as an actor and not really caring - one of the biggest downfalls for any actor is fear of judgment. And so if you start acting and you start thinking about and worrying about what other people are going to say about it, you'll never really fully commit to who it is and what it is that you're playing.
GROSS: So what makes people think of you when they think of Sinatra?
LIOTTA: Who knows? Maybe my - I got light eyes. I'm from New Jersey, and I curse a lot. (Laughter) I don't know.
GROSS: Bingo, right?
LIOTTA: I don't know (laughter).
GROSS: Did you sing before?
LIOTTA: I started out - (laughter) - I started out - I never, ever wanted to be an actor. It came time to go to college. My dad said, go wherever you want. Take whatever you want. He just really believed in getting out and being exposed to different things. And maybe it would help you decide what to do with your life. I applied. I got into the University of Miami. This was 1973. And at that time, basically, all you needed was a pulse to get in there.
LIOTTA: I got into the University of Miami. I had no idea what it was that I wanted to do. So I just went - I was just going to take liberal arts. I got to the head of the line, and they said, because you don't know what it is, what you want to do, you're going to have to take math and history. I said, oh, my gosh, there's no way. I don't even want to be in college. I'm not going to take any math and history. Right next to the line that I was in was for the drama department. I said, oh, my gosh. That's it. I'll be a drama major.
Well, it's a typical actor's story. I'm in line now to be a drama major because I think that's the easiest way to get by this year. And there was a really pretty girl. And she said, you auditioning for the play tonight? I said, no. And she just berated me. Oh, my gosh, how could you not want to do the play? You got to do the play. It's all about doing plays. What kind of actor doesn't want to do a play? So I went, and I auditioned for the play. And it was for "Cabaret."
So then you had to sing and dance. I said, how am I going to sing and dance? I'm a jock from New Jersey.
LIOTTA: What the fff (ph). So she helped me out. I had seen "Pippin." My parents took me to see a Broadway show, and it was "Pippin." And there was one song in there, "Magic To Do," that I really liked. I got up there, and all I could remember is the refrain, we've got magic to do. We got - I'm just doing the magic to do. And I don't know how old you are, but there used to be a group called Freddie and the Dreamers.
GROSS: I remember. I'm telling you now (laughter)...
LIOTTA: There was a dance. There was a dance called the Freddie. So I started doing the Freddie as my dance...
LIOTTA: ...'Cause they're saying, you're supposed to be singing. You're supposed to be dancing as you're singing. So I just did the refrain, and I did the Freddie. And I got into it. And the first year, all I did were musicals. I was in the chorus for my whole freshman year. But there was an acting teacher there named Robert Buckets Lowery. And he was great. They called him Buckets because he used to play basketball. Me being a jock from New Jersey, like - 'cause when you first get into drama class and, you know, kids who - they're just different people in a lot of different ways.
And they - it wouldn't be the people that I would normally hang out with. And I didn't care what they thought 'cause here I am thinking, I'm just going to be here for one year. It doesn't matter. So for some reason, I just really committed and listened to what Bucket said. And thank God he was an acting teacher who was - it was kind of the Stanislavski, you know, the Russian director and acting teacher. I just listened to what he said and kind of understood and just learned.
And if it wasn't for Buckets, I probably would've left. But I came back the next year. And I ended up going the whole four years. But during those four years, I graduated to doing Riff in "West Side Story" and just different musicals. So to answer your question, yes, I had sang before.
GROSS: Well, I'm just going to savor the image of you doing the Freddie while singing (laughter) a song from "Pippin."
LIOTTA: I did. You know, I told that story...
GROSS: The Freddie was just, like, the goofiest dance ever. Yeah.
LIOTTA: It was crazy. See, now, I've said that before. And I've done that on talk shows. And you're the only person who I've ever talked to who remembers the Freddie.
GROSS: Yeah, it's kind of like you - say your arms are at your side. You move them up parallel to the ground.
LIOTTA: You go up and down (laughter) - probably with your feet.
GROSS: And then, like, kick your arm - kick your leg to the left and kick your leg to the right. It's almost like a calisthenic exercise.
GROSS: It's the silliest - it was the novelty record with a novelty dance. (Laughter).
GROSS: Totally silly.
GROSS: Love it. OK.
DAVIES: Actor Ray Liotta speaking with Terry Gross. Their conversation continues after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry Gross recorded with actor Ray Liotta. It's part of our end-of-summer series of favorite recent interviews.
GROSS: You started your career in a soap opera, "Another World," which was one of the really, really big soaps. And we have a short clip we're going to play from that.
LIOTTA: No (laughter).
GROSS: OK. And I'll confess this is from the internet. I haven't seen the whole episode. I can't really set it up too well, except to say that you play Joe Perrini.
LIOTTA: Joey Perrini, yep --
GROSS: Yeah, and you were on the soap opera, I think, from '78 to '81?
LIOTTA: That sounds about right, yep.
GROSS: And you've just come back to town, you're talking to your ex-brother-in-law about your failed marriage to this guy's sister. And you speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANOTHER WORLD")
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) Let me ask you something.
TONY CUMMINGS: (As Rick Halloway) Go ahead.
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) How's Kit?
CUMMINGS: (As Rick Halloway) I thought you didn't want talk about...
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) I don't want to talk about it. I'm just wondering.
CUMMINGS: (As Rick Halloway) Why don't you call her - find out how she's doing for yourself?
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) Look, we got an annulment, right? That means, like, the marriage never happened, right? - never existed.
CUMMINGS: (As Rick Halloway) But it did exist. And your loving each other and caring about each other existed, too.
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) All right. What about all the craziness, you know, about me being married to an heiress, our fights over money or how to live? You know, if I want to annul that, I have to annul all the good times, too.
CUMMINGS: (As Rick Halloway) I disagree.
LIOTTA: (As Joey Perrini) Look, the girl I married was named Kit Farrell, right? She never existed, so everything that we did just didn't really happen. I'm not mad about it or anything else. That's just the way I want things. That's all.
GROSS: OK, so that is so soap opera. You were married to an heiress who wasn't really an heiress.
LIOTTA: Well, yes. But what happened was the love of my life, Eileen (ph), died after I gave her a Saint Christopher medal up on a rock under the moon. I'll never forget the line I proposed to her -with the moon and the stars as my witness, I pledge my love to you. So that's what - but she died. I went up to where I proposed to her. It was winter. I slipped, fell (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, really?
LIOTTA: Yeah, my mouth was open really wide, laughing...
LIOTTA: ...Now that you brought that up.
LIOTTA: And I ended up in the hospital.
GROSS: Oh no.
LIOTTA: I've been taken care - for weeks, I'm being taken care of by this nurse. Well, like I just say, this nurse - I end up falling for her. And I end up marrying her but then eventually find out that she was the richest woman in America. And she said that she had a different name than what it is that she had. So me being - I was playing the nicest guy in the world, Joey Perrini. That's why, again, these tough guys in "Something Wild" and all this stuff is kind of funny because in the soap I was really principled and religious. And because she lied to me, I got an annulment. And who wouldn't?
GROSS: So was she really wealthy or was she faking it?
LIOTTA: No, man, she had cash.
GROSS: She had really - OK (laughter).
LIOTTA: Yeah, so I ended up realizing - coming to my senses and realized that I loved her. And we got back together. And one of our last scenes is - we go off skiing to Switzerland. And that was it. That's when I quit the show.
GROSS: So if you don't mind my asking - I know your father died recently. And I'm very sorry about that.
LIOTTA: Thank you.
GROSS: I know you were adopted at the age of about six months. How important to you was it to find out who your birth parents were, or at least who your birth mother was? Was that an issue for you? Did you pursue that, and did that affect your life?
LIOTTA: No. I used to use it a lot - being adopted - especially when you're going out with a girl or looking to find out a girl. I'd say, hey, how you doing. In the first five minutes, I'd somehow get in that I was adopted because I always looked at it as being given up. I never looked at it as being wanted. I couldn't get past being given up. And then I met a girl, got married, wanted to have a kid. But she thought it was extremely important - because I was born in the '50s, and they didn't give you any information about health or anything. They had very, very limited information that they had to legally give you. So...
GROSS: About your birth mother?
LIOTTA: Right. And at that time, on all the Oprah shows and Maury - and this was 17 years ago - a lot of the shows were about locating friends, family, mothers, fathers - every show was about that.
GROSS: Because records were starting to be opened about that.
LIOTTA: I don't know. It just made good television, I guess. I don't know. I have no idea why they all started doing it, but they did. And at the end of it was this guy's name. It was Troy - I don't remember the - his name. But Michelle, my ex-wife, called him, said who I was, and people - by then, I was well-known. You know, I was making movies. And he found my birth mother within a day. And he called her and asked - God, this - I think I'm going to get emotional. I don't know how much I can really talk about this. This is very odd. Anyhow, we found her. And I met them. And it was a trip. I've told this story before. And they got mad at me for telling it because I told it on
"David Letterman." So it's a very weird, wild story. I found out I had four birth half-sisters, a half-brother and a full sister - things I didn't know. And I'm 44 years old, so I didn't know any of this stuff.
GROSS: You were 44 then, yeah.
LIOTTA: Yeah. And also, all this information came to me.
GROSS: So if it was a big issue in your mind, emotionally, that you were given up - that you were given up for adoption - and if that hung over you for a lot of your life, and you felt rejected as a result, did you ever have a long talk with your parents about adopting you? Or was it like they told you you were adopted, you knew you were adopted, and then you just didn't talk about it?
LIOTTA: That's it - didn't talk about it at all. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure they told me - I did - for show-and-tell in kindergarten, I told people the story that I was adopted. It never came up. It never really bothered me. I mean, the only time it would bother me with my parents is - on Saturdays, they used to make us clean - you know, clean the house and vacuum and do chores. And I would never forget saying, the only reason why you adopted us was to do all this work. So it never really bothered me and I never really thought about it that much.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been terrific to talk with you.
DAVIES: Ray Liotta speaking with Terry Gross. His NBC cop series, "Shades of Blue," also starring Jennifer Lopez, is now shooting its second season, which will be released early next year. Liotta's breakout role as a tough guy was in the 1986 Jonathan Demme movie "Something Wild." From the soundtrack, this is David Byrne and Celia Cruz.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOCO DE AMOR")
DAVID BYRNE: There's an island in a bay. Loco de amor. She's got most peculiar ways. Crazy for love. Otocume yande. Otocume yande. Like a pizza in the rain. Loco de amor. No one wants to take you home. But I love you just the same. My wild thing. Hey, hey, my wild thing. My little wild thing. Hey, hey, my wild thing. Hey, hey, hey. Yen yere cumbe. Yen yere cumbe. Loco de amor. Loco de amor. Yen yere cumbe. Yen yere, yen yere, yen yere, yen yere, yen yere cumbe. Wild thing, my little wild thing. Hey, my wild thing.
DAVIES: Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward tells us about a one-hit wonder who should've had more than one hit. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.