For One 'Wiseguy,' A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi shares the back story on Henry Hill — the central figure in the sensational mob tale that became the film GoodFellas.
NPR logo

For One 'Wiseguy,' A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For One 'Wiseguy,' A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore

For One 'Wiseguy,' A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Of all movies about mobsters, "GoodFellas" has an especially distinctive voice.


RAY LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

INSKEEP: The voice of the narrator based on a real-life New Yorker who grew up in the mob. Henry Hill's life of crime began when he met the well-dressed and intimidating men who spent their days at a taxi cab stand.


LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) 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...

INSKEEP: In the 1980s, Henry Hill was in prison and agreed to testify against his fellow mobsters. Prosecutors wanted Hill to do a book, so he'd have money to pay his lawyers as he cooperated. So they summoned a reporter named Nicholas Pileggi to meet Hill in hiding in the witness protection program.

NICHOLAS PILEGGI: Here I am talking to you about easy interviews, but he remembered everything. The first money he made was on a number. He bet the number. He was a little kid, like 16 or 17. The number came in, and it was like 1,200 bucks. And I said what did you do with the money? And he said, I put it down on a yellow Bonneville convertible.


PILEGGI: I mean, this guy not only remembers what he did, he remembers the color of the car.

INSKEEP: How did you make sure that he was, in the end, telling you the truth, then?

PILEGGI: Well, that's interesting. Everything he told me, he was basically telling the FBI. And if he lied, or the FBI or the U.S. attorney caught him in a lie, he was getting yanked out of the program. He was gone. He was going to go back into prison, where about 1,400 mob guys were waiting to kill him.

INSKEEP: Well, now, this is a guy who had certain qualities I think you could call admirable. He was a charming guy. He was articulate. He works extremely hard in the story that he lays out. He wants to get ahead and is willing to do anything and put in any amount of hours to do it. So how did he end up going so very, very wrong?

PILEGGI: And you watch the - what happened with his money. He would make a huge amount of it, just score heavily. And they would just take a suitcase full of cash, jump on a plane, fly to Las Vegas. Sometimes they would take private planes and stiff the private charter service. I mean, everything had to be a scam and a rip-off. And they would go, and then they would lose all this money in Las Vegas, and then fly back and have to go rob somebody else. That's the lifestyle.

INSKEEP: And what happened to this guy when he went from total anonymity? As you point out, he just never put his name on anything.

PILEGGI: That's right.

INSKEEP: I don't think he even had a Social Security number, did he?

PILEGGI: No. God, no. Well, no, no. I'm sorry. He had several.

INSKEEP: He had several, but no real Social Security number.


PILEGGI: No, not at all.

INSKEEP: Yes, exactly. And then he goes from that to talking to you and becoming famous. Did he relish that, or regret it a little bit?

PILEGGI: Oh, I think he always - he's ambivalent about it. He's proud of his book, but he knows he had betrayed all of these people to whom he was closer than anything.

INSKEEP: He seemed not to adjust all that well to life in the witness protection.

PILEGGI: No, he didn't. Well, he was an addictive person to begin with. Once he went into the witness program, he wound up drinking more than he should. There was probably not a pill out there he didn't take.

INSKEEP: He even ended up getting arrested a few times.

PILEGGI: Oh, many times, I mean, for drunken driving, a couple of drug busts. But when he got arrested, 99 percent of the time, of course, he would be arrested under whatever alias they gave him. And then he would call the marshals, and then somehow they would get him out. So it gave him a kind of immunity. But it also meant that there was nothing to hold him back.

INSKEEP: I'm getting married. And I said what you're getting married? You're already married. You've got two kids. And he said, no, no, I'm getting married. No, she's wonderful. Say hello. So the girl gets on the phone, I said hello. And she said, hello, I'm so happy and I'm getting married.


PILEGGI: And then he - Henry gets on the phone and he says, see? Congratulate me. Congratulate. I said, Henry, you are already married. No, no, he said. No, I'm not marrying under my other name. I'm marrying under my new name.

INSKEEP: Oh, of course. Then it's fine.

PILEGGI: You see. Oh, of course, Henry. Now I realize. That, of course, was annulled.


PILEGGI: But that's who he is. You see, that's the way these guys live. They move in a manic world, with no downtime.

INSKEEP: You guys still talk?

PILEGGI: Oh, yeah. Sure. No, we've never not talked. When I was writing the movie, in fact, he was extraordinarily helpful, because the name of the book - I mean, as you know, it's "Wiseguy." And then it turns out Warner Brothers didn't want to use that title, because there was a television show called "Wiseguy" at the time.

INSKEEP: Oh, yes. That's right.

PILEGGI: It was a good television show. And so, Marty Scorsese, with whom I wrote kind of knocking - what the hell could we call this thing, you know? And everything sounds like such a terrible cliche. And then we got Henry on the phone, and I said what else did they call you, what? He said, oh, we used to be - we're like goodfellas, which meant he was in the mob. He was a member. So there it is.

INSKEEP: Now and again, people worry about whether movies like that glorify the Mafia. Did you glorify Henry Hill?

PILEGGI: I don't think so.


PILEGGI: All you got to do is look at the movie. You know, the first half of the movie is this little kid falling in love with a lifestyle. And a lot of people like the beginning of the movie, because it's great fun. But then the criminality of that world kicks in, and then you see the price you pay. There's not much to glorify.

INSKEEP: Does Henry Hill miss those times?

PILEGGI: For certain types like Henry and the guys around him, that's what they were willing to do to be able to have the money and the access and the power that they derived.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

PILEGGI: Thank you.


THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) Then he asked me to be his bride...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep


And I'm David Greene.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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.