Like a mob hit – the passing of a generation of movie gangsters Funerals for Ray Liotta, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Paul Herman, and Tony Sirico — all in a few weeks. It's the passing of a generation of Hollywood's most celebrated "mobsters."

Like a mob hit – the passing of a generation of movie gangsters

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In recent weeks, Hollywood has bid a final farewell to five actors who excelled at playing gangsters - James Caan, Sonny in "The Godfather," was perhaps the most famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) Bada beep, bada dap, bada boop, bada beep (ph) - and the promise is that the deal is so good that we can't refuse.

KELLY: All five were associated with Hollywood's depiction of the Mafia. Critic Bob Mondello says there's a reason their loss hits hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA'S "LOVE THEME FROM 'THE GODFATHER'")

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: At the beginning of "The Godfather," a Sicilian undertaker asks Marlon Brando's Don Corleone for justice in a way the Don has indicated he must.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

SALVATORE CORSITTO: (As Amerigo Bonasera) Be my friend - Godfather?

MONDELLO: In the background of the shot, not yet in focus, either as a character or as an actor, is James Caan playing Sonny, the Corleone family's heir apparent, listening intently to his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) Someday - and that day may never come - I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day...

MONDELLO: Many months later, Sonny, having long since come into focus as hotheaded, impulsive and violent, lies shredded by bullets on a mortuary slab, and some day has come.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) I want you to use all your powers and all your skills.

MONDELLO: A father's last request for his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) I don't want his mother to see him this way.

MONDELLO: In the gangster flicks of an earlier era, nearly always told from the moralistic viewpoint of the authorities, this scene wouldn't exist. In 1972, "The Godfather" changed the formula. It asked us to identify not with the law, but the Mafiosi - asked us to feel for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) Look how they massacred my boy.

MONDELLO: And we did. When mobsters died in "The Godfather," audiences wept. And the actors who played those mobsters got identified with them in ways that earlier actors - say, Jimmy Cagney - never did.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI")

JAMES CAGNEY: (As Matt Nolan) Take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door.

MONDELLO: Given the artificiality of gangster flicks in the 1930s and '40s, nobody confused Cagney with the characters he played, especially as he also played George M. Cohan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YANKEE DOODLE DANDY")

CAGNEY: (As George M. Cohan, singing) Give my regards to Broadway.

MONDELLO: But James Caan got turned down when he tried to join a country club because its members so believed his performance, they thought that, like Sonny, he was a made man. And with "The Godfather" ushering in a new realism in mob movies, he wasn't alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD ADLER AND JERRY ROSS' "RAGS TO RICHES")

MONDELLO: Ray Liotta, who played the lead in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," also struggled to avoid typecasting, as did Paul Sorvino, who played his mentor in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) Paulie, why would I want to get into that? I'm not...

PAUL SORVINO: (As Paul Cicero) Don't make a jerk out of me. Just don't do it. Now, I want to talk to you about Jimmy. You got to watch out for him.

MONDELLO: And the once-a-gangster-always-a-gangster thing didn't just happen to featured players. Quite a few of Sorvino's "Goodfellas" henchmen found steady employment with suburban Mafioso Tony Soprano a decade later, including Paul Herman, who played Beansie...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

PAUL HERMAN: (As Peter "Beansie" Gaeta) This maniac threw a vat of hot oil right from the zeppole stand.

MONDELLO: ...And Tony Sirico, who played "Walnuts" Gualtieri.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

TONY SIRICO: (As Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri) Powdered sugar - he would've been done.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Still, this wave of modern mafia epics was just that - a wave that crested with "The Sopranos" almost two decades ago. There are still occasional mob stories with Italian faces. But in recent years, a more egalitarian Hollywood has turned its attention to African American antiheroes, Asian cybercriminals, drug cartels from Latin America. And as the Mafia recedes, so eventually must its interpreters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) You ever feel like nothing good was ever going to happen to you?

SIROCO: (As Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri) Yeah, and nothing did? So what?

IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) I'm alive. I'm surviving.

MONDELLO: All five of these actors - still robust and working at the start of this year - are now gone, which is perhaps unsurprising in actuarial terms, but still comes as a shock. We tend to freeze actors in the roles we best remember. Caan was in his early 30s when he made "The Godfather" - young, vital.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) What the hell is this?

RICHARD CASTELLANO: (As Peter Clemenza) It's a Sicilian message.

MONDELLO: But it's now a half-century later. Liotta was in his 30s, Sorvino, Sirico and Herman in their 40s and 50s when "Goodfellas" premiered, and that's 32 years ago. But we remember them all at their peak, which makes their loss feel like the passing of a generation. It happens to every genre - the great silent comedians, the tap-dancing musical stars of the '30s and '40s, the cowpokes and lawmen who rode a Cinemascope range in the 1950s. There will come a time - with luck, decades from now - when audiences will mourn the passing of a generation of superheroes. But this crowd is the one we're losing now - the mobsters we unexpectedly, and against all our better instincts, came to care about.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA'S "GODFATHER WALTZ")

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