‘Goodfellas’: Why Real Mobsters Appearing in the Movie Became a Concern

When Martin Scorsese was putting the cast together for Goodfellas (1990), he got off to a great start. Before Robert De Niro or Ray Liotta signed on to play their lead roles, Joe Pesci agreed to play Tommy DeVito, the loose cannon of the film.

With Pesci aboard, Scorsese knew he’d have the authentic, street-wise presence that came off so powerfully in Raging Bull a decade earlier. Eventually, he was joined by Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), whom Pesci savagely beat in Raging Bull.

But Goodfellas wouldn’t only feature actors who rubbed elbows with real mob guys; the film also featured legitimate mobsters, some of them still active in the trade. And, along the way, that caused some headaches for Scorsese and his crew.

Some mafia figures were a bit too authentic to appear in ‘Goodfellas’

Goodfellas publicity still
Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Joe Pesci pose for a ‘Goodfellas’ publicity still. | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

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After Liotta landed the Henry Hill role, he recalled having a meal at Rao’s with writer Nicholas Pileggi and others working on the picture. In a 2010 GQ article, Pileggi said a number of mobsters met them that day at the legendary East Harlem restaurant.

“We’d put the word out [to the mob guys],” Pileggi recalled. “‘Anybody who wants to be in the movie, come.’ [Scorsese] must have hired half-a-dozen guys, maybe more.” At dessert, Liotta said the mobsters began “auditioning” by telling stories of past heists.

Casting director Ellen Lewis planned to hire some of these figures for the film. However, she recalled a few being considered “too hot” to appear in Goodfellas. “That guy can’t be in front of a camera,” Lewis recalled people telling her at the time.

Meanwhile, Pileggi said the hired mobsters learned they needed to report Social Security numbers they didn’t have. “The wiseguys said, ‘1,2,6, uh, 6,7,8[…].’ They just kept reciting numbers until [payroll stopped writing].” On the set, other issues arose.

Crew members had to watch the mobsters around cash and valuables

'Goodfellas' cast members laugh
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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While shooting a film, Scorsese prizes authenticity, and his actors were right there with him. So if De Niro wanted expensive vintage watches to match each Jimmy Conway suit, the crew got them. The same went for jewelry that would belong to Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco).

In brief, a regular day of shooting might involve thousands of dollars’ worth of goods. With real thieves on the set, the crew had to keep tabs on jewelry and (especially) real cash used in scenes. For one Goodfellas scene, prop master Bob Griffon had to tell everyone to freeze while he collected money he’d contributed to the pile from his own pocket.

In Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas (2020), Griffon described how Scorsese and Page started keeping track of their mob cast. Besides risks of theft, these figures had never worked on a film. “Ellen and Marty took pictures of all these guys […] and made a chart and a board,” Griffon said.

Surveying the board, Scorsese and Page would try to keep straight what the characters did on- and off-screen. Griffon and other crew members would remind them to stick around or prep for upcoming scenes as needed. The authenticity you see in Goodfellas didn’t come easy.