Was Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ Based on the Lives of Real New York Mobsters?

Even with a filmography that includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas stands out as one of his best films. There’s never a dull moment in the movie, which featured Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci at their best.

The film is so compelling because the life stories of characters Henry Hill (Liotta), Jimmy Conway (De Niro), and Tommy De Vito (Pesci) apparently had no dull moments. After the trio work their way up in the New York mob, they pull off a multi-million-dollar heist that represents their greatest success before leading to their downfall.

Last thing the audience sees, Hill and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) escape New York after entering the witness-protection program. (Roll credits.)

Since Scorsese based Goodfellas on the book by Nicholas Pileggi — who had the help of the real-life Hill — you’d think there was plenty that followed historical fact in the film. That’s actually the case with Goodfellas, which featured many scenes and plot-points that match the lives of real New York gangsters.

The characters played by Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci were real people.

Hill (Liotta) thinks Tommy (Pesci) is ‘a really funny guy.’ But funny how, exactly? | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Starting with the basics, Pileggi was a crime journalist who worked covering the New York mob from the 1950s into the 1980s. He’d been on the beat when the crimes in Goodfellas took place and followed the stories of the mobsters while on the job. His book is nonfiction.

Indeed, Hill was a very real person with an Irish father and Sicilian mother born in Brooklyn. Conway (De Niro) actually had the name of Burke, but “Jimmy the Gent” also was an Irish gangster working in the mob alongside Tommy (Pesci), a vicious gangster whose last name got changed from De Simone.

When Burke died in 1996, he got his own headline obituary in the Times like any famous person.

The Lufthansa heist was their signature score.

There’s nothing fake about the scale of the 1978 heist the crew pulls off at JFK Airport in the Scorsese film. As depicted, Burke masterminded the epic operation, and the take totaled more than $5 million. (In today’s money, it would be worth over $20 million.)

After years of investigating, the FBI remained unable to prosecute anyone for the infamous robbery. Even when the feds did get information on the job (via Hill’s testimony), they couldn’t recover the loot. That hints at the discipline of Burke and his associates — and the terror they inspired.

Hill flipped after his narcotics bust and cooperated with the FBI.

The story of the three gangsters didn’t end well. | Warner Bros. Entertainment

In the film, Jimmy advises the young Henry Hill to always do two things: to 1) keep his mouth shut and 2) never rat on his friends. (They’re basically one thing, but who’s counting.) After facing 20 years or more in prison on drug charges, Hill broke the code and started “singing” about his mob associates’ activities.

From those chats with the FBI, Burke ended up in prison, as did capo Paul Vario (Paulie Cicero, played by Paul Sorvino, in Goodfellas). Henry and Karen Hill got out of town and lived under FBI protection, though Henry was as much of a degenerate in real-life as he is in the movie. (The FBI eventually kicked him out of the program.)

Tommy whacked ‘Stacks’ Edwards…

In the film, everybody loved the guitar-playing roustabout criminal known as “Stacks” Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson). But Tommy whacks Stacks because he was sloppy when disposing of the getaway van. All these things check out with what happened in real-life.

According to another book Hill collaborated on before he died (in 2012), Paulie told Tommy De Simone that he had to murder his great friend Stacks because of the circumstances, but that he would become “made” for doing the job.

Though he struggled killing his friend, De Simone did the job and looked to move up in the organization’s hierarchy. However, Tommy remained on the hit-list of several more important mafiosos, and he didn’t live much longer.

..and Tommy got his instead of getting made.

One incredible scene in Goodfellas involves the ceremony in which Tommy heads off to get “made.” Instead of walking out a made man, he gets a bullet in the head. As depicted in the film, bosses needed to avenge the death of Billy Batts (the late Frank Vincent) and thus did in Tommy.

However, there was another reason they wanted to kill the real-life De Simone. According to Hill in his final book, De Simone took off his mask for a moment during the Lufthansa heist and a witness got a look at his face. So Paulie basically killed two birds with one stone there.

But the biggest revelation of all Hill made before he died? He said none other than John Gotti killed De Simone. With news of that magnitude, someone is going to have to make another mob film.

When asked why he didn’t originally dish on Gotti, Hill offered a believable answer: He thought he’d be whacked.

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