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Ray Liotta, who died overnight while filming in the Dominican Republic, will always be associated with his role in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob masterpiece “Goodfellas” (streaming on HBO Max). But even within that one part, the actor showed incredible range. As Henry Hill, who goes from cocky young street hood to a solid earner to a federal witness, Liotta had the underlying menace that would define his screen persona, but he also brought a tenderness and fragility — a lost, searching quality that made the character sympathetic even as his actions were often reprehensible.
After spending time as a soap opera actor on TV, Liotta first came to moviegoers’ attention in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film “Something Wild,” which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Liotta arrives partway through the movie and completely changes its center of gravity, forcing a left turn from charmingly off-beat road movie rom-com into a dark thriller. Then, after supporting roles in “Dominick and Eugene” and “Field of Dreams” came the thunderclap of “Goodfellas,” the role that would define the rest of his career.
Yet he wore it well, seeming to intuit how to play off audience expectations in the roles he chose and the way he modulated his performances. Even if audiences couldn't quite forget him as Henry Hill, Liotta never seemed burdened by the legacy of “Goodfellas.” He had even seemed to hit a new stride recently with roles in “Marriage Story,” “No Sudden Move” and “The Many Saints of Newark.” And with a number of performances in projects currently in post-production, we still haven’t even seen the last of Ray Liotta.
Below are a selection of roles that give of sense of what Liotta was capable of beyond “Goodfellas,” along with where to view them.
'Something Wild' (1986)
For nearly an hour, Jonathan Demme’s cult classic cruises along as an off-kilter screwball comedy about a straitlaced yuppie named Charlie (Jeff Daniels) who falls for a free-spirited woman name Lulu (Melanie Griffith). Then Ray Liotta shows up, and “Something Wild” becomes … something else entirely. In his first major movie role, Liotta — as Lulu’s vengeful ex-convict husband Ray — set the template for many of his best performances to come with his seething menace and dark charisma, so mesmerizingly scary that even an innocuous line like “Hiya, Charlie” sounds like a threat of violence. —Josh Rottenberg
'Dominick and Eugene' (1988)
Running time: 1 hr 51 mins.
Streaming: (Not currently available)
'Field of Dreams' (1989)
The self-described “jock from New Jersey” gave one of his most enduring performances early in his career, in a best picture nominee that he admittedly never watched. As infamous 1900s White Sox outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, Liotta appears from the ether of time in Kevin Costner’s Iowa cornfield to play ball and deliver one of cinema’s all-time monologues about the love of the game, in a turn bursting with wonderment, regret, redemption and luminous charisma. It's a character he echoed two decades later in another small but powerful role that paid homage to “Field of Dreams.” In 2010’s “Charlie St. Cloud,” the grief-stricken recluse of the title (played by Zac Efron) plays catch every day with the ghost of his little brother. But it’s Liotta as the paramedic who once saved Charlie's life who gives him the advice he needs to move on past his pain, inspiring the film’s earnest tagline: “Life is for living.” —Jen Yamato
'Corrina, Corrina' (1994)
The children in my extended family loved “Corrina, Corrina.” The well-worn VHS played so much that Ray Liotta, much like his character — who always seems to be hovering on the periphery of conversations in the movie — became a fixture in the house, like the ceiling fan or the screen door. Yes, “Corrina, Corrina” belongs to a luminous Whoopi Goldberg, but it’s Liotta’s steady and deft presence that, like that screen door, opens the way. Liotta plays a widower with a daughter who has become nonverbal after her mother’s death. His expression of quiet desperation — no flailing here — when they’re finally home alone is palpable. His eyes and the droop in his shoulders show that he needs, and wants, help. He gets it in the form of Goldberg in the title role. But already breaking through the dark was Liotta — keeping the film in line while playing against type — and his clear-eyed portrayal of a man finding a way back through grief. — Dawn M. Burkes
'Operation Dumbo Drop' (1995)
One of Liotta’s most off-kilter roles was in 2001’s “Hannibal,” about Anthony Hopkins' cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Liotta played Paul Krendler, a snarky Justice Department honcho who clashed with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore). Lecter captures Krendler, drugs him and then stages a dinner party with him and Starling where he removes Krendler’s scalp and starts cooking his brain. The drugged Krendler comments on how good his brain tastes and smells. It's a weird (and gross) scene in which Liotta captured the strangeness but still played it cool. —Greg Braxton
Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes.
Rating: R, for strong gruesome violence, some nudity and language.
Streaming: Starz: Included | Amazon Prime: Buy/Rent | Apple TV+: Buy/Rent | Google Play: Buy/Rent | Vudu: Buy/Rent
Liotta has played no shortage of morally dubious police officers over the years (“Cop Land,” “Unlawful Entry”), but few of them have called forth the complexity and ferocity of his work as one of Detroit’s not-so-finest in Joe Carnahan’s underappreciated 2002 crime thriller. He plays Henry Oak, a veteran cop investigating the murder of an undercover colleague — an assignment he takes on with barely disguised contempt for the police department and the partner he’s been assigned. As befits his character’s name, Liotta seems both immovable and toweringly enormous as the kind of crooked cop who thinks nothing of beating, torturing and shooting anyone who gets in his way but whose outer grit belies still deeper, darker motives. It’s one of Liotta’s most fearsome performances, and one of his most surprising. —Justin Chang
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
Rating: R, for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language.
Streaming: FuboTV: Included | Showtime: Included | Apple TV+: Buy/Rent | Google Play: Buy/Rent | Vudu: Buy/Rent
'Observe and Report' (2009)
Liotta could be very, very funny onscreen, as he was in Jody Hill’s dark 2009 comedy “Observe and Report.” In the film, Seth Rogen played a mall security guard who has his heart set on becoming a real cop. Liotta played a local police detective who at first finds Rogen’s character an annoying wannabe, but slowly and begrudgingly grows to have sympathy and even a little respect for him. (After also beating him to a pulp.) Liotta’s old-school slow-burn and explosive energy is put to uproarious effect. —Mark Olsen
Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.
Rating: R, for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence.
Streaming: Amazon Prime: Buy/Rent | Apple TV+: Buy/Rent | Google Play: Buy/Rent | Vudu: Buy/Rent
'Marriage Story' (2019)
In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” Liotta played a divorce attorney who has to lead his client, a theater director played by Adam Driver, through the tricky waters of custody battles and hourly billing. If the casting as an expensive L.A. lawyer feels slightly counterintuitive at first, Liotta settles nicely into the part as a savvy scrapper who has seen it all before and still somehow remains hopeful, unexpectedly even a little romantic, albeit with a certain cynical clarity. Liotta’s earnest brashness made for a perfect foil to the silken steeliness of Laura Dern’s Oscar-winning turn as his opposing counsel. —Mark Olsen
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
Rating: R, for language throughout and sexual references.
Streaming: Netflix: Included
‘The Many Saints of Newark’ (2021)
‘No Sudden Move’ (2021)
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some violence and sexual references.
Streaming: HBO Max: Included | Amazon Prime: Buy/Rent | Apple TV+: Buy/Rent | Google Play: Buy/Rent | Vudu: Buy/Rent
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.