Ray Liotta will stand firm for playing one of the great roles in crime cinema.
Liotta's supporting turn as Fred Jung, father to Johnny Depp's George Jung in 2001's Blow, remains one of the great dads in film history. George is traveling the world, amassing a crime empire, making more money and more trouble for himself than anyone knows what to do with. George's mother wants nothing to do with it – maybe rightly so – but his father Fred remains silently stoic, wanting only the best for his son, offering quiet words of wisdom rather than an iron rod, which many viewers would happily see meted out. In the role, Liotta managed to channel quiet dignity in the support for his son but also despair, even fear, that he can't do more to take his son by the collar and straighten him out. Although Liotta only appears in a handful of scenes, it's a performance that lives long after the film stops.
Blow is just one of many standout moments in Liotta's 40+ years film career. The world will remember Liotta, and rightly so, for his legendary performance as Henry Hill, in Scorsese's equally legendary Goodfellas, and a latter-day career leaning into his crime boss association. His career is littered with quirky left-turns.
Fresh off of Goodfellas, Liotta would mix things up as an unhinged cop in Unlawful Entry before turning up as a wide-eyed psychopath in the deliciously OTT Turbulence. Both those roles displayed Liotta at his most disarmingly menacing, but they also showed that he knew how to have fun within these genre roles. Honestly, if you've not seen Turbulence seek it out. It's a performance of a man having a whale of a time, even if we, the audience… not so much.
He could turn on the charm in family dramas such as Field of Dreams and Corrina, Corrina. Despite these roles being few and far between, Liotta could channel his often-manic charisma into something more benevolent. Perhaps it was his hawk-like features that made us feel as though he could snap at any time which made him such a fascinating presence in these films – a seemingly caring soul, who could turn at the drop of a dime.
Whilst he may be remembered for his gangster roles, it's hard to forget his many roles on the other side of the law. Hannibal, The Place Beyond the Pines, John Q, Narc, and sort of Cop Land, with each of those films and, in turn, each different police ranking, he turned in memorable roles. No spoilers, but those who have seen Hannibal will not soon forget Liotta in the role of the sneering, patronising Paul Krendler, if only for the scene round the dinner table. Cop Land saw him bring vulnerability to a former policeman who has been broken down by corruption and addiction, his physical appearance in the film – swollen and red-eyed with booze – perfectly reflects the character's inner turmoil.
Narc stands as one of the great underrated crime films of the 2000s. Joe Carnahan's directorial debut holds up as the director's best, and a masterful police procedural which sees Liotta play one of his first “middle-aged” roles as a burly detective roaming the streets looking for justice for his dead partner. Again, it's a role where Liotta channels ferocity with uncontrolled sorrow and it's a beautiful thing to behold.
In the many star cameos that appeared in the long-running ER, Liotta's one-episode appearance as a dying man stands out in the show's history. Popping up in later series episode ‘Time of Death', almost in real-time over the hour we see Liotta's character cared for in minute detail whilst seeing flashbacks to his life filled with regret. Liotta again turns in a haunting performance in a show that had long passed its prime and will stand as one of the hidden gems in the show's catalogue.
And who could forget his turn as the security guard in Muppets from Space, who is ever-so helpful to our furry heroes in letting them escape from a government facility? It's a brief but “aw, it's nice to see him poke fun at himself” role.
It was a shock to hear of his sudden passing on May 26. Despite not being a marquee name in 2022, many came out to grieve his death. It seemed like a classic case of not knowing what we had till it was gone. Liotta may be remembered most for Goodfellas but that would almost be doing a disservice to a wide and impressive career of varied performances. Liotta was a tough man who doled out aggression and anger but could warm our hearts with much tender roles. Let's not forget he could also have fun when needed in films such as Heartbreakers and Wild Hogs. I'll also throw in a shout out for his turn as Frank Sinatra in the criminally underseen The Rat Pack.
For me though, Ray Liotta will stand tall as Fred Jung, one of the cinema's great dads.
Photo: © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.