Ray Liotta's 6 most memorable roles

·3 min read

With his wry Tri-State rasp and piercing Siberian Husky eyes, Ray Liotta commanded the screen for more than four decades in a series of roles renowned for their wiseguy intensity. But the actor, who died in his sleep at the age of 67, did much more than that, turning out memorable performances in everything from a Kevin Costner baseball dream to a marauding Muppets sequel. Below, six highlights from a richly unpredictable career.

<i>Something Wild</i> (1986)

Explosive out of the gate, Liotta immediately strikes a balance between menace and sensitivity in his breakout role as a lovelorn ex-con — a turn that crystallized a lot of what was to come. (Martin Scorsese was a huge fan.) Part of that had to do with working with a director like Jonathan Demme, who rarely did straight-up villainy; check out this deft diner conversation, in which Liotta goes head to head with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, for the evidence.—Joshua Rothkopf

SOMETHING WILD, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta
SOMETHING WILD, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta

<i>Field of Dreams</i> (1989)

Liotta became so associated with wing-tipped crime movies and TV, it's easy to forget his early angelic side and clean-cut handsomeness. Nowhere was this better used than in the beloved Kevin Costner baseball fantasy, in which Liotta's "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, marred by Black Sox scandal and yearning for redemption, unleashes a classic bit of ghostly dialogue: "If you build it…he will come."—JR

FIELD OF DREAMS Kevin Costner
FIELD OF DREAMS Kevin Costner

<i>Goodfellas</i> (1990)

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." So began the film that would come to define Liotta's career, or at least our idea of him as the ultimate blue-eyed wiseguy. In the lead role of Henry Hill, the neighborhood kid who becomes a Mafia power player before tumbling down again into schnook-ville, he's alternately terrifying and electrifying — a man so driven by ambition and cocaine that he can't (or won't) see the extent of the moral rot right in front of him until he's a day late and a fateful babysitter's hat short.—Leah Greenblatt

Goodfellas Ray Liotta
Goodfellas Ray Liotta

<i>The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt</i> (2015)

Liotta playfully tweaked his persona in everything from Just Shoot Me to The Simpsons. Still, it's hard to beat his tender turn as Paulie Fucillo, the gas-station owner who becomes an unwitting pawn in an elaborate bathroom scheme in Season Three's "Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!" Titus (Tituss Burgess) prefers not to poop at home; Paulie has the precious private facilities, but his toilet is reserved for customers only. Outsize shenanigans ensue, though it's worth it just to watch Liotta lovingly cradle a bodega cat, and rattle off the names of made-up prophylactics ("We have expired Trojans, Safeway Select, Lil Stinkers, El Bandito Picante, Monologue, for the careful masturbator…") like an amiable OB-GYN.—LG

UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, Ray Liotta in 'Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!'
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, Ray Liotta in 'Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!'

<i>Marriage Story</i> (2019)

In a perfect piece of comic casting, Noah Baumbach brought on a graying, dour Liotta as a notorious attack dog of a lawyer sparring with Laura Dern's equally vicious divorce attorney. (He's got a throw pillow in his office that says: "Eat, Drink, and Remarry.") These courtroom scenes bring the movie to a riveting sharpness, two surrogates fighting it out on the legal stage, no holds barred. Inking the mercenary humor, Liotta and Dern hug at one point in the lobby, their characters clearly friendly in other circumstances.—JR

Ray Liotta in Marriage Story
Ray Liotta in Marriage Story

<i>The Many Saints of Newark</i> (2021)

One of his final film appearances in David Chase's melancholy Sopranos prequel turned out to be a fitting elegy for decades of sustained menace on screen: In double roles as the brothers "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti and Salvatore "Sally" Moltisanti, he's both a mob soldier so ruthless he'll breezily kick his young bride down the stairs, and the long-incarcerated twin who knows too well the pain a made man's life can bring. As the lizard-cool Uncle Sally, a man who misses nothing, his slow blink – and the decades of hard-earned wisdom behind it — is everything.—LG

THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK

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