I had an ambitious movie in my mind that was so sprawling I couldn’t quite get my head around it. So I started interviewing writers to help unlock my ideas. I met a couple of people and then I sat down with Ben Coccio at The Donut Pub in Manhattan. I started with an ice breaker — “What’s your favorite movie?”
“’Goodfellas,’” he said, not missing a beat.
“No way,” I exclaimed, “That’s my favorite movie, too.” Instantly, I knew we could work together. After a half-dozen donuts, Ben and I made a pact to write a screenplay together and, in it, a role for Ray Liotta.
“If we write it, he will come,” we agreed.
Flash forward four years. I’m sitting in my producer’s office in Hollywood and meeting with actors. And I have to pinch myself because there, in the waiting room, waiting to meet with me is Ray Liotta himself — directly out of my dreams.
Now, I’m incredibly nervous to meet him — he’s a legend and I’ve committed to memory every line from every movie I’ve seen him in over the years. I feel like we are related, only he’s never met me. I shake his hand, introduce myself and tell him about the pact I’d made with Ben to write a role for him in this movie.
“Why isn’t it bigger then?” he asks without blinking an eye.
I think Ray was incapable of lying, incapable of being false. Even when the characters he played on the screen were lying, you still knew he was telling the truth. And that truth he told was sometimes threatening. And sometimes it was funny. And mostly, it was both. This facet of his persona made him impossible to look away from on the screen. And now that I was meeting him in person, it was impossible to look away from in real life.
Luckily for me, Ray agreed to do my movie. I was shooting it in my wife’s hometown of Schenectady, N.Y. And I invited him over to meet my family for a steak dinner (when I think back to all the meals I shared with Ray, I’m pretty sure 90% of them involved steak).
I introduce him to my son, who was four at the time. Within 30 seconds, my son starts crying. Ray’s presence was just overwhelming to him. I couldn’t wait to see what effect Ray had on the other actors on set.
It’s no secret that Ray had an edge. I used to call him the human knife. When you were in his presence, he was going to keep you honest. If anything was false about you, he’d confront it. If you were scared, he’d know. And you’d know he knew. You couldn’t keep a secret from him. He saw through it. He’d locate your weakness, your bullshit, any facade you were hiding behind and he would immediately break it down with that peculiar blend of threat and humor.
On his first day on set, he had a scene with Bradley Cooper. After a few takes, I prodded him to be more of a menace. And so he laid into Bradley for a full two minutes, before concluding, “And you know what else? I watched ‘The Hangover 2’ on a plane and walked out.”
Now, I was not immune to his cutting personality either. I remember shooting a tough scene where I was asking him to explore the boundaries of the material.
“What does that mean?” he asked, staring at me, into me. He had those ice-blue eyes that were at once penetrating and wounded, empathetic and dangerous. They could put a spell on you, mesmerize you, hold you hostage.
“Well, you know,” I flustered, “Find something new in the material, surprise me!”
“How am I gonna do that?” He was so still. There was just a way that Ray moved, or didn’t move — at his own cadence. It was like he wasn’t going to expend a single ounce more of energy than any moment required. Ray never over-did it. He didn’t have to. He was fully aware of his power.
“I don’t know,” I could feel my heart racing as I waffled through my convoluted directions, “Fail, get it wrong.”
“I get it,” he said, and I found myself thinking of his voice-over in “Goodfellas,” which ranks, in my mind, as one of the greatest achievements in cinema. The tenor of his voice was so distinctive — soothing and dangerous, like a blunt lullaby. And here I was on the other end of it. “You’re one of those guys who just likes to milk everything, don’t you?”
And then he laughed at me. That Ray Liotta laugh. Was there anything better than hearing Ray laugh? Try watching the “you’re a funny guy” scene in “Goodfellas” and not be overcome with the joy of this man’s soul. And as he emasculated me in front of the cast and crew, it felt like I was in a movie. I distinctly remember being aware of the fact that this might go down in history as one of the greatest and most humiliating moments of my life. I was in heaven and in hell at the same time.
Now I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. Ray always did everything I needed him to do. But he also added the necessary resistance. He kept everyone on their toes, cast and crew alike. He made us all accountable, present. He kept me honest, guided me when to speak and when to stay silent. He made me a better director. He made my movie a better movie. His performance was better than what I dreamed it could be.
I hadn’t spoken to Ray for many years. I guess I thought Ray would always be around… He had been in my life since I was a teenager when he stepped out of the cornfield as Shoeless Joe Jackson. Any movie or TV show that Ray Liotta was in was worth seeing because of him.
There was another side to Ray — the soft side. I first got a glimpse of it one day when he spoke to me about his daughter. There was just something in the way he talked about her — he became a puppy. Although I never met his daughter, I could understand just how much she meant to him. She was the apple of his eye. And I think this was the most truthful part of Ray. As I got to know him more, he would tell me that he always got cast as the heavy but he’d never been in a fight in his life. He was, at his core, a sweetheart — with a capital S.
One day, about 40 days into production, I was shooting a scene at a local high school with some of the younger cast from the movie. Ray was not in the scene. But between takes, I looked behind me and saw that he’d come to set to watch the other actors and to support them. We all felt so nurtured by this gesture, by the gift of his presence. After an hour or so, he patted me on the back, told me to keep up the good work, and before he left, he gave me a box of Nicorette gum. I was so stressed out making “The Place Beyond the Pines” that I had developed a habit of smoking. And Ray cared enough to bring me some gum in the middle of my take. “I don’t want you to die,” he said.
Ray Liotta was singular — as an actor and as a person. There will never be another like him. He was a national treasure.
Working with him was better than a dream. It was real.