Intense and commanding, but passionate and endearing, Ray Liotta was one of the great character actors for the last four decades. After the news broke of his death, a walk through his most memorable performances is not only warranted, but necessary, to remind us of what we lost in the Hollywood community.
My cinematic introduction to the talented Liotta was when I was eight years old. It was the summer of 1992, and my sister — who is nine years older than me — and I ventured out to the theater — Whitestone Cinemas in Bronx, N.Y., if I recall correctly, which had a tall billboard sign you could see from the Cross Bronx Expressway. We purchased tickets to see “Unlawful Entry” (1992) from director Jonathan Kaplan. Marketed as a horror-type thriller, and coming from the person who helmed “The Accused” (1988), which earned Jodie Foster her first Oscar for best actress, we were stoked to see a movie in which a cop becomes obsessed with a married couple (played by Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe) after an intruder breaks into their home in the middle of the night.
My family had never been the type to “look up” if a movie was age-appropriate. I can recall sitting in the theater and my sister covering my eyes more than a dozen times due to the film’s sexually graphic scenes. But that wasn’t what stood out. Instead, it was the terrifying police officer Pete Davis (Liotta), and his growing obsession with Karen Carr (Stowe), which increasingly becoming violent and unhinged. While the film is triggering, coming out on the heels of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and beating of Rodney King, Liotta’s work proved to be one of the most incredible displays of commitment I had seen by an actor.
His effortless transition between a good cop and bad cop was among the best and brightest villainous turns of the 1990s. He would display a friendly demeanor sitting poolside with Karen’s husband, Michael (Russell), then explode to get what he wanted. This would lead to my discovery of his countless contributions to the medium, both pre and post-“Entry.”
Liotta had roles in three films that were nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. The first was as Shoeless Joe Jackson, the baseball player with the “sense of danger,” as writer-director Phil Alden Robinson said when casting him in “Field of Dreams” (1989) opposite Kevin Costner.
He would take on the leading role of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Probably the closest he ever got to receiving an Oscar nom, his opening line, “as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” is among his most iconic and famous in pop culture. Because of the cultural impact of Scorsese’s gangster pic, Liotta’s legacy will continue to endure.
Still going strong after all of these years, Liotta had brief, but memorable moments in Noah Baumbach’s divorce film “Marriage Story” (2019) as Jay Marotta, the lawyer who goes toe to toe with Nora Fanshaw (played by Oscar winner Laura Dern).
Liotta was an Emmy winner for outstanding guest actor in a drama series for his role of Charlie Metcalf on the NBC series “ER” in 2005. He also received two SAG Award nominations for outstanding performance by a male actor in a TV movie or miniseries — “The Rat Pack” (1998) as Frank Sinatra and “Texas Rising” (2015) as Lorca.
To celebrate his life, Variety is ranking Liotta’s best performances. Include your favorites in the comments.
Honorable mentions: “The Many Saints of Newark” (2020), “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012), “Texas Rising” (2002)