'Goodfella' Henry has no regrets about ratting on psychopathic pals
After 30 years in hiding, Henry Hill is amazed he hasn't been 'whacked', says Nick Allen
Published 25/07/2010 | 05:00
Henry Hill, the original "Goodfella", points two fingers, looks down the barrel and pulls an imaginary trigger.
In a familiar wiseguy drawl, he shakes his head and admits: "I did a lot of bad things back then. I shot at people, I busted a lot of heads, and I buried a lot of bodies.
"You can try to justify it by saying they deserved it, that they had it coming, but some just got whacked for absolutely no reason at all."
The former mobster, still in hiding 30 years after becoming an FBI supergrass, is reminiscing about his life of crime over tacos in a fish restaurant near Los Angeles.
He is back in the spotlight as the 20th anniversary of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's seminal gangster film, approaches this year.
The film was the fascinating story of Hill's life in the mafia and featured characters based on real-life capos, hitmen and psychopaths, most of whom now lie in unmarked shallow graves, or died of old age in prison.
By contrast Hill, who was played by a young Ray Liotta, is alive and well, happily residing at a secret location in a picturesque mountain setting near Malibu.
At 67, he seems as surprised as anyone that he hasn't been "whacked". The Mafia has a long memory for betrayal and the price on his head was reputedly more than €1m.
While he no longer wears a fake beard in public, Hill still does his best not to draw attention. His designer suits are long gone and he is wearing combat trousers, a pink, short-sleeve shirt, and a cloth cap that he wears low over his forehead.
He chain smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, his eyes darting around. At the sound of a chair scraping on the floor, he instinctively spins around.
"There's nobody from my era alive today," Hill says. "But there's always that chance that some young buck wants to make a name for themselves. I never thought I'd reach this wonderful age."
Hill was born to an Irish father and Sicilian mother in New York in 1943 and joined the Lucchese crime family.
He excelled, hijacking lorries, fixing basketball games, collecting gambling debts, dealing drugs and "breaking heads".
Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy, details how, following the 1978 Lufthansa robbery at JFK airport in New York -- then the largest cash robbery on US soil -- he "turned rat" and sent a string of Mafia figures to jail. It meant Hill had to give up everything he had known.
"The money," he laughs ruefully. "The money was f***ing unbelievable. We never robbed nothing small.
"The government said a couple of hundred million dollars went through my hands.
"But I just blew it on slow horses, women, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"We partied five, six nights a week and I was making $15,000 to $40,000 a week.
"That was just my end. But I was a degenerate gambler. I could lose $40,000 in a week," he said.
Despite the wealth and Mafia status, Hill says he was constantly on edge as people were killed all around him.
He describes his friends Jimmy "the Gent" Burke, and Tommy DeSimone, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the film, as murdering psychopaths.
"The whole f***ing crew were homicidal maniacs," Hill says.
"I showed up with them when I had to but I was walking between rain drops. Every day I was scared.
"I never killed nobody -- at least not on purpose. I shot at people but we didn't stick around to find out what happened."
Hill does not like to talk about the bodies he helped to bury but admits there were at least a dozen. By 1980 he was in fear of his own life.
He says: "I knew I was going to get whacked and it came pretty close. So it was either me or them. I knew it, and they knew it.
"Initially, I had a lot of remorse and it took me a long time to forgive myself for what I did, for being a rat. But I knew I saved a lot of lives by putting a lot of horrible people away."
They included Burke, who was believed to have been involved in at least 50 murders. His name was changed to Jimmy Conway in the film for legal reasons. Hill coached De Niro on playing Jimmy and the legendary actor was on the phone five or six times a day during filming.
"He would call and ask, 'How would Jimmy hold a cigarette? How would Jimmy hold a shot glass?' I thought that was kind of weird but he did a great job," says Hill.
Goodfellas ends with Hill going into the witness protection programme. A final scene has him standing outside a modest house, saying: "Now I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."
In reality, he was unable to break with the past and the Mob nearly got to him again. He was moved 10 times to areas including Nebraska and Kentucky.
In 1987 he was arrested on drug charges and in the early 1990s, he left witness protection and decided to re-assume his own name.
These days he is a reformed character, mostly. Last year he was arrested for a drunken scuffle. He still goes to Las Vegas every six weeks, but where he used to throw away hundred dollar bills at the craps table, now he just plays the slots.
At home he paints, a kind of catharsis. A typical scene shows a man being shot. He sells his work on eBay.
He still watches Goodfellas, which he describes as "95 per cent accurate", and speaks with warmth about Ray Liotta, whom he saw about a month ago.
Hill is less enamoured with Hollywood executives and claims that, while he made $550,000 from Goodfellas, he is owed millions.
He is still in touch with the FBI and gives talks, telling "knucklehead kids" to stay on the straight and narrow.
His message to any aspiring young hoodlums who might get sucked in is simple.
"Forget about it. Stay in school."