When Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) gets busted for drug trafficking in Goodfellas (1990), his life unravels quickly. After a brief stint in jail, Hill realizes he has no choice but to turn against his old friends and associates. That means testifying in court and heading into the witness-protection program.
If you pick up Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy (1985), you’ll see how closely Hill’s life followed the story Pileggi and Martin Scorsese told in Goodfellas. Following the bust, the real Jimmy
Conway Burke (Robert De Niro) began plotting how he’d deal with Henry and Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco).
Hill realized he had no choice but to betray Burke and boss Paul
Cicero Vario (Paul Sorvino). Vario had warned Hill about his drug dealing, and after the bust Vario washed his hands of Hill.
At that point, Burke could do as he saw fit with his old pal Hill. Though they’d exchanged Christmas presents and gone on vacation together for years, Burke wouldn’t have thought twice about killing Hill. Hill betrayed his longtime friends and associates with the same detachment.
Henry Hill was beyond nonchalant about betraying his mob friends as seen in ‘Goodfellas’
After Hill’s arrest, veteran mob reporter Pileggi began conducting the interviews that became Wiseguy and, eventually, Goodfellas. When Hill describes the period after his arrest on drug charges, it matches what happens in the film almost exactly.
Everything from Jimmy’s attempt on Karen to Jimmy and Henry’s meeting at the diner happened seen in Goodfellas. And the same went for Henry Hill’s coolness when sending away Jimmy Burke and Paul Vario for the rest of their lives.
“Henry’s confrontations with his old pals on the witness stand left him unmoved,” Pileggi wrote in Wiseguy. “Neither Jimmy Burke’s threatening glares nor the sight of the 70-year-old Paul Vario seemed to disturb him.”
Pileggi went on to describe Hill’s testimony as “effortless.” Prior to his star-witness turn at Vario’s trial, Hill enjoyed a sausage-and-mushroom pizza. He wasn’t stressing by any estimation.
Nicholas Pileggi described Hill as ‘almost gleeful’ about Jimmy Burke’s murder conviction
Pileggi saw Hill eat pizza and enjoy a Tab before betraying Vario, and Hill seemed just as cool negotiating a tidy sum ($10,000) for a Sports Illustrated article about the college basketball point-shaving scheme that put a 26-year-old away for 10 years.
But the matter with Jimmy Burke was personal. Burke had signaled he was ready to kill Hill (and maybe his wife Karen) to silence him for good. Hill had his own move to play, and he did so, guaranteeing Burke would go away a long time on his murder rap.
“When Jimmy Burke was convicted of murder, Henry was almost gleeful,” Pileggi wrote in Wiseguy. “In the final showdown with Jimmy, Henry had survived, and he used the government to pull the trigger.” Pileggi saw Hill’s moves as no different from his previous life on the street.
“[Hill] willingly turned on the men with whom he had been raised with the same nonchalance he had used in setting up a bookie joint or slipping a tail,” Pileggi wrote.
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