“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Those are infamous words that open Martin Scorsese‘s genre-defining crime drama, Goodfellas. This cinematic masterpiece would go on to be nominated for six Academy Awards, set the high-water mark for all future films relating to organized crime and leave an undeniable mark on the pop culture landscape. For one man, this is more then just a simple Hollywood motion picture, it was his life.
If you are familiar with Goodfellas, you already know a little bit about the world of Henry Hill. He was born in 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, the area was dominated by the powerful Lucchese Crime Family. Growing up, he became fascinated by the gangsters and their lifestyle. It wouldn’t take long for him to become caught up in their world. He quickly became part of New York’s mafia scene and even managed to help pull off one off the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist, one of the biggest airport heists in history.
Henry Hill was living his dream and was on top of the world, but all good things must come to an end. By 1980, his world began to crumble. He feared for his life and the life of his family as it became more apparent with each passing day, that his associate, Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, intended to kill him. It was for this reason that Hill decided to became a government informant and the self proclaimed “proudest rat in the United States.” His testimony led to approximately fifty convictions and he went into witness protection. During the closing lines of the film, Hill’s character laments that he has become “an average nobody” and would get to live the rest of his life like a schnook. Well, life sure has a funny way of turning out a lot differently than you had expected, even in the case of Henry Hill.
So what happened to Henry Hill after he left his mob life and the Witness Protection Program behind? We assure you that he is alive, well, enjoying semi-retirement and definitely not a schnook! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with this larger then life character to discuss his past, life after the mob, his artwork, his upcoming line of ‘”Sunday Gravy” pasta sauce and everything else that he has been planning over the past few years!
Now, go get your f*@kin’ shinebox!!!
How accurate was Martin Scorsese’s depiction of your world in his film, Goodfellas?
Well, it was right out of the book Wiseguy, that I wrote with Nicholas Pileggi. It was 95% on the money. They had to use a little creative license or whatever you want to call it because to fit your whole life into a couple of hours is really difficult.
In the film, it seemed that you had a great time as a kid growing up. What is your fondest memory from the old days?
I should have been a good boy! I came from a large family of eight. I am dyslexic and they didn’t know what dyslexia was back then. They just thought I was a little knucklehead, ya know? So it was difficult. That is not really a fond memory, but that is the memory I have. I didn’t “get it” in school. Everything was backwards to me and I had to memorize everything. I couldn’t read or write until I was in my late teens or early twenties. So that was difficult, but fond memories — I used to like to make a buck. I was a little hustler. My family was typical blue collar family and it was really cool, until I met the guys across the street that had the taxi and limousine service. [laughs] Then my life started to change, but in the beginning it was really cool. I used to wash cars and park cars at the age of twelve or thirteen years old. When I went to school the teachers made me stand out in the hall half the goddamn day because I was disruptive. It was part of my dyslexia, I guess. Those guys would pat me on the back or slip me a fin or a sawbuck back in those days. I thought it was cool back then and I really admired those guys because they all drove big Cadillacs and Lincolns, they had diamond rings and a bimbo on each arm. [laughs] I was very impressionable as a kid.
There are so many great scenes in Goodfellas. What can you tell us about the scene were Tommy confronts you about saying he is “funny.” Was Tommy that intense in real life and was that scene pretty true to life?
He was very intense. I mean, he was a homicidal maniac and didn’t care about anything. He had two pearl handle pistols and anytime that he whacked somebody, he would put a notch on the handle of the pistols and brag about it to everybody. That is how sick the guy was.
So many people love the “Get your shinebox” scene in the film. How true to life was the the verbal exchange in the scene with Billy Batts’ and Tommy in Goodfellas?
Yeah, that actually happened. That is exactly how it happened. Billy had just come home from prison and he wanted his territory back. By that time, Jimmy had taken it over, because Billy was away for six years. So when he got back to New York from doing his time, he wanted his bookmaking and loan sharking business back and Jimmy was about to give it back to nobody. So that is a back story that didn’t come out the way I thought it should have in the movie. The insult itself took place at my club, which was on Queens Boulevard at the time.
Absolutely, he did a fantastic job. I wasn’t allowed to meet him or to talk to him while he was preparing for the role, because Scorsese had never directed him before and he didn’t want me to influence him in any way. I knew nothing about the movie business at that point in my life. I went along with what Scorsese said because he was the boss. After the movie was over, we sat down for drinks a couple times and photo ops. He is a great guy. He nailed it! I can’t say it any better then that. He should have been nominated for an Academy Award but he wasn’t, everybody else was. Ya know, he went on to much greater things. He is a great actor and a great person, I see him occasionally here in California.
Goodfellas ends with you entering the Witness Protection Program. How difficult was the adjustment to life outside the mob?
It was a horrible culture shock but really I was so relived to be out of that world and that life. I knew I was gonna get whacked. I was the only one left from the Lufthansa score. Believe it or not, I was really relived. Ya know, the government had planted a seed in my head after all those guys were getting killed. I was on Federal parole and those guys were allowed to come to my house anytime they wanted. They would come with fresh photos of a guy who just got whacked, pictures of their bodies, guys who were part of group. They kept warning me, “You’re gonna be next! You’re gonna be next!” So, they we basically planting the seed that I was going to be killed. I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to believe it — until I heard it on tape!
No, not really. At that point, for me, I was involved in a lot of projects like writing books, doing articles and appearing on television and that was a thorn in their side for a lot of years. What happened was that the FBI took over after the U.S. Marshalls left, they still to this day do. If they hear anything or something comes up from a snitch, I know about it two minutes later. Ya know, they saved my life. They protected me for a lot of years and they did a great job. Kudos to them.
Does having the reputation of a being a former Wiseguy ever make you are target for harassment by the police, just because of your celebrity status?
Not at all. At first, I would take it to heart when someone called me a rat but today I am the proudest rat in the United States. [laughs] It took me eight or nine years to work through that. It lead to a bit of a downfall for me with my drug addictions, my alcoholism and stuff, but ya know, I worked through that. It really wasn’t difficult. I was feeling sorry for myself when I really should have been jumping up and down with joy that I was still alive.
People have some strong opinions about you I am sure. Does that bring some real nuts out of the woodwork?
Listen, ya can’t please everybody. Believe me, I don’t take it to heart anymore. Some people are gonna love me and some people are gonna hate me for what I did, ya know. More power to them. Let them walk in my moccasins for one day. Ya know! Ya get these whackos from time to time, but very seldom.
A lot of people idolize the lifestyle you’ve led, probably more from what they have seen on film and on television. I know you have done a lot of work with at risk youth in the past. What can you say to people who view the life of a gangster as a glamorous one?
Kids today are so impressionable. Some of the best days of my life have been when a kid comes up to me and says to me that he changed his life because of that movie. These kids are so impressionable, these knuckleheads and gang bangers that have gone down the wrong path in life they think that it is so cool. Whether it is having a lot of money, fancy cars or power, that’s what gets ya as a kid. They don’t realize what goes along with that, the insanity of going out and beating somebody, popping somebody or whatever it is that they do today. It’s all over the news constantly. These kids, a lot of them are out of control and some of them will never change. They will end up spending the rest of their lives in prison or dead.
That I am really a nice guy! [laughs] Some people are deathly afraid of me! Well, not deathly afraid of me but if we are in the same room they get nervous. If ya go into a restaurant, sometimes they think we are going to shoot the place up! [laughs] Some people are just way out there.
That being said, what would you most like to be remembered for?
For what I did for the government. I was the poster boy for the Witness Protection Program for a lot of years! I did a lot for the government, not only myself, but my whole family did. My family sacrificed a whole lot more then I did. They turned out fabulous. My ex-wife and my kids are very successful. I am really proud of my children and my ex-wife. They really went through hell with moving so many times and changing their names. They had it a whole lot worse then I did but they turned out to be gems.
A few years back, your kids wrote a book entitled, On The Run: A Mafia Childhood, did you ever get a chance to read the book? If so, what did you think about it?
I helped write 75% of that book. You know, I don’t have the memories that they have. I wasn’t there. I was an absentee dad. I thought that, no matter how I got it, as long as I provided them with money and an education, that is what I needed to do.
You are still in touch with your children and have a good relationship?
Absolutely! I talk to them a couple times a week and it’s the same thing with my ex-wife.
I became a “news junkie.” I try to stay on top of all the current events. I sit home and I paint, in these beautiful surroundings. I’ll be 66 in a couple weeks and I am still hustling, ya know. You gotta make a living! I have bills just like everyone else. If I knew I was gonna live this long, I was I would have saved 2% the money that passed though my hands in my lifetime. [laughs]
I can imagine!
Yeah, but I sit at home and I paint. I try to relax and I try to be a grain of sand better today then I was yesterday, at my age. I do some charity work. If ya can help somebody, ya help them, if it is a good cause. I spend a lot of the day painting and a couple hours on the computer. I have some screenplays that I am involved in. Staying busy.
As you mentioned earlier, you have had some struggles with sobriety over the years. How are you making out these days?
I am as sober as a judge! Believe or not. Ya know, I have battled alcoholism most of my adult life. Drugs I gave up many, many years ago. It’s a dead end street. On a weekend, it was nice to do a line or two but then it just snowballed into “out-of-control-ism.” I am half Irish, so I still like to tip ’em but for my own reasons and health reasons, I don’t do it anymore.
What do you think of shows like VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and have you ever been approached to be part of a reality series?
I went to rehab about two months ago for the umph teenth time and yeah, I have been approached to do a reality show. In fact, there is one in the hopper right now. We did a few months of filming and it isn’t quite to the point where they want it to be. So, whatever will be will be. If it get it, I get it, and if not there is always something else right around the corner. There is a movie that I was just approached about, mob related stuff, I think I am going to take the role. Ya know, I gotta pay the bills and it is cool. I enjoy working, ya know! [laughs]
You also mentioned your paintings and you have been selling them online for quite a while now. What made you pick up the brush originally?
I never thought I had it in me. It is just fun art and it relaxes me, just like my cooking. It’s just like going to a shrink! [laughs] It just relaxes me and takes my mind off of the rest of the world. My brain doesn’t stop and I can’t shut it off sometimes, and picking up a brush is a good way to shut it off. I really do some good watercolors, but I like doing that funny art too. It sells and people like it. I get a lot of compliments on it believe it or not! [laughs] I do some really serious work occasionally. (Check out Henry Hill’s artwork – Click Here)
Like I said, I come from a family of eight children, so I was always on her apron strings, just to get a minute or a word in edgewise. I love to cook and I love to see people enjoy my cooking. I consider myself an excellent chef and I always said that I wanted to write a cookbook, so I wrote one! It’s still in bookstores and it is very successful. I was always in the restaurant business for one reason or another. Our restaurants or night clubs were our offices and that is where we conducted business.
Do you have a dish that you consider to be your signature dish?
Anything with sauce in it. I have a sauce business that is just getting off the ground. It’s called Henry Hill’s Sunday Gravy. That is what they call the sauce back east. The other day, I did two big pans of eggplant parmesan, I like to cook healthy and I like to cook mostly organic. I just like people to enjoy my food, so there isn’t one that I could pick out as my favorite.
When can we look forward to Henry Hill’s Sunday Gravy hitting the store shelves?
Hopefully, very soon. There are so many hurdles to jump through as far as government regulation and this and that. Then it is a matter of getting shelf space. I have some really good people negotiating to get it into major chains.
Do you think we will get anymore books out of you in the future?
Yeah, I am working on the “untold stories” right now. There are a lot of stories that I haven’t told yet or that didn’t make it into the previous books. I am also working on another cookbook that is focused on appetizers and desserts. I like to keep busy because if I get bored, I am susceptible to get into trouble! [laughs]
Yeah and hopefully one or two of them will pan out.
You mentioned that you have been working on several scripts? What can you tell us about that?
We just finished the script for the Boston College fix from the ’78-’79 season. We have only approached one person with it and they are still debating. Hopefully, we will see that movie made, only because they should be paying these college basketball players. Those kids have to work at Pizza Hut or some place to subsidize their expenses.
A few year back there were a few rumors flying around about a possible sequel to Goodfellas, based on ‘Gangsters and Goodfellas,’ any light you might be able to shed on that?
Yeah, there is a lot of interest in it. Scorsese doesn’t do sequels, so it is about finding the right director and writer attached to it. Of course, I don’t see anyone else but Ray Liotta playing me again. But ya know, it’s a long arduous process to get something done in L.A.
I got the impression from Goodfellas and your books, that in your past and even today with all your ventures, that you were trying to achieve your version of the American Dream. Is the American Dream still alive?
Absolutely. Even with the economy the way it is. What is the American Dream? To have a million dollars, to have ten million dollars or is it just to provide for your family, pay your bills on time and don’t let anyone break your balls? [laughs] Just do the right thing, that is the American Dream or try and do the right thing. There are so many stumbling blocks in life, it’s heaven or hell, it’s what you make of it.