Martin Scorsese’s mob epic, Goodfellas, opened theatrically on September 19, 1990 — thirty years ago this week. The film was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 crime book Wiseguy, which told the true story of Henry Hill, a Mafia figure turned government informant (portrayed in the film by Ray Liotta). But did you know that Goodfellas was not the first film to make it to movie theaters based on Hill’s incredible story? In this exclusive excerpt from the first chapter of Decider contributor Glenn Kenny‘s forthcoming book, Made Men: The Story Of Goodfellas (Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins), he details how Nora Ephron’s Henry Hill movie, My Blue Heaven, beat Goodfellas into theaters.
“I think Wiseguy would have been a very different book had Henry Hill not been Henry Hill,” Nicholas Pileggi says. It wasn’t just that Hill, who was hidden by the feds after assisting in cases against Paul “Paulie” Vario and Jimmy “the Gent” Burke among others, had approached Pileggi (initially through an attorney) not just ready but eager to talk. It was Hill’s ability to talk, and to remember.
After the initial contact, which led to Hill’s flouting of his protected-witness status, Pileggi learned that Hill had both the vocabulary and the memory of a born storyteller. “I had asked a hundred mobsters, ‘What was your first big score on the numbers?’ And they would say, ‘I don’t remember.’ Didn’t remember the score, didn’t remember what they did with the money, shrugged, and said, ‘What the hell, you’re talking twenty years ago, I don’t remember.’ Henry Hill, I asked the same question, ‘What was your first big score with the numbers?’ He said, ‘I got six hundred dollars.’ I said, ‘What’d you do with the money?’ He said, ‘I bought a yellow Bonneville convertible, it was the greatest day of my life. I’ve played the numbers ever since.’ I mean, that’s golden.
“These mob guys, most of them, had lived a life of not telling stories. They had dedicated their lives to being monosyllabic. Henry was the opposite. He was the Irishman.
“He was playing to the crowd. He would dance. And the 30 wiseguys liked him for that. The fully Italian guys didn’t hold anything against him, because he was not one of them.
“He was like the court jester.”
That vivid voice spoke to Pileggi, and so, too, to Martin Scorsese. When Scorsese tried to contact Pileggi about getting the rights to the book and adapting it, Pileggi was skeptical. Not about Wiseguy‘s potential as a movie, but as to whether the calls he was getting were actually from Scorsese.
“I had seen all of his movies, down to his great documentary about his parents, Italianamerican. So doing a movie with him was a kind of dream I didn’t think could necessarily come true. He first called from Chicago, while he was in the middle of directing The Color of Money.”
Pileggi wasn’t at his New York magazine office when the first call came; the receptionist gave him a pink slip with the message when he came in. “I got this message to call Marty Scorsese.” Pileggi laughs at the memory. “I knew that it was bullshit, I knew it was David Denby, my friend who at the time was the movie critic for the magazine. The son of a bitch. He knew how much I loved Marty’s movies because we had seen a bunch of them together. So I figured if I called the number I’d just get Denby, and Denby was gonna bust my balls, so I didn’t call.
“And then, next day, there was the same message, and again I didn’t call.”
Pileggi and the writer Nora Ephron had been romantically involved for some time by the mid-’80s, and Ephron’s career in film as a screenwriter, and later director, was well on its way. They married in 1987. “I think the only reason she even talked to me and got married to me was that she was fascinated by this world of mobsters that I wrote about, because it was the opposite of hers,” Pileggi says of Ephron, fondly and kiddingly.
“The day I didn’t return the call for the second time, I got home that night, and Nora was home, and she says to me, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, am I crazy?’ She said, ‘Why won’t you call Marty Scorsese?’ And I said, ‘That’s not Marty, that’s Denby busting my balls.’”
Ephron informed him no, it was Marty—a crew member on Money who had worked with Ephron had called her to ask what was up. Chastened, Pileggi called Scorsese immediately.
“I couldn’t think of anybody I’d rather have make a movie out of this book. And once we spoke, that was it.”
This despite the fact that at the time, Scorsese could offer Pileggi nothing beyond his desire to make the book into a movie. “He said, ‘I can’t do it right away,’ because there was no deal, and he had to finish Money, and then he really needed to get The Last Temptation of Christ squared away. But I didn’t care. We made a handshake deal over the telephone, so to speak.”
Once the book was out of galleys and in bookstores in the early spring of 1986, offers intensified. “The book was huge, and a lot of people were coming at me. I threw them all out. I told my agent, we’re not selling it. A whole slew of directors wanted to do it, and would have done it instantly. Including Brian De Palma, and I like Brian, and I like his movies. But I just knew this was Marty’s material, that this was where he was from, in a way that Brian wasn’t.”
Pileggi held faith that Scorsese was the filmmaker to do justice to Wiseguy, and he was proven more than correct. But because Pileggi waited, a different movie about Henry Hill made it into theaters before Goodfellas.
My Blue Heaven, directed by Herbert Ross and produced and distributed by Warner Brothers, the same studio that put together Goodfellas (this despite Scorsese already having a production deal with Touchstone in place), opened in theaters on August 17, 1990, a full month before the Scorsese/Pileggi collaboration. It stars Steve Martin as Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli, a New York mobster enrolled in the witness protection program; Rick Moranis plays Barney Coopersmith, his neat-as-a-pin, by-the-book, tenderhearted FBI keeper.
This broad comedy relocated its mobster to California rather than the Midwest. Made well before fusion cuisine and such hit the West Coast, it finds Vinnie perplexed on a visit to a supermarket where not only can he not find arugula, but where no one has heard of it. “Arugula! I haven’t had arugula in SIX WEEKS,” he cries. Shades of the lament of the exiled Hill at the end of Goodfellas: “Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”
The screenwriter of My Blue Heaven is Nora Ephron.
“She was the daughter of playwrights, screenwriters,” says Pileggi. “It was a very refined world. So I just brought her along. And everybody she met [from Pileggi’s world], and I tell you, she met major people, they loved her. So she wound up being included in lots of—well, I wouldn’t say mob meetings, but dinners. Like the ninetieth birthday of a mob boss from Las Vegas, in Staten Island, we’d get in the car. She loved meeting these people, and as they got to know her movies, the wives really connected to her.” Prior to writing Heaven, Ephron based her screenplay for 1989’s Cookie, a comedy about the feisty daughter of a mob boss, on Nina Galante. Nina was the daughter of mobster Carmine Galante, and in the 1970s she served as her dad’s chauffeur. (“She was the best wheel man in the city,” Pileggi insists.)
Pileggi stayed close to Henry Hill after the publication of Wiseguy, indeed, up to the end of Hill’s life. Hill kept up with the showbiz trades and became very animated when word about a possible movie based on Wiseguy came up. “A lot of the conversations were ‘how’s the book doing, where’s the movie now, when am I going to get a paycheck,’ that sort of thing.”
Sometimes in the early days of their association, when Hill called, one of Ephron’s boys from her marriage to Carl Bernstein, then in their preteens, would answer the phone, and the caller would announce himself as Henry. That was the name by which they knew Ephron’s father, Henry Ephron. So they’d say hello, and hand the phone to their mom.
“And they would spend a lot of time on the phone,” Pileggi says. “She was fascinated, because, like anybody else, you want to know, how do you live in the witness protection program? He got a little more far-fetched with her than he did with me. I think because it was clear to him that she found it so entertaining, he made some things up.”
Heaven is a broad, amiable farce, which ends with its mobster character turning local hero by dedicating the proceeds of a new criminal scam to a youth baseball construction project—an ending probably more inspired by the exigencies of Hollywood narrative than Hill’s own yarn-spinning.
Excerpted from Made Men: The Story Of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny © 2020 by Glenn Kenny, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins. It is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or wherever you buy books, but Made Men will officially be released and available at bookstores everywhere on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 — that’s tomorrow!
Where to stream Goodfellas
Where to stream My Blue Heaven