The photographer, his assistants, art directors, wardrobe people, and me in a suite on the top floor of the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Once at the height of L.A. glamour, this landmark hotel has lost its sheen, and is now home to destitute families and Vietnam vets swept into a corner by poverty. The decaying splendor of the once glistening faux décor is a favorite with photographers, and the frequently shot red brocade walls have undoubtedly seen many things from Hollywood’s heyday, but remain forever silent.
Suddenly, the reason for our wait arrives. Ray Liotta enters the suite, with publicists in tow; all are wilting from the downtown summer heat. There’s only an hour and a half to shoot the magazine layout - not a lot of time, and I’m here simply to make initial contact before we meet again for the interview. As I introduce myself, he’s friendly, looking straight into my eyes with those shocking baby blues. We quickly find common ground in stories I covered on rib joints and steak houses; I promise to bring copies when we do the interview, and start to duck out.
"Are we doing it tomorrow?" he asks. "No," I reply. "I have to watch videos of all your films first." He’s pleased. "I wish all journalists would do that. Then they’d see I’ve done more than play bad guys."
A few weeks later, my Ray Liotta Film festival was over. Of his 26 films, not including movies of the week and films that have yet to be released, I watched 14.25. I pull into the small, secluded café off the Pacific Coast Highway for the interview. This time I’m a bit late. Ray is unruffled, sitting at a round table-for-two outside of the coffee bar. This summer has been unseasonably chilly for Los Angeles and he’s casually dressed in a beige shallow V-neck sweater and stylish slacks.
With reading glasses perched on the middle of his nose, he’s been engrossed in a thin manuscript. Though he’s between projects for the latter part of the summer, his thick dark hair is well cut (probably from the photo sessions) and is highlighted with a few gray streaks. When he looks up, he removes the glasses and I am again confronted with Hollywood’s best-known blue eyes since Frank Sinatra’s. Liotta’s are light blue, and especially prominent because they are rimmed with dark black lashes - a feature common to his dominant Scottish heritage. From his cinematic reputation you’d expect to see some mania in them, instead, they are hypnotic and relaxed. In real life, Liotta is more cuddly teddy bear than crazed tormenter. He’s shy and modest.
Liotta lives in this elite infested, coastal Los Angeles suburb and frequents this café often. We’re here because he’s got a drove of projects coming out in the next few months. John Q, with Denzel Washington and Robert Duvall; The Narc, which he has produced with his wife, Michelle, and Point of Honor, an upcoming HBO psychological drama - whose plot I’ve sworn not to reveal prior to its December air date.
I tease him about how he thought watching his films would quell his type casting. It didn’t immediately because his first two roles were nut cases. He laughs briefly and then winces when I mention his film debut in The Lonely Lady, the 1/4 film, which was ejected after he rapes Pia Zadora with a garden hose in the first half hour. "I forgot about that one, but you could have skipped it," he says. "I only did it to get my foot in the door and because you never know what can happen."
That "what can happen," happened with his very next film -1986’s Something Wild in which he plays a newly ex-con who’s obsessed with Melanie Griffth to the point of murder. That role also didn’t make his case but it was the film’s stand out role and the one that drew Hollywood’s attention. From that film on, however he was moderately correct. Liotta has done a lot more than play potential funny farm inhabitants. So why the bad rap?
"Bad guys stand out in people’s minds," Liotta explains. "If you think about De Niro or Pacino, you’re not going to stay Stanley and Iris, you are not going to say Author! Author! Even with Brando, you are going to say The God Father or Street Car. It is the edgier characters that are remembered. That’s my rationalization."
Prior to his notable portrayal of Henry Hill, in 1990’s Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s homage to the Mob, he played a sensitive medical student in 1988’s Dominic and Eugene, who has to decide how much more he can sacrifice for his mentally challenged brother. The following year, he was Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseball’s ghostly legend in the haunting Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner. ("I never hit Kevin on the head with a baseball bat in the film!") On the way to his current projects he’s played a variety of doctors - the above Dom and Gene, Article 99, 1992’s version of MASH, and the doc who’s accused of his wife’s murder in 1996’s medical sci-fi mystery Unforgettable.
He’s also portrayed a Green Beret in Operation Dumbo Drop, a widowed father in Corina Corina and, earlier this year, the father of a drug dealer in Blow. Then there are the litany of cops, including the ones in the aforementioned John Q and Narc, the compulsive Pete Davis in Unlawful Entry, the less than honest Figgsy in Cop Land and Harry the cop gone a rye in Phoenix. And of course, Paul Krendler the unforgettable cop who looses his head over his job in Hannibal.
He’s really only totally wacko as the psycho cop in Unlawful Entry and as Ryan Weaver, the insane serial killer in Turbulence, who, on the way to death row, does everything he can to crash the plane that’s transporting him to his doom. Heck, he didn’t even wack someone in Goodfellas!
"Okay there was an edginess to the guy, but he never killed anyone. All he did was beat up the guy who was harming girlfriend. And a major point in the film was how he couldn’t be made because he was part Irish and part Italian. But then they also say I’m Italian and I’m mostly Scottish with a bit of Italian. So, it doesn’t track sometimes."