HENRY HILL IS SURPRISED TO BE ALIVE. He’s survived the Mafia, heroin addiction and alcoholism. One day, sure, his organs will give up the struggle. But it will be an empty victory for Death, as Hill has mocked that skeletal angel for decades. It’s “fuckin’ 30 years” since he turned tattletale on his Mafia mates and had a price put on his head. And it’s 20 years since he became the American underworld’s most famous footsoldier, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Now, on the cusp of his 67th birthday, Hill sits on the porch of his California home, shaded from the sun, smoking red-label Rave cigarettes and wondering how the hell he is still here. “Who’d a thunk it?” He laughs. “Who’d a thunk it?”
These days, his old conspirators can’t hurt him. Everyone he ran with is dead or in jail. Even Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke, the friend, partner and psychotic murderer so potently portrayed (as Jimmy Conway) by Robert De Niro, is gone. The threat comes not from a man who died (of cancer, in prison) in 1996, but from one who passed in 1911: a Mr. Jack Daniel. “I love it! Fuck it... Me and you could put a bottle away in two hours. But I’ll suffer for three days...”
There is no bourbon here today. Lisa Caserta, Hill’s manager and fiancée, is keeping him off the sauce (“Don’t give him nothing!”). Later, if he can swing it, Hill will head to a local bar or a friend’s house to watch the Lakers in the basketball play-offs. A few beers, maybe... It’s been a while since he hit it hard. Even then, he would claim he’s not as bad as he once was. “I don’t get sloppy-assed drunk like I used to, you know what I mean?” he says, in his Brooklyn rasp. “I used to fuckin’ fall down, stumblin’ ass drunk. But I can’t... I don’t come home drunk.” Caserta chips in, her voice heavy with sarcasm: “Oh, it’s been a couple of months, so guess what? That means he’s sober!” She has designated one room a “drunk tank”, where he’s banished to if he comes home insensible. Sometimes, when he’s been drinking and riding buses, she’ll get a call at an ungodly hour. A veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, sober herself for 29 years, she then provides roadside assistance usually associated with a different AA. “She picks me up in the weirdest places, you know?” says Hill. “‘How the fuck did you get here?’ ‘I don’t know!’”
Of the many words used to describe Henry Hill — gangster, rat, thief, thug, philanderer — perhaps the most apt is ‘addict’. Whether it’s the thrill of a score, a snort, a lie or a lay, Hill has hankered after it. “Oh, man, you know, I was strung out on every single drug that’s humanly possible.” He pauses, to correct himself. “I never was into acid too much. I did acid, but I was never into it much. But every other drug...” He shrugs. “I don’t know what it is. I’m an addict! An alcoholic! If I don’t feel like drinking it’s because, like I say, I don’t want to pay the consequence. I go to a doctor once, twice a month sometimes. They check me out. They can’t believe I’m alive.” He laughs that cigarette-ripened laugh again. “The fuckin’ doctors can’t believe I’m alive!” He looks better than he should. Wiry and worn, about 5’ 8”, he has a few liver spots, his grey goatee nicotine-stained, but he could pass for distinguished or down ’n’ out, depending on the day and dress.
Other words you could use to describe Henry Hill: funny, beguiling... mischievous. This is a man who can’t believe his luck, good and bad. He’s forever been on the make, forever had an eye for an angle. Ray Liotta may have been bigger, but it’s clear what Scorsese saw in him, as the actor ably captured Hill’s sideways glances, shiftiness and defining, charming, caught-in-the-cookie-jar grin. Adapted from Wiseguy — the Hill memoirs penned by Nicholas Pileggi — GoodFellas closes with him bemoaning the grey world of the Witness Protection Program. Truth is, though, life as a “schnook” didn’t last very long. Hill never completely escaped crime, just as he could never completely escape himself. “I tried to become normal,” he says. “I didn’t know what the fuck normal was. I had no fuckin’ clue.” His troubles with drugs and drink continued, and his tendency to reveal his identity when sloshed meant he was kicked out of the WPP by 1982, a mere two years after enrolling. Still a valuable asset, he was supported by the FBI and continually debriefed, as case after case relied upon his testimony. In 1987, though, he took the stand not as a witness, but as a perp. “I got arrested for drugs.” He sighs.
Henry Hill on set with his on-screen embodiment, Ray Liotta.
Twenty-three years later and he still exudes a sense of injustice. “I was using drugs,” he says, as if affronted by the suggestion he was dealing again. “But I owed one guy $9,000 and he brought in 50 keys of coke from Peru. He wanted me to help him move it. ‘Henry, you gotta help me, I did you so many favours... blah blah blah.’ So like a jerk I started introducing him to different dealers and they wheeled in a goddamn DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent. They said he wanted two kilos. There was something about him, I knew the guy was a cop, I knew it. But he was snorting fuckin’ lines like I couldn’t believe. I thought, ‘This guy can’t be a fuckin’ agent!’ But sure enough, the motherfucker was a fuckin’ agent, you know?”
According to Hill, his fame — or notoriety — had brought him unwanted attention: he says he wasn’t the original subject of the investigation, but the DEA switched targets when they realised who he was. Wiseguy, recounting his Mob exploits, including drug distribution, was a bestseller at the time. “The fuckin’ jurors were reading it. I mean, come on!” They found him guilty of “narcotics-related” charges and his federal pay day was over: the government had had enough. Still, whether through sweet-talking, luck or because of past services rendered, he only got five years’ probation. Fame was a double-edged sword — one he might now live by...
GoodFellas changed everything... and nothing. Scorsese and Warner Bros. paid $500,000 for the screen rights to Hill’s memoir. “That was the beginning of the Hollywood bullshit, you know?” It was probably his biggest pay day since the Lufthansa heist and he could, at least, ask for the money without fear of being shot, stabbed or garrotted. (Hill says Burke never paid him his share of the notorious airport robbery detailed in the film. He was just grateful to be left alive.)
It was his gateway into Hollywood: the chance to rub shoulders with stars again, as he had at the Copacabana, back in the day (Hill still taps his cigarettes into an ashtray bearing the brand of the famous New York nightclub). He knew Scorsese’s work. “I’d seen Mean Streets three or four times. In fact, I took Paulie to see Mean Streets!” Paul Vario — renamed Cicero on screen — was a capo in the Lucchese Family, Henry’s boss, played with heavy-lidded menace by Paul Sorvino. “But he liked the cowboy movies,” says Hill. “He’d always root for the bad guys. He liked the shoot-’em-ups. John Waynes and shit.” Now Hill was taking daily calls from Mean Streets star De Niro. “He wouldn’t even do a scene without talking to me. ‘How did Jimmy hold his cigarette? How did Jimmy hold his shot glass? How many drinks did Jimmy have before he went a little fuckin’ crazy?’”
But Hill’s homelife had fallen apart. Finally, he and his long-suffering wife, Karen (immortalised by Lorraine Bracco), went their separate ways, with her tired of his serial philandering and ongoing addictions. His two children grown, he soon had another son, with his mistress. But it would be another couple of decades before he and Karen officially divorced. “Because she thought I’d come home!” says Hill. He laughs. “She still thinks I’ll come home!” The pair spoke a couple of days ago. They live nearly 3,000 miles apart, yet clearly remain close. She really loved him.
“She still loves me,” says Hill. And for the only moment during our afternoon together, he is still, soft, a little sad. Does he still love her? He looks up and says, quietly, “Of course.” There is a long pause. Then
— laughter. “But I wouldn’t go back with her!” Hill is a proud parent, though he doesn’t claim to be a good one. “I was a fuck of a father, you know? I mean, I wasn’t a great father... But, ah, I, I know my family loves me. They tell me that every time I speak to them.” Ironically, his eldest son is a lawyer. His daughter has just given birth. His youngest is at university. None can carry his name. The threat of being whacked may have abated, but inherited reputations can be hard to kill. These days, Hill isn’t concerned about being whacked. “I know where the wiseguys hang out in LA. And the Feds tell me: ‘If I were you, I’d stay out of this place.’ I know where not to go. But all the people of my era, that I testified against, are gone, you know what I mean? There’s nobody from my pool left. Nobody has a beef with me.”