How True is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas?

Martin Scorsese’s cult classic, ‘Goodfellas’, is widely regarded as one of the best gangster films of all time. It is also hailed by many as some of the legendary filmmaker’s finest work. Released in 1990, ‘Goodfellas’ tells the story of the rise and fall of a New York City mafia associate, from his early days as a petty criminal to the heights of his career as a feared gangster to his ultimate betrayal of his friends and retreat into hiding.

‘Goodfellas’, a shockingly fast-paced and unapologetically glamorous film, follows the story of a mobster turned informant who rats out his fellow criminals and goes into a witness protection program in order to protect himself and his family from mafia retribution. Even after 30 years, ‘Goodfellas’ remains as imminently re-watchable as ever. But if you’ve ever marveled at the realistic portrayal of the mafia in the movie, that’s because the source material of Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed ‘Goodfellas’ is as authentic as they come. Want to find out if ‘Goodfellas’ is rooted in reality? Did Henry, Paulie, Tommy, and Jimmy exist for real? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is Goodfellas Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Goodfellas’ is based on a true story. It is adapted from the 1985 book ‘Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family’ by Nicholas Pileggi (who also worked on the movie’s screenplay). ‘Wiseguy’ is the biography of former mob associate Henry Hill, who started out his crime career in 1955 as a petty criminal and rose through the ranks to become one of the top guys in the Lucchese crime family. After getting arrested on narcotics charges in 1980, Henry turned into an FBI informant and provided information to the Feds that resulted in the arrest of about 50 other mob associates.

Credit: FBI mugshot of Henry Hill; 1980

Reportedly, when Scorsese first came across Pileggi’s book ‘Wiseguy’, he called up Pileggi and said “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life,” to which the author replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” Actor Robert De Niro (who plays Jimmy the Gent in the film) prepared for the role by studying the author’s research from when he was writing ‘Wiseguy’ and by calling the real Henry Hill and asking for tips on how to act/walk/talk like his former associate. Ray Liotta (who portrays Henry Hill) listened to a lot of FBI audiotapes of their informant so that he could replicate the way Hill spoke. Actress Lorraine Bracco, who portrays the role of Henry’s wife Karen, decided not to meet the real Karen to keep it original, but she did unsuccessfully try to become friends with a mob wife to learn their mannerisms.

Credit: NYC Police Dept.; mugshot of Paul Vario

Even though ‘Goodfellas’ is based on true events, some parts of the movie have been dramatized and a few details have been modified to appear different from the reality. The real Henry Hill was apparently nowhere near as charismatic as Liotta plays him in the film. Henry and Karen have two daughters in the film while their real-life counterparts were parents to a girl named Gina and a boy named Gregg.

The last names of Paulie, Jimmy, and Tommy were changed for the movie – Tommy DeVito is based on real-life mobster Tommy DeSimone, Paul “Paulie” Cicero on Paul Vario, and Jimmy Conway on James “Jimmy” Burke. While they are depicted as same-aged pals in ‘Goodfellas’, real-life Tommy was at least 7 years younger than Henry. Tommy was apparently much more scarier and violent in real life than he is shown to be in the film. In actuality, Billy Batts’ murder was not a “heat-of-the-moment” thing but was a pre-meditated attack. In the movie, Tommy is murdered as revenge for Batts but in reality, Tommy’s disappearance and assumed death is still an unsolved mystery because his body was never found.

At the time of the film’s release in 1990, the real Henry Hill was still under the U.S. Marshals’ Witness Protection Program but was soon expelled from the program after being convicted of cocaine trafficking yet again. Karen filed for divorce in 1990 and Hill remarried another woman (Kelly Alor) and had a third child. After getting chucked out from Witness Protection, Hill spent his final years in Topanga Canyon, near Malibu, California, as he battled alcoholism. He died from heart disease complications in a Los Angeles hospital, on June 12, 2012.

Jimmy Burke died of cancer while he was in jail serving his life sentence, at the age of 64, five years after the film came out. Paul Vario died of respiratory failure in 1988 while serving his 10-year sentence at the FCI Federal Prison in Fort Worth. And as stated above, Tommy DeSimone went missing in 1979, a year before Hill ratted out the others, and has since been presumed murdered. Knowing that the story of ‘Goodfellas’ is based on real people and events makes it all the more enjoyable to watch.

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