Henry Hill wasn’t a kingpin, a capo di tutti capi, or even a made man. He was just a regular goodfella who decided to talk. But when Hill died of heart failure in West Hills, Calif., this month, it was as one of the Mafia’s most well-known figures, because when he talked, everyone listened.
When it came out in 1986, Wiseguy — Nicholas Pileggi’s as-told-to account of Hill’s life of glamour and violence in the Lucchese crime family — didn’t only break omertà it shattered it and put the shards up for display in an anthropological exhibit. The book was a window into a world that was little seen except by those who lived in it; no one had ever depicted those circles in such vivid detail, because no one else had Hill. Even the great Jimmy Breslin couldn’t get material like this. Wiseguy‘s cultural impact was fed through a megaphone when Martin Scorsese used it as the basis for 1990’s GoodFellas. That film, with Ray Liotta playing Hill, forever tweaked our perception of the Mafia. Before, we had the titillating karmic morality of Jimmy Cagney flicks, or the stately institutionalism of The Godfather, but here was a movie that didn’t just replace mobsters with movie stars, it showed that they practically were movie stars. Money, power, backdoor access — Hill was seduced, not recruited. And Scorsese nailed Hill’s account. ”When I [watched the movie], it was the first time I’d never gotten up in the theater to go pee or something,” Hill told EW in 2006. ”Honest to God. I couldn’t believe it.” Of course, what prevented either Wiseguy or GoodFellas from truly romanticizing these men was the reality of what came after. Unlike most of his colleagues, Hill avoided death or prison, but only by trading in the only asset he had: his story. Even then, he lived in fear of retribution and found it hard to shake his criminal past. He left witness protection and was arrested multiple times on drug charges. But worst of all, Hill had to give up the lifestyle. ”I’m an average nobody,” he says in the final lines of both the book and the film. ”I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” That’s both true and untrue. He may have been a man stripped of identity, but that’s what let him be such a perfect tour guide to this culture he knew all too well, ensuring his own legacy with his words. Hill was a man whose life wouldn’t have even existed on paper had he not decided to put it there.