R.I.P. Henry Hill, the inspiration for Goodfellas
TMZ first broke the news of the death of Henry Hill, the former Lucchese crime family associate turned FBI informant whose story formed the basis of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. According to Hill's girlfriend and manager, Hill had been "sick for a long time" and died following complications from a recent heart attack, going out "pretty peacefully, for a goodfella." He was 69.
As first documented in Nicholas Pileggi's 1986 book Wiseguy, Hill rose to power in the Lucchese family by first running errands for local mobsters, eventually being taken under the wing of Jimmy Burke (the inspiration for Robert De Niro's "Jimmy The Gent" character) after a teenaged Hill refused to rat on his friends. Much of the rest of Hill's life will be familiar to fans of the movie—where Hill was portrayed first by Christopher Serrone and then Ray Liotta—with Hill getting caught up in acts of arson and extortion, and famously orchestrating both the robbery of Air France and the notorious Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport, where Hill and Burke made off with a then-record $5 million as well as nearly $1 million in jewelry. Hill, of course, was also involved in the murder and subsequent disposal of Billy Batts, a Gambino made man who made the mistake of asking Hill's associate Tommy DeSimone whether he still shined shoes.
The reason that any of these details have become so ingrained in pop culture is that Hill—facing a narcotics charge and wracked with paranoia that Burke planned to kill him—turned informant, entering the FBI witness protection program and offering testimony against his friends, first in court and then to crime reporter Pileggi. As hinted at in the coda to Scorsese's film, Hill wasn't satisfied to remain an "average nobody" or live the rest of his life like a schnook for long: After committing several, mostly drug-related crimes, he was expelled from federal protection in the early '90s, right around the time Goodfellas had become an Oscar-nominated sensation.
Hill spent most of the years since trading on his newfound, if still ill-gotten fame: He opened the mob-themed restaurant Wiseguys in West Haven, which promptly caught on fire. He launched the website GoodFellaHenry.com, which offers Hill's virtual tours of locations depicted in the film, peddles knock-off Goodfellas merchandise, provides a (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek "How To Be A Mobster Guide," and even features a "Threat Of The Week" section, where Hill posted the many calls for his "rat bastard" head he received over the years. He was also a frequent guest on mob-related TV specials as well as The Howard Stern Show, where Hill plugged his signature line of spaghetti sauce, Sunday Gravy (better than ketchup on egg noodles, anyway), directed people to buy his original artwork, and discussed his ongoing drinking problem.
While Hill was a self-admitted criminal, a turncoat, and a crass opportunist, there's no question that our culture would be poorer without his many misdeeds and, more importantly, his willingness to exploit them. Hill's gleeful openness about a world defined by omertà inspired not only arguably the greatest gangster movie ever (and some, like this author, would argue the greatest movie period), it also directly spawned the 1990 Steve Martin/Rick Moranis comedy My Blue Heaven—which Pileggi's wife, Nora Ephron, based on the same interview sessions with Hill—and near-singlehandedly created the modern mobster lore that's loomed so large over everything from The Sopranos to gangsta rap to pretty much any crime movie made since (to say nothing of that Goodfellas TV series that's in the works). As far back as he could remember, Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. As far as pop culture is concerned, he always will be.