Henry Hill is back in the spotlight as the 20th anniversary of the release of Martin Scorsese’s seminal gangster movie Goodfellas approaches.
‘All my life I wanted to be a gangster…’ The movie tells Hill’s story inside the Mafia and featured an assorted bunch of real life hitmen and psychopaths, most of whom now lie in unmarked shallow graves, or died of old age in prison.
By contrast Hill, 67, who was played by a young Ray Liotta, is alive and seems as surprised as anyone that he wasn’t himself “whacked”. The Mafia has a notoriously long memory for betrayal and the price on his head was reputedly more than £1 million.
Although he doesn’t sport a fake beard in public anymore, Henry still does his best not to draw attention. His designer suits are gone and now he’s wearing anonymous looking combat trousers, a pink short sleeve shirt, and a cloth cap pulled low over his forehead.
He nervously chain smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, his eyes darting around and clocking anyone who walks in. At the sound of a chair scraping on the floor he instinctively spins around to look.
“There’s nobody from my era alive today,” Hill says. “But there’s always that chance that some young buck wants to make a name for themselves.
“It’s surreal, totally surreal, to be here. I never thought I’d reach this wonderful age. I’m just grateful for being alive.”
Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy”, details how following the 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK airport, then the largest cash robbery on US soil, he “turned rat” and sent a string of Mafia figures to jail.
It meant Hill had to give up everything he had ever known.
“The money,” he laughs ruefully. “The money was ——- unbelievable. We never robbed nothing small or that was not a major score.
“The government said a couple of hundred million dollars went through my hands. But I just blew it on slow horses, women, drugs and rock n’ roll.
“We partied five, six nights a week and I was making $15,000 to $40,000 a week. That was just my end. But I was a degenerate gambler. I could lose $40,000 in a week.”
“Just about every other guy was a cold blooded —— murderer. It was tough for me. I showed up with them when I had to but I was walking between rain drops. Every day I was scared.
“I never killed nobody – at least not on purpose. I shot at people but we didn’t stick around to find out what happened.”
Hill doesn’t like to talk about the bodies he helped bury but admits there were at least a dozen of them. By 1980 he was in fear of his own life.
He says: “I knew I was going to get whacked and it came pretty close. So it was either me or them. I knew it, and they knew it. Initially, I had a lot of remorse and it took me a long time to forgive myself for what I did, for being a rat. But I knew I saved a lot of lives by putting a lot of horrible people away. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
Those he put away included Burke, a ruthless villain believed to have been involved in at least 50 murders. His name was changed to Jimmy Conway in the film for legal reasons.
Henry coached De Niro on how to play Jimmy and the actor, legendary for his attention to detail, was on the phone five or six times a day during filming.
“He would call and ask ‘How would Jimmy hold a cigarette? How would Jimmy hold a shot glass? I thought that was kind of weird at the time but he did a great job,” said Hill. He even taught De Niro the correct technique for pistol whipping a victim.
Henry still likes watching Goodfellas, which he describes as “95 per cent accurate,” and speaks with genuine warmth about Liotta, who he saw just a month ago.
He is still in contact with the FBI and delivers occasional talks at which he tells “knucklehead kids” to stay on the straight and narrow.
His message to any aspiring young hoodlums among them is simple.
“Forget about it. Stay in school.”