The True Story Behind the Classic Gangster Film “Goodfellas”

November 28 2018
Share The True Story Behind the Classic Gangster Film “Goodfellas”

For movie buffs, Astoria—the home of Kaufman Astoria Studios, which features the city’s only backlot—is the heart of the New York City film industry. From Sesame Street to Glengarry Glen Ross and beyond, my hometown has seen countless TV and film productions, but there is only one that has a special place in my family’s heart.

There are several scenes in Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece Goodfellas that were not only filmed in my hometown but in my neighborhood, and a sharp eye can even spot my family’s house. My mother recalls walking out of the house and passing the man on her stoop whose job was apparently to keep an eye on Robert De Niro’s dog.

Because of this less than six degrees of separation, Goodfellas has been a mainstay in my family since its release in 1990. We all have our favorite scenes and lines memorized, but for being such longtime fans, we’ve never known much about the real story. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered that the film is overwhelmingly accurate to its source material—the true crime classic WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi.

To be succinct, reading WISEGUY is a lot like watching Goodfellas. It’s a breathless, white-knuckle tale of racketeering, scams, and murder. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I was still on the edge of my seat, my mouth often literally falling open in astonishment at the bravado of Henry Hill and his fellow gangsters. And yes, like in the film adaptation, there were moments of such over-the-top audacity in this book, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

Pileggi must’ve known he hit a gold mine when he began interviewing Henry Hill—then still an FBI informant in the Witness Protection Program. Though Pileggi weaves a clear-eyed and astonishingly unbiased exploration of Hill and his life of crime, the author takes a step back and allows the oddly charismatic and witty Hill to speak for himself and tell his story in his own words. Along with his now ex-wife, Karen; the United States attorney who prosecuted him; and a few others, Hill pulls back the curtain on a life most of us can barely imagine.

From detailing how Hill would make more money in a weekend than most make in a year (and lose it all by the following weekend) to casually depicting the overwhelming corruption in the justice system, Hill’s story is a captivating and unforgettable plunge into a dark and violent world that is all the more shocking because it’s true.

WISEGUY is one of those true crime books that you just simply can’t put down, even if you know the outcome—much the way Goodfellas is a movie you just can’t pause. It’s easy to understand why Scorsese—who’d had no intention of making another mob movie after Mean Streets and Raging Bull—was convinced to bring this tale to the big screen. It’s a non-fiction book with writing that all but leaps off the pages and leaves you dizzy when you finish it.

Wiseguy
Nicholas Pileggi

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