Ray Liotta: The Best Bad Boy

As Frank Sinatra in HBO's The Rat Pack, Ray Liotta gets to let some of his bad-guy chops loose once more, but he gets to let his blue eyes do their magic, too.


Ray Liotta has a reputation for being very good at playing very bad-- his hauntingly vicious thug in Something Wild, his bewitching gutter mobster in GoodFellas and his brutally psycho cop in Unlawful Entry are just a few examples. He tried to shake his hood image with the family tale Corrina, Corrina and the family comedy Operation Dumbo Drop, but neither worked. Subsequently, he took good and bad guy parts in mostly mediocre films such as Unforgettable (in which he injects himself with spinal fluid containing specific "memories"), Turbulence (in which he terrorizes Lauren Holly at 36,000 feet in a violent storm), Cop Land (in which he bonds with Sylvester Stallone) and the upcoming indie Phoenix, in which he gambles his life away in a horse race. But the best gig he's gotten in a while is playing Frank Sinatra in HBO's The Rat Pack, a movie likely to be watched even more now that Sinatra has joined most of the other Rat Packers in that great Vegas in the sky.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What was your reaction when you were first offered the role of Sinatra?

RAY LIOTTA: I wasn't sure I wanted to do it. How do you play an icon--a guy who hangs out with presidents, who gets to sing "One for My Baby," who makes love with Ava Gardner and who goes sailing with JFK? He himself was quoted saying he was an 18-carat manic-depressive, which means you've got lots of emotional roller coasters to play. So I said, "I'm just gonna have fun and act."

Q: Were you a big Sinatra fan before?

A: No, but once I decided to do it I became obsessed. I watched and listened to everything I could get my hands on. Now I'm a fan.

Q: The Sinatra family has been pretty vocal about its disapproval of the project. Is it true that Tina Sinatra sent you a horse's head?

A: Yeah. I did an interview and the writer said, "Do you think the [Sinatra] family is gonna send you a horse's head?" and I said, "Noooo." Later when I was on the set, a delivery came and it was a big plastic horse's head with blood coming out of it and a note from Tina Sinatra that said, "Oh yeah?" She then called to get it back, so I think she's lightened up. But the more Tina complained, the more press we got. We loved it.

Q: What surprised you the most in your research?

A: I didn't know anything about Joe Kennedy buying his son's election. He went to Sinatra, directly or indirectly, to use Sam Giancana to turn out votes--dead people voted. This is all in our movie. It's not just about a bunch of guys singing and dancing.

Q: Sinatra was known for his blue eyes and so are you.

A: I think my eyes helped the producers' decision to cast me, but obviously there were other reasons I got the role.

Q: Will this part open up other types of roles for you?

A: Who knows? I've gotten to the point where you let it go. You try to make the best choices that you can. If the movie gods are going to shine on you, they will.

Q: What's the most campaigning you've ever done for a part?

A: GoodFellas. I met Scorsese, then sent him a tape of Dominick and Eugene, then sent him a note saying I liked The Last Temptation of Christ. Later I saw him at the Venice Film Festival in the middle of the hotel lobby, and beelined over to him. He was getting death threats at the time and his bodyguards came after me. I said, "No, no, no, I just want to talk to him!" Scorsese saw this and later said that meek moment helped him make up his mind because Henry [the character Liotta eventually played in GoodFellas] wasn't aggressive, like some of the people I've played. When I got the part I cried.

Q: Have you ever spent time with real mobsters?

A: When I was doing _GoodFella_s, I went to a restaurant with Marty up in East Harlem. By the end of the night there were about 15 people around the table and they were telling stories. It was always, "I knew a guy who did this," but you knew they really meant, "I did this."

Q: You married actress Michelle Grace in Thailand last year. Why there?

A: She fell in love with the country while I was there filming Operation Dumbo Drop. We got married in bare feet by a bunch of monks in front of a pool overlooking the ocean. Because you have to make it official, we first got married in Vegas. Elvis gave her away. I got a great wife. We're getting ready to start a family.

Q: Where's the weirdest place you've ever been recognized?

A: It happened when I was 22 and playing Joey Parinni on the soap opera Another World. You know those peep shows on 42nd Street in New York? Well, I went into one and I put a quarter into one of the booths. The curtain goes up and this naked girl starts dancing and looking at me. Then she calls a friend over and they're looking at me and she goes, "Oh my God, Joey!" She started asking about plot lines, but she had to keep dancing because the boss man was saying, "Come on girls, keep moving."

Q: Which movie are you most proud of?

A: All of them. If anything, it's hardest to try to make something that isn't a great script into something decent--like No Escape or Unforgettable.

Q: What haven't you done in a movie you'd like to?

A: I was going to say kiss a girl without forcing her, but I think I finally got to do that in The Rat Pack.


Dennis Hensley's novel, Misadventures in the (213), is available from Rob Weisbach Books.