Mafia ‘Rat’ Henry Hill Dies at 69
Henry Hill, who died in Los Angeles at age 69, was a gangster whose life and career with the Lucchese family on the New York crime scene of the 1970′s was immortalized in the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas(1990).
The hit film, an adaptation of the book Wiseguy by journalist Nicholas Pileggi, has Hill, played by Ray Liotta, as the narrator and central figure running mob crime over a 25-year period starting in 1955. Among the many classic scenes, he pistol-whips a man who makes a move on his girlfriend, dangles a debtor over a lion’s den at a Tampa Florida zoo and helps to organize one of the biggest airport robberies in history.
Aside from the cinematography, however, Hills’ real life mob career was submerged in blood. Right up until his death on Tuesday June 12th (a day after his 69th birthday) he insisted that he never “whacked” anyone himself. “I never killed anybody,” he said last year. “I was the money man.” He did, however, confess to burying “a lot of bodies.” With regard to the film, Hill was happy to admit that it was “99.9% dead on!” There are few cinema buffs in the world who could forget the characters immortal opening line:
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Henry Hill was born on June 11th 1943, one of eight children in a poor family in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Henry also, was Irish-American, whilst his mother, Carmella, was of Sicilian background. As Liotta’s character highlights later in the film, Hill’s mixed extraction meant that he was denied the privilege of being a “made man” in the mafia, a status offered exclusively to pure Italians which offered protection and privilege.
His criminal career began with running errands for Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese family (portrayed by Paul Sorvino in the film), who ran a cabstand near where Hill lived. Despite the quite innocent introduction he soon was introduced piece by piece to the mob lifestyle, learning about loan sharking operations and protection rackets. Hill remembered being awed by the amount of money that was available and by the age of 14 had dropped out of school and had his position formalized in the crew.
Hill was made a member of a local construction union, thus allowing him to collect a salary for a no-show job. This moment is immortalized in the film where a young Hill presents himself to his mother dressed in a new (and clearly expensive) cream colored double-breasted suit and a pair of new brown shoes. When he asks her whats she thinks, his mother responds with the famous line, “My God! You look like a gangster!”
He quickly became a youthful mascot for the Vario crew and was soon introduced to Jimmy Burke, the charismatic gangster played by Robert De Niro in the film, and the violent Tommy DeSimone, played brilliantly by Joe Pesci. His first major crime came when he was ordered to put a rival cab firm out of business by setting all the taxis on fire, but he wasn’t first arrested until 1959 when he attempted to buy goods with a stolen credit card. He was soon released and his unwillingness to talk during his detention added to the affection he was held in by the crew.
Between 1960 and 1963, Hill served with the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army. Hill later explained that this was not really an attempt to go straight, but rather the move to Fort Bragg allowed him to “wait out the heat” of police attention.
Returning the New York he quickly picked up his old life and began enjoying the many perks of being part of a crew. Probably the most famous scene in the film is a single shot which shows Hill and his girlfriend (later his wife) Karen bypassing the long queue outside the Copacabana nightclub whilst greasing palms along the way as they are ushered in and given a seat at the center front of the stage. “What do you do?” she asks him, besotted. “I’m in construction,” he smoothly answers back.
Hill and Burke went to jail in 1972 for extortion. They were sentenced to 10 years but the mob life didn’t end there. Hill peddled drugs and was released for good behavior in 1978. The film highlights this time with a scene showing how different prison was for “wiseguys” with the characters all in their own room enjoying steak, lobster and alcohol.
Once out Hill, along with Burke and DeSimone, continued to make money robbing trucks and fencing stolen goods. However, as the stakes grew higher, the mutual mistrust and fear of betrayal rose. Hill recently said in an interview:
”The money was unbelievable. We never robbed nothing small.”
The biggest and most famous job of all, the Lufthansa heist of 1978, started with Hill as he had the previous experience of robbing the cargo terminal at JFK airport, having stolen $470,000 from Air France in 1967 with DeSimone . Eleven years later the crew scooped more that $6 million (equivalent to $20 million nowadays) in money destined for US servicemen in Germany.
It might have been a success beyond a gangsters’ wildest dreams, but within days the fallout had already begun. Knowing the FBI were scrutinizing their every move, Burke (paranoid that that the robbers would crack and turn on each other) ordered the killing of all below him, Hill and DeSimone. The getaway driver, Edward ‘Stacks’ Parnell (played in a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson), who had failed to dispose of his truck, was the first to go and was shot a week after the raid. What followed over the next six months, in another iconic scene from the film, was the death of a least eight more mobsters connected with the robbery.
Hill feared he too would be “whacked”. He stepped up his drug dealing operation, and, a cardinal sin in the Mafia, eventually became addicted himself. This drug operation got him arrested in April 1980 and the police played Hill wiretaps of Vario and Burke discussing the need to kill him. Hill, who had Previously said he would rather “put a gun in my mouth” than become a “rat,” recognized that his best chance of survival was to become an informant.
His evidence secured near to 50 convictions and earned Hill and his family a place in witness protection. Here is where Goodfellas ends, with Hill looking out of a housing lot in Omaha saying that the thing he missed the most was the life and now had to live the rest of his life “like a schmuck!” His life, in fact, remained anything but mundane. The Lucchese family continued to hunt him and he had to relocate 10 times – once at a matter of hours notice. Each time Hill assumed a new identity – Peter Haines and Martin Todd Lewis were just two of the names used.
Continuing his issue with drink and drugs, Hill was arrested again in 1987 and, even though he later recognized how the FBI “kept me safe when I didn’t know how to keep myself safe,” was kicked out of the witness protection in the early 1990′s. With the death of Vario in 1988 and Burke in jail (where he would die in 1996), few of his adversaries remained to track him down so he resumed the name of Henry Hill but maintained that he was always looking over his shoulder for some “punk kid trying to make a rep for himself.”
With the money all gone due to his gambling problem (Hill once reportedly lost $40,000 in a week), he made several hundred thousand dollars from Goodfellas and became a consultant for mob films and television series. When asked recently if he still fears the Mafia might kill him, he replied:
”The mob? They don’t care about me anymore. Are you kidding? They send me their scripts and treatments to sell in Hollywood!”
Despite his various addictions he was spared, unlike many of his fellow gangsters, from dying in prison, passing instead in a Los Angeles hospital.
Henry Hill married Karen Friedman in 1965. They divorced in 2002 and he subsequently married Kelly Alor and then Lisa Caserta. He is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage.
Henry Hill, born June 11 1943, died June 12 2012.