The ATX Television Festival, June 7-10 in Austin, Texas, brought fans an intimate hour with movie and TV legend Ray Liotta. Often remembered as one of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, his small screen work, most recently Lieutenant Wozniak on Shades of Blue, have generated a large and loyal fan base. Ben Travers of Indie World spoke with Liotta before a packed house.
Travers asked Liotta if it had been a childhood dream to be an actor.
“No, I was a high school jock,” Liotta said, “until I got into a fight with the basketball coach. I was off the team and the drama teacher asked me if I needed something to do after school. I went for it and got the part in Sunday in New York. But, regretted it when a poster went up all around the school with me in a towel.”
Travers asked what came next.
Liotta Had a Pulse
“I thought I might just work in construction,” Liotta recalled. “But, in 1973, at the University of Miami, all you needed to get in was a pulse. I wanted something easy, so I signed up for Liberal Arts. Then they told me I had to take math and history, so I changed to Theater because that was the easiest class I had in high school.
“At my first audition I had to tell a sad story. I told a story about taking a dog for a walk and how it was hit by a car. That moved me to the next step where I had to sing and dance. All I could remember was how Freddie and the Dreamers danced.”
Liotta demonstrated and got a big laugh.
“So, I got into the play and was a dancing waiter in Cabaret,” he explained.
He credited a teacher named Buckets keeping him in theater.
“He was like a coach,” Liotta said. “I responded to him and he responded to me because I was just a guy from New Jersey.”
When he came back for his sophomore year he got all the leads. “I got some nice reviews and was feeling good about myself,” he admitted. “But, the only films I watched were Clint Eastwood and the Beatles, so I started watching more movies and taking it seriously.”
Acting in Another World
Liotta stayed for the four years of college and after he graduated, he hit the bricks. “The first week I got a commercial,” he said, “then I got an agent, and within six months I got on a soap opera.”
Travers asked if there were any take-aways from working on a soap.
“Working on Another World was the best,” he recalled. “I played the nicest guy in the world for three years. Then my character ended up in the hospital and eventually got killed off. Working there was great because producer Paul Rauch would see an actor on Broadway and recruit them. I was lucky to work with amazing actors. It was a great training ground.”
Travers observed that in that period TV was far from a respected medium. “What were you thinking about TV?,” he asked.
“When I started,” Liotta said, “if you were doing TV or commercials you were at the end of the line. Actors like Karl Malden, as they got older, they’d work on TV and have less travel. I became the flavor of the month on TV, so I got a part in Something Wild, then I waited a year because I didn’t want to get type cast.”
The wait turned into Field of Dreams in which Liotta played Shoeless Joe Jackson and then Goodfellas. Decades of movies followed.
The Rat Pack
Travers mentioned that in 1998, Liotta returned to TV for The Rat Pack on HBO. He asked, “Were you warry of that project?”
“I was afraid to play Frank Sinatra,” Liotta admitted. “I said, ‘No way, no way, no way.’ I was afraid of what people would say. The only thing I had in common with Frank Sinatra was that we were both from New Jersey. Then his daughters approached me. Then I realized fear was holding me back. So, I decided to do it.
“I became obsessed with him. I practiced singing. In the film, I lip-synced to a Frank Sinatra impersonator, but it was liberating to be up on a stage singing and moving. After that, things began kicking in for me again. I loved it. I let go and had fun and that’s what it’s about to be an actor as far as I’m concerned. But, I still haven’t done everything. I’d still like to be in a movie where I don’t have to choke the girl to kiss her.”
Travers asked how Liotta felt about winning an Emmy for his 2005 guest appearance on ER in which he played a terminally ill patient, who tries to reconnect and make amends with his family.
“It was a great moving episode, so I deserved getting an Emmy for that,” he joked. On a more serious note, he added, “When I got it, you don’t pat yourself on the back. I was glad people noticed. I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for doing that role because they said that it helped a relative of theirs. It’s a nice feeling when that happens.”
The final season of Liotta’s Shades of Blue premiers on NBC on June 17. Previous seasons are available through various streaming alternatives.
(Featured photo from ATX, others by author)