Anyone steeped in gangster lore knows the name Henry Hill. A onetime mob associate of the Lucchese crime family, Hill turned state’s evidence, testified against his peers, and eventually had a movie made of his life released in 1990.
That film was Goodfellas. And that film was also My Blue Heaven.
The latter, which debuted in August 1990, a full month before Goodfellas, was the result of a peculiar synergy between filmmakers. And while Martin Scorsese’s classic concerned itself with the dark, brutal side of Hill’s life, My Blue Heaven was its opposite—a rollicking comedy starring Steve Martin as a fictionalized version of Hill. Imagine someone making a movie about Michael Corleone and releasing it a month before The Godfather, only it was a comedy with Gene Wilder. That’s the jarring tonal difference of My Blue Heaven, though moviegoers at the time probably had no idea such two wildly different films were sprung from the same late-night phone calls of one very unrepentant mobster.
Hill, who was born in New York City on June 11, 1943, first became infatuated with the mob when he was a young man. “He told me, ‘I'd look out my window—and there was a mob hangout—and see these guys get out of their cars and they had these great big coats,’” writer Nicholas Pileggi, who detailed Hill's story in the 1985 book Wiseguy, told NPR in 2012. “And that's what he talked about—these great big coats. And they’d show up there and they always had a lot of money and jewelry and diamonds. And they were shown such great deference in the neighborhood.”
Hill became a middle-class wiseguy. (Being “made” was out for Hill, as he wasn’t fully Italian.) His job wasn’t to organize crime but to perpetuate it via hustling, theft, and whatever else needed doing. Most infamously, Hill and a group of mobsters were responsible for plotting the Lufthansa heist in 1978, which netted them $5.8 million. (A cargo handler at John F. Kennedy International Airport owed Hill’s subordinate money so he tipped him off to a cash shipment.) Hill also fixed college basketball games, paying off players to miss shots in order to cover a gambling point spread. Extortion and selling drugs were also on the menu for Hill.
Hill was eventually nabbed in a drug trafficking case in 1980, which effectively ended his career as a criminal. He knew he’d be marked for death whether he talked or didn’t, so he opted to testify and earn a place in the witness protection program along with his wife, Karen, and their two children. His cooperation sent around 50 mobsters to prison.
In 1981, just after making a government deal, Hill’s lawyer approached Simon & Schuster about the possibility of publishing a book about Hill’s life. Pileggi interviewed Hill at length. The result, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, was a startling depiction of life as an almost-made-man-turned-informant.
Hill spoke to Pileggi and recited a kind of oral history of his life, leaving Pileggi to do the writing. Those recorded conversations would later inform Ray Liotta when Martin Scorsese adapted the book into a feature.
“Nick Pileggi gave me I don’t know how many hours of cassettes of himself interviewing Henry Hill, and I would listen to them continuously,” Liotta told GQ in 2010. “Henry would be telling what happened, and it was so casual: ‘Oh, yeah, and then this one got whacked.’ The whole time he’s eating potato chips, talking with food in his mouth.”
Hill’s blasé attitude spilled over into his new life as a government-protected informant. He had a lax approach toward being in hiding and an insistence on continuing to commit crimes, so his cover was often blown, and federal handlers soon became tired of his antics. Like a misbehaving school student, he was expelled from the program in 1987.
Pileggi had been invited to write the script for Goodfellas—there was already a mob-focused television series named Wiseguy—in collaboration with Scorsese. The film was serious, violent, and unapologetic about Hill’s drug-addled mafia experience.
Goodfellas ends when Hill decides to become an informant, leaving details of his mercurial existence in the Witness Protection Program to the viewer’s imagination. But the premise of a mobster refusing to take his protective detail seriously was intriguing to Nora Ephron, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally…) and director (Sleepless in Seattle) who also happened to be married to Pileggi. As her husband and Scorsese toiled on Hill’s pre-government life, Ephron began to think about what a comedy would look like with a version of Hill as a reluctant “schnook” who has to learn to adjust to life outside of New York.
She had a collaborator of sorts in Hill. According to the ex-gangster’s 2007 book, Gangsters and Goodfellas, he would get “half-gassed and call Nick in New York just to bullsh*t. It was like therapy for me. Sometimes Nick’s wife, Nora, would answer the phone and tell me, ‘Hey, Nick is sleeping. What’s the matter, Henry? This is Aunt Nora.’”
Hill would talk to “Aunt Nora,” but said he had no idea she was picking his brain for a script. “When I saw [My Blue Heaven] I flipped because she used some of the stuff I had told her on the phone for her movie scenes,” Hill wrote. “She took a combination of me and [alleged mafia operator] Michael Franzese, [who] she had read about in the papers. I never got a penny for it, but Nick had been so generous with me that I just let it slide. Had it been anyone else's wife ...”
Ephron confirmed Hill’s recollection, telling NPR in 2006 that “the movie came from the fact that I'm married to Nick Pileggi, who wrote Wiseguy, which became the unbelievably great movie Goodfellas. And Henry Hill, the man that Goodfellas and Wiseguy are about ... in real life, was put into the Witness Protection Program after the end of the movie. He was sent to Redmond, Washington, the bicycle capital of America, where he single-handedly started a crime wave, because there was no crime there. And we kept getting all these collect phone calls from Henry asking for bail and asking for various other forms of assistance.”
Ephron first pitched My Blue Heaven in 1987 to Goldie Hawn’s production company. Like Hill, the character of Vinnie Antonelli was insulated by the FBI’s program but couldn’t resist the urge to continue a life of crime. Ephron began writing the script in March 1988. By the time she was done—there was a writers strike in between—the project had changed. Hawn didn’t want the role of the district attorney looking to bust Antonelli anymore, so Ephron approached Steve Martin, who first wanted the role of the hapless FBI agent tasked with keeping Antonelli in line.
After more casting musical chairs—Danny DeVito turned down the mobster’s role—Martin agreed to play the lead. Rick Moranis was cast as the FBI agent, and Joan Cusack played the district attorney. Herbert Ross (Steel Magnolias) was brought on as director.
My Blue Heaven actually got the jump on Goodfellas by a month, ahead of the latter’s September 1990 release. Tonally, it couldn’t be further away from the Scorsese movie. Instead of Liotta’s tortured Hill, Martin plays the Hill stand-in as a largely harmless sleaze. His predicament is a fish-out-of-water story, with Martin embodying his onscreen comic persona to confusing effect.
As “Vinnie,” Martin is relocated to California while awaiting the trials of the numerous goombahs he’s slated to testify against. Ultimately, he succumbs to his base instincts and begins pulling off small-time jobs, frustrating the FBI agent (Moranis) who needs to keep him alive and out of prison at any cost. Rather than plot a massive heist or dispose of a body, Vinnie’s mischief involves marking down supermarket steaks to 39 cents.
The film is “incredibly stupid and unbelievable, but you find yourself enjoying it because ... Steve Martin is starring in it,” wrote Tom Long of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
“Martin … spends the film affecting an accent that is 80 percent Don Corleone, 15 percent Arthur Fonzarelli, and 5 percent Super Mario Brother,” wrote Megan Garber of The Atlantic in 2015.
(Tellingly, Ephron and Pileggi both picked up on at least one specific Hill trait: Both movies feature the Hill character complaining of ordering spaghetti and getting “egg noodles and ketchup.”)
My Blue Heaven was perhaps not the Hill story audiences desired. It made just $24 million total, roughly half of Goodfellas’s $47 million take. Scorsese’s film has since gone on to only grow in stature, while My Blue Heaven isn’t often cited as a career highlight for Martin. But it is an interesting study in how the same subject matter can be interpreted in wildly different ways by different filmmakers. Whether Henry Hill, who died in 2012, is tragic or funny depends quite a bit on the difference between Ray Liotta and Steve Martin—and on who’s giving Hill his lines.