Cast what’s left of your mind back to 1990. George H. W. Bush is president, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and Gorbachev wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Saddam Hussein orders the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which is successful until it isn’t. To her family’s regret but her nation’s relief, Margaret Thatcher is introduced to retirement. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is closed due to excessive leaning. Thieves make off with 13 priceless artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which nevertheless remains one of the most charming oases of culture in the United States. The Simpsons begins its joy-giving run on Fox. Milli Vanilli wins the award for best new artist at the Grammys. Popular at the movies: Home Alone, Pretty Woman, Edward Scissorhands, and Dances with Wolves, which inconceivably wins best picture. I say “inconceivably” not because it is inferior to three of its competitors—Ghost, The Godfather: Part III, and Awakenings—but because the fourth contender is Goodfellas.

Widely agreed to be one of the crowning achievements in a career clogged with crowning achievements, Goodfellas was directed by Martin Scorsese, the poet laureate of Italian-American mayhem. It is based on the true-crime book Wiseguy, by Nick Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese. (They were nominated for best adapted screenplay, but with the Academy’s uncanny ability to step over the pearl to pick up the empty oyster shell, they lost to the screenplay of Dances with Wolves.)

Henry Hill in the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Nebraska, in 2005. The portrait is of Liotta as Hill, in the movie Goodfellas.

Wiseguy follows the life and career of Henry Hill, who, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, was involved in all manner of Mob-sanctioned crimes before turning into an F.B.I. informant and giving testimony that would lead to the convictions of 50 of his fellow gangsters. This had a deflating effect on Hill’s intra-Mafia popularity. Witness protection was recommended and accepted.

Dances with Wolves inconceivably wins best picture. I say “inconceivably” not because it is inferior to three of its competitors—Ghost, The Godfather: Part III, and Awakenings—but because the fourth contender is Goodfellas.

Because Pileggi was born and bred in Bensonhurst, the book has not only a down-home authority about the subject but a quality unusual in Mafia stories: affection. “I know those guys,” he said to me during a long conversation this summer. “I knew them as kids. And there is a warmth there. They’re good company. And then all of a sudden, somewhere around age 14 or 15, they could slam somebody’s hand in the door to get money out of them. And I look at that and I say, ‘But this was the nicest guy in the world last night at the basketball game.’ That fascinated me.”

Pileggi’s insider’s ease gives the book a different feeling from the other Everest of Mafia entertainment, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “I knew Mario very well,” Pileggi said. “He was a close friend. He came over to the house one night to have dinner with my mother and father and me, and my cousin, who’s Gay Talese. Puzo did a wonderful novel called The Fortunate Pilgrim, in which a baker is training to be a mafioso. And my father at dinner said to him, ‘Mario, that’s a great character. You should do something.’ And Mario said, ‘I am. I’ve just gotten 60 pages to Putnam and I got a check, so I’ll be able to buy milk for the next couple of months.’ That was the beginning of The Godfather.

Outside the O Sole Mio Scungilli Bar and Seafood Restaurant, on Mulberry Street, police officers gather at a murder site, 1939.

For Puzo, The Godfather was the product of extensive research that was later brought to life by his skills as a novelist. Pileggi explained, “The way Mario did it, there was this library in Hell’s Kitchen, where he lived, and he goes there to read the McClellan Committee hearings [the Senate hearings, named for its chair, John McClellan, that were the first to explore and expose the existence of the Mafia], where Joe Valachi [gangster in the Genovese crime family] testified. And if you read all those transcripts, you get to see exactly what The Godfather is. You could see the sources that Mario used, and then created these characters as a novelist. What Mario did not have, did not know: he did not grow up with those people. So when you look at Wiseguy, you see a more human version of them, because I knew that stuff from the street.”

Pileggi interviewed Henry Hill over a period of more than three years and used those transcripts as the heart and spine of his book. I’m going to do the same thing here with my interview with Pileggi—get out of the way and let you hear, in Nick Pileggi’s voice, about his life and how Wiseguy and then Goodfellas came to be.

The Life

Nick Pileggi: [My dad was from] a small village in Calabria called Maida. He got over here around the First World War, and for the first 10 years played slide-and-valve trombone with orchestras in movie theaters. He played at the Capitol. He played at the Roxy. He played wherever there was a great big silent movie. My father could sight-read as a kid. They wouldn’t give him an instrument in Italy unless he could sight-read. I watched him sight-read a four-part Bach fugue.

When he moved to America, he moved to an area on Fourth Avenue and Union Street, which was filled with Calabrais. Frank Costello, for instance [crime boss of the Luciano family]. Also, Joe Adonis [mobster who helped form the American Mafia] and Albert Anastasia [crime boss, mobster, and founder of Murder, Inc.]. I know there were times later in his life when my father was in the garment business, and some wiseguys and goons came to pressure him, to give him trouble. He gave them a number to call, and when they did, they were made aware that Albert Anastasia was friendly with my father, and to get lost. Boy, did they get lost.

Albert Anastasia’s funeral, in Brooklyn, 1957.

When he got married, he was still playing music, and often touring, but my mom didn’t like him being gone, so his music career ended, and the trombones wound up in the attic. Then he had some shoe stores. It was after the Second World War, all the G.I.’s came back. They all started having babies by the dozen. The kids needed shoes, and suddenly there were a lot of shoe stores. And then that generation grew up, they weren’t having as many children as their parents did, and didn’t need so many shoes. So, my father retired.

“He gave them a number to call, and when they did, they were made aware that Albert Anastasia was friendly with my father, and to get lost. Boy, did they get lost.”

I grew up in Bensonhurst, and Bensonhurst was a Mob neighborhood. I mean, there’s a church on 65th Street in Bensonhurst called Regina Pacis, Queen of Peace. And when you go in that church, you look at the ceiling and there are stars, and angels, and other fake Michelangelo stuff. But in one corner is a man in a fedora, a woman in a topcoat, and two little kids in little baby fedoras and little topcoats. That is the Joe Profaci family. He made all his money bootlegging, but once bootlegging was over, he wound up in the olive-oil-and-liquor distribution business. He became a very rich man, politically powerful, and very religious. And he contributed so damn much money to the church that he owned the priest, and so he and his family got to be on the ceiling.

I would say my area was, like, 80 percent Italian. But then three blocks over it was, like, 80 percent Jewish. I used to go over there because they were better basketball players than the Italian guys. But if I wanted to watch a hardball game, I’d go back to the Italian neighborhood, where you had terrific pitchers.

Clothes drying in backyards on Mulberry Street, 1946.

[When Italians first came here, they] would not send their kids to school because two reasons. One, the teachers in America were all women, and the Italian mothers were afraid these women teachers would ball their sons. Their young little stallion sons who they were saving for some nice little Italian girl. They didn’t want their sons being taught by women because in Italy all the schoolteachers are men. And there was a teacher in East Harlem, I think it was Covello, who realized what this was, and he had a truancy law passed. It was, like, 1911, 1912. A truancy law, and it was instituted for the Italians. And then when they had the truant officers coming, the truant officers couldn’t go into the neighborhood without a sheriff because the mothers would come out and stab the truant officers. Now, you learn about that and you’re an Italian-American—it makes you curious.

So I began reading whatever I could about the immigrant experience and who these people were. And slowly, it was hard not to realize the connection to racketeering and corruption that the new immigrant group, Jews and Italians, shared. And that was it. I was off and running.

“The truant officers couldn’t go into the neighborhood without a sheriff because the mothers would come out and stab the truant officers.”

I went to a mediocre university. Long Island University. It was started in the 20s, ’26, I think, but really grew after the Second World War when they got all these G.I. Bill soldiers. But it was a fabulous place for me to be because of my classmates. I didn’t have John Belushi in my class. I had a guy who had one arm because the other got shot off in Iwo Jima. I mean, hello, you grow up pretty fucking fast when that’s who you go to college with. And it was the greatest education. I was lucky enough to come across several phenomenal English teachers, and they were able to get me going in literature. Once I got going, I didn’t need anybody else. I was just self-propelled. Gay Talese and I shared an apartment. I got a job as a copyboy after school in ’54, with the A.P. in New York, and Gay got a job at The New York Times at the same time.

At the A.P., I got fascinated by the business of journalism. And these police reporters would call in from the streets at night and give their stories to the re-write men in the office, and I would listen in on another headset and then try to write the story they were going to write and then compare the version I did with what they did.

And they saw me doing that, these old-time re-write men. These guys went back to Prohibition. And half of them were drunks, and they all worked nights. They would see me do that, and they began helping me learn journalism. They became my journalism teachers. They were phenomenal—I mean, I was the luckiest kid in the world.

Aniello Dellacroce (left) and Joseph N. Gallo (second from right), leaving Queens County Courthouse with attorney Joseph Panzer, 1966.

I started there in ’53 as a copyboy, and I graduated class of ’55 and I was still working as a copyboy. After I graduated, the city editor said, “O.K., what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m an English major. I’ll probably take a master’s and teach English.” And he says, “You want to be a reporter?” I said, “Are you kidding? I’d love it.” He says, “You start Monday.” January 6, 1956. And there it was. The first story I covered was Jimmy Hoffa coming into New York and taking over the Joint Council of Teamsters. No shit.

And in the audience—I saw them—was Johnny Dio [mobster and labor racketeer], Tony Provenzano [captain in the Genovese crime family]. All the guys I would wind up reading about and writing about years later were all there on that date because that was the day Jimmy Hoffa really took over the Teamsters.

“The first story I covered was Jimmy Hoffa coming into New York and taking over the Joint Council of Teamsters. No shit.”

When I began covering things like this Teamster thing, they would send me to police headquarters in Manhattan, which was right around the corner from Mulberry Street. And my father used to eat at a restaurant in Mulberry Street called Paolucci’s, so he went to them and said, “My son is going to be working around the corner at police headquarters. I want to make sure he eats properly. I want him to come here at least three or four nights or days a week before work.” They said, “Don’t worry, Nick, we’ll take care of him.” This is the owner, Donato, and his wife.

I would get in there at, like, three because I started work at 4:30. I noticed when I would come in there, the door was locked. This is on Mulberry between Grand and Hester, across the street from Angelo’s. And they would open it and I’d go in, and my table was always there. There’s no problem. And then other guys would come, they’d knock, and they would let them in, and then they’d lock the door. Well, it turns out it was a meeting place for all the Mob bosses from downtown. And they used to go in there for lunch, and they would lock the door because they didn’t want strangers coming in.

So I had my own table as a kid reporter, and I realized that my dinner companions [across the room] were people like Aniello Dellacroce [underboss of the Gambino crime family], Frank Mari [high-ranking member of the Bonnano crime family], Benny Aloi [consigliere of the Colombo crime family]. I mean, every major organized-crime figure you can imagine.

The Ravenite Social Club, 247 Mulberry Street, where Dellacroce was arrested in 1984 while hiding in the bathroom.

So [one time] I asked Donato if he could make a pork-chop dish my grandmother made. It was pork chops with fried hot vinegar peppers and potatoes. Onions. It’s delicious. So they made it and I’m having it. And Dellacroce, the guy who John Gotti looked up to, the guy who ran the Ravenite Social Club, who was the underboss of the Gambino family, he says to the waiter, “Dominic, what’s he eating?”

They knew who I was. They knew I was Nick Pileggi’s son from Brooklyn. They knew I wasn’t a problem. And he says, “Make it for me.” So they made it. Before you know it, it was the biggest hit in the restaurant. And all these wiseguys would go, “Hey, that’s pretty good. I’m getting your grandmother’s pork chops.”

“They knew who I was. They knew I was Nick Pileggi’s son from Brooklyn. They knew I wasn’t a problem.”

When I went to cover the Valachi hearings, I went to the Federal Bookstore. They used to be at 26 Federal Plaza. And I bought the Valachi hearings because I wanted their reference books. They’re like $4. They were invaluable. And each of those books had charts of the Mob families. So I open the charts and I knew half of the guys in those families. They were all in the restaurant.

So, I take the books to the restaurant that night to eat. And I call over the owner. I said, “Did you know this stuff?” He says, “Oh my God, where’d you get these?” I said, “You can get them at the Federal Bookstore.” “Holy shit,” he said. Now that he’s looking at it and some [wiseguy] comes over and he’s looking at this chart, and he says, “These charts are full of shit.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “They got him as a boss. He’s not a fucking boss, he’s a gofer. That’s the boss.” And he points to somebody way down in the bottom of the chart.

Family ties.

And I’m thinking, Holy shit, these guys are laying out what the F.B.I. either doesn’t know or does know and has purposely printed bullshit charts to throw the Mob off.

So Dominic, the guy who ran the restaurant, says, “You know, Nick, I would really appreciate it if you forgot the book. Here. At the restaurant.” You could get the book in a bookstore, but these guys didn’t go to bookstores. So by leaving the books with the charts there as an act of friendship, I made so many connections and friends and guys who could trust me and I could talk to. That really helped in the journalism, when I began specializing in that kind of work.

The Book

When I first met Henry, he was testifying against all these Mob guys, and he wanted to do a book to help pay his lawyer. Simon & Schuster wanted to do it; Michael Korda [editor in chief] and Dick Snyder [C.E.O. and chairman] wanted it. They were interviewing writers for it, and the writers had to meet with Henry and the lawyer. So I met with Henry, and I was struck by how voluble he was. I remember I asked him, I said, “When you made your first hit on playing the number, how much did you get?” He said, “I got $600,” which was the normal pay for a number if you hit a number. And I said, “What’d you do with the money?” He said, “I bought a yellow Bonneville convertible.” And I thought to myself, “O.K., this guy is golden.” He has memory. He knows to go to the color. He is an interesting person and is able to verbalize. A lot of these guys who I’ve interviewed, just as interesting in the Mob’s world as Henry, I would ask that question and they would say, “Jesus Christ, you think I remember? That happened 30 years ago. We’re talking 30 years ago. What are you talking about? I don’t know. Who the hell knows? Maybe I got a call. Maybe I gave it to a broad.” That’s how they would answer you. They are trained not to say much. The smartest say nothing.

A federal agent escorts Paul Vario Sr. into the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in 1972.

Henry never had that code.

Henry was Paulie’s boy [Paul Vario, a captain and made man in the Lucchese crime family], and Henry only got to be in that position because Paulie saw him taking care of his son after a burning, feeding him through a tube every night. And it gave Henry access and power in a world he would have never had without Paul Vario’s imprimatur, and that allowed Henry to remain a more voluble, funny, witty, human person. A lot of those other guys, the humanity in them has to be drilled out, either by the world itself, or by the cops who beat them up all the time. And even when they laid a turn, and flip, and want to talk, they’re very hard to get stories out of. They don’t know what a good story is. Henry did. And it was like talking to a normal person who has witnessed something no one else had ever witnessed, had come back to talk about. I was so lucky.

“‘What’d you do with the money?’ He said, ‘I bought a yellow Bonneville convertible.’ And I thought to myself, ‘O.K., this guy is golden.’”

So one of the problems that Henry had, but it was a blessing to me, was that he was in the federal witness-protection program and testified against Jimmy Burke [Lucchese-crime-family associate], Paul Vario, major people. And they were looking to catch Henry in a lie because then they could destroy him as the government’s best witness. Ed McDonald, who was the prosecutor, said, “If I get you in one lie, I don’t care if it’s that the sofa was blue instead of red,” he said, “you’re out of the program. You’re on the street. You’ll be dead in a week,” which is true. So Henry knew that. So Henry’s life literally depended upon telling me and the prosecutors the truth. And I can’t think of another situation where a writer had that benefit.

“So one of the problems that Henry had, but it was a blessing to me, was that he was in the federal witness-protection program.”

I think he picked me to do the book because I already knew the world. Early on, he mentioned a guy by the name of Johnny Wagonwheels, and I said, “Oh, sure, Johnny Fatico.” Now, Johnny Fatico is not exactly Meyer Lansky. He’s not famous. And so if I knew these guys and names on that level, if I knew that Johnny Wagonwheels was Johnny Fatico, Henry knew he wouldn’t always have to be explaining stuff to me, which would have bored him to death, and he was not good at boredom.

The minute he realized I knew all the players, and where I grew up, and who I knew, it was almost as though he was reliving his street life with another guy who knew the street and the people and the laughs and the fun.

He was in the care of the marshals, who were really very strict and should have been at that point, because the people were really looking to kill him. And so we would meet in the United States Attorney’s Office down in Foley Square. Then they moved him out after the trials and sent him to Cincinnati under an assumed name, but by then we had really gotten into the book. So he slipped me where he was and what his fake name was.

A Canarsie, Brooklyn, junkyard that served as a meeting place for the city’s five organized-crime families, 1972.

Then we began really getting all of that material. I tape-recorded everything. We drive around in a car for two days. I didn’t want to be hanging around his house. He had a wife or a girlfriend and kids, and he’s talking to me about his life. Car was better. We’d have the tape recorder, and if we wanted to stop for hamburgers, we could stop.

Was I scared I could get hurt by people looking to get him? I didn’t really give a shit. They’re not going to find him, and if they find him, that’s life. I just had a Bensonhurst fatalistic approach, which you don’t have if you’re born on the Upper East Side, but I thought it was just: That’s life. You can’t run away and hide all the time. So I was out there with him, and then once I wound up in Seattle with him.

He picked me up at the airport, and he had his girlfriend who he’s now madly in love with. He said, “I’m going to marry her.” I say, “You can’t marry her.” This is a true story. “You can’t marry her, Henry. You’re already married. You got Karen in Florida.” And he says, “No, no, I’m marrying her under my new name.”

How do you not love a guy like that? So we pull into this restaurant on one of the highways out there, and I had to go to the john. And he said, “O.K., I’ll get a table.” So I come out of the john, and there’s the waiter with blood running down the front of his face. He did something Henry didn’t like, so Henry hit him in the head with a champagne bottle.

“‘You’re already married. You got Karen in Florida.’ And he says, ‘No, no, I’m marrying her under my new name.’”

Once I started writing, I would get him on the phone if I had to fill in gaps. And him being Henry, I could call him at two o’clock in the morning and he’d be up smoking dope and watching God knows what. And he would fill me in. He was very cooperative because he wanted the book to come out and he wanted to make a lot of money.

I want to give credit to the person who really got the book published. I had been working on it for many years. And my last year of working on it, I met Nora Ephron, who I married. And we were keeping company, as we used to say. And she read the book. And edited it, brilliantly. Because she was a great editor. Worked at Esquire. She’s really good. And clean.

Nick and Nora leaving Elaine’s restaurant in New York City, 1986.

And when I gave it to Michael Korda eventually, he said it was the cleanest, best edited book he had ever gotten. They had nothing to do. She had just edited it for free. Meanwhile, I keep working on it. And she comes home one night. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just finishing.” She said, “That’s your book?” I said, “Yeah.” She says, “Give it to me. You’re going to play around with this book for the next year and you’re going to ruin it.” So she took it right out of the typewriter, put it in an envelope, and sent it to Michael Korda. I would have never done that. Over the next year, I would have, I guarantee, I would have changed the opening. Or the ending. Or the middle. That’s who I am. She wouldn’t let that happen. She got it in.

“I met Nora Ephron, who I married. And we were keeping company, as we used to say. And she read the book. And edited it, brilliantly.”

Once it got published, it did very well right away. And I remember I was on a book tour in Boston. And I got a call from Michael Korda. He says, “You’re on the best-seller list. Congratulations.” So I call Nora and tell her. And she said, “You know I did this.”

The Movie

Irwin Winkler, the producer of New York, New York, Raging Bull, I mean, he’s Marty’s producer, is living in Paris and goes to the English-language bookshop every day. The Rue de Rivoli. And he sees Wiseguy. So he buys it and he says, “Oh my God, this is a Marty Scorsese movie.” So he has his office send Marty a copy, Marty reads the book, and Marty says, “I want to do it. And I want to do it with Nick.”

He’d been trying to join forces with me when he was doing Mean Streets. And back then I failed to go downtown and meet him—like an idiot. You know, Marty was not Marty Scorsese then. The guy who tried to get me to go downtown was Bob De Niro. And he wasn’t Bob De Niro. He was just a guy, you know, Let’s go to Dunkin Donuts, you got to come down, we’re doing this movie, it’s going to be great. And I’m thinking, I’ve met a million guys like him. So I don’t go down.

De Niro on the Goodfellas set with director Martin Scorsese in 1990.

Anyway, Scorsese reads it, calls Irwin Winkler, and says, “I want to do it. Get it, get it, get it.” And Marty, who’s doing The Color of Money in Chicago with Paul Newman, calls New York magazine, where I’m still working, and leaves a message for me to call Marty Scorsese at a Chicago number.

When I saw the message, I said, “If he thinks I’m going to call him, he’s out of his mind.” Because I know it’s not Marty Scorsese. I know it’s David Denby, the movie critic from New York magazine. He and I go to all the Marty Scorsese movies all the time. And we’re both gaga fans of Marty. So I didn’t answer him. I’m no sucker.

“Anyway, Scorsese reads it, calls Irwin Winkler, and says, ‘I want to do it. Get it, get it, get it.’”

The next day there’s another message. And I go, “Oh, that Denby is really trying to get me, but he’s going to get nothing.” So, I didn’t answer that message. That night I got home and Nora says, “Are you crazy?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Why won’t you call Marty Scorsese back?” I said, “That’s not Marty Scorsese. That’s David Denby.” She said, “Nick, it’s Marty Scorsese. He’s in Chicago. He’s trying to reach you. He wants to know why you won’t talk to him. I know about it because the script supervisor on Color of Money worked as a script supervisor for me. And Marty went to the script supervisor and said, ‘You know, Nora. Will you call her and find out why he won’t call me?’”

So I immediately called Marty. And we started working.

He said, “You take the book home. I’ll take the book home. Let’s figure out what our plotline is. What’s the movie?” So I did it. And I came back with my story line. He came back with his. They were identical.

Scorsese (center) on the Goodfellas set on Hillside Avenue, Queens. Nick Pileggi is at the far left.

So we started writing. I did all the typing and he did all the improvising. I mean, we would type, and then he would go into a, like, he would be in a trance. And he would start talking like one of these wiseguys who he remembered from the neighborhood or from the tenement. And then we would bounce stuff back and forth. And we were always channeling Henry. Because we both knew Henry. So it was just a great time. Somebody asked the secretary who sat outside our door, “What did you hear? You were right outside the door when they were writing.” She said, “All I heard coming out of the room was laughter. They just laughed all the time.”

The other important thing with Marty, which distinguishes him from anybody I’ve ever met, is that we now are about to write a script, right? My first. And I think his first. And he has already storyboarded the movie. He goes home and he draws the whole movie by himself. So he sees every scene. And he also begins hearing the music from those scenes. When we’re typing the script, we’re at that scene where Jimmy Burke, Bob De Niro, is at the bar smoking a cigarette. And he’s tight-eyed, and he’s squinty-eyed, and he’s looking at the wig guy, thinking about whether he’ll murder him. Now we’re typing that scene, right, and Marty says, “Type in ‘cream,’ type in ‘cream.’” I said, “What do you mean ‘cream?’” He says, “Just type it in, type it in.” So I type in ‘cream.’ Turns out he meant ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ by Cream.

When we were writing the scenes, he could hear the music. The music to him is as much a part of the movie as the dialogue. And he hears them both at the same time. So, I typed in song titles.

And sometimes, like, he’d say, “Window, window.” So I’d put it in “the window” because I knew he was going to try to focus on the windows in the scene.

“He says, ‘Just type it in, type it in.’ So I type in ‘cream.’ Turns out he meant ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ by Cream.”

Marty saw it all very clearly, but he was open to improvisation, too. Henry Hill and Ray Liotta [who played Henry in the film] became very close, and Ray was calling Henry morning, noon, and night. He’d be able to pick up Henry’s flavor and could quite often improve on the written dialogue. Joe Pesci is a genius at improvisation. I mean, there’s nobody better. He knows that world better than anybody. That whole thing about “I’m funny, I make you laugh?” He made that up.

What happened was, see, Joe hung around with those people in the Bronx. I had them in Bensonhurst. Marty had them on Elizabeth Street, and Joe had them in the Bronx. And he talked to Marty about a time when he and some pals were sitting around having drinks, and somebody made a joke and this guy says, “Oh, you think you’re funny?” And he did this thing. And Joe explained it to Marty for that scene, because that scene was going to be pretty boring, and it was going to end with a waiter coming over, offering the bill, Joe hitting him in the head with the … blah, blah. We’ve seen it before.

In 1978, police examine a stolen black van in Brooklyn they believe was used in the Kennedy Airport heist later immortalized in Goodfellas.

But Joe said, “Let me do this.” So Marty said, “Good.” Joe didn’t tell anybody. So all those guys, those actors, sitting there, Ray, Johnny Manca, they have no idea what Joe’s going to do. So the scene starts and Joe starts going off-script. He improvised it out of memory of having watched that scene years earlier. And Marty gets reactions from the actors of a guy going off-script. We did it many times, but he had that first reaction on their faces.

Remember when they go to Marty’s mother’s house, they got the body in the trunk and they go to get the shovel? Tommy’s mother makes them breakfast and De Niro has to use a ketchup bottle, so he asks me, “How did Jimmy Burke use the ketchup bottle? Did he roll it in his hand? Did he bang it from the top? Or did he just shake it?” And I said, “I don’t know.” De Niro says, “Can you find out?” So I call Henry, and Henry said, “He rolled it in his hands. He always rolled it.” So you look at that scene. He’s rolling the ketchup bottle.

Bob wanted to go meet Jimmy Burke [the character he plays in the movie] in prison, and Jimmy didn’t want him coming up there because it would just make too much of a stir. And having Bob—De Niro—come to visit you, they’d bust your balls forever. But Bob met with Jimmy’s family and Jimmy’s daughter Cathy. And they had dinner. The family was very civilized about all of this stuff.

The original script that Marty and I worked on was called Wiseguy. But then Warner Bros. said, “Are you aware that there’s this big television show that’s on called Wiseguy? [An hour-long CBS crime drama.] And we’re going to put a lot of money into this movie. People are going to think we’re advertising the damn TV show.” They asked if I had another title for them, and I called Henry. I said, “We can’t use Wiseguy.” He said, “Oh, shit.” I said, “What else did they call you guys?” And he said, “Well, sometimes they’d call us goodfellows.” It’s one word to them. Goodfellas. That would be like a code that meant, “He’s one of us. You could talk in front of him. He’s a goodfellow.”

“I said, ‘What else did they call you guys?’ And he said, ‘Well, sometimes they’d call us goodfellows.’”

When I saw the movie for the first time, I really felt that it was just—I mean, it was just what we wanted. David Denby could not bust my chops again. I was happy with it, Marty was happy with it, and everybody seemed to feel it was going to be O.K.

And then we had a test screening.

It was Orange County. This is John Birch Society country. There wasn’t an Italian anywhere. You couldn’t find a bowl of spaghetti for miles. So they showed it to this audience who were just outraged by it. These are churchgoing good people. The number of times “fuck” is said was perfectly O.K. in Queens but not in Orange County. According to Irwin, 31 people walked out.

Manhattan, 1985: the body of Thomas Bilotti lies next to the car he was driving; mobster Paul Castellano was gunned down in the same location moments before.

That put Warner Bros. in a bad spot. People like Terry Semel and Bob Daly [the heads of Warner Bros.], they liked the movie, but now what do you do? We were listed to go into all the A-line theaters—I’d never known such a thing existed—and Bonfire of the Vanities was to go into the B theaters. So they swapped us. They put us in the B-line theaters and Bonfire in the A, which meant that we only had, like, 800 theaters we’d be showing in instead of 2,000. Which meant that Goodfellas never was going to make its money back. And it would not get the attention.

But then the reviews started coming in, and the reviews were, like, 100 percent sensational, all over the country, in rinky-dink joints, in New York, everybody. They had seen something in the movie the audience in Orange County missed. So then people began going to it, and then it became Goodfellas.

By the way, you know Henry never even read the book. I asked him once, and he said, “What do I gotta read it for? I gave you everything that’s in it.”

Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker and playwright. He lives in New York City