Famed actor Ray Liotta of Union, dead at 67

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UNION, NJ — Ray Liotta, who grew up in Union and graduated in Union High School’s Class of 1973 before finding success in Hollywood as an actor in movies as varied as “Field of Dreams,” “Goodfellas” and “Identity,” has died at the age of 67. According to early reports, Liotta went to bed on Wednesday, May 25, in a hotel room in the Dominican Republic, where he had begun making the movie “Dangerous Waters” two weeks earlier. His publicist said he was found dead the following morning. The cause of death is not yet known. His fiancee, Jacy Nittolo, was reportedly with him at the time of his death.

Born in Newark on Dec. 18, 1954, Liotta was adopted at the age of six months by Mary and Alfred Liotta, who operated an auto parts business. Liotta had a sister, Linda, who was also adopted. As a young child, he knew he was adopted; he did a show-and-tell report on adoption when he was in kindergarten. In the 2000s, he hired a private detective to locate his biological mother and subsequently learned from her that he was mostly of Scottish descent.

“Ray knew he was adopted,” said former Union Mayor Anthony Russo in an interview with Union County LocalSource on Friday, May 27. Before he had found his biological mother, “He said he intended to find (her),” Russo continued. “Several months later, there was a story in Parade magazine. He found his mother in Newark and his half-brothers and -sister. He said, ‘Thank God I was adopted. Had I not been adopted, I would be pumping gas.’”

“I knew him since he was an infant,” continued Russo. “This boy was a good boy. He never caused any problems. He never got into any fights. He was always helping people. I thought the world of Raymond. I respected him. He came to me when he graduated from the University of Miami and told me he wanted to be an actor. He brought me his first contract with an agent and had me look at it. I remember one of the first shows was ‘Another World.’ I remember when he went out to Hollywood. Then he was in that movie ‘Something Wild.’”

Liotta grew up in a Roman Catholic household in Union. He is in the Union High School Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in May 2017.

“He always remained loyal to his childhood friends,” said Russo. “He had these three or four guys and, every afternoon, they used to play a little baseball game right outside my house. As he matured in life, he remained loyal to those kids. When he was inducted into the NJ Hall of Fame, I went to the event and Gene Laguna spoke about him, and he was one of those guys he grew up with. And when it was Ray’s turn to accept the award in Asbury Park, he called out names of kids who he went to high school with and they were in the audience. He never forgot them.”

Liotta’s marriage to actress and producer Michelle Grace ended in divorce. They had one child, daughter Karsen Liotta.

“And he raised his daughter … after they were divorced,” said Russo.

“About 10 years ago, he came back to Union and he wanted his daughter to see his childhood home he grew up in and he rang our doorbell,” he said. “He took her to the high school, downtown; he took her everywhere around Union. He wanted her to know all about Union.”

The former mayor spoke fondly of Liotta.

“When he was a kid, he used to campaign for me when I was running for the Senate,” the former mayor reflected. “When his father was running for office, he campaigned for him. His mother became our township clerk.”

Russo said Liotta had always been the center of attention, even when he was younger.

“He was always helpful and very popular,” he said. “At the end of the day working, I remember I would drive home on Colonia Avenue, around the corner from where he lived, and he’d be walking down the street with four girls. He had such blue eyes. They all loved him. Just a good person, a likable person.”

Russo said Liotta’s path toward stardom was a gradual one, and it began on the East Coast.

“He appeared twice a week for $2,500 an episode in this soap opera in New York, ‘Another World.’ But he wanted to go to Hollywood. I told him he had a good thing going, but he said he wanted to go out there. And he struggled out there for five years. He couldn’t find anything. His father helped him.”
Although he debuted in “The Lonely Lady” in 1983, it wasn’t until three years later that Liotta found success in “Something Wild,” a movie for which he received a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor nomination. “Field of Dreams” introduced him to a whole new audience in 1989 as famed baseball player Shoeless Joe Johnson, but it was in his very next picture that he left an indelible mark on Hollywood, in what is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”

“A great actor, great person,” Russo repeated, and not for the first time. “When he made ‘Goodfellas,’ … he made the movie in Brooklyn. His mother was sick at the time so he kept driving back to Union every night. She had terminal cancer, and he wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.”

The former Union mayor said he remembered looking outside one time and seeing Liotta in a pinstripe suit, which was very different from his usual outfits of sweatpants and T-shirts. He asked him why he was all dressed up, and Liotta said he was going to meet Henry Hill, the organized crime figure he was playing in “Goodfellas.” Russo said he later told him that Hill was mean-spirited and vicious, which was how he played him in the movie.
Even as Liotta’s star rose, the former mayor said, he never forgot his friends and neighbors.

“He invited the Russo family and his family to the premiere of his movie ‘Article 99’ in New York City. Eli Wallach was there. Brook Shields was there, and she told me, ‘I love your neighbor,’” he said.

“He felt like he was a member of my family,” added Russo.
Liotta would go on to appear in more than 80 movies, including “Unlawful Entry,” “No Escape,” “Corrina, Corrina,” “Unforgettable,” “Turbulence,” “Hannibal,” “Cop Land,” “Narc,” “John Q,” “Wild Hogs” and “The Many Saints of Newark.” He also appeared on more than 30 different television programs and specials, including “Casablanca,” “The Rat Pack,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Smith,” “Texas Rising,” “The Making of the Mob” and “Shade of Blue.”

An outpouring of grief and fond recollections of Liotta have been sincere, humorous and insightful, recalling Liotta as just one of the guys who never forgot his hometown roots. “Growing Up in Union” Facebook page administrator Adrienne Browne Dempsey, one of Liotta’s former schoolmates, summed it up: “Ray was a year behind me. We weren’t friends, but when I’d come out of dental-assisting class, we’d pass one another in the halls. He sure was easy on the eyes and later a real joy to watch on the big screen.”

Liotta’s death has left the world a sadder place, said Russo.
“His wonderful parents gave him the outstanding character that he demonstrated his entire life. He will be missed. I spoke to him a lot. He was a good person.”

David VanDeventer also contributed to this story.