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The Top 10 Pop-Culture Homages to Goodfellas

These allusions, parodies, and tributes prove that everyone just wants to be a goodfella

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Goodfellas turns 30 this weekend, and when looking back, it’s easy to forget how goddamn ruthless it is. That’s because Martin Scorsese’s epic thesis on how organized crime is emblematic of the American Dream has been the subject of countless pop-culture homages, many of which make light of the film’s almost clinical depiction of gang violence. Yeah, that’s right — clinical. Moralists be damned; the brutal murders enacted by Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy “The Gent” Conway and Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito (Ray Liotta’s protagonist Henry Hill is usually an onlooker) aren’t glamorous, but treated rather coldly. Other than whatever’s playing on the jukebox, there’s rarely ever any incidental music that tells you how you’re supposed to feel.

So, when picking our top 10 tributes to the film, we made sure to include some darkness (The Sopranos, Casino, Compton’s Most Wanted), as well as some lighter fare, just to remind viewers that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, Goodfellas has a heart of shadow, even if it still pumps very real, very human blood.

–Dan Caffrey
Contributing Writer


10. Compton’s Most Wanted

Gangster films have been a huge influence on hip-hop for quite some time now, but West Coast rap pioneers Compton’s Most Wanted were one of the first groups to pay tribute to the genre. On “Def Wish II”, released a mere two two years after Goodfellas, they sampled Henry Hill’s matter-of-fact musings on murder (in addition to some choice quotes from Scarface) several times in the song: “For most of the guys, killing’s got to be accepted,” “Shooting people was a normal thing. No big deal.” etc. Oddly enough, the video version swapped out the Goodfellas dialogue for lines from the solid, yet much less effective crime thriller Deep Cover. Turns out the world of sampling rights is just as ruthless as organized crime. —Dan Caffrey


09. 30 For 30 

Believe it or not, most of the gangsters portrayed in Goodfellas were worse people in real life — Paul Vario (Paul Cicero in the film) had a violent temper that contrasted with Paul Sorvino’s warm onscreen counterpart, and Tommy DeSimone (Tommy DeVito in the film) allegedly tried to rape Hill’s wife, Karen, whom, at one point was said to be having an affair with Vario. Even Hill himself came off as much scummier in reality than when played with the wonderful deer-in-headlights anxiety of Ray Liotta. Anyone looking to delve further into the nitty-gritty deceit of Hill should check out ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, “Playing for the Mob”. As narrated by Liotta, it lays out the schematics of Hill’s 1978–79 point-shaving scandal involving the Boston College basketball team. After watching, it’s just as hard to shake off Hill’s manipulation and the desperation of some of the players as it is to forget about Goodfellas’ grueling violence. —Dan Caffrey


08. The Simpsons 

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Season three Simpsons episode “Bart the Murderer” has a similar plot to the formative of years of Henry Hill: a troubled kid stumbles across a group of local gangsters, only to join their ranks as an errand boy. It’s kind of like logging mandatory volunteer hours for school, only instead of reading to old people at a nursing home, Bart devotes his afternoon time to — as Springfield mafioso Fat Tony puts it — making “an excellent Manhattan.”

Longtime Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder actually penned the episode before Goodfellas was released, but added in some familiar plot details, such as Bart strutting around in a three-piece suit and the mafia goons (supposedly) intimidating Principal Skinner, to better coincide with the film. They even based Fat Tony’s appearance on Paul Sorvino’s teddy bear of a mob boss, Paul Cicero. A lesser Goodfellas actor, Frank Sivero, claims that Matt Groening and co. used his likeness as well — albeit without his permission — for Tony’s henchman, Louie. And while Louie’s black curls certainly look a bit like Sivero’s character, Frankie Carbone, the similarities end there — Louie’s a bit trimmer than Carbone, and his high-pitched squeal of a voice is much more reminiscent of Joe Pesci. —Dan Caffrey


07. Casino 

Also based on a true-crime book by Nicholas Pileggi, Casino is Goodfellas on steroids: more violence, more swearing, more De Niro, and a whole lot more Joe Pesci. But Scorsese and Pileggi dreamed up a brutal inverse on their previous collaboration in the death of (another) Pesci hothead, Nicky Santoro. Where as Pesci took down a character played by Frank Vincent in not one, but two Scorsese flicks (the first being Raging Bull), Vincent gets one hell of a bloody revenge in Casino. After he drives Santoro and his brother out to a cornfield under the false pretense of business negotiations, he and his crew savagely bludgeon the siblings with baseball bats. Even by Scorsese standards, the beating is relentless, going on so long that Vincent and his fellow attackers start to run out of breath. The same can’t be said for Nicky and Dominick, who are still breathing when they’re thrown into a hole and buried alive. It’s a rare moment bid for audience compassion in an otherwise unforgiving film, humanizing a man who has been nothing but a monster for almost three hours straight. —Dan Caffrey


06. Jane Austen’s Mafia! 

Jim Abrahams’ (or Jane Austen’s) Mafia! is a criminally underrated exercise in gangster parody — think Airplane! but with crime films — that lampoons GoodfellasCasino, and The Godfather series with manic glee. Of that holy cosa nostra trinity, it’s Goodfellas that’s responsible for the funniest gag, where Jay Mohr’s goof on Michael Corleone, Henry Hill, and any other number of mob protagonists rattles off a seemingly endless string of nicknames for his associates. But unlike the world of Goodfellas, where the monikers are strictly metaphorical, the slang here becomes hilariously literal: Nick Molinaro, who runs the North Side, is an Eskimo, Al “The Mailbox” Spaducci lives in an actual mailbox, and, best of all, Charlie “Big Red-Ass Baboon on His Head” Petrelli comes equipped with that very thing, complete with a pool of primate butt-sweat forming on the back of his suit. —Dan Caffrey


05. Ashanti

Terrence Howard aside, the acting in “Foolish” leaves something to be desired, but Ashanti’s music video deserves credit for reframing Goodfellas from Karen Hill’s perspective, all while still hitting most of the major points in the movie — her and Henry’s courtship at the Copacabana, the rise of the Lucchese Crime Family, the disintegration of their marriage, and more. The fact that most of the performers behind crime-film homages in R&B and hip-hop are male makes Ashanti’s tribute (arguably the most elaborate of its kind) all the more refreshing. —Dan Caffrey


04. The Sopranos 

David Chase once referred to Goodfellas as his Bible when filming his jaw-dropping statement on crime, family, and existential dread, The Sopranos. It would be impossible to list all of the references to Scorsese’s film here — Chase cast Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Tony Darrow, and other Goodfellas actors, for starters — so let’s talk about the most memorable instance of fan service. In Goodfellas, a hapless server named Spider (played by Michael Imperioli) gets shot in the foot, then later murdered by Tommy DeVito for taking too long to bring drinks to the table. In yet another inverse on violence (see our earlier Casino entry), Chase gives Imperioli — now in the gangster role of Christopher Moltisanti — the chance to maim someone in the service industry. This time, it’s a baker who takes too long to serve up some pastries. He fares a lot better than Spider (after all, the baker lives), but it’s still an embarrassing way to make your bones on-screen. Hopefully the actor, Brian Geraghty, gets to play a wiseguy one day. Actually, it looks like he kind of did — you may recognize him as the bloodthirsty federal agent Warren Knox in the Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire—Dan Caffrey 


03. Community 

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Many of the entries on this list pay tribute to one or two moments in Goodfellas, whether it’s a snippet of dialogue or a callback to Michael Ballhaus’ lucid camera work. Community, as the show does with most of their pop-culture send-ups, took this one step further by devoting an entire episode to the gangster flick. Things start off rather normally, with the Greendale gang sitting in the cafeteria, lamenting how the chicken fingers — apparently the only food item worth eating — always run out. It gets suggested that they execute a mafia-like takeover of the poultry distribution, and just like that, Abed snaps into Henry Hill mode. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a mafia movie,” he says in his head, echoing Ray Liotta’s opening voice-over.

From that point on, those not familiar with Goodfellas may have a hard time keeping up with the rapid-fire camera jumps and very Scorsese-like music montages. So many hallmark moments get covered — the Lufthansa Heist gets converted to a sequence explaining the ins and outs of chicken delivery, and in the episode’s coup de grace, we witness Community’s own version of the famous “Layla” montage. Only instead of Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway murdering his associates to cover up his tracks, Abed takes relatively harmless revenge on his friends to “send a message” when they start questioning his power. Annie Edison’s shredded backpack dangling from a coat hanger has none of the morbidity of Frankie Carbone strung up in a meat locker, and yet her reaction is as shocked and terrified as if she was seeing a dead body. It’s that sense of dramatic lameness — one of the key selling points of Community — that makes “Contemporary American Poultry” such a knockout parody. —Dan Caffrey


02. Swingers 

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At its core, Goodfellas is a study of male camaraderie and the tribulations of manhood. Director Doug Liman and writer/star Jon Favreau incorporated these themes into their mid-’90s sleeper hit Swingers, which found a crew of knucklehead actors doing their best to carve out their own piece of the west coast. And while the characters Mike (Favreau), Trent (a star-making performance for Vince Vaughn), and Sue (Patrick Van Horn) may lack the killer instinct of Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci, their slipshod attempts to break into the inner circle of LA stardom hearkens back to the rags-to-riches journey of Henry Hill and co. It’s so money.

One scene even goes so far as to name-check the landmark Steadicam shot of Hill and his date Karen taking the road less traveled as they snake through the VIP entryway of the always hopping Copacabana. Mike’s discussion of the scene’s brilliance then segues to a recreation of the shot in question, as the Swingers crew skips the long line outside of a club by sauntering in through the hidden corridors of the venue. Rather than distributing $20 bills to the doorman and staff, though, Trent greases palms with complaints and flattery, the true currency of Hollywood. The moral of the story: wiseguys don’t gotta wait in line.

Homages, baby, homages! Liman and Favreau’s tribute to cinematic criminals doesn’t just end at Goodfellas. There’s also a shot matching the opening titles of Reservoir Dogs (right after they praise the Tarantino film, of course). —Dan Pfleegor


01. Animaniacs

As far back as I can remember, mafia films were adult in nature, and parody was for the birds. But the now-classic Warner Brothers cartoon Animaniacs managed to combine both in an entertaining kids’ story about three street-tough pigeons who ran their city’s literal and metaphorical roost. Best of all, Pesto, Bobby, and Squit mirrored their on-screen counterparts — Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway, and Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, respectively — with matching temperaments and plenty of bird-brained adventures all across New Yawk.

The “Goodfeathers” segments excelled at plucking the comedic elements from a number of memorable Goodfellas scenes, especially the one with Pesci’s bellicose “Funny how?” outburst. Without fail, an anxious Squit and taciturn Bobby had to endure Pesto’s cuckoo explosions in every episode. The segments also contained more subtle homages to boot; eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that the Goodfeathers spend a lot of time plotting while perched atop an old statue bearing a strong resemblance to none other than Martin Scorsese himself (eventually replaced by Regis Philbin, whom they refuse to sit on). —Dan Pfleegor

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