You know you’ve really made it as an actor when you literally start getting cast as yourself, something which happened a fair amount to the one and only Ray Liotta over the years. No actor personified blue-eyed steeliness like the veteran stage and screen actor, a fact he seemed to know quite well, and wielded nimbly in his decades on screen. Whether playing some variety of cop or criminal — the genre which overwhelms his IMBD ranking — he could always be counted on to find the lurking humanity under the surface of his roles.
Plus, he was also capable of being quite funny, something which shows like The League, The Simpsons, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Modern Family, and even Hannah Montana were able to take advantage of — you don’t make cameos in multiple Muppets films (Muppets from Space and Muppets Most Wanted, to be precise) without having a great sense of humor and a love for fun.
His passing at the age of 67 is a true tragedy, but as we mourn for the lost roles we’ll never see, it’s a good time to reflect upon the great performances he delivered over the span of nearly 40 years.
— Liz Shannon Miller
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Something Wild (1986)
“Charged” is perhaps the best term to describe Ray Liotta’s performance in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film, Something Wild. From the moment his character — who is aptly named “Ray” — enters the film, it’s an entirely different movie. His explosive, violent energy kicks the stakes for Charlie (Jeff Daniels) and Audrey (Melanie Griffth) into the highest gear possible, ensuring that their no-frills affair indeed has frills.
His iconic return in scene in their hotel is the definition of a loose cannon: You never know where, or how, he’ll strike, creating a tense, chaotic atmosphere from moment to moment. It’s a much needed burst of unpredictability in the film’s script, and Ray Liotta embodies the character to a tee. — Paolo Ragusa
Field of Dreams (1989)
Liotta doesn’t have the most recognizable voice in Field of Dreams (despite persistent rumors that he is The Whisper), nor honestly the most important role. His Shoeless Joe Jackson is more of a conduit for the main characters’ arcs than a true protagonist. But it’s what he does in with the part – particularly with his voice – that makes it such a defining performance from the actor.
Unlike the menacing, intense characters he largely made a career out of, Liotta’s Shoeless Joe is understated and gentle. There is a hardness underneath the tones — this is still Ray Liotta, after all — but the actor imbues the legendary ball player with a subtle otherworldliness and a penetrating understanding. It’s a performance that serves as the perfect fulcrum upon which the film’s supernatural and deeply human elements balance. — Ben Kaye
It’s hard to think of a more iconic role in movie history than Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. You know, the guy who casually pistol whips a guy in the face and looks mega cool doing it, and is so powerful that he gets to cut the line at the Copacabana.
Yes, Scorsese has a knack for writing effortlessly cool characters, but Hill wouldn’t be the movie legend he is today without the help of Liotta, who delivers his lines with a wry, punchy funniness, and brings an air of vulnerable sensitivity to a badass character. He’s also just full of swagger — the kind that will make every little kid want to grow up to be a gangster (for a little while). – Aurora Amidon
While his most famous role might be as an infamous gangster-turned-snitch, Liotta’s career featured a great many roles where he played on the other side of the law (albeit pretty close to the edge). Narc just happens to be the first one we’re getting to on this list, an intense two-hander featuring Liotta and Jason Patric as two cops whose quest to find the killer of an undercover cop pushes them into unlawful territory; Liotta’s electric performance is just one element that elevates Joe Carnahan’s gritty take on the genre, as he begins entering his elder-statesmen era as an actor, and embracing the meaty roles that came with it. — L.S.M.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
While you might not ever see his face, Ray Liotta still made a huge impact on the entertainment world with his other notable 2002 role, providing the voice for lead protagonist Tommy Vercetti in 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City during a time when the crossover between video game voice acting and Hollywood wasn’t nearly as common as it is today. (Not only that, Vice City was the first time that the GTA franchise featured a protagonist who speaks.) Liotta was ahead of the curve on that one, and it paid off — named Game of the Year by IGN and Playstation 2 Game of the Year by GameSpot and Entertainment Weekly, Vice City became the bestselling game of 2022. — Wren Graves