IT HAS BEEN over two decades since one of the most realistic mobster films, second only to The Godfather, came to theatres. In 1990, when Martin Scorcesse’s Goodfellas, based on the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy (read it if you have not yet!) hit theatres, the public first met Henry Hill: a money-man mobster for New York’s famous Lucchese crime family, who had a hand in some of the major multi-million-dollar heists of his time, from banks to planes.
Hill eventually went on to become an FBI informant who led to the arrest and convction of over 50 mobsters; and he believed his end would come in the form of a bullet piercing his back. But future had different things in store for him, and the man died this week at 69 years of age.
A small-time gangster
Everybody in the Mafia starts off as a wiseguy. This is the iconic imagery portrayed by Scorcesse’s Goodfellas, and it was also how Henry began his life with the Lucchese family.
As a high school student who found himself being tipped repeatedly by Lucchese family hijacker, James Burke, and then being introduced to a legitimate job of collecting monetary dues and gambling bets, it did not take Hill long to drop out of his education to work for the mobsters.
At sixteen he went to jail for the first time and came out not having spoken a single word to the police. That meant he had garnered the respect of men high in the family; if he had not let out anything to the cops, he was a trusted man and could be promoted within the family.
Soon he was the wiseguy, a man responsible for the comparatively petty things on the street, but who had the family behind his back, nonetheless.
Major heists, murders and potato chips
Henry Hill’s heists were often worth millions — a larger amount of money in the 60s than it probably is now. They stole,most notably, a large sum of money from Air France and then ended up paying tributes to mobsters whose tur it was they had invaded during the heist.
The word is, Henry Hill recounted all these events to Pillegi — murders, heists and all — coolly eating a bag of potato chips.
In 1969 Hill’s group of gangsters killed one of a Gambino crime family’s made man, by name William Devino. They buried him in a shallow grave in the snow. Months later a new construction project was coming up in the land where Devino’s body was and Hill, and DeSimone had to dig up the body and bury the decomposed remains elsewhere.
Understandably, Henry Hill’s car smelled so terrible he ended up scraping it in a junk yard. But these men had bigger problems: Don John Gotti, under whom the dead William Devino worked. And in the mafia, killing a made man without permission means death.
The Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke divide
In the early 70s, Hill, Burke — with whom Hill was working now — and two others (the Rosado cousins) contacted one John Ciaccio to collect extortion money in the middle of the public in a hotel. When the cousins’ treatment failed, Burke intervened and finally helped get part of the money from Ciaccio. Unfortunately for them, several people in the hotel would later be witnesses in court along with a police officer who was present on the scene that day, who took down the license plate number of the car they had come in.
In 1972, the Hill-Burke duo was convicted for extortion. After their sentence they returned worse, in the company of bigger (badder) mafia guys like Johnny Dio, who was in prison for blinding journalist Victor Riesel with acid. In jail they had lived a happy life, bribing guards, cooking for themselves, sleeping on large double-mattresses and so on.
When Hill was freed for being a model prisoner (who really smuggled drugs all the time in prison) he apparently walked out wearing a Brioni suit and drove home in a Buick.
Six years later, Hill et al. re-grouped to perform America’s biggest heist ever; it would amount to about $18 million today. However, soon after they pulled off the heist, Henry Hill began trading drugs and Burke went around killing members of the Lufthansa Heist crew so he would not have to share his money with them.
Finally, when Hill was caught for his narcotics business, he was convinced his crew members were the cause of this and that they intended to kill him too. With that, Hill, he entered the mafia by not giving away information to the police, ended his life of crime by doing so and in the processes helped convict over 50 people including the likes of Burke and Vario (both of whom died in jail.)
Hill was caught on many occasions right up to late 2011 for possession on drugs etc. but believed (and stated on various talk shows, especially to the BBC) that he was “doing the right thing now.”
He also became a chef, opened his own restaurant, Wiseguys, and became very famous for his spaghetti sauce which he called Sunday Gravy. He also went on to enter an alchohol rehabilitation centre some time after Goodfellas was released. He was kept for a long time in the witness protection programme, transported to undisclosed locations, until he broke the conduct by publicly introducing himself after the premiere of Scorcesse’s film.
Henry Hill turned 69 on June 11th this year and on June 12th breathed his last, having suffered heart attacks and other heart problems arising as a result of his smoking habit. The word, understandably — and fortunately — was that he died rather peacefully for a goodfella![hspace] [hspace]
Here are a few scenes from the film, Goodfellas: ❧