Monday, March 31, 2008

Henry Hill Tours His Goodfellas' Turf

GoodFellas was the definitive mafia film - and it is the story of one man, Henry Hill, one of the only survivors of a ruthless gang of robbers and killers.

Hill walked the streets of New York as a king - an associate of the Lucchese crime family. He stole big, he spent big and took vast quantities of drugs.

Then he got caught and spent 30 years in the witness protection programme, telling the police all they needed to know to put his mafia bosses behind bars.

"I couldn't walk around this neighbourhood ten years ago," he says standing, smoking outside Junior's diner in Long Island City. "There'd be bullets flying all over the place."

His morning started with fried calamari washed down with a glass of wine and a shot of whiskey. But it was not the Dutch courage that meant he dared to visit his old haunting grounds on this murky spring day.

"I'm old enough to die, just as long as they do it quickly," he says, pointing to his forehead.

Hill is a very different looking man from the one shown on the big screen. He is short, grey-haired, with lines on his face. A cigarette barely leaves his hand. The same goes for a bottle of beer.

After Junior's, it was on to his mistress's house. She was called Janice Rossi in the film, Linda in real life, and Hill confirms the famous scene where his wife, Karen, is madly pressing apartment buzzers and screaming that Janice is a "whore". But he says in reality he was in the apartment too and had to climb down the drainpipe to get out and reach home before Karen returned.

Hill says: "If you can't love two people at once, there's something wrong with you."

I point out that his wife probably did not see it that way. "Obviously she didn't," says Hill.

After a short interlude where he tries to persuade a traffic warden not to give us a ticket - "Sistergirl, please," he says - we are off to Robert's Lounge.

The club was owned by Jimmy Burke (Robert de Niro's character in the film) and was the scene of Spider's (played by Michael Imperioli) death. "Spider was killed in the basement," Hill says. He describes the dark room filling up with smoke and the deafening echo of bullets in the tiny space. He says Spider was buried in the basement along with several others killed there or nearby over the years. With a grim look he says: "This is a graveyard."

GoodFellas contained several scenes of visceral, shocking violence and it was not an exaggeration.

Joe Coffey became a policeman because the mafia shot his dad. It happened when he was eight and they did it right in front of him.

"GoodFellas is probably the best mafia movie as far as showing them for what they really are," he says today. "The Godfather, Casino, they show them as sort of folk heroes. GoodFellas pins them down to exactly what they are - street thugs."

Hill says he never killed anyone although he did ''bust some heads", and he admits he does not know whether his victims lived or died.

He smiles as he talks of how much he stole, though. "We stole anything we could sell," he says, as we pass a Bulova watch factory.

He claims they used to stake out the trucks as they brought shipments in and then hold up and pay off the drivers. The watches could then be sold on the black market.

His most famous crime was the Lufthansa robbery of 1978 when a reported $5m (£2.5m) was taken from a vault at New York's John F Kennedy International Airport.

Hill says the police told him more than $100m (£50m) had gone through his hands, although he himself has no idea how much he stole and spent.

He knows where it went though: "Slow horses, drugs and rock and roll."

Now he makes his money selling his story. He is promoting a new Sky Movies mafia season, and has written several books (including a cookbook - real spaghetti and marinara sauce, not egg noodles and ketchup).

He adds that he made half a million dollars advising on GoodFellas.

I ask him how he thought the victims of his crimes would feel knowing about that.

He takes a drag of his cigarette and replies: "Do you know something? I don't give a heck what those people think, I'm doing the right thing now."

Thanks to Heather Alexander

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