Ray Liotta just wanted to have fun. Back in the 1970s, the Jersey boy got wind that the University of Miami had a party reputation, and he wanted in.
“Well, with my SAT scores where they were at, there weren’t a lot of places I could get in,” Liotta, 59, says from Los Angeles. “At that time there was no Donna Shalala. It was different back then. Now it’s a really good school.”
Having no idea what he wanted to do with his life, he signed up to be a drama major and never looked back. His drama coach, the late Robert “Buckets” Lowery, helped the fun-loving student figure out a direction.
“He made acting challenging,” Liotta said of the popular professor, who was at UM from 1963 to 1993 and also trained his buddy Steven Bauer. “He was just great. How he spoke with such depth, how he approached the craft. It resonated with me.”
The first year Liotta snagged only musicals, then came the starring roles.
“I just played pretend,” he says. “It is what it is; you get to play Cowboys and Indians for a living.”
A good living. A quick search on the International Movie Database reveals appearances in more than 100 films.
Though he knows the one role that will lead his obituary: real-life gangster Henry Hill in 1990’s Oscar-nominated mobster epic Goodfellas.
“Yeah it put me on the map,” acknowledges Liotta, who is divorced and has a teen daughter. “The weird thing is that Goodfellas wasn’t a huge success in its opening weekend. It took on a life of its own over the years.”
Though his parts have varied widely over the years, many fans still see him as that guy.
“It’s funny. I’ve only been a gangster in only two movies. The other being The Iceman,” said Liotta, who costars in The Identical, out Friday. “You try to get away from typecasting but I think the bad guys stand out in people’s minds. Something about them makes an imprint.”
Bad guys? Yep, Liotta has seen his share. His first role out of the gate was an ex-con terrorizing Melanie Griffith in 1986’s Something Wild. A few years after Goodfellas, Liotta became the tenant from hell in Unlawful Entry. More recently, he went the crooked cop route in The Place Beyond the Pines.
But he can also channel soft and mushy. Two of his weepers that come to mind: Field of Dreams and Corrina, Corrina. You want range? Earlier this year, Liotta played a hardened prisoner who also happens to sing and dance in Muppets Most Wanted.
Something Liotta has never done in his almost 30-year career is play a preacher.
“The script was so different from what I usually get offered,” says Liotta of The Identical, about a musically inclined young man (newcomer Blake Rayne) who is separated at birth from his twin, an Elvis-like superstar.
Liotta, as the man’s strict, sermon-prone adoptive father, felt a kinship with the story because he too is adopted. After accepting the job, he embarked on research: studying Billy Graham’s mannerisms, reading the Bible, visiting churches.
“It’s a faith-based movie, but they don’t hit you over the head with it. There is a lot more to it than the music. I think it’s got a little bit of everything. I just responded to it. ”
Something else Liotta responded to: co-starring in the Western miniseries, Texas Rising, due out on History Channel next year.
“That was a blast. I loved doing that movie. I got to play Cowboys and Indians again.”