A Degenerate’s Work is Never Done: A New Film Examines Mob Informant Henry Hill, Whose Story Informed the Book ‘Wiseguy’ and the Film ‘Goodfellas’
When I read that former mobster Henry Hill, whose life informed the novel Wiseguy and the film Goodfellas, had left the witness protection program and was living an open life under his real name in North Platte. Neb., well let’s just say I was interested. When I learned a documentary had been made about him by some local filmmakers, it didn’t take me long to get an assignment for a story. I contacted the filmmakers, I obtained a screener of the film, but I never got to interview Hill. He had skipped town for the west coast and was purportedly living as a derelict in Venice Beach. So I was left with the portrait of Hill that the film and the filmmakers offered. It’s not a pretty picture. The film and its makers portray Hill as an unreformed degenerate lost in the haze of alcohol and drugs. That may be true, up to a point. The confounding thing though is that Hill always seems to come out the other side of whatever mess he gets himself into and he obviously has the wherewithall and presence of mind to surface in all kinds of situations and places, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, ingratiating or buying his way into people’s affections. And he always sucks in media types for yet another telling of his mob rise and fall and his life in and out of hiding. He clearly loves the attention.
Hill is, if nothing else, a survivor and an egoist playing off his infamy. Once a snitch and con, always one. It just may be he’s every bit the actor that Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci are and he’s just doing what he’s always done – putting it over on The Man or The System or anyone and anything else he can scheme or dodge or manipulate to his advantage. That said, I would have loved to have met and interviewed the guy. As it turned out, a couple years later I met someone very much like Hill in the figure of Clyde Waller, whose story I tell in the piece “Omaha’s Own American Gangster” on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Lincoln, Neb.-based film producer Ron Silver learned mob informant Henry Hill left the U.S, Marshal’s witness protection program to live in North Platte, he went there hoping for the kind of inside mafia stories Hill furnished author Nicholas Pileggi for the book Wiseguy; Martin Scorsese adapted t into the film Goodfellas. Instead, Silver and director Luke Heppner found an unreformed derelict as the portrait for their new documentary Shooting Henry Hill. The film premieres tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.
Facing serious jail time for illicit drug trafficking and organized crime activities, Hill turned state’s evidence on the Lucchese crime family, of which he was an associate. In exchange for testimony that put away major bad guys, he and his family lived in various locales under assumed names. Kicked out of the program for drug-alcohol incidents, some violent, he was always reinstated. His screw ups finally led he and the feds to part ways. He took back his real name. When Kelly, a woman he was involved with, moved from L.A. to be near family in North Platte, he followed in 2004. Divorced from his wife Karen, with whom he has two children, he married Kelly. He soon got in trouble again for possession of cocaine and meth.
The broken man Silver found working as a cook at The Firefly restaurant in 2005 was ready to spill his guts, just not about the mafia. Silver said Hill, 63, agreed to be the subject of the film on one condition — it focus on his addiction, not his gangster past. Ray Liotta’s portrayal of a strung-out druggie gave a glimpse into Hill’s addict lifestyle. Still, Silver wasn’t prepared for the “wreck” of a man he met.
“I was surprised…disappointed…shocked a man his age was still faced with these addictions and was still acting out in this immature, reactionary way,” said Silver, a veteran theater actor-director-producer originally from L.A. “We imagine these guys as tough and fearless and powerful and dapper and he wasn’t those things and I’m not sure he was ever any of those things.”
Ironically, he said, it wasn’t so much the mafia life that hurt Hill and his family as it was his own degenerate behaviors.
The film introduces us to Hill drunk, his usual state of being. As the film progresses, he’s seen more and more sober.
“We made the decision to show Henry Hill in the order of how we experienced him,” said Heppner, an Omaha resident with local music videos and television credits to his name. “He was drunk basically the first few times we taped him. He was at the bottom of the barrel. When we very first see him in the film he’s fragile. As the film goes on you begin to see more of a stronger person. He looks completely different at the end than at the beginning. It’s the story Henry wanted to tell. It shows his life as a struggle. After all these years, this is who he is.”
On the first day of shooting “the star” was wasted, but Silver said when he suggested postponing things so Hill could dry out, Hill “kept saying over and over, ‘This is who I am.’ I think Henry felt by not hiding it, he would help people. And I thought by showing it we were just being honest.”
As filming proceeded last spring Heppner said the small crew got “sucked in” to the chaos and dysfunction of Hill’s life. “While we shot the movie, his wife (Kelly) left him, his friends betrayed him, he was assaulted, he was evicted, he was arrested. All these things happened,” he said. “We talked about how shooting Henry Hill is almost like making a wildlife documentary. We went out filming this (wild) creature going about his business” in a habitat full of intrigue and conflict. Silver said Hill’s wild mood swings, binges and nervous agitation make him difficult to capture.
The further they were drawn into his user ways, the crew found themselves part of the drama. “We went to be observers and ended up getting pulled into the story,” Heppner said. As a result, the filmmakers decided to insert themselves in the film in a fairly obtrusive manner. Silver, his wife Heather and Heppner comment at various points in the film on Hill, the unfolding madness and their reactions to it.
“It was a tough decision,” Silver said. “We realized we had crossed over into the ultimate intimate of his life. We experienced this together with Henry. We had part of the story to tell. We could fill in the blanks. We knew the audience would be reacting as we did. It made us uncomfortable, too. We felt we could let the audience off the hook by letting them know we felt very much as they do.”
A melodramatic framing device at the open and close of the film shows Silver seated on the porch of his house at night, speaking in hushed, weary tones. In these black and white scenes Silver intimates events have dragged he and the crew down. The closing scene, which ends the doc, has Silver holding an absurdly large hand gun as he informs us he’s been threatened by one of Hill’s enemies.
“Honestly, we were in a very dark place when we wrapped filming. I think the black and white is how we felt. Someone threatened to toss a grenade into my home. It’s one thing to know somebody wants to kill you and it’s another thing to know they can,” said Silver, referring to Dale, a felon now serving a stretch in Leavenworth.
As Silver found, getting involved in Hill’s life means dealing with the detritus that attends him. “It kind of takes over for awhile,” he said. Silver said Hill, released in 2005 from the Lincoln County (Neb.) jail to do an interview for Warner Brothers’ DVD reissue of Goodfellas, somehow gets people to overlook his misdeeds. Some celebs, notably Howard Stern, court him. It’s unclear who’s exploiting whom.
“People tolerate things from Henry they wouldn’t tolerate from their neighbor or a friend. I don’t know why,” he said. “I never felt that way. I never adopted Henry. I wasn’t going to be his baby sitter, and he kind of needs one, and when he doesn’t, he kind of spirals out of control. I would never be that guy. So, when he asked for money, I didn’t give him any. I gave him good advice.”
Silver still keeps in contact with Hill, whose problems persist. Some months back Silver said Hill was arrested in California for chugging booze he didn’t pay for in a grocery store, a crime that due to his priors brought a felony sentence of 10 to 15 years. A judge ordered Hill into rehab, which “he walked out of,” Silver said. Ordered back, Hill no sooner checked in than bailed out. Silver’s tracked him down to Venice Beach, where he said Hill’s in sharp decline.
“He’s in horrible condition. He’s just a fragment of even the guy you see in the film,” Silver said. “Barefoot, bearded, dishelved, sleeping on park benches. Henry’s on edge. I’m afraid he’ll get picked up soon and do his 10 to 15 years. But prison would be a good place for him right now. I think it might save his life. I am going to find him and hopefully he’ll clean up. I won’t abandon him as a friend.”
Silver’s considered the possibility Hill has “a death wish.” Why else would a man the mob wants whacked put himself out there in such a visible way? “I don’t think doing the film was his death wish,” Silver said. “I asked him about it. He said, ‘It (a hit) can still happen. But, look, if I live as Henry Hill and show people I’m not afraid and I become a public person, they wouldn’t dare.’ But he does have a death wish and I really do believe he’s killing himself slowly” with “his self-destructive behavior.”
There’s also a chance this is just an old con’s dodge, as Hill capitalizes on his mob persona via books, TV appearances and product lines. “I thought about that,” Silver said. “He is a con man…they function on…manipulation. But he’s not faking being a drunk and he’s not faking the pain he feels about his life. It’s a sad story. What’s hard for Henry is he has a conscience. He’s haunted.”
While he doesn’t feel it excuses Hill’s criminal past, Silver regards him “a hero” for ratting out the mob. “Henry always wanted out. Yeah, he did it to save his skin, but I believe people are alive today because of what Henry did,” he said. Besides, Silver said, the only thing Hill gained as a snitch, other than fame, was “a life in hiding.” One good thing, Silver said, is he did protect his family. His relationship with Karen is strained, but he’s on good terms with his grown kids, Gregg and Gina Hill, whose book about growing up underground, On the Run, Silver calls a “great read.”
Shooting Henry Hill will screen at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in September. Now weighing distribution offers, Silver’s at work on an Omaha screening.
- Goodfellas & badfellas: Scorsese and morality (blogs.suntimes.com)
- For One ‘Wiseguy,’ A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore (npr.org)