Ray Liotta: More Than Just A Goodfella

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Ray Liotta (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal)

Best known for his work in film, Ray Liotta found a home playing a crooked cop targeted by the FBI in the NBC crime drama Shades of Blue alongside Jennifer Lopez. As someone whose last extended foray on television dates back to 1985’s long-forgotten ABC drama Our Family Honor, this project was something Liotta had high hopes for. That is, until NBC announced in April that this upcoming third season would be the show’s last.

With Lopez juggling an ongoing Las Vegas residency gig and involvement as an executive producer and judge on the NBC reality competition series World of Dance, her decision to depart Shades of Blue may have had more than a small part in forcing the network’s decision. The cancellation is equal parts bewildering and maddening for the New Jersey native.

“I’m disappointed, because I like [my] character a lot, I thought there was a lot more to explore and I really think they could have kept it going with or without Jennifer. They could have recast it, but I guess they weren’t confident with the [ratings] numbers,” he said. “But they put us at such a horrible time—10 o’clock on Sundays without a good lead-in. It just wasn’t one of their projects that they stood behind and really wanted to make work. Jennifer left to do this dance show over at NBC, but she wanted it to continue without her in it. She was fine with it going on, so I really don’t know the reason why [it’s ending].”

Jennifer Lopez (left) and Ray Liotta in a scene NBC’s Shades of Blue, which is now in its third and final season. (Photo courtesy of Peter Kramer/NBC)

The show is set in New York City and stars Jennifer Lopez as main character Harlee Santos, a single-mother New York Police Department detective forced to work for the FBI’s anti-corruption task force, while dealing with her own financial and family problems. Liotta’s Lieutenant Matt Wozniak is not only Lopez’s commander, who is the target of the investigation, but he is also a mentor to Santos. Liotta’s interest was piqued when it was rumored that director Barry Levinson was going to be involved. But it was when he read the script that the New Jersey native decided he was all in.

“They sent me the script and I really liked it,” Liotta recalled. “There was so much involved with [this role]. To be a bisexual cop on the take who’s extremely paternal with his crew and family….he loves his family, so there’s stuff going on with his wife and his son along with all the guys. There’s tons of stuff going on, so it was never the same thing every day.”

While Liotta’s most notable role was playing Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 crime film Goodfellas, acting was something he fell into while attending the University of Miami in the 1970s. As the adopted son of Mary and Alfred, the younger Liotta grew up in New Jersey alongside his adopted sister Linda.

A multi-sport athlete in high school who played baseball, soccer and basketball, Liotta’s foray into theater came after arguing with his coach during his senior year and being wooed by his drama teacher to audition and subsequently getting a major role in a production of Sunday in New York, an experience he admits, “…not remembering anything about. I don’t even picture myself doing any lines.”

Ray Liotta (right) and Robert DeNiro in a scene from Goodfellas (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

While he had no intention of going to college, his father encouraged him to, “…have experiences and meet people. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Initially intent on pursuing a liberal arts degree, Liotta balked at having to take history and math prerequisites while standing in line registering and instead hopped over to the drama department queue. Berated by a comely theater major to audition for an upcoming production of Cabaret, he underwent a couple of auditions that found him singing a song from Pippin for which he only knew the refrain and mimicking the dance “Do the Freddy” when asked to provide choreography.

“The worst part of it was that it was in front of the other actors. They were allowed to watch the auditions. So I did that and I got into it. Here I was a jock, who played sports all through school because that’s all I cared about,” he recalled. “Now I’m in front of a bunch of drama people at school and they did plays all throughout high school. But I had no desire to be an actor whatsoever.”

Following a small part on the soap opera Another World in the early 1980s, Liotta’s break came in his sophomore bow, 1986’s Something Wild, in which he played sociopathic ex-convict Ray Sinclair. Despite admittedly falling into an acting career, the Jersey native has been adamant about trying to challenge himself with the roles he takes versus just going for a payoff. Which makes this latest turn with Shades of Blue smart all the more.

“My idols were the people that did different kinds of parts,” he said. “You want to do as many different genres as you can and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve done movies with the Muppets. I did Sinatra. I did good guys and bad guys. I did a movie with an elephant. I decided that I was here to try different parts and do different things. That’s what it’s really all about. That’s what a career should be.”

Shades of Blue airs on NBC on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Visit www.nbc.com/shades-of-blue to find out more about the show.

Check out Ray Liotta’s most challenging roles:

Ray Liotta: An Actor’s Life

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In addition to being editor of Garden City Life and Syosset-Jericho Tribune, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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