For Alessandro Nivola, every day working with Ray Liotta on The Many Saints of Newark was a gift for several reasons.
Beyond starring opposed a Hollywood idol, Nivola was able to witness Liotta craft two completely different characters for the story, which was David Chase’s prequel film to his HBO series, The Sopranos.
Nivola, who played Dickie Moltisanti, knew he was watching something special as Liotta played both Dickie’s twin father and uncle. Liotta unexpectedly died Thursday at the age of 67.
“One of the biggest things I feel shame about is when people are having a real renaissance in their careers, which is what was happening to him, and that is cut short,” Nivola told The Hollywood Reporter. “One of my big takeaways from experience on Many Saints was just how excited he was to be there — and how very serious he was in his preparation.”
Liotta, of course, was mob-actor royalty for having starred as Henry Hill in the iconic 1990 film Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese. And it was a note Nivola received from Liotta during their time on Many Stains that mentioned Goodfellas which gave him tremendous pride — and later a huge laugh.
“My first memories of working together, we were on the set, and I found him just staring at me sometimes from across the room in a kind of very intense and intent way,” Nivola says. “I just assumed he was sizing me up. But I didn’t know, he could have been thinking about the laundry list. And two weeks into working together, he said that I reminded him of himself as Henry Hill. That was the most incredible affirmation that I could ever receive from him.”
Nivola stored that gold nugget during production and used it as motivation when needed. It was only after the film was complete that the comment was addressed further — and the moment still makes Nivola laugh.
“I had told that story a few times, and when we were doing press for the film, somebody mentioned it to him. And I remember him saying, ‘Yeah, well — That’s not really what I meant!’ So I don’t know what he meant!” Nivola says with a howl of laughter.
Asked to describe the late actor when the cameras were not rolling is no small request, as Nivola notes. “He’s a very difficult guy to describe in a few words because he contained multitudes. And what made him so exciting as an actor to watch was he was very unpredictable. I just had to be on my toes because I didn’t know which direction he was going to go.”
Continues Nivola, “He was never boring and definitely had a sense of humor. He was very demanding of himself and of other people. He had very high standards about acting, about his craft.”
One thing Nivola can proudly report is that Liotta was quite proud of The Many Stains of Newark. “He loved the film,” says his co-star. “He got a lot of appreciation for his work, and rightly so. And I’ve even noticed on social media today, that people have said, “What a great performance to go out on.”