Irish-American Gangster Henry Hill Dies Aged 69
Henry Hill, the Irish-American mobster who became the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Goodfellas’ has died, peacefully in bed in a Los Angeles hospital, the day after his 69th birthday, finally succumbing to years of heavy smoking and Italian food.
Born on June 11, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York, Hill was an associate of New York City’s Lucchese crime family from the 1960s into the 1980s. As his father was Irish, he couldn’t become a fully- fledged wiseguy but that didn’t stop his life of crime and violence.
He participated in the 1967 Air France robbery in which $420,000 was stolen from the airline’s terminal at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, and later spent six years in prison for extortion although he continued his criminal activities while behind bars.
In December 1978, months after he was released from prison, along with James Burke, Thomas Anthony DeSimone and others stole $5m from Lufthansa Airlines at JFK airport which at the time was the largest robbery on American soil.
Following the robbery, Burke became paranoid about the publicity surrounding the crime, and murdered several of those who took part.
Two years later Hill was arrested drug trafficking, and fearing for his life from Burke, he decided to become an FBI informant. Along with his wife Karen, and their children Gregg and Gina, he entered the government’s witness protection programme and later testified against his former associates and crime bosses, including Burke and Paulie Vario, the head of the Lucchese crime family.
In 1986, Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy, the book which became the basis for Goodfellas – starring Liotta, Robert De Niro, as Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway, based on Burke, Joe Pesci as ‘Two Gun Tommy’ based on DeSimone and Paul Sorvino, based on Vario.
Hill and his wife were expelled from the programme in the early 1990s after he was arrested on drugs charges, and he went back to living under his own name. The couple divorced in 1989.
In the book and the film Hill talks about how hard it was to lead an ordinary life after years steeped in gangster glamour.
“I had paper bags filled with jewellery stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away,” Hill says in the film.
“Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
Instead of being a ‘schnook’ however, Hill spent the remainder of his life as a celebrity mobster in California, selling paintings, giving lectures and appearing as an occasional host of an Italian cooking show. He also released ‘The WiseGuy Cookbook’ with a signature brand of pasta sauce.
The rest of the Goodfellas didn’t have that luxury as Vario died in 1988 in Fort Worth Federal Prison in Texas whilst serving a 10-12 year sentence after being convicted mainly on the evidence of Hill. Burke died in prison of cancer in 1996 whilst DeSimone went missing in January 1979. He was believed to have been executed in revenge for the murder of William ‘Billy Batts’ Devino which featured in the opening scene of the film.