There are lots of pieces of hot new equipment in Vegas today but I’m frozen waiting for a call from Henry Hill. You’ll remember Henry Hill because he was a “Goodfella.”
It was Hill’s spectacular rise and fall with the Lucchese crime family in New York that Martin Scorsese immortalized in the 1990 film with an assist from a manic Ray Liotta. Roger Ebert called Goodfellas “The best mob movie ever.”
You probably know the basics. What you might not know is that Hill’s chosen occupation got a boost from the construction industry.
Well, sort of.
Remember early on in the movie when Hill/Liotta tells his awestruck date that he’s in construction but when she presses him about his pristine hands, he says he’s a “union delegate?”
Hill didn’t exactly say that. But he did know his way around a jobsite, a number of unions, and a couple of racetracks. And social clubs, The Copacabana, and Federal courtrooms. He actually knew Jimmy Hoffa and ended up with a special mattress that was custom-made for the former Teamster head. There’s not room for every tale.
We were supposed to talk in person late the other night at a darkened off-Strip hotel. We were supposed to talk the next morning, but Hill was up and on the road, spirited home before sunup.
He’s still got some of the elusiveness he picked up in the witness protection program, when he moved a half-dozen times and had a $2 million price on his head. I didn’t ask where home was. After all, he does have my cell phone number. And my picture’s on this thing.
Why construction? Why not real estate or the time-honored “sanitation?”
“I knew union officials as a kid,” he explains. “I had a union book at 15, 16 years-old and a bricklayer’s apprentice card.” But Hill never so much as picked up a trowel.
“I would go on jobsites, but I’d just go around and delegate things. The most I ever did was pick up the paper that was between the bricks.
“We controlled the mason tenders and the bricklayers’ union. We had the operating engineers’ union. I was a shop steward, plus I was running all the numbers on the jobs, controlling the crap games and the card games,” Hill says. “I drove the president of the bricklayers’ union around. I drove him to the racetrack every day.
“It was exciting for me to do all that as a kid. I was supposed to be in school but I was taking down apprentice pay instead. The foremen, as long as they got a piece of the action, they’d put anybody on a job.”
According to Hill, the construction connection was a natural because of the ethnic make-up of the union membership in much of New York City at that point. Any guesses?
I’ll take Mid-20th Century Union Muscle for 100, Alex…
“The reason it was so easy was that there were a lot of Italians in the unions and they controlled them. Nobody opposed them at election time. If someone did get up to oppose them, they’d quickly drop out or change their mind.”
You just know that these were completely independent decisions borne of precise and scientific polling.
“They put a lot of people to work. The unions had connections with the city and they’d put up schools and city projects,” Hill says. “There were twenty-two story buildings going up everywhere. They had it sewed up tight.
“Through all the construction unions, I was making as much or more than my dad. My dad hated those people.” And Henry Hill’s career was launched.
These days, the 68-year-old Hill makes limited personal appearances his manager publicizes through social media. Bills himself as an “Original Gangster” along with Frank Cullotta and a real Tony Montana. Last time, Gotti guy turned filmmaker Salvatore “Sally” Polisi was along. You can even join ‘em for dinner. What a country.
Hill also paints. Some of his paintings feature simple depictions of a large rat and a pizza. In another, two glorified stick figures dangle another, less fortunate stick figure over the railing of the lion habitat at the Tampa Zoo. You won’t see these in a museum. (Yes, this is the one I bought.)
So after profiting mightily from his criminal past, Hill now profits from artwork based on scenes from a film about that past, a film based on a book that he had already profited from.
You got a problem with that?
“Listen, I’m the one who won that case – number one, I wasn’t convicted of any crime you saw in that movie!” Hill says.
“They invoked the ‘Son of Sam’ law upon me. I won a decision from the Supreme Court 8-0 that you can profit. The movie industry and my publishers went to bat for me. They put money in escrow, held my money for me. It cost a wheelbarrow full of money to go that far, but they paid 75 percent,” he explains.
Did that equal a Lufthansa warehouse full of money? I kept quiet.
“I paid my dues; I did what I had to do for the government,” Hill says. “There are more people who like me than dislike me. I get more [bleeping] fan mail, I got two people handling it for me.”
In all, he’s a nice wiseguy, forthcoming, sometimes profane. He gives to charity and tries to keep kids out of gangs, something he’s very proud of. He steers clear of the drugs that got him kicked out of the witness protection program but still overindulges in alcohol. “Irish alcoholism runs in my family,” Hill admits matter-of-factly. He has a nasty, rattling cough, at least today.
He doesn’t run games, doesn’t gamble like he used to. “I gotta own my past,” he says. “I was a gangster, I did a lot of things to a lot of people, but I turned my life around.
“Take the Giants Sunday and stay away from the over.”