Ray Liotta died this week. I had the opportunity to work with Ray twice. The first was twenty years ago on an HBO Film called Point of Origin, and then just last year on our Apple TV Plus Series Black Bird. He was a great actor and a consummate professional, and both experiences were memorable, but I think the best way that I can pay homage to him is to share with you the tributes written by our Black Bird star Taron Egerton and our creator, showrunner, writer, executive producer, Dennis Lehane.
Taron wrote the following on his Instagram:
I stepped on the set of Black Bird in May of last year deeply excited that I would be working with Ray Liotta and even more excited that he would be playing my father.
He was keeping himself to himself. Protecting his energy and his performance. I didn’t know how to approach him as I didn’t want to intrude.
He caught my eye and walked over to me and hugged me without saying a word. It was a long hug. But not uncomfortable. We only spoke to each other in character for that first day. I took my lead from him. I think he wanted us to be a father and son before we were colleagues.
What ensued was a profound experience for me as an actor; I have never felt such an easy, warm connection with another performer. He was so generous. If I went one way he followed me. Always dancing. Always listening. Never self-generated.
I am extraordinarily proud of my next project. It was hard work and I was blessed to have a number of incredible scene partners, but I will always be most proud of my scenes with Ray; the relationship we built felt real in some strange way.
When I first saw our show I text him telling him that I felt his performance was beautiful and that I was very proud of our work.
His response was: ‘you made it easy to love my son.’
Ray, the feeling was so, so mutual.
I will miss you.
And Dennis wrote the following tribute that was published in various trade publications:
It was, quite literally, the culmination of a lifelong dream to work with Ray Liotta. From the moment I saw him blow out the screen, his co-stars, and the back of the theater in Something Wild, I found him the most electric American actor of his generation. At the heart of a Ray Liotta performance was a duality that he couldn’t quite control; I suspect it wasn’t conscious. It felt, instead, like something that was locked in his DNA. When his character was threatening and dangerous, he still couldn’t fully hide the sweet little boy inside. When the character was charming, even loving, you could still feel something volatile roiling underneath.
I wrote the part of Big Jim Keene in Black Bird for Ray. I had no other actor in mind and was floored — humbled, honored, fist-pump elated — when he leapt at playing the part less than 24 hours after we sent him the scripts. And the performance he gave? It was a master class. He wholly embodied a man who realizes that his lifetime of cutting corners and flitting along the edges of corruption have hung an albatross of very bleak options around the neck of his own son. But as deeply flawed and compromised as the character is, Ray found the nobility in a man who would run into a burning building for that same son and never break his stride. It was that duality I counted on to carry the emotional heart of our show from beginning to end.
Ray came to set to work. He expected those he worked with to be prepared, professional, and to take their work as seriously as he did. I loved that about him. One day, we’re shooting a diner scene where Big Jim has a stroke. And the scene is taking a while to light and set up and several other conditions are in play that are less than ideal. And Ray’s getting more and more pissed off.
Eventually, I get a call from my assistant: “Ray needs you NOW.”
I get over there and Ray’s standing in the doorway of the diner, agitated. He steps up close to me — the whole crew is holding its breath by this time, everyone on eggshells — and Ray says, “What does ruefully mean?”
I say, “What?”
He says, “In the script. It says I smile ruefully.”
I give it a thought and say, “It means with ‘ironic or mild regret.’”
And Ray quotes Webster’s to me. “No, no. The definition of ruefully is ‘pitiable, mournful, regretful.’ There’s nothing MILD about that, Dennis.”
I say, “You’re right.”
And he says, “So why did you write it?”
150 people have stopped working to hear my answer.
So, I say, “I don’t know, Ray, it was like nine months ago. Forget ruefully. How do you feel in the scene?”
He says, “I feel slightly irritated.”I say, “Okay then. Play that.”He says, “Thank you.” Starts to walk off.
Everyone’s still staring at me. So, I call after Ray, “I tell you one thing, Ray — I rue the day I wrote that fucking line.” The whole crew looks like they all swallowed a puppy at the same time.
Ray looks back over his shoulder at me with pure menace. And then …He laughs. Big loud, Ray Liotta guffaw. And everyone breathes again. And laughs with him. And then we all go back to work.
I’ll cherish that memory for the rest of my life. And I will always rue the day he left us.