The Shocking True Story Behind Goodfellas
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The Shocking True Story Behind Goodfellas

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Is this video funny to you? How? How is it funny?! For this video, we're pulling back the curtain of Martin Scorsese's 1990 mob movie. Our video includes Henry Hill's upbringing, his introduction to the mafia, his eventual downfall, and more!

The shocking true story of “Goodfellas.”

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re looking at the shocking true story of “Goodfellas.”

For this video, we’re pulling back the curtain of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob movie.

What’re your thoughts on “Goodfellas?” Let us know in the comments!

At the beginning of the iconic film, Henry Hill famously claims that he “always wanted to be a gangster.” But is that true? Well, yeah, pretty much. Hill was raised in Brooklyn, and his house was located across the street from a taxi dispatch. This cabbie was a popular site for New York mobsters, including Paul Vario. Vario was a capo in the Lucchese crime family who used the cabstand as a front for his criminal exploits. A young Hill was drawn to the location and inquired about part-time work, and it was through this inquiry that he became acquainted with the mob. He served drinks at card games and ran small errands, nothing too big or important. But this changed when Hill was just 14. Then, he started working as a loan shark for Vario and was given a no-show job in a bricklayers’ union. A favorite in the world of organized crime, a no-show job is when someone is placed on a payroll but not actually expected to show up, hence the name. They get all the rewards and enact none of the labor.

At this point, Hill was fully ingrained in the mob. When a rival cabstand opened up across the street, he helped burn the cars. He got into stolen credit card scams. After a brief stint in the army, he started hijacking cars. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the career path that Hill’s electrician father envisioned for his son, and it tore at the family fabric. His father knew the kind of work that was going on at the cabstand, and he wanted no part of it. In fact, according to Hill’s sister, Lucille Chrisafulle, her father refused any gift that was given to him by Hill, assuming that it was paid for with blood money. It was during this time that Hill met all the big players in the story. Aside from Paul Vario, Hill became acquainted with James Burke, a fellow mobster in the Lucchese crime family. There was Karen Friedman, whom Hill dated and wooed with lavish trips to the Copacabana nightclub. They would eventually marry and have two children (one son and one daughter, not two daughters as portrayed in the movie). And of course, there was Thomas DeSimone, a notoriously violent gangster and the subject of Joe Pesci’s Oscar-winning performance. Unlike in the film, DeSimone and Hill did not grow up together. Rather, Hill was already in his early 20s when he met the 15-year-old DeSimone, and he worked directly under Hill in his various mob operations.

One of their biggest was the robbery of the Air France cargo terminal at JFK. According to insider Robert McMahon, a large sum of cash was being held inside the terminal, and the mob could simply stroll in and get it. So that’s pretty much exactly what they did. In the movie, McMahon personally hands them the keys to the vault. In real life, the gangsters lifted the keys from a drunk security guard. They then walked into the terminal, loaded seven bags of money into a large briefcase, and strolled right out. All told, they literally walked away with $420,000 - about three and a half million in 2021 dollars.

It was shortly after this that Hill participated in the famous killing of William Bentvena, playfully known as Billy Batts. Bentvena was released from prison and insulted Tommy DeSimone at his welcome home party. DeSimone, Hill, and James Burke later killed Bentvena for the slight, and it went down pretty much exactly as it does in “Goodfellas.” Yes, that includes the vicious beating, stopping at DeSimone’s mother’s house, killing Bentvena after realizing that he was still alive, and burying him upstate. The only difference is the planning of Bentvena’s death. In the film, it’s portrayed as more of a reactionary outburst from Tommy. In real life, the killing was meticulously planned. Not only did it come two weeks after the initial insult against Tommy, but it was also partly orchestrated by Jimmy Burke, who feared that Bentvena would take over his loan shark operation.

After a four-year stint in prison for assaulting a man named Gaspar Ciaccio, Hill entered his most prosperous era. Going against strict rules of the Lucchese crime family, Hill and Burke started trafficking drugs, including cocaine and quaaludes. The operation, while frowned upon by the higher-ups, made Hill extraordinarily wealthy. It was around this time, on December 11, 1978, that the family enacted the famous Lufthansa heist. Like Air France before it, this one also occurred at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Jimmy Burke organized the robbery, and Lucchese associates walked away with $5 million in stolen currency, making it the largest cash robbery in American history. However, Burke grew incredibly paranoid about being implicated in the heist, and he had nine associates killed to ensure their silence.

The heist was a major turning point for the Lucchese family, and with it, everything started to fall apart. Burke didn’t trust anyone and was killing people left and right. Tommy DeSimone “went missing” about a month after the heist, and it’s widely believed that he was whacked in retaliation for the killing of William Bentvena. And Hill was going down for his drug empire. One of Hill’s smugglers went to the authorities and told them all about Hill’s operation and mafia connections. He was finally arrested in 1980, and this event was the main catalyst for the downfall of the Lucchese crime family.

Following his arrest, Hill grew unbearably paranoid. Many people around him were being killed, and Hill was afraid that he was going to be another body in the pile. Not only had he been arrested, but he was also addicted to drugs and could be implicated in the Lufthansa robbery. According to Hill, he was going to be one more victim of the relentless Jimmy Burke. In the end, Hill wasn’t killed but arrested as a material witness. With the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence and his paranoia getting the best of him, Hill decided to finally turn against the mob and act as an informant.

He entered Witness Protection while fifty associates were arrested and convicted on his information. Of those arrested were Hill’s longtime associates, Jimmy Burke and Paul Vario - the same man who introduced Hill to the life of crime back when he was a teenager. “Goodfellas” doesn’t go into much detail regarding Hill’s post-mob life, but that alone deserves its own film. Hill, living as “Martin Lewis,” met a woman named Sherry Anders and married her, despite already being married to Karen Friedman. This was likely a major factor in Friedman filing for divorce in 1990. Hill continued to traffic drugs while in the program, and he was convicted of the crime in 1987. As punishment, Hill was kicked out of witness protection. He would battle substance abuse throughout the rest of his life and faced numerous arrests for drug possession and public intoxication. Hill died of heart disease just one day after his 69th birthday, on June 12, 2012. He was the last of the so-called Goodfellas. Paul Vario passed away from lung failure in 1988, and Jimmy Burke died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 64.