The Real Life Inspiration Behind Goodfellas

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to ..." know about the real-life inspiration behind "Goodfellas." Maybe you've thought that, or maybe that's just a convenient paraphrasing of the opening voiceover to Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster-movie classic.

Before we even see the first image — the back plate of a Pontiac Grand Prix, speeding along the highway at night — "Goodfellas" tells us, "This film is based on a true story." It's an adaptation of the non-fiction book, "Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia," by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi. The book and the movie follow Henry Hill and his "three decades of life in the Mafia." Hill, played by Ray Liotta in the movie, was a real associate of the Lucchese family, one of the infamous Five Families known for controlling organized crime in New York.

He died in 2012, but the movie keeps many of the details of his biography intact. As notes, Hill really was half-Irish, and his partner in crime, Jimmy Burke — who became Robert De Niro's character, Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, in the movie — was full Irish. This prevented them from becoming made men, unlike their associate, Tommy DeSimone, who was full Italian and who became Joe Pesci's Oscar-winning character, Tommy DeVito, in "Goodfellas."

Hill and DeSimone did hijack trucks, and according to "Wiseguy," DeSimone really did murder a mobster nicknamed "Billy Batts" over an insult at a nightclub. Batts was also a made man in the Gambino family, a friend of John Gotti, and his death played out similar to how it is portrayed in the film. They stuck Batts in the trunk of Hill's car, swung by the house of DeSimone's mother, then pulled over on the road and killed Batts once they realized he was still alive.

The Lufthansa Heist

At a card game, DeSimone also gunned down a bartender nicknamed Spider, in a scene similar to the one in "Goodfellas." In the movies, at least, Frank Vincent, who played Batts, would have his revenge on Pesci's character in "Casino." Michael Imperioli, who played Spider, would go on to have success playing Christopher Moltisanti in "The Sopranos."

Hill, Burke, and DeSimone were all involved in the 1978 Lufthansa heist, which netted them and their associates almost $6 million. That's about $23 million when adjusted for inflation, which is just shy of the $25 million estimated production budget for "Goodfellas." They could have almost financed Scorsese's movie themselves.

In a 1986 interview with NPR, Pileggi observed that the Lufthansa heist was, at the time, "the largest successful cash robbery in American history." Hill set it up with Burke after receiving a tip from a bookie and wig shop owner named Marty Krugman, who retained his initials as Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low) in the movie.

The Lufthansa heist did lead to a trail of dead bodies, not unlike the one set to the tune of the piano exit from "Layla" in "Goodfellas." This came about after one of Burke's henchman, Stacks Edwards — played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie — failed to properly dispose of a van used in the heist. Another henchman disappeared after he bought a pink Cadillac for his wife, like the one we see with the dead bodies in it in the film.

Fact or Fiction

When it looked like Burke might come for them next, Hill and his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco, another "Sopranos" alum) did enter the witness protection program. They really did enjoy the best tables at the Copacabana once upon a time, but by the time "Goodfellas" premiered, they had divorced and Hill had been booted out of the program.

One interesting thing not shown in "Goodfellas" is that Hill was able to get out of prison on "religious" furloughs, so that he could spend weekends gambling in Atlantic City even while incarcerated. "Goodfellas" leaves out other details, like the fact that Hill spent time in the army, and the fact that Burke ultimately went to prison not for homicide, but for rigging college basketball games.

All in all, though, the film adheres to more than enough of the facts to earn that label, "based on a true story."