The Goodfellas Scene You Might Not Know Was Improvised

Joe Pesci is a funny guy — just don't tell him that. With roles ranging from mafia men to an inept burglar, the actor has made a career out of playing hilarious hot-heads. But not all Pesci characters are identical. They all might have short-tempers, but piss off the wrong one and instead of a comical outburst of nonsense swearing you just might end up in a hole in the ground. Few of Pesci's roles are as remembered for their slapstick sadism more than Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." The tension in every scene that Pesci appears in is immediately heightened by his very presence, due to his character's unstable temper that often prompts brutal fits of violence against anyone that embarasses or angers him.

It's no surprise Pesci's combustive portrayal of DeVito, based on real-life Lucchese crime-family member Thomas DeSimone, earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Even though the movie also stars Ray Liottta as wiseguy protagonist Henry Hill and Robert DeNiro as the ambitious Jimmy Conway, it's Pesci who is credited for conceiving one of the most quotable moments in "Goodfellas" with an improvisation taken directly from the pages of his own life.

Nothing deadlier than a funny guy

You're not that far into "Goodfellas" before you're given an unnerving example of Tommy's breakneck rage. After Tommy has left Henry Hill and company in stitches over one of his stories, Liotta's character makes the mistake of calling Pesci's Tommy a "funny guy." Immediately, words intended as a compliment are taken as an insult by Tommy, transforming a previously merry moment into a tense confrontation as one man demands the other to explain himself. And if the actors around both Pesci and Liotta look surprised, it's because they actually were.

As reported by Mental Floss, Pesci improvised the entire "funny how" inquiry during rehearsal with Liotta. Scorsese apparently loved the exchange, especially the way it illustrated how suddenly DeVito's mood could sour, and added it to the script without telling anyone else. Just as DeVito eventually reveals he's pulling Hill's leg, both actors conspired to pull the wool over the eyes of their co-stars. The next time the cameras were rolling the director made sure to get the reactions of everyone around them. But the only thing slightly more surprising than watching your co-stars riff on a fake fight and just run with it is the fact that Pesci didn't just supply the improv — he lived it.

A young Pesci gets Pesci-style wrath

Like Hill, Pesci learned the hard way that calling someone connected to the mafia funny was bad news. At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Liotta revealed at a Q&A for the 25th anniversary of "Goodfellas" that Pesci had also told him the story:

"And Joe was telling me a story about what happened to him in Queens or wherever it was and he said to some guy... the guy said something who happened to be a connected guy and he said ' think I'm funny?'"

The incident happened while Pesci was working at a restaurant, an anecdote detailed in the book "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies." The story goes that the guy was indeed a mobster and didn't take a young waiter's words as a compliment. It's unclear if the man was just messing with the young waiter the whole time or really exploded on him, Pesci-style. Oddly enough, the actor's story also eerily mirrors Tommy DeVito's quarrel with the waiter Spider later in the movie — an incident that ends in a shooting rather than laughs. We're just glad waiter Joe Pesci made it out in one piece. If there's one takeaway from "Goodfellas" and Pesci's hard-won wisdom: never crack-wise with a wiseguy.