Depending on one’s point of view, either a legendary bad boy or an untrustworthy opportunist mingled with the public at the Shadow Room Thursday night.
Henry Hill, whose time with, and subsequent break from the Lucchese crime family is laid out in the book, Wiseguy, the basis for the 1990 movie, Goodfellas, made an appearance at the 170 Main St. lounge and art gallery that evening, and drew a sizeable crowd.
For more than three hours, the 68-year-old former gangster-turned-FBI informant signed autographs, posed for pictures and chatted with fans.
At one point, Hill fielded questions from the Shadow Room crowd.
How much of Goodfellas was true to life? “It’s like Ivory soap … 99-percent real,” Hill said.
Hill was asked about his former partner, short-tempered Tommy DeSimone, portrayed by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Hill said Tommy was a loose cannon, absolutely. “You never knew what he would do.”
During filming, Hill said Robert DeNiro (Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas) pressed him to learn every little thing about the character he was playing, even down to how Jimmy would smoke a cigarette. “I started to think this guy is half-whacked.”
Shadow Room co-owner David Gere orchestrated the Henry Hill visit. Last year, Gere struck up a friendship with the ex-mobster.
“Everyone loves Henry,” Gere said. “He’s one of these guys who’s not afraid to say, ‘I lived a bad life.’”
To folks who believe that by rolling out the red carpet for Hill — literally — the Shadow Room glorified a villain, Gere has this to say: “The guy has redeemed himself. People adore him. It’s the American dream.”
Hill, who grew up in Brooklyn, started out running errands for the Lucchese crime family as a teenager, and quickly became enmeshed in the gangster lifestyle.
Because of his mixed heritage — half-Sicilian, half-Irish — Hill could not rise to great heights in the Lucchese family. But nonetheless, he was embraced by family chief Paul Vario and his underlings.
Years later, however, that mutual trust and respect between Hill and the Lucchese crew would vanish.
In 1980, Hill was arrested for drug trafficking, and in order to avoid jail time, became an informant for the FBI.
The way Hill tells it, he had no choice but to turn on his former friends.
Had Vario found out Hill was dealing drugs — a no-no in the Lucchese family — Hill said he would have been killed.
Also, Hill said Lucchese family associate Jimmy Burke (Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas) wanted his head. Burke had snuffed out several people involved in the $6 million Kennedy Airport Lufthansa heist, and Hill — who helped orchestrate the caper — believed he was next on Burke’s hit list.
Hill’s damning testimony resulted in dozens of convictions, including those of Vario and Burke. The duo would die in prison.
In exchange for his cooperation, the FBI set Hill up in the Witness Protection Program. He would be expelled from the program years later for multiple arrests.
Out of hiding since the early '90s, Hill has become something of a celebrity. He’s a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show, and is no stranger to TV cameras. He even has a website, GoodFellaHenry.com.
In 2010, Hill gained a spot in the Museum of the American Gangster in New York.
“I can’t change my past,” Hill said. “All I can do is be a better person today, and try to straighten out a couple of knucklehead kids. And I’ve had kids come up to me after they heard me speak and tell me that they changed their life because of what I said. That’s nice to hear.”
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