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Nightclub Rolls Out Red Carpet for Notorious Former Gangster

Henry Hill guests at Middletown's Shadow Room for cigar tasting. “He’s one of these guys who’s not afraid to say, ‘I lived a bad life.’”

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.

Did Hill have any say in the casting? “No input at all,” he said, pointing out that, originally, Val Kilmer was set to play the Henry Hill character. Ray Liotta wound up with the part.

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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MisterSpuddy August 21, 2011 at 10:25 PM
Fascinating reading.
Sarah M Johnson MD August 22, 2011 at 12:19 PM
Terrific story, very well written and a pleasure to read.
Joseph H Thiel August 22, 2011 at 08:17 PM
I find it an embarrassment to the community, that 2 police officers, in uniform, would pose for a picture with a known murderer, extortionist, drug dealer and thief. I'm sure I missed several other crimes that would fit in the description perfectly. These officers must be thoroughly confused. And then, people are foolish enough to idolize such a person and treat him like a hero. Red Carpet, eh?? Very sad. Not only is he guilty of all the above, he's also a rat. To me, it describes an undignified piece of scum. Lower than what he was when committing the crimes. Is this really what you want your children to learn? You can kill, extort money, deal drugs and steal. Then all you have to do is rat out those you worked with and you will get off scot-free. Is that really what you people want your children to believe is a "good" thing? A good life? Really? I loved the movie, Goodfella's. But, Henry Hill is no hero, no celebrity. At the end of that movie I wanted the mob to catch up to him, for what he did. It was gutless and dishonorable. He lived that life and took an oath. Good or bad, you should be true to your word. It's all a person has in life to define who they are. I think that all of you who idolize and worship him are sad human beings. Think about your "hero" and what he's done. You may as well get your picture taken with the local crack dealer and have them autograph it. Why even bring a person like that into town, at all? Certainly there are better choices. Yes?

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