One of the aspects of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas that has elevated the film to the classic status it holds today is the intense realism of its depictions of the life in the Mafia. This realism largely stems from the fact that, unlike films such as The Godfather and Once Upon A Time In America, Goodfellas is based on a true story of one gangster, his associates, and one of the most daring heists in American history.
The story comes courtesy of the 1986 nonfiction bestseller Wiseguy, which detailed the life of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill, as well as his comrades like James “Jimmy The Gent” Burke and Thomas DeSimone, and their involvement in the infamous Lufthansa heist.
This was, at the time, the largest robbery ever committed on U.S. soil. Eleven mobsters, mainly associates of the Lucchese crime family, stole $5.875 million (more than $20 million today) in cash and jewels from a vault at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Here are the true stories of the people who carried out this heist as well as countless other crimes that helped make Goodfellas the crime classic it is today.
Henry Hill, the central character in Goodfellas (played by Ray Liotta), was born in 1943 to an Irish-American father and a Sicilian-American mother in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.
It was a neighborhood filled with Mafiosos and Hill admired them all from a young age. At just 14, Hill dropped out of school to start working for Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese crime family, and thus became a member of the infamous Vario crew. Hill started out just picking up money from local rackets and bringing them to the boss, but his responsibilities quickly escalated.
He began to get involved in arson, assault, and credit card fraud. After returning from a short military stint in the early 1960s, Hill returned to a life of crime. Though his Irish blood meant that he could never be a made man, he nevertheless became a highly active associate of the Lucchese family.
Among Hill’s closest compatriots at this time was fellow Lucchese family associate and friend of Paul Vario, James Burke. After years of truck hijacking, arson, and other crimes (including extortion, for which he served time in the 1970s), Hill and Burke played major roles in orchestrating the Lufthansa heist in 1978.
At the same time, Hill was involved in a point-shaving racket with the 1978-79 Boston College basketball team and ran a major narcotics operation in which he sold marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and quaaludes wholesale.
It was the drugs that brought Hill’s downfall when he was arrested on trafficking charges in April 1980. Initially, he wouldn’t fold to police interrogators, but amid growing suspicions that some of his own associates were planning to kill him in fear that he might put them in legal trouble, Hill began to talk.
In fact, it was Hill’s testimony about the Lufthansa heist that brought the arrests of many of the other men involved — and became the basis for Wiseguy, and thus Goodfellas.
After testifying, Hill was placed in the Witness Protection Program but was kicked out of after repeatedly revealing his true identity to others. He was, nonetheless, never tracked down and killed by his former associates, but instead died of complications related to heart disease on June 12, 2012, the day after his 69th birthday.