Robert De Niro’s Casting Gave Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ The Green Light!
When we look at ‘Goodfellas’ in hindsight, it’s impossible to think of any studio that would have said no to it. With Martin Scorsese at the helm and Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and others in the cast, it seems like a no-brainer. But, back in those days that wasn’t the case.
Now, Scorsese and Warner Bros. had a great relationship, despite the failure of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The problem that Warner Bros. had was that they didn’t like the cast.
Why Warner Bros. was reluctant to give Goodfellas the green light
Glenn Kenedy recalls the casting conundrum in his book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas (2020). At first, Scorsese only had Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci as the leading cast members of the show. He was adamant about keeping Liotta as Henry Hill and Pesci as the explosive Tommy DeVito. Even though the role of DeVito gave Pesci unprecedented fame and success, he was very reluctant to play such an eccentric role at first.
But, these two weren’t superstars like Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, or Robert De Niro at the time. It was after Goodfellas that they truly became popular. And the hiring of such relatively unknown actors for such a mega-budget release did not sit well with Warner Bros. After Liotta’s casting, the studios had second thoughts on the film. It got so bad that Barbara De Fina, one of the producers, threatened Warner Bros. that Scorsese would move on to another film if he did not get the green light from them.
As a result, the casting of Jimmy Gent became the prime focus. At first, the casting crew looked towards John Malkovich and Al Pacino, but the latter chose Dick Tracy instead. But, their search finally ended with Robert De Niro called them about his take on the film.
The casting of Robert De Niro changed their mind
The entire course of Goodfellas changed when Robert De Niro rang up Martin Scorsese to tell him about his take on the movie. The actor was reading the source content (Wiseguys) and decided to have a chat with the director. De Niro told GQ in 2010:
“[Scorsese and I] always thought I was too old to play the Henry Hill part. But I said, ‘What about Jimmy the Gent?’ Marty said, ‘Yeah, great!’ Who else they were thinking of or whoever turned it down, I don’t know. I never knew about that.”
And so, Scorsese got in touch with Producer Irwin Winkler, who knew that Warner Bros. would easily approve of this casting and eventually the film. At the time, De Niro had won an Oscar for Raging Bull (1980), gave iconic performances in Taxi Driver (1976), The Untouchables (1987), and Midnight Run (1988). He was just the star that Warner Bros. was craving for!