Book On Goodfellas Explains Why The Names Of All The Wiseguys Were Changed

Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny, which we finally got around to perusing, includes many fascinating tidbits about the acclaimed 1990 Martin Scorsese film as well as the real-life Luchese wiseguys and associates on whom the film was based. We also learned the answer to something we have long wondered about: Why did Scorsese change the names of the characters?

Jimmy Conway, left, Morrie Kesseler (Robert De Niro and Chuck Low)
 “You got money for that fcking commercial of yours. You don't got my money? You don't got my fckin' money?” 

According to Made Men, Robert De Niro’s approach to the role of Jimmy Burke—renamed Conway—the Irish-American gangster with ties to the Luchese crime family through his association with Luchese capo Paul Vario, renamed Cicero for the film—included the kind of painstaking, multifaceted preparatory work for which the New Yorker has long been known. 

De Niro’s copy of the Goodfellas script—which is part of the De Niro archives at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas—includes handwritten lists detailing the clothing and accoutrements he would wear in each of the various scenes, as well as notes to himself regarding small, specific gestures or pauses he planned to include in his performance. For example, for the scene where Jimmy is deciding whether to whack Martin (Marty) Krugman, renamed Morrie Kessler—the Luchese associate who owned a wig shop and promoted his hairpieces via a string of cheap, late-night television commercials in which he played the starring, and only, role (the real-life Jimmy the Gent, an insomniac, supposedly sat up all night watching those commercials, which steadily fueled his growing anger at Kessler for demanding a larger piece of the Lufthansa pie)—the note reads: “long look + pause then ‘What am I gonna do with you.”

De Niro’s archive also includes photos of the actual Burke at various ages and assorted newspaper clippings of stories recounting the Luchese associate’s criminal trials. 

De Niro even obtained a copy of a 1979 Federal Bureau of Prisons report on Burke, which notes, among other things, that: “Although Mr. Burke did not avail himself to any of the self-improvement programs during his prolonged imprisonment, he nevertheless received outstanding performance ratings for his work in the Food Service Dept. and Ground Maint. Dept. His overall adjustment was above average and he was receiving earned good time and meritorious pay for his efforts.”

Jimmy Conway in bar
Jimmy Conway ponders questions of life and death.

To further inform his portrayal, De Niro communicated with Henry Hill throughout the shooting of the film. And, at least initially, De Niro spoke with Catherine Burke, Jimmy the Gent's daughter, De Niro told the author. (As for whether he communicated with Burke himself, De Niro answers that one rather obliquely, leaving enough room for interpretation to drive a Mack Truck through, saying only, “The idea of meeting Jimmy Burke was complicated as he was incarcerated.”)

De Niro explained that, at a certain point, Catherine severed all contact with him, offering no explanation as to why. 

Kenny writes, “Apparently [Catherine Burke] tried to strong-arm the production into giving her $100,000 to use the Burke name. Rather than do that, almost all the names of the real-life characters in the picture were changed. These changes are listed on a script for the film dated January 12, 1989, but may have been appended at a later date to that extant script.”

Click here to learn more about the book.

We also learn that Henry Hill “was irritated but not surprised by her actions.”


As far back as I can remember, I can't listen to the Stones bang out Gimme Shelter or Monkey Man without imagining I am hearing Frank Vincent's feet thumping in the trunk....(Or wanting to get gacked out of my mind... Just kidding.)

Goodfellas, loosely based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 book Wiseguy (which became the name of an unrelated TV show the following year, which is why Scorsese changed the name for the film), details the rise and fall of Luchese associate Henry Hill (the late Ray Liotta) in the New York underworld. 

Pileggi was able to write the Mafia tell-all—as well as a boatload of mob journalism—for many reasons, but most amusingly, because he had relationships with multiple wiseguy sources who kept talking to him, even though he used their information in spectacular fashion in his journalism. His trick was: Because he was employed by the Associated Press, he never got a byline on a single one of the many mob stories he wrote over the years, so his underworld sources never realized he was the one sharing their information all over the place via those AP stories. (Also notable: While working on the book, Pileggi dated journalist/filmmaker Nora Ephron, who wound up writing her own movie based on the exploits of Henry Hill, titled My Blue Heaven. Ephron’s screenplay was shot and released one month before Goodfellas—and is a story in and of itself.)

Thirty years after its big-screen release, Goodfellas (or GoodFellas, as it was originally titled) has been described as both a cautionary tale about criminality and a celebration of Cosa Nostra life. The film cemented Scorsese’s iconic status and legacy—while redefining the gangster film genre (and ushering in the era of prestige television by way of David Chase, who has called Goodfellas his “Koran.” Also, Chase used more than two dozen veterans of the film in The Sopranos.)

Scorsese sought to make a movie that would serve as an antidote to the myths perpetuated by Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Godfather films, which had injected strong notes of nobility and grandiosity into the underworld that wiseguys simply didn’t deserve. Goodfellas highlights—quite accurately, many would say—that money tends to eclipse all else, including loyalty, omerta, etc. 

As Scorsese tells Kenny, “All that stuff in the Mafia about honor, it’s a lot of nonsense, there’s no such thing.”

Goodfellas was nominated for six Oscars, with Joe Pesci winning the supporting actor award. (Beating out Goodfellas for the best picture award was the utterly forgettable Dances with Wolves, which also snagged the best director prize for Kevin Costner.)

Kenny tracked down Henry Hill’s brother Joe, who confirms that Henry was an addict and an alcoholic who viciously abused his wife and children. (Ray Liotta offered an excellent portrayal of Henry Hill, but he—and the screenplay—most definitely whitewashed the character, softening many of Henry’s rougher, sadistic edges. And making Henry Hill significantly better looking.)

Scorsese's parents, Charles and Catherine (aka Katie), both appear in Goodfellas. Catherine plays Tommy's mother, while the director's father plays Vinnie, who was in charge of the tomato sauce in prison—who swore he didn’t use too many onions, and exclaimed of the pork, “that’s the flavor!” 

Vinnie also tells Jimmy, in so many words, that Tommy has been whacked, insisting "we did everything we could" and “there was nothing we could do about it.”

Ed Mcdonald, the prosecutor who offers Henry and his family the chance to escape the street by way of the witness protection program, plays himself. New York cop Bo Dietl auditioned for the role but was ultimately cast as the gun-toting cop who finally takes down the drug dealing Henry Hill in his driveway. (Brian Dennehy also nearly snagged the part—until Mcdonald expressed interest in playing himself.)

Mcdonald used his memory of the real events to inspire one of the film’s more memorable lines of dialogue, the one about the "babe in the woods,” which he said to the real Karen.

The first footage shot for Goodfellas was Morrie's wig commercial, which was based on an actual commercial for a window replacement company....