The Real-Life Goodfellas: Meet The Mobsters Behind The Movie

Published March 9, 2024
Updated March 28, 2024

James Burke A.K.A. “Jimmy The Gent”

Jimmy The Gent

Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesJames Burke’s true story was one of the most memorable ones dramatized in Goodfellas.

James Burke, played by Robert De Niro as “Jimmy Conway” in the film, was the principal architect of the Lufthansa heist.

Soon after he was born — in 1931, to an Irish immigrant single mother in New York — Burke was placed into foster care and shifted from orphanages to foster homes and back throughout his childhood. He suffered sexual and physical abuse from these caretakers, with one of his foster fathers even dying in a car crash because he was reaching back to hit Burke. The man’s widow blamed Burke for the accident and beat him for it until the child was moved on to his next stop.

Like Henry Hill, Burke’s Irish-American heritage made it impossible for him to become a made man, but by the 1950s, he had become a major player in the South Ozone Park and East New York criminal underworld with Paul Vario’s crew, earning his nickname “Jimmy The Gent” for his practice of tipping the drivers of the trucks that he stole.

Jimmy Conway In Goodfellas

Warner Bros. EntertainmentRobert De Niro as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas.

Despite his nickname, however, Burke was known for his extreme violence. In 1962, for example, his fiancée told him that she was being harassed by an ex-boyfriend. On the day of the wedding, the police found the remains of the man cut up in a dozen pieces in his own car.

Burke also owned Robert’s Lounge, a bar where members of the criminal network Burke associated with often got together. It was here where he threw William “Billy Batts” Bentvena a “welcome home” party upon his release from prison in 1970. During this party, Bentvena jokingly asked Tommy DeSimone if he still shined shoes — a comment that DeSimone took as an insult, leading him to kill Bentvena just two weeks later.

When it came to planning the Lufthansa heist, Burke was instrumental, putting together the crew and assigning everyone their roles. Unfortunately for everyone else involved, this meant that Burke had a lot riding on his shoulders — and should things go awry, he knew it would be him that would take the fall.

For this reason, Burke is also thought to be the one who ordered, and possibly carried out, the murders of many of the men involved in the Lufthansa heist.

Then, in 1980, Burke was arrested for violating his parole, and soon after, following Henry Hill’s testimony in 1982, Burke was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal. While in prison, Burke was convicted of a previous murder he had committed and received a life sentence.

He later died in prison due to lung cancer in 1996.

author
Jaclyn Anglis
author
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
editor
John Kuroski
editor
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.