Who Was Henry Hill, The Erratic Gangster Immortalized In Goodfellas?

Published April 15, 2024
Updated April 17, 2024

The gangster-turned-informant who inspired Goodfellas, Henry Hill's true story was far crazier than the 1990 film could ever portray.

Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas is a classic mob drama, telling the story of a young gangster as he becomes heavily involved with organized crime in New York City. But Scorsese’s film is not entirely a work of fiction. It’s based on the nonfiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi — which chronicles the life of Henry Hill, a real gangster-turned-informant.

The film went on to receive critical and commercial acclaim, earning nominations for six Academy Awards. Henry Hill, meanwhile, had become a household name as a result of the movie’s success.

Henry Hill

Wikimedia CommonsHenry Hill, the real-life gangster who inspired Goodfellas.

It seems, however, that he was never quite able to fully leave behind his life of crime, as his later years included a number of arrests, and he was eventually kicked out of the Witness Protection Program for repeatedly revealing his real identity (and for his continued illegal activities).

Still, it’s easy to see why Henry Hill’s wild life made such great fodder for a film about the mob — one that should be treated as a cautionary tale.

Henry Hill’s Entry Into A Life Of Crime

Henry Hill Jr. was born on June 11, 1943 in New York City. He grew up in a working-class family in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. His Irish-American father, Henry Hill Sr., was an electrician, and his Sicilian-American mother, Carmela Costa Hill, was a housewife.

As Henry Jr. said in Wiseguy, his father was a hard worker who believed that children should learn the value of money by working themselves.

Henry Jr., who had seven siblings, claimed that his father had moved to the United States at the age of 12 and that his mentality of working hard was pervasive throughout their entire family. Naturally, Henry Sr. hoped that Henry Jr. would soon find a respectable job, but fate had other plans.

Young Henry Hill

RedditAn early mugshot of Henry Hill.

Though Goodfellas depicts Henry Hill saying, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” the real-life Hill later said, “I actually wanted to be a priest. But that didn’t work out.”

Eventually, Hill became intrigued by the mobsters who hung out at a cab stand and pizzeria near his home — including Paul Vario of the Lucchese crime family — and the respect that they commanded in the neighborhood.

In 1955, when he was about 12 years old, young Henry Hill fatefully approached the men at the cab stand and asked for a part-time job.

Henry Hill’s Early Involvement With The Mob

Soon enough, Henry Hill was running all sorts of errands for various patrons of Paul Vario’s businesses. Though Hill was well aware of their criminal activities, he admired Vario and his Lucchese crime family associates, especially when they wore their expensive suits and coats.

During this time, the young Henry Hill met many of the mobsters who would later become important in his life story — most notably, Jimmy Burke, the man who would eventually organize the infamous Lufthansa heist.

By the time he was 14, Hill had earned himself a “legitimate” job as a construction worker with the Varios. He only received a portion of his salary, but it was enough to convince him to drop out of school, according to The Telegraph. But of course, Hill didn’t tell his parents that.

Ray Liotta

Warner Bros. PicturesRay Liotta as Henry Hill in the 1990 movie Goodfellas.

While he was working for the Varios, Hill lied to his parents about going to school every day. In reality, he hadn’t gone in months. When Henry Sr. received a letter of truancy from the school, he beat Henry Jr. so badly that the mobsters at the cab stand demanded to know what happened.

In order to prevent any further incidents of a similar nature from occurring, they kidnapped Hill’s mailman, drove him to the local pizzeria, and told him to deliver all letters from Hill’s school to the store, not his house. From that day on, no more letters from the school arrived at the Hill household.

Henry Hill was heavily involved with the Lucchese crime family by that point, and in time, he would steadily rise through the ranks.

Henry Hill’s Brief Time In The Army

In 1960, Henry Hill made the surprising decision to join the United States Army, where he remained enlisted for three years. This happened shortly after the infamous 1957 Apalachin meeting, a mob summit that was raided by the police. More than 60 mobsters were arrested, and authorities eventually released a list of 5,000 names of suspected associates.

Vario’s cover hadn’t been blown by the list, but Hill still believed that getting out of town for a while seemed like a good idea until the “heat” died down.

Paul Vario

RedditPaul Vario, the Mafia capo who recruited Henry Hill.

Of course, old habits die hard, and while he was enlisted, Hill still stayed in contact with multiple members of the mob. He even had some behind-the-scenes dealings with his fellow soldiers, secretly selling tax-free cigarettes and even loan-sharking some men in the troops.

Toward the end of his service, he was reprimanded for his involvement in a brawl and his impulsive decision to steal a car from a local sheriff.

He was discharged in 1963 and returned to New York. Here, he got right back into the swing of things as a Lucchese crime family associate.

A Rising Criminal Career

By the time Henry Hill met his future wife Karen Friedman in 1965 through Vario, Hill had taken the next steps in his criminal career. Mostly, this involved arson, hijacking trucks, assault, credit card fraud, and extortion.

Although Hill wasn’t a full-blooded Italian, and therefore would never become a “made man” in the mob, the Vario crew knew that Hill made a good ally. Moreover, Paul Vario himself regarded Hill as family.

Henry And Karen Hill

On the Run: A Mafia ChildhoodHenry and Karen Friedman Hill on their wedding day. Though Karen was initially turned off by Henry — who stood her up for their second date — she was eventually seduced by his lavish spending and dangerous lifestyle.

As such, Hill was eventually included in high-profile criminal operations, including an April 1967 robbery at the Air France cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport alongside Tommy DeSimone.

It was a clean operation — no one put on alert, no guns drawn — that resulted in the two walking away with a grand total of $420,000.

As Hill later put it: “Air France made me. No one had ever pulled that kind of cash out of the airport before, and I did it without a gun.”

Hiding Bodies And Selling Drugs

Henry Hill claimed that he never personally killed anyone during his time with the mob. However, he did witness a number of brutal mob executions, including the unauthorized 1970 murder of made man Billy Batts.

As dramatized in Goodfellas, Batts got on Tommy DeSimone’s bad side after condescendingly asking him if he still shined shoes. Though this happened at a “welcome home” party for Batts after he’d recently been released from prison, DeSimone became so enraged by Batts’ question that he swore he was going to kill the mafioso. Just two weeks later, he did.

At a mob bar, DeSimone and Jimmy Burke brutally beat and pistol-whipped Batts until they were sure he was dead and then recruited Hill to help them hide the body. (As Hill later admitted, “I dug a lot of holes.”)

However, as the men drove upstate, they realized that Batts had survived his beating and was still alive in the trunk. Though Goodfellas suggests that DeSimone and Burke fatally shot him, Hill says Batts’ real death was far worse: “They just stabbed him, thirty or forty f**king times, f**king horrible.”

Henry Hill's Family

Personal PhotoHenry Hill’s wife, Karen Friedman Hill, eventually became involved with her husband’s criminal activities, especially those related to drugs. Sometimes, their children would even be offered drugs at their wild house parties.

It was violence that would lead to a lengthy prison sentence for Hill. In 1972, he and four others were arrested for attacking a lounge owner named Gaspar Ciaccio and threatening a doctor named Felix Lo Cierco, who they claimed owed a large gambling debt. Hill and his accomplices were found guilty of extortion, and Hill was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In the end, he would only spend about four and a half years behind bars before being paroled. And even when he was imprisoned, he quickly learned from other inmates that he could continue his criminal activities even while locked up. Before long, he had started selling drugs from prison.

Selling illegal drugs proved to be lucrative for Hill, and even more so when he was released from prison. Before long, both Hill and his wife began using some of the drugs in their supply, especially cocaine.

In addition to using and selling drugs, Hill and his wife often hosted wild, cocaine-fueled parties that frequently became sexual. Guests at these parties would occasionally offer Hill’s children drugs as well.

The Lufthansa Heist And The Deadly Aftermath

In 1978, Henry Hill was involved in another large-scale mob robbery — one that threatened to bring the Vario crew’s empire down.

Although it’s only hinted at in Goodfellas, the Lufthansa heist marked a major turning point in the Vario crew’s fortunes. The heist took place at the Lufthansa Airlines cargo terminal at JFK Airport on December 11, 1978.

Masterminded by Jimmy Burke, the heist took just 64 minutes and netted the crew $5 million in untraceable cash and $1 million in jewelry.

Surveillance Photo Of Henry Hill

RedditA surveillance photograph of Henry Hill from the late 1970s.

But the plan came crashing down when Lucchese crime family associate Parnell “Stacks” Edwards made the critical error of parking a getaway van in a no-parking zone outside his girlfriend’s apartment for two days following the heist, rather than taking it to a car compactor to be destroyed.

Police quickly impounded the car and found Edwards’ fingerprints, sending Burke into a panic and leading him to take drastic measures to make certain nothing would get back to him. Before long, Vario ordered DeSimone to take Edwards out, and many others involved in the heist were soon murdered.

But Burke didn’t evade the law forever — and Hill was mostly to blame.

What Happened To Henry Hill After He Became An FBI Informant?

In 1980, Henry Hill was arrested on drug-trafficking charges, and he soon began to fear being killed by his associates. Paul Vario didn’t like anyone in his crew to be involved with drugs, and Jimmy Burke seemed more determined than ever to take out anyone who’d been involved in Lufthansa.

Eventually, investigators showed Hill a tape of a conversation between Burke and Vario, with the former saying that Hill should be “whacked.”

With seemingly no other option, Hill agreed to testify against his former associates in exchange for his freedom. His testimony led to the convictions of 50 of his former accomplices, including Vario and Burke. After he turned informant, Hill and his family were able to enter the Witness Protection Program, living under new names in several other locales. (Shockingly, Hill initially tried to ask if two of his mistresses could join the program too.)

Despite having many opportunities to start a new life, Hill never seemed fully able to let his old life go. He agreed to share his story with crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the 1985 book Wiseguy based on interviews with Hill and other research. This book, of course, would later go on to inspire the 1990 film Goodfellas, which made Hill a household name.

Henry Hill In Goodfellas

Wikimedia Commons/Warner Bros. PicturesHenry Hill became something of a celebrity after the release of Goodfellas.

Eventually, Hill was kicked out of the Witness Protection Program for repeatedly revealing his identity as well as a number of arrests, including one for cocaine trafficking in 1987. Two years later, Karen Friedman Hill and Henry Hill separated in 1989, but they weren’t officially divorced until 2002.

According to The New York Times, Hill would later face a number of other arrests, including one in 2005, where he pleaded no contest to attempted possession of methamphetamine, and one later the same year when he threatened his second wife Kelly and another man with a knife. However, he managed to avoid any lengthy jail sentences for his later crimes.

Despite never being fully rehabilitated, he was something of a celebrity in his later years thanks to Goodfellas. And since most of the mobsters he’d turned on were either dead or in jail, he was never “whacked.”

Instead, Henry Hill met a relatively quiet end on June 12, 2012 after suffering from heart disease. He died the day after his birthday.

After reading about Henry Hill, learn about more of the real-life Goodfellas. Then, take a look at the life of Nucky Johnson and his Boardwalk Empire.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn Anglis
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.
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Cite This Article
Harvey, Austin. "Who Was Henry Hill, The Erratic Gangster Immortalized In Goodfellas?." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 15, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/henry-hill. Accessed June 21, 2024.