The "You think I'm funny?" scene was based on a story that Joe Pesci acted out for Martin Scorsese. While working in a restaurant as a young man, Pesci once told a mobster that he was funny and the mobster became very angry. Scorsese allowed Pesci and Ray Liotta to improvise the scene. He did not tell the other actors in the scene what would happen because he wanted their genuine surprised reactions.
Martin Scorsese first got wind of Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguy" when he was handed the galley proofs. Although Scorsese had sworn off making another gangster movie, he immediately cold-called the writer and told him, "I've been waiting for this book my entire life." To which Pileggi replied, "I've been waiting for this phone call my entire life."
According to the real Henry Hill, whose life was the basis for the book and film, Joe Pesci's portrayal of Tommy DeSimone was 90% to 99% accurate, with one notable exception; the real Tommy DeSimone was a massively built, strapping man.
Al Pacino was offered the role of Jimmy Conway but he turned it down due to fears of typecasting. Ironically, that same year Pacino ended up playing a gangster - Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990). He admits he regrets this decision.
It was claimed that at the time the real life gangster Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert De Niro play him that he phoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying De Niro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.
Joe Pesci's Oscar acceptance speech is the third shortest in the Academy's history. All Pesci said was "This is an honor and a privilege, thank you", later admitting that he didn't say very much because he genuinely felt that he didn't have a chance of winning. (The shortest acceptance speeches are "Thank you", made by William Holden in 1954 when he won Best Actor for Stalag 17 (1953) and "Thanks", which was all that Alfred Hitchcock said when he won an Honorary Oscar in 1968.)
In the scene where Henry threatens Karen with a gun after she does the same to him, he stands up and steps on Karen's hand before walking away, making her visibly gasp in pain. This was not scripted and Bracco's reaction was real. Both continued on with the scene.
For the famous "Layla" montage, Martin Scorsese actually played the "piano coda" section of the song during the shooting of each scene so that certain bars of the piano piece would match up with certain shots.
In a documentary entitled The Real Goodfella (2006), which aired in the UK, Henry Hill claimed that Robert De Niro would phone him seven to eight times a day to discuss certain things about Jimmy's character, such as how Jimmy would hold his cigarette, etc.
At first, producer Irwin Winkler disagreed when Martin Scorsese cast Ray Liotta as Henry Hill. One night, Liotta approached Winkler in a restaurant and asked for a minute alone. They walked into the bar area, and Liotta told Winkler why he thought he was good for the role. Winkler called Scorsese the next day and told him to go ahead.
Originally Scorsese planned to make this before The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). When funding for the religious film finally materialized, he decided to postpone "Wiseguy", the film's working title.
For the scene where Sonny Bunz complains to Paulie, Martin Scorsese secretly told Tony Darrow to improvise more lines for his character without telling Paul Sorvino. Sorvino's confused reaction was real.
Paul Sorvino wanted to drop out of the role of Paulie three days before filming began because he felt that he lacked the cold personality to play the character. He called his agent and asked to be released from the film. Sorvino's agent told him to think about it for one day before making a final decision. That night, Sorvino looked in the mirror and was frightened by the look on his face. He realized that that look was the look he needed to play Paulie.
Early on, Karen confronts Henry and says "What, do you think you're Frankie Valli or some big shot?" She is referring, of course, to the lead singer of The Four Seasons. Like Henry, the band had ties to the mob, and a member named Tommy DeVito.
When the camera cranes up to reveal the dead bodies in the pink Cadillac, the piano exit of Derek & the Dominoes "Layla" starts to play. Originally played in C major, the tape speed of the coda was increased during mixing. The resulting pitch is somewhere between C and C sharp.
Joseph Bono has a small role as a gangster in both Goodfellas (1990) and Raging Bull (1980). Guido, Bono's character in Raging Bull (1980), only has a couple of lines. During the pool scene, Guido hears about a guy who was hitting on Vickie. He says, "That's the same guy..? I gotta break his legs... No, I'll catch him." In Goodfellas (1990), Bono has a cameo as a mobster named Mikey Franzese, who appears briefly as the camera pans through the Bamboo Lounge near the start of the movie. Mikey's only line was: "I haven't saw that guy. Yeah, I wanna see him."
The studio was initially very nervous about the film due to its extreme violence and language. The film reportedly received the worst preview response in the studio's history. Scorsese said that "the numbers were so low it was funny". Nevertheless the film was released without alteration to overwhelming critical acclaim, cementing Scorsese's reputation as America's foremost film-maker.
The later life of Henry Hill, after he enters the Witness Protection Program, was also adapted, more humorously, into My Blue Heaven (1990) the same year. Appropriately, that film was written by Nora Ephron, who is Nicholas Pileggi's wife.
The film's soundtrack did not include many of the songs featured in the film, most of them being the tracks played during the lengthy scene where Henry rushes around trying to make his drug deal. The songs sampled during the scene are, in order, "Jump Into the Fire" by Harry Nilsson, "Memo From Turner" by The Rolling Stones, "Magic Bus" by The Who (from the Live at Leeds album), "Monkey Man" by The Rolling Stones, "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, "What is Life" by George Harrison, "Mannish Boy" again and "Toad" by Cream.
According to Nicholas Pileggi, some actual mobsters were hired as extras to lend authenticity to scenes. The mobsters gave fake Social Security numbers to Warner Bros. and it is unknown how they received their paychecks.
Robert De Niro wanted to use real money for the scene where Jimmy hands out money. The prop master gave De Niro $5,000 of his own money. At the end of each take, no one was allowed to leave the set until all the money was returned.
According to Debi Mazar, when her character trips after meeting Henry it was actually Mazar tripping over the camera dolly track. Martin Scorsese liked it because it looked like she was overwhelmed by Henry and left it in the film.
One of the little girls who plays Henry and Karen's daughters (specifically, the one in Karen's arms who was too shy to give Paulie a kiss when they arrive at his house for dinner) is Lorraine Bracco's actual daughter with Harvey Keitel, Stella.
While driving to and from the set, Ray Liotta listened to cassettes of interviews that Nicholas Pileggi did with Henry Hill. Liotta noted that Hill casually discussed murders and other crimes while eating potato chips.
During one of the final scenes, Henry Hill opens his front door and picks up a newspaper. Close inspection reveals that the newspaper is the Youngstown Vindicator. Martin Scorsese included it as an homage to Youngstown, Ohio, which has been called Mobtown USA.
Louis Eppolito(Fat Tony) wrote "Mafia Cop," a true story about growing up in a mafia family and becoming an NYPD officer. In April 2006, he was convicted of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, and racketeering, for working as a mafia informant and hit-man. The conviction was overturned due to a technicality, then reinstated on appeal in 2008. In 2009, he was sentenced to life plus 100 years in prison.
The first scene filmed was the Morrie's Wigs commercial. Martin Scorsese was inspired by a low-budget commercial that ran in New York City for a replacement window company. Scorsese contacted the company and found that the spokesperson in the ad was Stephen R. Pacca, who owned the company and created the ad himself. Pacca was hired to write, direct and edit the commercial for Morrie's Wigs so it could look like an authentic local ad.
The character of 'Fat Andy' whom Henry introduces us to in the bar is played by Louis Eppolito, an ex-NYPD detective whose father, uncle and cousin had all been in the Mafia. In 2005 Eppolito and his police partner were arrested and charged with racketeering, obstruction of justice, extortion and up to 8 murders. They were both sentenced to life imprisonment plus 80 years.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During filming of the scene in which his character is killed by Joe Pesci, Michael Imperioli broke a glass in his hand and had to be rushed to the emergency room. When doctors saw what appeared to be a gunshot wound in his chest, they tried to treat it. When Imperioli told them what was really up, he was made to wait for three hours. Director Martin Scorsese told Imperioli that someday he'd be telling that story on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992). The prediction came true in March, 2000.
Henry states that Tommy was shot in the face so that his mother could not give him an open-casket funeral. Tommy's real-life counterpart, Tommy DeSimone, was killed in January 1979. His remains have never been recovered.