Vanity Fare

As far as he can remember, he always wanted to be an actor. To him, being an actor was better than being president of the United States. Even before he first wandered into the high school auditorium for an after-school audition, he wanted to be one of them. It was there he belonged. To him it meant being a somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. Actors weren't like anyone else. They did whatever they wanted. They'd wear tights and nobody would ever give them any trouble. In the summer when they did Cabaret and West Side Story all night, nobody would ever call the principal. He was the luckiest kid in the world.

Far as he's concerned, he still is. No matter how many bombs he detonates, no matter how many good roles they hand off to some blond kid instead of him, they won't be able to take away from him what he's already done. His dad would remind him of it, tell the boy he's got two immortals to his credit, what else does he want. One's called Field of Dreams, in which he played a friendly ghost in black socks. Other's called GoodFellas, in which he got to play gangster dress-up with De Niro and Pesci, who wanted to know if he thought he was funny. They'll live forever, his dad would say. Everything else puts food on the table, so what's the problem? Like his old man told him: "At the end of the day, it's a fucking movie. What ya complaining about?"

A lot, actually. You can't blame him; you can't stop him. And he's not doing it just to bitch, just to make noise. Ray Liotta's always worked, ever since he was at the University of Miami doing Sound of Music in the mid-'70s, dancing and singing as one of those kids who couldn't keep their Von Trapps shut. He was Joey Perrini on Another World for three years, 1978 to 1981. He made TV pilots after that, did a movie with Pia Zadora called The Lonely Lady. That was 20 years ago. Going downhill would be uphill after that. No wonder he doesn't mind talking about Muppets in Space, in which he got to sing with Miss Piggy. Hell, he's the one who brings it up.

See, everybody knows who Ray Liotta is. They just don't seem to care all that much. He possesses a reputable filmography, especially the early stuff, but he's no Brad Pitt, no Tom Cruise, no Tom Hanks, no Mel Gibson. He'd like to be--who wouldn't?--but never had the chance and never gets the shot. He lit the screen ablaze in his first major role, as dangerously nuts ex-hubby Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demme's 1986 Something Wild. He laced up as Shoeless Joe three years later, went to work for Marty Scorsese the next year, then found the fire had turned to smoke had turned to soot. Of the 14 movies Liotta made in the 1990s and into 2000, maybe you heard of, oh, two. Counting Operation Dumbo Drop.

"The only thing that I want to prove is them wrong for not casting me in bigger and better movies," Liotta's saying now, sitting in a Dallas hotel room. He sits almost perfectly still, but his voice moves all over the place; one minute he's speaking in a near-whisper, the next a pleasant bark. "At the end of the day, I want to work with the best people. I want to be up on the list where I get the opportunity. Now, I don't necessarily want to be Brad Pitt or one of those guys; I just want to prove that I don't like losing. I hate to be up for something and to lose it, not to Owen Wilson per se--nothing against anybody--but you've got to, you know..."

Hold up for a sec. Back up the tape to a moment earlier in the conversation. First off, the reason we're in this hotel room is so Liotta can promote his new movie Narc, in which he and Jason Patric play--what else?--ratty drug cops looking to catch a cop killer, or so the plot synopsis goes till all hell breaks loose in the twisty third act. Liotta's awfully proud of the low-budget picture, directed by a guy, Joe Carnahan, whose first movie was so awful its name cannot be spoken in polite company. Liotta produced Narc. He took a chance on Carnahan when smarter people than he would have passed, given his sketchy history. Nice, meaty role in a gritty '70s-styled cop crime movie? Smells like a Rush of a comeback, marinated in Serpico and served with a side of Denzel. Already he's been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting male; he's not coy enough to deny he'd like bigger, shinier prizes.