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Ex-mobster Henry Hill of 'Goodfellas' fame visits Dunedin

DUNEDIN — In one of the first scenes of the biopic movie Goodfellas, real-life mobster Henry Hill visits a Tampa zoo with an associate.

They dangle a man upside down over the lions' den and offer him an ultimatum: Pay up or become kitty dinner. The man quickly obliges.

Hill, now 67, said that since that day in 1970, he'd not been back to the bay area until Wednesday, when he stopped in Dunedin on the latest leg of his tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film, which is based on Hill's life.

"I passed (the zoo) today," Hill said, smiling as he smoked a cigarette and sipped coffee outside downtown Dunedin's Black Pearl Restaurant. "I may go there and take a couple pictures."

But the image of that fateful night in Tampa clearly is already implanted in the mobster-turned-informer's memory. It and other memories from the days when Hill ran with the Lucchese crime family are immortalized in Goodfellas, Hill's biography Wiseguy, as well as in the artwork Hill now sells during speaking engagements and online.

Wednesday's Black Pearl meet-and-greet party featured not only Hill, but also Angelo Dundee, legendary trainer for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Hill and Dundee, who have known each other only a short time, are touring together in the bay area. The tour continues Saturday with a stop at Montauro Ristorante in Tampa.

Roughly 30 people paid $50 a head to share hors d'oeuvres, get autographs and speak one-on-one with Hill and Dundee.

Dundee, 89, now lives in Palm Harbor and keeps busy attending award shows, sporting events and helping children. A possible boxing documentary is in the works, he said.

Dundee trained more than a dozen world boxing champions. Years later, he was tapped to offer technical advice to Will Smith for the movie Ali and earned a small cameo while a consultant for Cinderella Man.

The crowd had plenty of questions for both Hill and Dundee, ranging from whether fights are ever fixed ("No," Dundee said. "There's not that kind of money in it. Why would you want to fix fights?"), to whether Hill believes he made the right choice in testifying against his former Mafia associates.

"Absolutely. I know I did," Hill said. "I've had so many young guys tell me that knowing me and hearing me speak and watching the movie changed their life. And I tell them if this knucklehead can do it, so can they."

The answer shows how much Hill has changed in the decades since he joined the Lucchese crime family in 1955.

The Brooklyn teen quit school and was taken under the wing of mob capo Paul Vario and his associate Jimmy Burke. The mobsters saw promise in their half-Irish, half-Italian protege, who was later a key player in the famous Lufthansa heist, in which an estimated $6 million in cash and jewelry were stolen from the John F. Kennedy Airport in 1978.

But Hill violated Mafia code when he began using the drugs he sold. ("Drugs were a no-no in our family," Hill says.) He was caught by the FBI, and rather than face possible execution by the Mafia or going to prison for his crimes, Hill became an informer. His testimony led to 50 convictions.

Hill, his wife, Karen, and their children spent several years in and out of the Witness Protection Program until Hill's continued crimes got them officially expelled from the program in the early 1990s. Hill and Karen divorced in 1989 after 25 years of marriage.

Today, Hill says he lives a quiet life in Topanga Canyon, Calif., with his common-law wife of 10 years, Lisa Caserta.

He spends his time cooking (a craft he learned in prison); painting ("It's therapy. I started painting lessons in prison in California when I was doing a stint for DUIs," he said); and writing. (He's now writing a book about the Lufthansa heist as well as a sequel to his first cookbook, The Wise Guy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life as a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run.)

Hill says he's in talks with a television network that's interested in producing a series based on his life. He attends fundraising events and mobster museum openings around the country.

He doesn't fear for his life.

"For what?" he asked, scrunching up his face and shrugging. "Those people — if they're insane enough to still be involved with that — they got so many problems. … I feel safe now."

Still, he said it took at least 10 to 15 years to forgive himself for ratting out his friends. But he says they were "homicidal maniacs" and he realizes how many lives he's saved in the long run.

He said initially, he would have considered suicide rather than squeal — until the feds played a recording of Paulie and Jimmy ordering his death.

"Paulie was like a father to me. And when I heard that, that broke the camel's back," Hill said. "I never would've thought in a million years Paulie would order my death … and they would've killed my family."

While visiting Dunedin, Hill also offered insider information about the Goodfellas movie:

• The movie was "99.9 percent" dead on, he said. However, some parts — especially about Jimmy — were toned down. And Hill said he actually sold heroin, but director Martin Scorsese changed it to cocaine to make it more palatable to movie censors.

• In the scene where Karen refuses Jimmy's offer of Dior dresses and flees the warehouse, Hill said he actually sent his wife in his place to meet Jimmy because he knew he would've been killed. Had Karen gone into the warehouse, he said, Jimmy likely would've kidnapped her to force Hill to come get her.

• Just as the movie portrayed, Hill says he never whacked anybody. "I never killed anybody. I was a money man," he says.

Given a do-over, Hill said he'd "absolutely not" choose the mobster life again. He'll be 68 on June 11, "and I feel pretty good. I'm blessed."

Though he once saw law enforcement as his "mortal enemy," Hill now says, "I've got to praise the government, honest to God, for saving my life."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

What fans say

• Claire Sayetta, 34, of Largo has seen Goodfellas at least 27 times since age 15.

"A good girl always loves the bad boy, and I've always been charmed by Mr. Hill and his story."

• Erik Johanson, 32, co-owner of Bayshore Pizza in Dunedin. His shop serves a pizza called the Wiseguy, and Hill sampled a slice of the pie Johanson brought to Wednesday's event.

"It's always been my dream to own my own pizza place and have Henry try it."

• Richard Zelonka, 70, of Sand Key owns about 50 Mafia books.

"I was a boxer as a kid. And besides that, I'm just a freak on wiseguys. My secret interest is becoming a wiseguy. I'm just fascinated by all that stuff."

• Kathy LaRoche, co-owner of the Black Pearl Restaurant.

"It's an honor to have them here. At my age, it's very nostalgic for me. I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island — need I say more?"

Not too late

"Original goodfella" Henry Hill and boxing legend Angelo Dundee will visit Montauro Ristorante, 2501 Tampa Bay Blvd. in Tampa, from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Hill will join the owners in the kitchen. Visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sal-Libbys-MONTAURO-RISTORANTE/168319056111 or call (813) 872-0209 for information.

Online

Find information about Hill's artwork, books, speaking appearances and life on his website www.gothenryhill.com or http://stores.ebay.com/henryhillgoodfellaartwork.

Ex-mobster Henry Hill of 'Goodfellas' fame visits Dunedin 05/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2011 9:21pm]

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