A sister mourns 'goodfella' Henry Hill in Spring Hill

Published June 15, 2012

To most people, Lucille Chrisafulle — mother, grandmother, anti-drunken driving crusader, lifelong steady employee — is a solid citizen.

To her brother, Henry Hill, she was a "schnook."

Goodfellas, the acclaimed gangster movie that made Hill and that term known around the world, was a dead-on portrayal about nearly every part of his life, Chrisafulle said, including his attitude about earning a living.

"He really did think all normal working people were schnooks," said Chrisafulle, 70, who lives in Spring Hill.

Hill's death this week was cause for the family to mourn, though it was expected, even overdue.

"Look who he hung out with," Chrisafulle said. "He should have died 50 years ago."

But because Chrisafulle, former statewide chairwoman of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, chose such a different path from her brother, it's also a good time to look back at who was the schnook (meaning, roughly, "sucker") and who wasn't.

There's one part of Hill's life that Chrisafulle says Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese didn't get right.

Her father wasn't abusive, she said, "just extremely frustrated with Henry."

The elder Henry Hill, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, was paid well enough as a union electrician that he supported his Italian-born wife and eight children, respected enough that one of his last jobs was on one of the now-fallen towers at the World Trade Center in New York.

At the time, his union card guaranteed his son could get one, too.

"But that other life looked so glamorous," Chrisafulle said.

And it was so close.

A stand for unlicensed but luxurious taxicabs — Cadillacs and Lincolns — run by a local organized crime leader named Paul Vario was directly across from the Hills' Brooklyn house. Vario's meeting room, complete with black-painted windows, was in the back of a nearby diner. Around the corner was the pizza parlor where Vario's wiseguys hung out.

They were friendly and protective enough that they would walk Chrisafulle home if they saw her out after dark, she said.

"It was actually a very safe neighborhood because of them."

But they were also "old and fat and scary," she said. "We knew what they were up to, and we didn't want to have anything to do with them."

So what did her brother see in them? Money, obviously — big tips just for running errands — and a reputation for toughness.

Her brother was smart and mouthy, she said, but "a bit of a wuss. I was his older sister, and I could beat him up. ... (But) he didn't have to be tough because he was around people who were tough."

First, his protector was his younger-but-bigger brother, Joe. Then it was the Vario crew.

That Goodfellas scene showing its members terrorizing the mailman who happened to deliver a truancy notice to the Hill residence? It was true, she said. So was the sense of invulnerability that followed.

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As Hill's character says in the movie: "How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through all that good government bull----?"

"That was Henry from the time he was a kid," Chrisafulle said. "He didn't think rules applied to him."

There were times, early on, that it looked like fun, just as Hill described it in Goodfellas.

After both Hill and his sister had moved away from home and into different neighborhoods in Queens, Hill would "pull up with a truckload of stuff and say, 'You get your friends over here and do some shopping,' " she said.

"I'd say, "You got this big truck parked on a side street. Get out of here. We don't know who's watching.' ... You had to laugh because some of the things he did were so outrageous."

She rarely saw him after she and her second husband, Raymond, moved to Florida in 1976. But when she did, she could see the lifestyle wearing him down.

He had a habit of calling only when he was broke. He went to prison, took and dealt drugs, and worked with Jimmy Burke, the brutal thug who inspired the Goodfellas character played by Robert DeNiro — with a bit too much warmth, she said.

"They couldn't show (Burke) as bad as he really was. If you ever met pure evil, it was that man."

"(Hill) was my brother, and I truly did love him. But I didn't like the things he did, and for a while I didn't like him, and that was unfortunate," she said.

It was Burke's intention to "whack" Hill that convinced Hill to cooperate with federal investigators.

Though he became rich and famous a decade later, when Goodfellas came out, he also fought alcoholism and drug addiction. Along with his heavy smoking, it led to his early death from heart and kidney disease.

Chrisafulle, who works part-time as a file clerk at Whiting Insurance Agency, had plenty of hardship, too, but not of her own doing.

A nephew was killed by a drunk driver. So was her stepson, David, in 1984, the same day he had made the Springstead High School varsity football team.

But along with her now-deceased husband, she ran Armor Pest Control for 20 years and raised the children from her first marriage.

Of her five grandchildren, the oldest three have graduated from college, and the next oldest has completed his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy.

So, who had the more rewarding life, her or her brother?

"Isn't that obvious?" she said.

And what does she tell her children and grandchildren about him? "That's easy," she said. "Don't be like your Uncle Henry."