There was something strangely fitting about hearing the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” come from the lips of Fred Savage. It wasn’t quite Ray Liotta but it was delivered in a way that still would have made Martin Scorsese proud. The wide-eyed Wonder Years alum perfectly captured the innocent spirit of a young Henry Hill who got swept into the New York mob scene as an unsuspecting adolescent. He narrated the story of Goodfellas in his best Brooklyn accent and the audience loved it.
Savage was just one of many big names to participate in Film Independent’s rendition of the cult classic, which took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on Thursday night. The sold out event brought 600 Angelenos together to witness a live read of Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese’s epic screenplay. And the roles on stage were portrayed by some very special guests.
Leading up to the show, Jason Reitman, who directs the venue’s monthly Live Read series, maintained his usual routine of keeping the participating actors to himself until right before the event. And per usual, ticketholders began obsessively checking his Twitter feed to see what names he’d eventually release. The first few trickled in the night before the production: Michaela Watkins was to portray Karen Hill (originated by Lorraine Bracco), Joe Manganiello as Paul Cicero (originated by Paul Sorvino), Dane Cook as Morris Kessler (originated by Chuck Low), and Mae Whitman as Sandy (originated by Debi Mazar). Hours before the Bing Theater’s doors opened, it was announced that Eric Andre would be Tommy DeVito (originated by Joe Pesci) and Savage would portray Henry Hill. The role of Jimmy Conway (originated by Robert De Niro), however, left everyone guessing…right up until the moment when Laurence Fishburne was called on stage to claim his spot amongst the cast.
Prior to diving into things, a shout out was given to Margo Winkler, Bell Kessler in the original film, who was seated in the venue’s audience. Pileggi then took the podium, along with Goodfellas producer Irwin Winkler, to take a moment to reflect on the film’s 25th anniversary. “It’s amusing how close this came to not being made,” joked Winkler, who explained that 71 viewers walked out of the film’s original test screening. Pileggi noted that to appease a stressed out Scorsese back then, he had cracked the joke that “They all must have just gone to the bathroom.”
The next two hours were filled with magic. The cast, who had previously not rehearsed any of the material, took their respective seats in front of the crowd, flipped open their scripts, and began to ramble off their lines. The opening scene consisted of of each of the male actors, purposely clad in all black — with the exception of Andre who braved a colorful sweater — taking turns at delivering their best macho mafia speak. It was rocky at first but after a few laughs at the attempt of overdone accents, the cast got into a groove. And what a groove that was.
The on stage chemistry was uncanny. Savage has us convinced that we were living through the eyes of a budding criminal while Andre made jaws drop with his spot on hot-headed Joe Pesci impression. Meanwhile, Fishburne sat low in his chair, locking eyes on whoever he was speaking to and dishing out his best De Niro. Whitman, who filled in the gaps of some of the story’s other female characters, proved to be an ace at imitating old Jewish ladies, like Karen’s mother, and Cook portrayed Morris with just the right amount of over zealousness.
Memorable moments from the show included Cook acting out Morrie’s wig commercial, boasting that “They will stay put even in a typhoon” and all the scenes when the script required Fishburne, Savage, and Andre to get worked up into fits of satirical laughter. There was also that moment when a very chiseled Manganiello had to hop in and play a mafia housewife opposite Whitman and Watkins; he did a surprisingly good impression of a scorn Italian woman. Manganiello also filled in as Jimmy Two Times, earning cheers for his delivery of, “I’m gonna go get the papers. Get the papers.” Watching Andre finger-gun his victims and blow his fuse commanded a continuous round of applause but the moment that stole everyone’s hearts was the scene where Henry discovers that his beloved Karen has flushed his last shipment of heroine down the toilet. The evening was properly rung in with the duo exposing their true marital strife, screeching at each other, and placing their hands over their eyes to trade off in several rounds of, “Oh no’s.”
Per the rules of Live Read, Thursday’s performance was not recorded in any manner. As Reitman explained, the experience was only for the people who were lucky enough to be in the room. What happens at LACMA, stays at LACMA.
Nicole Pajer is an L.A.-based freelance writer published in The New York Times, Woman’s Day, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Men’s Journal, Hemisphere’s, Emmy Magazine, Us Weekly, and The Hollywood Reporter. She tweets at @nicolepajer.