The scene is like something out of a colorized Citizen Kane or some surreal awards ceremony. Actor Ray Liotta stands in front of a microphone and podium, shadowy from the light of a pin-point bulb, while, on the other side of the cavernous dubbing stage, his image is projected thirty feet high onto a screen. The situation is tense. The director of the film in progress and its writer are conferring with Liotta, its star, about important issues of motivation and articulation in the crucial dialogue they are trying to perfect. They are observed from behind a window by anxious sound engineers and production assistants, awaiting the moment of inspiration.

Liotta, dressed in sweatpants, a sleeveless Budweiser T-shirt and sneakers, his hair cropped short, props himself against a metal chair, one of four pieces of furniture in a room the size of a basketball court. He shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and poses the question that has been hanging in the air during the past disquieting moments.

“So, is ‘crap’ acceptable for ‘shit’ or what?” he asks.

“Whaddya think?”

“‘Crap’ should work,” says the writer.

“How about ‘stuff’?” suggests the director.

“‘Stuff’ isn’t really ‘crap,’ y’know, like ‘shit,’ is it?” says the writer.

“We going with ‘crap’ or not?” Liotta wants to know.

These Big Questions are being asked about the forthcoming Article 99 , Liotta’s first film since his astonishing performance as Everymobster Henry Hill, in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. But this isn’t the theatrical release they’re brainstorming dialogue for; it’s the TV/airline version of the movie. Instead of dragging actors back into the studio months after a film’s release for a half day of “crap,” “heck,” “screw” and “darn”—in character, of course—the dumb dubs are done along with the real movie.

After settling on “crap,” they move on to the next debate. “Can we say ‘bastards’?” Liotta asks. No, change it to “suckers.”

“Did he say ‘this fucking place’ right there or not?” the writer wants to know. “I can’t tell. Can you run it back so we can hear if he said ‘this fucking place’?”

The writer and the director each sits on his own couch, while the actor works from various positions on, over, around and under his chair. Liotta hurt his back while filming GoodFellas, when he had to throw a woman onto a bed, and it hasn’t been right since. He banged up his knee jumping off a four-foot-high scaffold for a scene that wasn’t even used in Article 99, putting his two-on-two basketball career on hold. And he’s working out with a trainer for an hour a day because, even though he’s a relatively new, young-looking face to moviegoers—with only four film credits—he is 37 years old. So he is constantly stretching something or alleviating the pressure on something else.

Though the conversation sounds like three kindergartners who’ve just learned their first swear words, the meter is running on Dubbing Stage B, and everyone involved has a lot riding on the result. Article 99 is director Howard Deutch’s first feature film away from the heavy hand of teen and preteen angstmeister John Hughes (with whom he did Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful). It is screenwriter Ron Cutler’s first picture in years.

Offscreen, Liotta really does look and speak like a guy who would beat you up for no good reason. So it is a surprise that he’s generally friendly and accommodating, with a situational sense of humor that makes him a companionable player.

And this is Ray Liotta’s first time at the very top of a Hollywood-picture marquee: his chance to have America care to pronounce his name correctly (it’s Lee-OH-ta). He plays a scruffy-haired, sardonically heroic chief surgeon in an underfunded V.A. hospital where the staff schemes to give clandestine care to the unbudgeted—a part with a leading-man air, along with the requisite edge. Liotta was the main character in GoodFellas, but Robert De Niro got top billing and Joe Pesci the Oscar for best supporting actor. Liotta was one of the two main characters in the brilliantly subtle independent film Dominick and Eugene, but the studio decided that his better-known costar Tom Hulce had the leading role in that. His two other parts, as a schizy ex-con in Something Wild and Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, were lesser roles, although they helped establish his reputation for making “instant impact.”

This time, Liotta has clear lead billing—above strong ensemble costars Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson, Kathy Baker and John Mahoney. He hopes the role will help him move to the next level in his very methodical rise through this business, a business in which even silly things must be taken seriously and an actor can’t afford to appear unprofessional or uncooperative or unimpressed with any task at hand.

So, in all seriousness, can Dr. Leonard Sturgess, Liotta’s character, threaten to “staple” someone’s “ass to the ground” on Sunday Night at the Movies or through a $3 headset at 30,000 feet?

“Aw, ‘ass’ is cool, isn’t it?” Liotta asks. “I would think ‘ass’ is cool.”

“Better make it ‘butt,’” says the director.

“Really? Really? Okay, ‘butt.’ ‘Staple your butt to the ground.’”

They roll back the film and Liotta delivers the line, three, four, five, six, times, his mezzo-Jersey accent transforming “ground” into a near-growl. They get what sounds like a keeper, play it back and move on.

If Ray Liotta hadn’t become an actor, he thinks he might have ended up a construction worker. Some days, the labor doesn’t seem any less menial.

There is a story Ray Liotta likes to tell about how he was cast in GoodFellas. He was at the Venice film festival, promoting Dominick and Eugene—the same film festival to which the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was bringing riots, death threats, locusts and cattle disease. Liotta knew Scorsese was in the midst of casting the part of Henry Hill—they had already met once about the film, and Liotta had followed up with a thank-you note and a videocassette of Dominick. So he approached the director at the Excelsior Hotel to shake hands and plant another glimmer of recognition.

Just when he got close enough to tap Scorsese on the shoulder, Liotta was grabbed by the director’s bodyguards and thrown aside. “I think because of Something Wild,” Liotta says, “Marty expected me to react ‘Get your fucking hands off me. Don’t fucking touch me. I know him. I’m gonna talk to him.’ But I was just me. I said ‘Whoa, no, no, I don’t want anything. I just want to talk to Marty—it’s fine.

“Later on, Marty said that was when he knew he was going to cast me. Isn’t that weird?”

It’s not that weird at all. The fact that Liotta thinks it’s weird might be the key to the unusual qualities that he brings to the screen, distinguishing him from the herd of young, attractive ethnic actors who aspire to De Niro-ness. Liotta has a quintessential “Who you lookin’ at with a face like that?”: ruddy skin; dark, deep-set eyes that are ineffably blue; thin, meanlips that seem naturally clenched, to hold back what he realty wants to say. And then there’s that laugh, the one that made his debut, in Something Wild, the stunning, creepy performance that won him a Golden Globe nomination and a Boston Film Critics Award for best supporting actor. It’s the laugh of a jolly psychopath, mouth ajar, head tilted back, big “ha! ha!”s that unnerve you because he’s not laughing with you or at you but, somehow, in spite of you. He laughs the way the alien in Alien might.

Offscreen, Liotta really does look and speak like a guy who would beat you up for no good reason. So it is a surprise that he’s generally friendly and accommodating, with a situational sense of humor that makes him a companionable player. He has a fascination with self-exploration, which he does mostly through his rigorous acting-class “homework” and his poetry. He asks more questions than he answers and is gamely reticent about discussing personal details. When he is open, he acts almost pained about it and usually asks for a cigarette or a drink whenever the going gets tough.

with Tom Hulce in Dominick and Eugene

He seems only partially aware of his menacing side. When he refers to the Dead End Kids, the last thing on his mind is the ’30s gangster film he looks like he’s stepped out of: He’s talking about the guys he grew up with in Union, New Jersey. The suburban cul-de-sac where Liotta lived and played baseball all summer—drawing bases and a batter’s box in soap on the asphalt—was the “dead end” neighbors had in mind when they nicknamed Ray and his childhood friends Gene, Freddy and Jules. (Though the others are married with children and Liotta is still quite single, they have gotten together every New Year’s Eve for the past decade.)

Liotta knows all about the baggage that comes with “having a name that ends in a vowel” and a street-smart voice, but he still seems surprised when others seem surprised that he grew up comfortably middle-class in a warm, supportive family. He was adopted (coincidentally, his birth parents were Italian and Scotch-Irish, just like the Liottas), but his adoptive parents were never secretive about it—he was in an orphanage until he was 6 months old—and they always gave the circumstances a positive spin. When he was 3, his adoptive parents took him with them to bring his new sister home.

“I still have a real strong recollection of that,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a picture of what happened or a dream, but I can see the nurse up against the window, holding my sister, and then they put her in my arms. At 3, I thought that’s how you did it, how you brought a human being into this life. You go and pick ’em up,” he says, laughing. “Hey, can I have a beer?”

His father, Alfred, owned an automotive-parts store and was the president of the local Democratic club. In the mid-’60s, when Ray was in junior high, his father decided to run for local office. His mother, Mary, then an appointed township clerk, ran for office as well. Although neither was very successful, they remained active in local politics.

The family traveled quite a bit during school vacations—before graduating from high school, Liotta had been to Europe, Japan and Hawaii—but he rarely, if ever, took advantage of his proximity to New York City. “It was a half hour away, but I never went there as a kid,” he recalls. “People would go, but it would scare the shit out of me. I just liked staying home and playing sports and hanging out with my friends.”

Liotta was a career jock until a fight with his high-school basketball coach resulted in Ray’s leaving the team. He did a little acting in high school but became more interested during his largely nonacademic college days at the University of Miami, a party school he chose because Vinny from the neighborhood was going and they could room together. At Miami, Liotta came under the wing of drama coach Robert Lowery, whose nickname was Buckets because of his past as a teenage basketball player. Lowery’s program had a relationship with the New Dramatists theater, in Manhattan, which allowed his students to spend some of their vacations getting experience in New York. (During other breaks, Liotta took odd jobs with Vinny, such as grounds-keeping at a local graveyard.) One of Liotta’s Miami classmates was Steven Bauer, who has said he idolized the young actor who won many of the leads in the class productions. (Bauer, of course, became an actor himself, debuting in Scarface and playing the lead in Thief of Hearts.)

After college, Liotta went to New York and stumbled into his first professional acting job. “This girl I knew got a part in Jaws 3 or 4,” he recalls, “and I went with her to sign her contract. I walked in and this guy says ‘Do you want to be in a commercial?’ That’s not exactly what I had my sights set on, but they sent me to this guy, and, sure enough, I got hired to walk in a park with this girl for Love Songs of the ’50s from K-tel. Within six months I was on a soap.”

He played Joey Perrini, “the nicest guy in the world,” on Another World. “Oh, yeah,” he laughs. “I took care of my mother, my sister, my girlfriend, who found out she had a fatal disease and I still married her—ha! ha!—and then she died, and I went up to the mountain where I had proposed to her, up to the hills in a snowstorm, and I slipped and hit my head. I ended up being found by this woman who took care of me. I started getting attracted to her, and it turned out she was the richest woman in America. Ha! Ha!”

It was through the soaps that he met his best friend in the business, Josh Taylor, a sensation on Days of Our Lives (and star of the recently canceled sitcom The Hogan Family), whom Liotta refers to as his “big brother.”

“I would watch Days, and Another World would come on right after it, so I’d watch,” recalls Taylor, a tanned actor in his late forties who could pass for a Southern California Paul Hogan. “I kept seeing this guy who played Joey Perrini, and when I would do the talk shows and they’d ask who else I liked on the soaps, I’d mention him. Then, I was dating around and one of the ladies I was seeing happened to be a production assistant and an airline stewardess. I kept pointing Ray out to her. She came back one time from a trip and said she’d met him on a plane. So they started dating on the East Coast, and we were dating on the West Coast. So this was now a direct contact, so to speak.

“I was going to do a personal appearance in Missouri, and they asked if there was anyone I wanted to do it with. I said ‘Why don’t you call that guy who plays Joey Perrini?’ So they did. I remember flying in and thinking, I’ve given this guy all this free publicity, said all these nice things about him. What if he’s an asshole? I’ll be pissed off. I met him, and within fifteen minutes we were pals.”

Against Taylor’s advice and with an actors’ strike looming, Liotta quit Another World after three years and, in 1982, moved to Los Angeles. His college classmate Steven Bauer had married actress Melanie Griffith: They took Liotta’s New York apartment, and he moved into Griffith’s place in Malibu. He also hooked up with Griffith’s best girlfriend, Heidi von Beltz, a former championship skier who was in the midst of recovering from one of Hollywood’s most famous, and most heavily litigated, stunt mishaps. In June of 1980, Von Beltz, then 21, was the stunt double for Farrah Fawcett in The Cannonball Run.

Riding in the passenger seat without a seat belt, she was left paralyzed from the neck down after the car she was in crashed into a van. While going through a slow rehabilitation process, von Beltz filed a $70 million lawsuit, which became its own cause célèbre. She switched representation from Melvin Belli to another attorney and then back to Belli, and her awards were tied up by the courts for years.

“The first night I was in California,” Liotta recalls, “I was far away from home, and I looked at the list of phone numbers Melanie had on her cupboard and I saw the name Heidi, who Melanie had told me was a great girl. I called her and asked if she wanted to get together, and she said no. I said ‘How about tomorrow?’ and she finally relented and I went up there. And here was this absolutely beautiful girl, paralyzed from the neck down. We talked for about eight or nine hours, and then we just got involved in a relationship and she was my girlfriend.

“It was an unbelievable relationship, you have no idea. It was wonderful for me—it was extremely growing, and I don’t know what plan God had or whatever, but it was a trip. I would encourage her as much as I could and get frustrated along with her. We used to play little games, like ‘What am I touching now?’ We went to movies, to Disneyland, everything, just like everybody else, except I had to carry her a lot: I was really pumped up. We were together for the first year I was here. I wasn’t trying to be a saint or anything—she was a great girl. She just happened to be paralyzed.

“It sort of put my acting on hold. That first year was an overwhelming experience, all-consuming, and I guess it was something I had to go through and wanted to go through. Then it was time to move on. I didn’t meet a lot of other people, but then, I wasn’t here to make friends. I was here to do something specific. And I set out to do it.”

On the recommendation of Bauer and Griffith, Liotta joined the acting class of their L.A. coach, Harry Mastrogeorge. It met two nights a week and involved plenty of “homework.” What is “homework”? “Well, I don’t want to get into a lot of detail,” Liotta says. “You sit and imagine a situation that the script prescribes for you. I think your imagination—and your mind—is a muscle: The more you work it out, the stronger it gets.”

Classes helped Liotta understand the job of being a movie actor. “I had no idea what it would be like,” he recalls. “I would read all the articles about actors—any interview that came out. But you never know, reading those things, how much is what they say or how much is the person who interprets it.”

Something Wild was a charming, edgy, yuppie farce—until Liotta hit the screen … As soon as he laughed, you forgot about Melanie’s black underwear and Jeff Daniels’s inspired pratfalls: All you could think was, Don’t let Ray hurt me.

For the first few years in L.A., hanging around with fellow strugglers Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia, Liotta got by on his soaps savings and parts in the TV movie Crazy Times and in two short-lived TV series—Casablanca and Our Family Honor—as well as one-shots on St. Elsewhere and other shows. It was four years and as many agents before he landed the part of Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 roller-coaster black comedy Something Wild—a role he got by asking the already-cast Melanie Griffith to recommend him after he’d failed to get a reading through regular channels. (He remains a little sore that he had to ask her to push for him.) The film was a charming, edgy, yuppie farce—until Liotta hit the screen, about halfway through, and swallowed the picture in one gulp. As soon as he laughed, you forgot about Melanie’s black underwear and Jeff Daniels’s inspired pratfalls: All you could think was, Don’t let Ray hurt me.

The role, and the glowing reviews, opened up exactly the kind of opportunities Liotta didn’t want—chances to play bigger and better psycho-killers. He sat back, took his time and sifted through the deviates to pluck the role of a Pittsburgh medical student with a retarded brother, who is trying to balance his responsibilities to family and career. One of the premier “little movies,” Dominick and Eugene succeeded in casting Liotta as an actor’s actor instead of as a creep’s creep. But it didn’t catapult him to superstardom or change his patient, methodical game plan. He put in a bid on a small three-bedroom house around the corner from Josh Taylor’s and waited.

It was nearly a year before Liotta did Field of Dreams. It was a small role in what he was sure was going to be a small movie—he continues to be stunned by its success, which didn’t do much for his career except reinforce the fact that he was still on the brink of breaking through. He changed agents, to CAA (his current agent, Rick Nicita, also handles Al Pacino, Francis Coppola and Demme), and lobbied hard for GoodFellas. The film was a critics’ favorite and received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, but it didn’t become the next Godfather any more than the next Godfather did. Liotta’s work was hailed by many, but others were uneasy. “Offputting … opaque … horrific and ultimately numbing” Variety said of his characterization, referring to the actor as a “sallow, hollow-eyed version of Jeffrey Hunter.” That was ostensibly a negative review, although given the sleazeball character of Henry Hill, it could be seen as a rave. But such is the case with much of the Scorsese oeuvre. Being the ultimate “Marty guy,” as Liotta seems to be, might be somewhat counterproductive in the mainstream-movie business. It does, however, land you on the Giorgio Armani comp list: Almost everyone associated with the recent Scorsese and Armani tributes—De Niro, Robbie Robertson—now gets free clothes.

“This is so cool!” Liotta exclaims, surveying the front yard of his little house in the Valley, which became instantaneously luxurious while he was out for the morning. When he’d left, his yard looked “like that one over there,” he says, pointing next door to a yellowing, lusterless lawn. But now, “This is so cool!” he yells to Vidal Quintana, the sod-master general who supervised the planting and unrolling of this complete natural habitat.

Now that the insta-lawn has been installed, a shrubbery strategy must be devised. Quintana has already put in a few plants to give the one-story house “some height,” but the client is not so sure that the “height problem” has been adequately remedied. He assumes survey stance—one arm across his chest, the other raised so he can stroke his chin in contemplation—and then turns to point at the plants sitting in Quintana’s pickup. “Why don’t you put those up?” Liotta wants to know.

“Those are for Dudley Moore,” Quintana says.

“Oh, so you’re, like, the gardener of the stars or something,” Liotta says, laughing. “Ha! Ha!”

The discussion turns to a rubber tree that Liotta thinks will add height if relocated. A member of the crew, patiently taking directions in Spanish from Quintana, replants the tree, which has a low leafy section topped by two feet of stalk and then another leafy section. Liotta then gets it into his head that the tree will look better decapitated. He and Quintana debate while a crewman stands poised with his clippers. Finally, Liotta is sure. “Do it!”

The stalk is cut cleanly with one chop. “Oh, fuck!” Liotta exclaims, throwing his hands in the air. “I shoulda left it! It looks better with it, don’t you think? Can we, like, plant the other part?”

Inside, the house has rooms that are lived in and others that are merely decorated—desert colors and overstuffed upholstery in the living room, bentwood dining-room chairs with baseball caps hanging from them, a sparely appointed master bedroom and a kitchen full of dirty dishes. There are empty vases on almost every available shelf, relics of four movies’ worth of congratulatory floral arrangements. On a living-room shelf in a silver frame is a photo of Liotta’s parents. His mother, Mary, died of cancer just after Field of Dreams was released, while Ray was finishing up GoodFellas in New York. Liotta has often told interviewers that he never saw Field: The truth is, he took his mother to the screening, but she was feeling so poorly from her chemotherapy that neither of them could really watch the film. The cast and crew of GoodFellas were acutely aware that his on-set intensity was being simultaneously fueled and drained by the fact that he was spending all his downtime in New Jersey with his mother. After the movie came out, there was a European publicity tour, which both Liotta and Scorsese used as a chance to spend some much-needed time with family members: Scorsese brought his daughter, and Liotta traveled the Continent with his dad.

In the room that will one day be an office, framed pictures are on the floor, leaning against the wall. In fashionable homes and offices, this is a trendy interior-design statement. Here, it’s just proof that after living in the house for three years, Liotta still has much left to unpack. He has successfully unboxed one shelf’s worth of stuff but has managed to hang only one thing: a needlepoint of a Spanish galleon that his mother made.

Changing into swimming trunks and sandals, Liotta heads out the back door and trudges down the dusty alley behind his house. He stops to say hello to Cowboy, one of the horses his neighbor keeps in a small backyard stall and lets Liotta ride.

Walking farther along, he comes to a wooden gate, reaches over and unlatches it from the inside. He lets himself into the garage/pool house—where there’s a small weight room and a sauna—and emerges on the other side, in Josh Taylor’s backyard, dominated by a rectangular pool. Normally, he would just jump in and do some laps, but since he has a guest, he ventures inside to see his “big brother,” who is saying good-bye to a female friend.

“You want to interview him while I work out and take a sauna?” Liotta asks, walking outside. “Go ahead.”

“Well, get out of here then,” Taylor says, laughing. “I’m not gonna sit and talk about you while you’re standing there.” Liotta dives into the pool, swims across and exits, slipping into the pool house.

“I’ll tell you something about Ray Liotta, he’s got some balls,” says Taylor, leaning forward on his poolside chaise longue. “First of all, he jumped out of the soap when he didn’t have a hell of a lot of money, took some chances, spent five or six years doing very little and being broke and living in a little box over here in Hollywood. But he made sure he was in workshop all the time, and he turned down some things. And even after Something Wild hit, when he got tremendous money offers, and then after Dominick, he still turned them down. And he didn’t have a pot to piss in. I loaned him money to buy the damn house [as did his father]. I said ‘Hey, if you had stock in you, I’d buy it.’

“After Dominick, I’m telling you, there would be a month where we’d count up and he had turned down $2 million. And yet he still didn’t have enough money. I had to loan him money when we played cards. He’s got a lot of balls, a lot of courage.

“And he works his ass off. To the point where I kid him and say ‘You need a hobby. Let’s carve some wood or something.’”

Horseback riding is Liotta’s first nonworking passion in a long time: He hadn’t done it since summer camp in Pennsylvania. Before Liotta’s knee injury, he and Taylor were undefeated in two-on-two basketball, playing on a court near their homes; they also have courtside season tickets to the Los Angeles Clippers. Liotta hasn’t had a serious relationship since Heidi von Beltz; he was most recently dating actress Michelle Johnson (the Blame It on Rio babe), but that’s over. Mostly, he focuses on work, like a prospector or a burning well-capper in a foreign land, to earn money to take back to New Jersey. It’s paying off.

“But he’s still worried after he finishes each thing,” Taylor says. “He’ll always call and go ‘Hey, big brother. Tell me, am I really gonna work again?’ And therein lies the secret to all people who get better—it’s the fear. And there’s no doubt that he worries about the next step.”

The next step is Article 99, which was filmed on location in a largely closed hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. (A few wards were still open, and psychiatric patients would occasionally wander onto the set—as would Julia Roberts, who was then still engaged to Kiefer Sutherland.) Unless the movie is able to make aGhostly impact on the postwar body politic, Article 99 will probably be a baby-step at best. It has moments of genuine humor, pathos and heroics but is also, at times, exceptionally heavy-handed. It’s more a plot film than a people picture, and while Liotta is strong in his role, it is Sutherland’s character, and the mismanaged hospital itself, that show development. Career-wise, the best thing about Article 99 is that it will give Liotta practice in the on- and offscreen responsibilities of a leading man for when his moment finally arrives—when his Taxi Driver or his Cuckoo’s Nest appears.

Will he become a handsome James Woods or a more approachable De Niro?

It could be the next film he’s working on: It’s a starring role, sans ensemble, in the psychological thriller Unlawful Entry, directed by Jonathan (The Accused) Kaplan. Liotta’s character is an L. A. cop, so he spent part of the summer riding with Southern California’s embattled boys in blue, as they drove the streets that had been guerrilla-plastered with posters of Police Chief Daryl Gates emblazoned with a red bull’s-eye. Between the two films, Liotta was briefly reunited with Jonathan Demme, who produced an HBO adaptation of Carson McCullers’s short story “A Domestic Dilemma.” Costarring Andie MacDowell, the film, which premiered in August, is a vignette in the trying life of a Manhattan businessman whose wife’s drinking is finally beginning to deteriorate her ability to mother their two children.

The reaction to these projects will determine his next role in the movie business. Will he become a handsome James Woods or a more approachable De Niro? Will he carry films himself or forever invigorate the projects of others? Will he stay in California or make good on his dream to move back to New Jersey, à la John Sayles, and commute?

He can’t know for sure. But for now, he can put up with the ritual of celebrity interviews and try to at least get a decent meal out of each one. After zipping around to several restaurants, all closed, in Liotta’s black Lexus four-door with gold trim, we end up at the trendy Northern Italian joint Medea. The last time he ate there, he says, was with Henry Hill’s brother. Liotta says he finally met Hill himself, after GoodFellas came out, at a bowling alley in the town where Hill had been federally relocated: Hill told him he was glad the film hadn’t made him “come off like a scumbag.”

There are several logical places in Medea to do a dinner interview, but they are all taken: the choicest one, by David Geffen, who, it turns out, does not remove his trademark backward baseball cap even while eating. Ray asks the maître d’ to set us up in the empty cocktail lounge—at the most powerless table in the place—and he relaxes somewhat while eating pasta, drinking red wine and chain-smoking.

He tells a story about meeting Geffen in New York years ago. Liotta, who had just started on the soaps, buttonholed the record producer at JFK airport, asking if he was “the guy who went with Cher.” In the process, he snagged a limo ride into Manhattan and an acquaintanceship with growth potential.

When Geffen leaves Medea this night, he makes a point of loudly saying hello to Ray—a very deliberate act of giving recognition, since Liotta is sitting with his back toward the front door. When his own dinner ends, the actor exits with far less fanfare. He asks the waiter for a doggie bag and leaves the restaurant, holding some tired sous-chef’s approximation of a swan in silver foil.

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