LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Henry Hill, who went from small-time gangster to big-time celebrity to North Platte, Neb. cook, died Tuesday. He was 69
Longtime girlfriend Lisa Caserta told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Hill died of complications from longtime heart problems related to smoking.
An associate in New York's Lucchese crime family, Hill told detailed, disturbing and often hilarious tales of life in the mob that first appeared in the 1986 book "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family," by Nicholas Pileggi, a journalist Hill sought out shortly after becoming an informant.
In 1990 the book, adapted for the screen by Pileggi and Scorcese, became the instant classic "Goodfellas," starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as Hill, a young hoodlum on the make who thrives in the Mafia but is eventually forced by drugs to turn on his criminal friends and lead the life of a sad suburbanite.
Hill surfaced from the Witness Protection Program in the mid-'00s, found cooking up pizzas and marinara at North Platte's Firefly restaurant. Cooking is "therapy for me," Hill told The World-Herald at the time. "It's my artwork."
Hill started his career as a gangster running errands for made men. That soon led to small-time crimes. He was first arrested at age 16 for using a stolen credit card in an attempt to buy tires for the brother of gang leader Paul Vario, and impressed the gang leaders for refusing to squeal on them.
Far bigger crimes awaited, including the 1967 theft of $420,000 in cash from the Air France cargo terminal at JFK airport in New York, among the biggest cash heists in history at the time.
And in 1978, Hill had a key role in the theft of $5.8 million in cash from a Lufthansa Airlines vault, a heist masterminded by Jimmy Burke, the inspiration for De Niro's character in "Goodfellas."
But the crew involved in the heist would soon turn on each other, and several would end up dead, leaving Hill extremely paranoid he could be next, he later told Pileggi.
He was also selling drugs behind the back of his boss Vario, and in 1980 was arrested on a narcotics-trafficking charge.
More afraid of his associates than prison, Hill decided he had no choice but to become an informant, and signed an agreement with a Department of Justice task force that would prove more fruitful than anyone imagined.
"The arrest of Henry Hill was a price beyond measure," Pileggi wrote." "Hill had grown up in the mob. He was only a mechanic, but he knew everything. He knew how it worked. He knew who oiled the machinery. He knew, literally, where the bodies were buried. If he talked, police knew that Henry Hill could give them the key to dozens of indictments and convictions."
Hill's testimony did send dozens of men to prison, many for the Lufthansa heist, and he and his wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco in the movie, went into hiding together, spending years fearing retribution by a gun to the back of his head from his old colleagues.
In the early 1990s, after more drug arrests, Hill was booted from the witness protection program.
His fears for his life waned as many former associates died off, and he led a more public life in later years, appearing in documentaries and becoming a popular call-in guest on Howard Stern's radio show.
His struggles with substances would continue for most of his life. In 2008 he pleaded guilty in San Bernardino, Calif. to two counts of public intoxication. In 2009, he was arrested in St. Louis on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
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