Goodfellas starred Robert De Niro as gangster Jimmy Conway, but he wasn’t the only actor considered for the role. Martin Scorsese is one of the most respected filmmakers in the industry and is best known for his gangster films, which usually explore the Italian-American identity and address themes like redemption and guilt. The one often regarded as Scorsese’s best gangster film is Goodfellas, which is also considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas chronicles the life of mob associate Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), from his days as a teenager fascinated by the mafia presence in his Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, to his involvement with the family of Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and his decision to become an FBI informant. Among those close to Henry was Jimmy Conway, the man behind the Lufthansa heist and many other crimes. Just like Henry, Jimmy couldn’t be turned into a “made man”, but he was very involved in the mafia.
Jimmy Conway was played by Robert De Niro, in one of the best performances of his career, but even though De Niro and Scorsese have worked together for years, he wasn’t the director’s first option for the role.
Goodfellas: Al Pacino And John Malkovich Almost Played Jimmy Conway
Before Robert De Niro signed to play Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, other actors were offered the role, but they turned it down for different reasons. Al Pacino was offered the role but passed on it due to fear of being typecast. Before Goodfellas came out, Pacino had already been part of some very famous gangster films: all The Godfather movies, where he played Michael Corleone, and Brian de Palma’s Scarface. It’s understandable, then, that Pacino was worried about being typecast, but he ended up being part of Dick Tracy, where he played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. In 1995, he was part of the crime thriller Heat alongside De Niro.
Another big name on the list was John Malkovich, who turned down the offer for unknown reasons. The same year Goodfellas came out, Malkovich appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, and in 1993 he played Mitch Leary in In The Line Of Fire, a role that De Niro (and Jack Nicholson) turned down. Another actor considered to play Jimmy Conway was William Petersen, who was actually the second choice as De Niro wasn’t committed to the project yet, and if he turned it down, it was going to go to Petersen. Perhaps the role wasn’t meant to be for him, as De Niro accepted, and so Petersen went on to appear in other projects, though he might be best known now for playing Gil Grissom in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Goodfellas wasn’t the last time Scorsese and De Niro worked together. De Niro went on to star in Cape Fear, Casino, and The Irishman, all of them crime films. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing Jimmy Conway, especially after the chemistry between De Niro and his co-stars, but all those considered for the role went on to do great things in different genres.