Say ''Ray Liotta'' and one can't help but think of his onscreen moments stabbing, shooting, or pummeling his prey, especially in 1986's Something Wild and 1990's GoodFellas. ''Bad guys stand out,'' he shrugs. ''The ones I've been fortunate enough to play have been dynamic and out-there, and people respond to them.''
Liotta's fans should relish his latest role, crime boss Smith (real name: Bobby Stevens), who's given an all-purpose moniker by lawmen scrambling to identify him. The ever-intense 51-year-old—his blue-green eyes as piercing as ever is taking his first shot at leading a TV series, the CBS heist drama Smith (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.). And while it's true that he plays a loving family man to dental-technician wife Hope (Virginia Madsen) and their kids, the old Liotta makes his small-screen debut about 30 minutes in, when he squashes an uppity inferior with a wolfish snarl charged with feral rage. How mean is he? In a month filled with so many new shows, Smith is probably the only network star badass enough to be holding a cigarette...until his wife tells him to put it down.
Usually, a complicated, duplicitous antihero like Smith can only be found prowling around movies and cable. An intrigued Liotta, whose career is recovering from a mid-'90s slide (he has a full slate of movies in the can, including Narc director Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Acesand the middle-aged-biker comedy Wild Hogs, with John Travolta and Tim Allen), found himself overcoming a long-held anti-TV bias. ''Back in the '70s, shows were using people who had finished their movie careers,'' he says. ''And people like Bruce Willis and John Travolta broke out [and left TV].'' But after guesting on a 2004 episode of ER (his turn as a dying alcoholic earned him an Emmy), Liotta noticed that more of his peers were shifting back and forth between film and TV...good TV. ''I knew he was talented before ER,'' says that drama's executive producer John Wells. ''But I had no idea what he was going to bring to it. From that point on, I thought, 'I gotta do something else with this guy.''' So when Wells created the sinister Smith, Liotta was the only choice.
''To people I grew up with, it's probably amazing I make a living acting tough,'' says Liotta, who was a jock as a kid in Union, N.J., but who insists he was no bully: ''I've been in a fight once, in seventh grade.'' Liotta became a drama major at the University of Miami in order to dodge math and history requirements, but ended up getting hooked on acting.
On his third day in New York in 1978, Liotta landed one of those K-tel records commercials; that first week he had an agent; and within six months he was a regular on Another World, playing Joey Perrini, a character Liotta describes as ''the nicest guy in the world.'' He departed the NBC soap and the East Coast in 1981, and after spending five years as a struggling actor in L.A., he landed the role that would grant him his indelibly brutal reputation: Melanie Griffith's psychotic ex who terrorized Jeff Daniels in 1986's Something Wild.
But in a strategic bid for longevity, Liotta then decided to do only one film a year and avoid being typecast. So he played a caring brother to a disabled man in 1988's Dominick and Eugene, soft-spoken ''Shoeless'' Joe Jackson in 1989's Field of Dreams and turned down a meeting with Tim Burton for 1989's Batman. ''I thought, 'Batman, what the hell? I'm an actor, I don't do Batman!' Little did I know what he'd end up doing [with the movie].'' Looking back, Liotta says, ''I probably wouldn't have been as precious about my choices. What's the big deal if you do two or three bad guys in a row?'' Luckily, he had the sense to seize his most iconic part, as a slippery cokehead mobster in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas in 1990.
In person, Liotta seems exhausted from a long week on set, but he's candid when talking about his career stumbles, his acting goals, and his 7-year-old daughter, Karsen; staying close to her was one of the reasons he took Smith. (He shares custody with his actor-producer ex-wife Michelle Grace.) Though he speaks well of his show, he's still adjusting to the grueling schedule, and notes that he's only under a one-year contract. ''Some days I say, 'There's no f---ing way I'm going to stay here,''' says the actor with a grimace. ''Between the hours, the speed you have to get [the episodes] done, the egos involved... And it's not as collaborative as I thought it would be.''
He stops when he hears himself complaining, probably since his up-and-down career has taught him not to begrudge work. ''But when I look back, there are movies where you're compromised,'' he adds. ''It's always something.''
My Brilliant Career
Returning to TV, the actor comes full circle.
''People [who] just know me from the soap are shocked: 'You're so mean sometimes!'''
Netted Liotta a Golden Globe nom.
''The right director, actors, material, timing, all [fell] into place.''
His attempt at Schwarzeneggerian action ''came out much better than I thought.''
Muppets From Space
He played a security guard who is seduced by Miss Piggy!
In which Lecter feeds Liotta his own brains.
He produced and put on 30 pounds to play a corrupt cop.
''This was so sensitive and emotional,'' Liotta says of his Emmy-winning one-shot on the hospital series.