Ray Liotta died in his sleep yesterday at the age of 67. He was in the Dominican Republic filming the movie Dangerous Waters. His fiancée, Jacy Nittolo, was there with him.
Tributes to Liotta are pouring in on social media and the news. Most refer to him as the star of Goodfellas. It’s his role in Field of Dreams, however, that launched his career, which includes more than 70 films and several TV shows.
Yesterday, Kevin Costner, who worked with Liotta on Field of Dreams, remembered his fellow actor and referenced his faith by writing “God has Ray now.”
Field of Dreams opened in 1989 and starred Costner as an Iowa farmer visited by the ghosts of former baseball legends. Liotta played Shoeless Joe Jackson. Though he appeared on screen only a handful of times, his magnetic presence was impossible to ignore. It was Liotta who uttered Field of Dreams’ most iconic line – “If you build it, he will come.”
The film captivated audiences and was nominated for multiple Oscars. On the surface, it looks like a movie about baseball and the importance of going after your dreams — and it’s true that both of these are central to its plot. But what Field of Dreams is really about — and the reason America fell in love with Ray Liotta — is family.
As Ray Kinsella, a contented Iowa farmer with a wife and young daughter, Costner’s character becomes obsessed with building a baseball field in his backyard after hearing voices whisper phrases like “Ease his pain” and “Go the distance.” The threat of losing the farm looms large, and Kinsella doesn’t know what the seemingly nonsensical phrases mean. But he builds the field anyway — and it pays off. The ghosts of former baseball players drop by for pickup games, and sports fans far and wide come to see his field of dreams.
That’s a nice enough story, but it’s not what made Field of Dreams great. It’s Liotta, who makes his final — and most memorable — appearance in the film’s last few minutes, that cements its place in movie history.
Standing on the baseball field after one of the now-commonplace ghost baseball games, Liotta’s Shoeless Joe smiles and stares at Kinsella who jokingly says, “What are you grinning at, you ghost?” Here, Liotta renders that most famous of lines — “If you build it, he will come,” — and nods to a player at home plate. That player is Kinsella’s father long before “he was worn down by life.”
It’s a version Kinsella has not seen before: “He’s got a whole life in front of him and I’m not even a glint in his eye,” he says.
The youthful father and equal-age son meet; the camera goes wide to reveal a stunning Iowa landscape of blue sky and golden cornstalks; and not a dry eye is anywhere to be found.
You could say that it was the baseball and the dialogue that made this movie great. But it’s Liotta’s delivery of that iconic line that made it a classic. With just eight words, he made us yearn for family we lost before we had the chance to know them better.
Liotta’s final line in the film is “No, it was you, Ray,” which makes clear that the voices Kinsella hears throughout the film are his own. This line also clarifies the movie’s central theme: Repairing the past determines the future.
Today, however, I see it another way — as a farewell to a man whose movies impacted us all. Indeed, as Liotta’s Shoeless Joe says before walking off the baseball diamond and disappearing into the cornfield one last time, “It was you, Ray.”