When the young Henry Hill looks out at the world of flashy mobsters in Goodfellas (1990), Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) stands out. “He couldn’t have been more than 28 or 29 at the time,” the older Hill (Ray Liotta) says in a voiceover. “But he was already a legend.”
Jimmy rolls into the room in a sharp suit, cuff links prominently displayed. He barely gets inside the door before he’s smiling and stuffing hundred-dollar bills in everyone’s chest pockets. “Everybody who worked the room just went wild,” Hill narrates.
“Jimmy was one of the most feared guys in the city,” Hill continues. But as the movie unfolds it’s Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who appears to be the most feared man in Hill’s circle. Tommy could shoot a kid for not dancing, then kill the same kid for complaining about getting shot.
Meanwhile, Jimmy keeps his cool, making wry remarks and otherwise hoping to keep up appearances. It isn’t until after the Lufthansa heist that viewers see the darkest side of Jimmy. In real life, the figure really was one of the most menacing criminals in the New York mafia.
Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke was more of a crude, ruthless murderer than audiences see in ‘Goodfellas’
In Hill’s voiceover in Goodfellas, he speaks about “Jimmy doing hits at 16.” From there, he switches to Jimmy’s great passion: stealing. The film more or less sticks to that theme until the post-Lufthansa period. But in the Goodfellas source book, Hill focuses more on the menace of the man.
Hill tells the story in Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family (1985), the Nicholas Pileggi book that devotes the bulk of the text to interviews conducted with Hill after he entered witness protection. In real life, Jimmy ‘The Gent’s’ last name was Burke, and Hill describes why he was so feared.
“He was a big guy, and he knew how to handle himself” Hill said. “If there was the littlest amount of trouble, he’d be all over you in a second. […] He’d whack you. There was no question — Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand.”
In brief, De Niro’s Conway was a good deal smoother, more polished, than the real-life Burke. The nickname “The Gent” came from Burke’s habit of greasing (with fifty-dollar bills) the drivers of trucks he hijacked. Beyond that, Burke was a cold-blooded killer.
Jimmy ‘The Gent’ reportedly made his reputation committing murders during his early prison terms
Burke began making regular trips to jail as a teenager. In Wiseguy, Pileggi notes how Burke earned his reputation as a young man. “He was rumored to have done killings for mob chiefs who were in prison with him,” Pileggi wrote. “The stories about Jimmy left even his friends a little chilled.”
Hill certainly knew who he was dealing with. “At dinner Jimmy could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert,” Hill says in Wiseguy. Indeed, the real man matches most closely the Conway/Burke we see at the end of Goodfellas.
In 2012, following the death of Henry Hill at 69, his sister Lucille spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about her brother — and her childhood around the guys of the neighborhood, including Burke. “They couldn’t show [Jimmy ‘The Gent’] as bad as he really was,” she said. “If you ever met pure evil, it was that man.”
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