LOS ANGELES — Henry Hill spent much of his life as a ‘‘goodfella,’’ believing his last moment would come with a bullet to the back of his head. In the end he died at a hospital after a long illness, going out like all the average nobodies he once pitied.
Mr. Hill, who went from small-time gangster to big-time celebrity when his life as a mobster-turned-FBI informant became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film ‘‘Goodfellas,’’ died Tuesday at age 69, his longtime girlfriend, Lisa Caserta, said Wednesday. Mr. Hill had open heart surgery last year and died of complications of heart problems related to smoking, Caserta said.
‘‘He was a good soul toward the end,'’ she said. “He started feeling remorseful.’’
An associate in New York’s Lucchese crime family, Mr. 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 Mr. Hill sought out shortly after becoming an informant.
‘‘Henry Hill was a hood,’’ Pileggi wrote in the book. “He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads. He knew how to bribe, and he knew how to con. He was a full-time working racketeer, an articulate hoodlum from organized crime.’’
In 1990 the book, adapted for film by Pileggi and Scorsese, became the instant classic ‘‘Goodfellas,’’ starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta as Mr. 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.
In the book and the film, he talks about how hard it was to lead an ordinary life after years steeped in gangster glamour.
‘‘I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen,’’ Liotta, portraying Mr. Hill, says in the film. “I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. ... I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my like a schnook.’’
Unlike older Mafia tales, which focused on family and honor, ‘‘Wiseguy’’ and ‘‘Goodfellas’’ mostly dwelled on how utterly awesome it was to be in the mob, at least until the life caught up with you.
Born in Brooklyn to an Irish father and an Italian mother, Mr. Hill got his start in the mob at age 11, when he wandered into a cabstand across the street looking for work. He soon knew the life of these silk-suited soldiers was for him.
He began running errands for the men at the stand, and that soon led to small-time crimes. He was first arrested at age 16 for using a stolen credit card to buy tires 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.
In 1978, Mr. 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, inspiration for De Niro’s character in ‘‘Goodfellas.’’
But the crew involved in the heist would soon turn on one another, and several would end up dead, leaving Mr. Hill extremely worried that he could be next, he later told Pileggi.
He was arrested in 1980 on a narcotics-trafficking charge.
More afraid of his associates than prison, Mr. Hill decided he had no choice but to become an informant. He 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.’’
Mr. Hill’s testimony sent dozens of men to prison, many for the Lufthansa heist, and he and his wife, Karen, went into hiding together.
In the early 1990s, after more drug arrests, Mr. 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 an Illinois suburb of St. Louis on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
‘‘I’ve been on every drug humanly possible, and I can’t get a handle on alcohol,’’ he said in 2009. ‘‘I’ll go 2, 2½ years, and I don’t know what triggers me.’’
Mr. Hill summered in California at an extremely modest one-story house in the Topanga Canyon area of the Santa Monica Mountains, with an expansive backyard view of the San Fernando Valley.