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In Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) have entered the home of Tommy's mother in Queens, it is 3 o'clock at night and they are looking for a shovel to dispose of Billy Batts who is at that time in the trunk of a sedan.

However, Tommy’s mom has awoken and she insists of offering them food. While they're at the dinner table, she brings up a painting she has made of a man and his two dogs in a boat. And it results in this fantastic bit of dialogue:

TOMMY: I like this one. One dog goes one way, and the other dog goes the other way.

MRS. DEVITO: One’s going east, and the other is going west. So what?

TOMMY: And this guy’s saying, “Whaddaya want from me?” The guy’s got a nice head of white hair. Beautiful. The dog, it looks the same.

Considering that Tommy's mother is played by Catherine Scorsese (Martin Scorsese's mother) and that this scene contains plenty of improvisation, I wonder what the background is for the painting. Obviously it was planned, so who made it, and what is its subject?

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As it happens, in November 2013 journalist Alex Godfrey did a deep dive of this painting and reported the results on his tumbler.

Let's start with the scene itself:

Catherine Scorsese’s line “Did Tommy tell you about my painting?” was scripted, but much of the rest, including Joe Pesci’s “One dog goes one way and the other dog goes the other way” was improvised (watch Scorsese talking about it here).

Here is Ray Liotta talking about the scene in GQ (one of the links in the previous paragraph):

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy's mother's house, I don't think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, "Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—" and he can't remember it, and Bob jumps in as he's eating "—hoof." There was a lot of improv. And then they're talking about the guy [with the dogs] in the painting. Joe says, "One dog goes one way, and the other dog goes the other way. And this guy's saying, What do you want from me?" I don't know where the fuck that came from. To this day, it's really funny.


The video of Scorsese linked previously already mentions that

the painting in the film was actually by Goodfellas co-writer Nicholas Pileggi’s mother


But the tumblr post also points out that it

was an interpretation of a photo from the November 1978 issue of National Geographic (as uncovered by this person, among others).

If you are a subscriber, you can look up the issue in the magazine's online archive.

The photo was part of a 28-page feature titled Where The River Shannon Flows (‘Allan C. Fisher, Jr., and Adam Woolfitt follow Ireland’s longest stream from gentle lakes to wide Atlantic estuary’).


The tumblr post details how Brian Leyden was linked to photographer Adam Woolfitt, and then Godfrey contacted him:

I called Brian, who told me the chap in the photo was called John Weaving. John had retired from a career in banking to become a river nomad, “a water rat” who lived on a 60ft houseboat on the Shannon. John, said Brian, was a navigational consultant and handyman on the river, and something of an eco-crusader, campaigning against the low bridges being built, pushing for proper clearances for family-sized barges. His dogs were called Brocky and Twiggy.

The tumblr post continues with more information about John Weaving, and that there even is a bust of him in Terryglass, County Tipperary.


Godfrey then contacts photographer Adam Woolfitt, who told him how the photo came about:

“We went up and down a little bit on his boat until I found a nice background and made my pictures. I rather liked him, he was a very free spirit, quite independent. He was definitely cut out for nomadic life. He was very pragmatic and very down to earth. He was really a part of the river.” Adam didn’t get to visit the Peter Farrell, instead photographing John on the little rowing boat he used to whizz around on.

He was delighted that his photo had inspired the painting in Goodfellas:

‘Fame at last!’ he wrote. ‘I’ve starred in a Hollywood movie.’


Only on 31 December 2019 Godfrey finally came to own a copy of the magazine. As he posted on Twitter the next day:

In my actual hands! This is my Ark of the Covenant. I visited @NadiaShireen for NYE, stumbled upon her dad's old stash of Nat Geos and there it was. Published Nov 1978 then painted and immortalised in Goodfellas. I am touching it!

photo of a page from the article Where The River Shannon Flows in the November 1978 issue of National Geographic

Photo source: Alex Godfrey on Twitter.


And exactly a year later he posted an update on Twitter:

For anyone who's ever read my story about John Weaving over the years... I have an ending I never expected. I need to update the thing. I'll cut to the chase: A month ago, Martin Scorsese read it. And then he wrote me a letter about it.

He continued:

When I interviewed him for Empire at the end of November, I took the liberty of mentioning it during the final 30 seconds of our conversation. He had no idea the painting was based on a photo – it was all news to him. He asked me to send him my story.

Quite a surprising development!

(The interview with Scorsese is only available online as a small excerpt here. Do note that the full interview focuses on The Irishman, and does not contain the discussion about the painting.)

And continued:

I was shocked when, days later, I got a letter from him (email, but I’m 100% calling it a letter). It wasn’t meant for publication so I’m not posting it, but he wrote about my story, and about shooting the scene, and his mother, and his words were so gracious and touching.

And ended with:

What a mensch. It was, obvs, the greatest letter I ever got in my life. I’m still not sure why I ever investigated this story in the first place, but it’s had such a journey, and to have MS write to me about it seven years later… I mean, come on. John Weaving: thank you.


I can also recommend this September 2020 article by Justin Sayles at The Ringer about the scene.

A Late Meal, a Painting, and Mrs. DeVito

No scene captures the dark humor of ‘Goodfellas’ quite like when Tommy’s mom unveils her portrait of a man and his dogs

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