RICHARD Bright was one of the stalwarts of the Godfather trilogy of movies, playing the Corleone family's most loyal and lethal hitman in all three films over the course of 18 years, from 1972 to 1990.

Bright built a career playing violent criminals, with just the occasional violent cop thrown in, appearing with such major stars as Steve McQueen in The Getaway (1972), Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat (1988).

Ironically perhaps, he was to meet with a violent, though comparatively mundane, death himself, knocked down by a bus in New York. It was the city in which he lived and where he was born 78 years ago, the son of a Brooklyn shipyard worker.

By his late teens he was acting professionally, appearing on stage and television. He made his film debut in Robert Wise's film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), with Harry Belafonte and Shelley Winters, playing the first in a long line of film crooks.

However, Bright was no stereotypical heavy. He was handsome, with blue eyes that suggested a sharp intelligence and sometimes a cold, calculating will, and his character in Odds Against Tomorrow was decidedly hip.

Before his screen career took off, he had already secured a place for himself in American theatre history. He was charged with obscenity when he appeared in Michael McClure's play, The Beard in San Francisco, in 1965. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case and the charges were dismissed, in what was regarded as an important landmark in freedom of expression.

The Panic in Needle Park (1971) provided him with his first major film role, as a junkie who finances his habit through burglary. It began his association with Al Pacino, with whom he would appear in the three Godfather movies and also in a 1979 Broadway production of Richard III.

He felt his Godfather role of hitman Al Neri could have been bigger and, by the time it came to Part III, he had continually badgered director Francis Coppola to expand it. Howerver, while he did not have a lot of lines, he appeared in some of the series's most pivotal scenes.

In the first film, he disguised himself as a cop and slaughters Don Barzini and his henchmen in the famous baptism bloodbath sequence. It is Neri who shuts the door on Diane Keaton in a symbolic moment at the end of the film, shutting her out of the intimate circle around her husband, the new godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).

In the second instalment, he cold-bloodedly executes Michael's weak and duplicitous brother, Fredo, during a fishing trip and, in Part III, he even kills a corrupt Vatican archbishop.

Peter Cowie in The Godfather Book (1997) noted: "Poor Richard Bright, who plays Neri, longed for his role to be expanded, and during the shooting of Part III sent Coppola letters every few days with suggestions as to how Neri might move centre stage in the drama."

The Getaway (1972) was the first of three films he made in quick succession for Sam Peckinpah, playing a conman who steals Steve McQueen's loot. He was one of Billy the Kid's men in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and he also had an uncredited cameo in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

The hippie musical Hair (1979) represented a complete change of pace, but he was back on familiar ground, playing another killer in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Sergio Leone's epic portrait of NewYork Jewish gangsters. In recent years, he had worked mainly in television, appearing repeatedly on Law & Order and its spin-offs, in various different roles. He also appeared in The Sopranos (2002).

Richard Bright was married to the Latvian actress Rutanya Alda, with whom he appeared in several films.

Richard Bright, actor; born June 28, 1937, died February 18, 2006.