Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic The Irishman is based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses by former prosecutor Charles Brandt. The novel, based on interviews conducted with former mob hitman and bagman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, gives his account of his life as a mobster and bagman for his mentor, Russell Bufalino, including a number of high-profile hits, notably claiming responsibility for one of the most high-profile cases of the century: the disappearance of James Riddle Hoffa, a.k.a Jimmy Hoffa.
The story of The Irishman begins with the chance encounter between Sheeran and Russell Bufalino at a gas station off the highway. Sheeran, a WWII veteran with an impressive 411 days of active service, was discharged before the end of the war and wound up working for a trucking service in Philadelphia. Though the film doesn’t spend too much time on his military service, Sheeran saw action in the European theater in Italy and during the invasion of Germany. It is also reported that Sheeran spent more than 60 total days AWOL from the war chasing French, Italian, and German women and getting drunk prompting his discharge.
During one of his deliveries Sheeran would encounter engine problems, which drew the attention of a nearby Russell Bufalino, who aided the vet with his car. This chance encounter would only be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two, as Russell would later take Sheeran under his wing.
As a side hustle, Sheeran would sell a few select meats from his job directly to restaurants, which brought him under suspicion from his company. When accused of theft, he was assigned union lawyer Bill Bufalino, who unbeknownst to Sheeran, was Russell's cousin. After successfully winning his case against his employers, Bill took Sheeran out to dinner to celebrate, and Sheeran was reunited with Russell. The two were reacquainted and it was here where Sheeran came to understand Russell’s standing as the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family, better known as the Bufalino crime family.
Sheeran began working for Russell in earnest, carrying out hits for the Bufalino crime family. Though coming from a relatively small family, Russell held significant influence in the national Cosa Nostra criminal society, having been one of the organizers, as an underboss for his family, of the Apalachin meeting in 1957.
Though the gathering of powerful Mafiosi from the United States and Italy ended in failure due to intervention from state and federal law enforcement, Russell’s standing remained strong and two years later he would later succeed as his family’s boss following the death of his predecessor. With most of their power coming from the local trucking and coal mining unions, the Bufalino crime family was able to prosper under Russell’s leadership.
Sheeran claimed that during this period as a hitman for the Bufalino family he made numerous hits, most notably claiming the hit that killed upstart mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo on a night he was celebrating his birthday.
It was through those unions and his cousin Bill Bufalino that Russell would introduce Sheeran to the Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, for whom Bill worked as an attorney. This connection led to a lasting friendship being formed between Jimmy and Frank, who would later be employed by the Teamsters Union as a leader and muscleman. In Sheeran’s account of their first encounter, Hoffa was in need of someone “who painted houses,” to which Sheeran said he did, meaning he carried out hits if necessary.
Hoffa was among the most influential and powerful men in the United States during the 1950s and '60s as the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union. A union activist from an early age, Hoffa rose to his position as president in 1957 and would go on to secure the first national agreement for teamsters’ rates in 1964, with the National Master Freight Agreement. His influence played a major role in the union’s growth and development under him as IBT became the largest union in the United States, with over 2.3 million members at its peak during his time as leader.
However, Hoffa didn’t achieve such lofty goals without getting dirty. He dabbled in organized crime until his infamous disappearance in 1975. In 1964 Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in two separate trials and was imprisoned in 1967. During his time, incarcerated Hoffa was paired with fellow union leader and friend Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano.
Although the film doesn’t go into much detail about their relationship prior to their imprisonment, they were reported to have been good friends until their confinement, which is when their relationship deteriorated. Hoffa would only end up spending four years in prison after being pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971, on condition that he was forbidden from taking part in any Teamsters activities until 1980.
In spite of the conditions placed upon him, Hoffa would push through with his interests in regaining his old power from his successor and loyalist, Frank “Fitz” Fitzsimmons. Under Fitz, the mob was gaining interest-free loans that came from the union pension fund, much to the chagrin of Hoffa.
This threat to the new status quo with Fitz put Hoffa in the crosshairs of multiple mobsters, notably Fat Tony Salerno. At a testimonial dinner held in Sheeran’s honor, where all men were in attendance, Russell looked to ease tensions on all sides by tasking Sheeran with making Hoffa see reason, knowing where the mounting tension would eventually lead. Despite the ultimatum of “it is what it is” given to Hoffa through Sheeran, Hoffa defied the mob and pushed on with his goal to be re-elected as union president.
As time moved on, the crime families reached a breaking point with Hoffa and the order came down to finally put an end to him. In Sheeran’s account, on the drive up to Detroit with Russell and their wives for the wedding of Bill’s daughter, he was given the order to go through with the hit.
Sheeran was then flown to Detroit and met up with fellow gangster Sally Bugs in the house where the hit would take place. The two were then picked up by Hoffa’s foster son, Chuck O’Brien, and the men picked Hoffa up at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township. Under the ruse of bringing him to the new meeting place, Hoffa was surprised to see Sheeran in the car, as he had been expecting him earlier in the day. Seeing his friend in the car, Hoffa agreed to go with them.
However, once they arrived in the house, Hoffa began to suspect a trap and urged Sheeran to leave with him, only to be betrayed by his friend, who shot him from behind. Sheeran left Hoffa’s body to the others in the house and returned to Russell, having completed the hit. The two resumed their trip to Detroit to attend the wedding.
Hoffa’s disappearance would make news in the coming days as investigators would begin work on the highest profile missing persons case of the century. Hoffa’s body was never found, and no conspirators were ever charged with his disappearance or murder. Hoffa would be declared legally dead in 1982.
In the years following Hoffa’s disappearance, Russell Bufalino, Frank Sheeran, and many other high-profile mafia members found themselves imprisoned on other charges, unrelated to Hoffa’s disappearance. Eventually each would serve out their sentences before dying of natural causes after being released from prison.
Even as the years progressed, and no headway was made into the investigation, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa hounded those connected to the case, into their twilight years. It wasn’t until Sheeran was near his death that he made claim in James Brand’s novel to the hit that took out Hoffa, even though he had denied it almost a decade earlier.
Although Sheeran finally took credit for Hoffa’s death, many experts on the case, from investigators to journalists, were skeptical of his claims. Inconsistencies in his stories and a lack of evidence with Sheeran's direct involvement were frequently brought up to dispute his account of the events.
At most, investigators conceded that while it was highly unlikely that Sheeran was the one to make the hit, he could have been involved, as a way of getting Hoffa to lower his guard.
Sheeran’s credibility on Hoffa’s disappearance was treated much like his claim of his other big hit on Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo. Even as his claims would put a close to several unsolved high-profile cases, it was generally viewed that Sheeran was acting out of self-interest, to make sure that his family received a last payout prior to his death, with any money made from the novel.
While Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman adheres as close as it possibly can to its source material, and many of the events in the film occurred as depicted, two of its central claims in Sheeran’s hits on Crazy Joe and Jimmy Hoffa are put into serious question due to the reliability of its narrator.
So, while it remains a possibility that things happened as Sheeran claims, it is equally possible that his account of Hoffa’s death and disappearance is also entirely fictitious. ~Paolo Maquiraya