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The True Story Behind ‘The Irishman’, Explained

November 27, 2019
7 min read

Martin Scorsese and gangster movies are one of the best pairings to have come out of Hollywood. The auteur’s vision has been fantastic in films like ‘Casino’ and ‘Goodfellas’, which were detailed looks at members of the mob, or even in movies like ‘Gangs of New York’, that turned the focus to the street gang culture.

In all of Scorsese’s works, his gangster movies look at society through the life of crime, and no matter how fantastical they might sound, ultimately, they are grounded in reality. This is because Scorsese bases his films on existing sources and accounts. ‘Casino’ and ‘Goodfellas’ are both based on Nicholas Pileggi’s books, “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas” and “Wiseguy”, respectively, while ‘Gangs of New York’ is based on Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book “The Gangs of New York”. This brings us to ‘The Irishman’, his latest offering, which is based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses”.

Basically, it is a retelling of the life of Frank Sheeran, the Irishman, who had ties to the Bufalino crime family. Sheeran ultimately came forward claiming responsibility for the disappearance of Teamsters union leader, Jimmy Hoffa. From Sheeran’s account, it appears as though he was a major hitman who was involved in some of the most high-profile mob hits and incidents of the time.

Without further ado, we bring you the true story behind ‘The Irishman’, and the real-life characters in the movie.

The True Story Behind ‘The Irishman’, Explained:

Frank Sheeran, or the titular ‘Irishman’, has claimed that he was responsible for the murder of ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo, one of the highest-profile unsolved mob hits. Even more astonishingly, he has admitted to killing Jimmy Hoffa, another disappearance that remains unsolved. Apart from that, he claims to have killed 25 to 30 victims, so many that he lost count.

As far as Sheeran’s dealings with the government are concerned, he has claimed to have delivered weapons and uniforms to CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, at a dog track in Florida in 1962, before the Bay of Pigs invasion. Notably, Hunt would go on to become one of the burglars in the Watergate scandal, a decade later. Sheeran has also claimed to have delivered three rifles in November 1963, which was followed by Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

One of Sheeran’s most explosive claims has been about taking half a million dollars in cash to the DC Hilton Hotel in Washington, where he met U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who then took the money as a bribe to his boss, President Richard Nixon.

It would appear as though Frank Sheeran was not only a central figure in crime but could almost be described as the Forrest Gump of organized crime. If we examine his claims, however, the tall tales woven turn out to be too good to be true.

The Disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa:

‘The Irishman’ is most primarily concerned about Sheeran’s ties to the mob and Jimmy Hoffa, the way the hitman acted as a bridge between the two, ultimately betraying the trust of the latter, to side with the former. Scorsese’s movie remains true to form, depicting the worsening relationship between Hoffa and the mob, over the former’s unwillingness to give the mob members loans from the union pension fund. Hoffa also locked horns with Tony Pro, or Anthony Provenzano, who was a member of the mob, and a leader of the union operating out of Jersey. Ultimately, the mob decided to take Hoffa out.

According to widely believed historical versions, Tony Pro made a plan where one of Hoffa’s associates would drive a car that would take Hoffa to a fake meeting where he would be killed by Tony Pro’s top hitman Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio. Sheeran was supposed to have been in the car to put Hoffa’s mind at ease since the two were close and had a trusting relationship.

According to Sheeran, his boss Russell Bufalino had set up the hit in Detroit. He followed Hoffa into the house, where the latter realized the meeting was actually a trap. Sheeran had his gun out by then, which Hoffa might have assumed was for their protection. By the time Hoffa tried to scamper, Sheeran shot him. Following this, a cleaning crew apparently took over and made Hoffa’s body disappear.

Sheeran’s account has been met with disbelief from experts. Robert Garrity, the FBI agent who led the Hoffa investigation had apparently said that the bureau liked Sheeran for it. However, in his memo, he lists a host of suspects. While Sheeran’s name is noted as having been in the area and being a friend of Hoffa’s, he is not suspected of being directly involved in the killing Hoffa. However, the memo does suspect that Sheeran played a part in his disappearance.

Notable mob historians, and people researching on Hoffa and the union, all believe that Sheeran was not the killer. These include Steven Brill, author of ‘The Teamsters’, Selwyn Raab, the author of ‘Mob Lawyer’, and the comprehensive ‘Five Families’. Most importantly, Dan Moldea, known for ‘The Hoffa Wars’, who has researched extensively, following every shred of evidence, has completely disregarded Sheeran’s account. In fact, he also took umbrage that Sheeran’s account was preferred over his research for ‘The Irishman’, and told Robert De Niro as much, warning him about the veracity of Brandt’s book.

Even Sheeran himself denied committing the murder in 1995. This brings us to the next claim.

The Hit on Crazy Joe Gallo:

Joey Gallo was celebrating his 43rd birthday with his family and had been to the Copacabana club to watch comedian Don Rickles (a personal friend of Martin Scorsese) perform. Following that, he went to Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, a neutral territory among wiseguys. However, he was spotted by a Colombo family hoodlum. Under orders from the bosses, a hit squad went over and began firing. One of the assailants was Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase. They left Gallo in the street, dying. It is believed that his war with the Colombo family incited this hit.

According to Sheeran, Crazy Joe had disrespected Russell, and Frank had been instructed to take him out. Spies informed him about Gallo’s location and where he would be seated. Frank entered and started firing, taking out the infamous mobster.

The police were not on board with this version of events at that time since their description made the man appear to be “about 5-foot-8, stocky, about 40 years old and with receding dark hair.” This describes Di Biase and not Sheeran. Even Gallo’s wife described the hitmen to be “little, short, fat Italians”, not a tall Irishman. Nicholas Gage, a veteran reporter who covered mob stories and had an interest in Gallo, commented that Sheeran’s account was the most fabricated thing he read since Lucky Luciano’s autobiography.

I Heard You Paint Houses…

Sheeran made himself to be a central figure in the mob, which would not have been possible because of his Irish ancestry, and because Scranton, Pennsylvania, was not a mob hotbed. That being said, gangland assassinations are meant to be confusing to both authorities and those involved, so no one knows who ordered the hits. It is entirely possible that Sheeran was so low profile that he slipped through the cracks and committed these crimes. Experts beg to differ, but there are certain people involved with the book who are inclined to agree.

Speaking of the book, the title comes from the alleged first words said to Sheeran by Hoffa. ‘Painting houses’ refers to killing people there, so their blood splattered on the walls. Sheeran’s reply about doing his own carpentry refers to clearing out the bodies after the hits. However, ‘painting houses’ is not a popular mob lingo, and though Brandt has posited that the Pennsylvania mob used it, it would be important to note that Sheeran hails from Philadelphia, and Hoffa was from Detroit.

Despite the gaps and possible falsities in the narrative, Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ gets the details of Frank’s personal life right, as well as the reasons why various members were sent away to jail. Ultimately, the true story of ‘The Irishman’ remains obfuscated, despite the availability of so many accounts. Nonetheless, it remains as enjoyable a movie, showing Martin Scorsese at the peak of his directorial powers.

Read More: Where Was ‘The Irishman’ Filmed?

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