The Real Story Behind ‘The Irishman’

Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran, the army veteran who became an assassin for the mob.
The Irishman
By  · Published on October 1st, 2019

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to making movies about the mob, but his latest gangster epic will differ from the others. With The Irishman, the legendary filmmaker is out to try and solve a real-life crime that’s perplexed the authorities for decades: the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

In the movie, Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, the mob hitman who claims to have killed Hoffa (Al Pacino) in 1975. The story, which spans decades, chronicles Sheeran throughout his life and explores how he allegedly became embroiled in one of American history’s most compelling crime mysteries.

The real Sheeran came clean about his involvement in the disturbing events back in 2004, and you can read his supposed first-hand account in Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses. The tell-all tome serves as the basis for much of Scorsese’s movie, but the revelations about Sheeran that can be found in its pages shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

At the same time, regardless of whether or not Sheeran was telling the truth, his account is still fascinating and makes for another brilliant crime movie in the hands of a master like Scorsese. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the true story that inspired the film’s creation.

Sheeran joined the army in 1941 and spent a total of 411 days on duty. He fought in the Allied force’s Italian campaign, as well as the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Germany. When he wasn’t engaging in combat, he spent the rest of his time getting drunk on red wine and chasing European women. During his time at war, he also developed a callousness for killing.

Sheeran claimed that he was guilty of war crimes, including numerous massacres and executions of German soldiers and prisoners of war. According to Sheeran, there was an incident where he and some of his fellow soldiers hijacked a German food train, had their fill of the grub, soiled all over the leftovers, and forced the drivers to dig their own graves before ultimately executing them.

These acts violated the Geneva Convention, so it’s unsurprising that Sheeran had no problem breaking the law back in the regular world as well. After being discharged from the army, he found his true calling as a Mafia-employed assassin who killed people for money. In Sheeran’s eyes, though, his experience as a hitman was similar to being a soldier: take orders, kill people, get rewarded. Simple.

Upon re-entering the civilian world in 1945, Sheeran became a truck driver who accepted criminal jobs on the side to make some extra money. These jobs included murder-for-hire, and it didn’t take long for him to attract the attention of the Philadelphia Mafia figureheads Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci in The Irishman) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). He worked closely with Bufalino, and the mob leader became a mentor of sorts to the former soldier.

It was through Bufalino that Sheeran met Hoffa, a labor union leader with ties to organized crime. As the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hoffa represented blue-collar workers like truck drivers, but his relationship with Sheeran was more focused on matters of the illegal variety.

Hoffa and Sheeran became close friends, with the union leader utilizing the hitman as his muscle and hired gun. Sheeran eliminated Hoffa’s rivals and whoever else stood in the way of him achieving his goals. Their targets included members of other unions, as well as Teamsters who refused to co-operate with Hoffa.

Unfortunately for Hoffa, his crimes eventually proved to be his downfall. The Kennedy Administration had been on his case for years, as they were intent on eliminating the corruption that was polluting labor unions at the time. There is even a theory out there that alleges Hoffa and the Mafia orchestrated John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

No one ever proved that Hoffa or the mob were involved in the death of the president, but the law still had enough dirt on the Teamster boss to bring him down. He was sent to prison in 1967 on counts of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud. In 1971, however, President Nixon pardoned Hoffa under one condition: that he not “engage in direct or indirect management of any labor organization” until 1980.

Hoffa supported Nixon’s re-election bid in 1972, but he didn’t exactly honor the agreement he made to get his presidential pardon. Shortly after being released from prison, he tried to reassert his power over the Teamsters, and this marked the beginning of the end for the once-prominent union leader.

The Mafia were against Hoffa regaining control of the union, but he was also feuding with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham), a mafioso captain and the head of a Teamsters charter based in Union City, New Jersey. In 1975, with the assistance of the Detroit mob, Provenzano arranged a fake peace meeting with Hoffa that would lead to his demise.

The plan was to have a Hoffa ally deliver him to Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, who was Provenzano’s top enforcer. Because Sheeran and Hoffa were close allies, Sheeran was recruited to accompany his friend to the meeting and watch his back. Upon arriving at the location — an empty house in the Motor City — Sheeran supposedly pulled out a gun and he and his old friend parted ways forever.

Sheeran confessed to Brandt:

“If he saw the piece in my hand he had to think I had it out to protect him. He took a quick step to go around me and get to the door. He reached for the knob and Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range — not too close or the paint splatters back at you — in the back of the head behind his right ear.”

The authorities never found Hoffa’s body, but surely Sheeran admitting to the murder was enough to put the mystery to bed, right? Not quite.

The FBI believes that Sheeran might have played his part in the plot to kill Hoffa, but they don’t buy that he pulled the trigger. As documented in “The Hoffex Memo” — a list of suspects whom the authorities believe were associated with Hoffa’s disappearance — Sheeran is listed as a friend. However, Briguglio is documented as the most likely candidate for taking care of business.

As noted by The New York Review of Books, several people have tried to take credit for the murder of Hoffa, and all of their claims have been dismissed as bullshit. Maybe Sheeran was responsible for his death, but there’s a general consensus among investigators and experts that he wasn’t.

Until there’s concrete evidence that backs up Sheeran’s or anyone else’s claims, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa shall remain one of the great American mysteries.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.