The True History Behind Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Many have suggested Frank Sheeran’s claims about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa are mere fantasy; the historical context of Scorsese’s epic is more nuanced

As leader of the powerful Teamsters Union, Hoffa was rumored to have connections with organized crime and served four years in prison for various offenses. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman provides a decades-spanning look at one man’s relationship to organized crime, organized labor, and the truth—however slippery that concept may be. That man, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, was a union official and mob associate whose story intersects with labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa, the Mafia, and the Kennedys. The film, Scorsese’s first to stream exclusively on Netflix, is adapted from the 2004 Sheeran biography I Heard You Paint Houses by writer Charles Brandt, in which Sheeran claims that he killed Hoffa, amongst other figures. Hoffa’s sudden disappearance in 1975 still looms large as one of America’s longest-standing unsolved mysteries.

Sheeran’s stories are seductive—he was friends with Hoffa (Al Pacino), and he was an associate of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a mob figure who indeed had ties to both Hoffa and other high-level mafia families. And while many Hoffa scholars think Sheeran’s claims are bogus, and that Scorsese—and Robert De Niro, who has wanted to adapt the book for years—got the story wrong, the film’s portrait of how organized crime became interwoven with the labor movement and the highest levels of government in the 20th century carries many elements of truth.

As a guide to that era, here’s a primer that can either provide you with some key background information before sitting down to watch The Irishman or to fill in the gaps after viewing. The movie, which leaves theaters next week and will be available on Netflix starting Wednesday, November 27, runs more than three hours, so you have a lot of historical ground to cover.

Who was Jimmy Hoffa and was he really the most famous man in America?

James Hoffa, mostly known by the media as Jimmy, was a labor organizer even in his early career—at 14, he dropped out of school to work full time, and as a teenager he organized fellow grocery store workers to challenge unfair treatment by managers and to advocate for higher wages. He joined the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters in 1932 when he was still a teen, and by 1957 was elected president of the union, which at that point represented nearly one million truck drivers and warehouse workers. At one point in The Irishman, a voiceover from De Niro’s Sheeran asserts that Hoffa, in the 1950s and ’60s, was more famous than Elvis or the Beatles. That’s not an exaggeration—in a time when nearly one-third of American workers belonged to a union, Hoffa was the movement’s most famous face and de facto voice. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa set out for a lunch meeting at a local restaurant, and when he hadn’t returned home by the next morning, his wife Josephine called police. No trace of Hoffa was seen after that day, and he was declared legally dead in 1982. While some thought he was murdered by mafia associates, others thought it might be rivals within the Teamsters, and another line of inquiry attempted to discover whether or not Hoffa, afraid for his life, vanished of his own accord.

James R. Hoffa at the Teamster's Union Convention (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

What did the Teamsters have to do with the Mafia?

In the mid-20th century, the Teamsters’ pension fund grew in size as membershipswelled. Many mafia families used this fund as a piggy bank, taking out off-the-books loans they’d use to fund the construction of casinos in Las Vegas (the mechanics of this story are detailed in Casino, another Scorsese film). “The problem with the loans to the Mob-controlled projects”, explained the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement in a 2015 blog post, "was that many of them were not repaid promptly (or at all), and the corrupting influence facilitated 'the skim'—the tax-free diversion of casino cash, delivered in suitcases to Midwestern mobsters.” Some of this cash made its way back to Hoffa and other union officials. At lower levels, mob enforcers would ensure unions won prime building, trucking, and transport contracts, keeping the flow of money steady. They would also pitch-in to help fix elections, either within the union itself or in city governments, ensuring key positions were held by union-friendly (and mob-friendly) candidates.

Who, then, was Frank Sheeran?

Many historians of the FBI, labor unions, and organized crime cast aspersions on Frank Sheeran’s stories that he killed Hoffa, or that he killed infamous “Crazy Joe Gallo” in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972. Writer and mafia historian Bill Tonelli, writing in Slate, exhaustively argues that Sheeran’s claims are mere fantasy: “Not a single person I spoke with who knew Sheeran from Philly—and I interviewed cops and criminals and prosecutors and reporters—could remember even a suspicion that he had ever killed anyone.”

But some of what Frank Sheeran says to Brandt in I Heard You Paint Houses is true—he was a close associate of mafia boss Russell Bufalino, and through Bufalino he did come to be well-acquainted with Jimmy Hoffa.

An Irish-Catholic WWII veteran, Sheeran, a truck driver by trade, began doing small jobs for Bufalino and the even higher-up Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). As a non-Italian, he wasn’t eligible for full-fledged membership in the Cosa Nostra, but he was considered a trusted associate and friend by Bufalino. In I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran, who died in 2003, alleges that through Bufalino he became Hoffa’s right-hand man, tasked with protecting him on trips and even performing assassinations as necessary.

Russell Bufalino
Russell Bufalino, of Kingston, Pennsylvania appears before the legislative watch dog committee during hearings in the Capitol on the Apalachin, New York, crime congress. (Getty Images)

What role did Bufalino play in the Mafia hierarchy? Why was he important to the Hoffa story?

Born in Sicily in 1902, Russell Bufalino immigrated to the United States as a child. His family settled in Buffalo, New York, and after moving as a young adult to Northeastern Pennsylvania, Bufalino, by the mid-1960s, was the country’s most important mafia figure not based in a major city. His crew controlled Rust Belt communities like Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and desolate stretches of highway that were useful to the mob because of both coal mining and long-haul trucking. Bufalino’s cousin, Bill (Ray Romano), meanwhile was Jimmy Hoffa’s personal attorney.

While never as notorious or prominent in the news as peers like Carlo Gambino or Joe Bonano, Bufalino was nonetheless a central figure in mid-century organized crime, and in the early 1970s was reportedly the interim head of the notorious Genovese family. As early as 1964, Bufalino was on law enforcement’s radar—a Senate subcommittee on organized crime called him “one of the most ruthless and powerful leaders of the Mafia in the United States.” In 1978 he was sentenced to four years in federal prison on an extortion charge, and was later sent back for an additional decade after a hitman he hired became a government informant. By all accounts, Bufalino and Sheeran remained close until the former’s release from prison in 1989, with Sheeran, convicted in the late 1970s of labor racketeering, continuing to act as Bufalino’s bodyguard and caretaker behind bars.

How did the Kennedys get involved in this story?

John F. Kennedy’s relationship with the mafia is probably second only to his relationship with Marilyn Monroe in terms of public fascination. While little direct evidence connects Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. to the bootlegging industry of the Prohibition age, he was a shrewd Wall Street investor and, later, Hollywood power player—he made several films in the 1920s with star Gloria Swanson (who also happened to be his mistress). At various points Kennedy served as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and he used this political capital to help the careers of his sons. In The Dark Side of Camelot, journalist Seymour Hersh alleges that Kennedy also leveraged his influence with the Chicago mafia to secure JFK’s victory over Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1960. Scorsese’s film presents these connections as fact, even bringing up the persistent—but still unsubstantiated—suggestion that JFK’s assassination was a mafia hit.

Robert Kennedy speaks with labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. Kennedy was chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee and investigated Hoffa's ties to organized crime. (Getty Images)

Where did Hoffa come into conflict with the Kennedy administration?

As soon as JFK installed his brother Robert as attorney general in 1961, Jimmy Hoffa shot to the top of the younger Kennedy’s personal Most Wanted list. A one-man anti-mob crusader, Kennedy and his team, Ronald L. Goldfarb outlines in 2002’s Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes, accused Hoffa of being little better than a mafia boss himself. He was charged at various points with bribery, fraud, and, most crucially, misuse of the pension fund, all while he tried to expand the Teamsters by bringing airline workers into the union.

According to Kennedy, Hoffa used the fund to make loans to organized crime figures across the country. More than political adversaries, the two men seemed to genuinely dislike each other. After a dinner with Hoffa, Kennedy reflected on the other man’s character: “On my way home I thought of how often Hoffa had said he was tough; that he destroyed employers, hated policemen, and broke those who stood in his way…When a grown man sat for an evening and talked continuously about his toughness, I could only conclude that he was a bully hiding behind a facade.” Kennedy, in this instance, prevailed—Hoffa was finally convicted of both fraud and bribery in 1964, and sentenced to 13 years in federal prison, though he got out in five thanks to a commutation by President Richard Nixon.

Facing the Senate Labor Rackets Committee for the fourth consecutive day, teamster boss James R. Hoffa testified today that he does not recall talking with racketeer Johnny Dio about the founding of seven phony teamster locals in New York. Council Robert Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy are seen in the background. (Getty Images)

After his release from prison, Hoffa, still beloved by many in the Teamsters, attempted to take back his former position as head of the union. This is where most people believe he went wrong; many in the mafia believed Hoffa’s lust for power made him an unreliable associate. The initial investigations into his disappearance made it clear that Hoffa’s work was tied to the mystery: “Mr. Hoffa owes his fate, whatever it may be”, wrote the New York Times in 1975, “to his increasingly persistent efforts to restore his lapsed influence over the 2.2‐million member union that he built, almost single handedly, into one of the most potent economic and political forces in America."

So if not Sheeran, who actually killed Jimmy Hoffa?

While not considered by contemporary law enforcement to be a primary suspect in Hoffa’s disappearance, Sheeran’s name did appear on the FBI’s initial list of suspects, but his relationship with Hoffa—and with Bufalino—means that he can’t be ruled out of having some connection to the crime, even if he didn’t pull the trigger himself.

In Hoffa lore, another name comes up regularly—Chuckie O’Brien, another of Hoffa’s longtime friends and aides. In 2004, the FBI matched Hoffa’s DNA to a hairbrush found in O’Brien’s car, though O’Brien’s stepson, lawyer Jack Goldsmith, vehemently denies O’Brien’s involvement. Most law enforcement sources agree that whoever actually killed Hoffa, the particulars Scorsese presents in The Irishman aren’t far off—Hoffa was killed after a meeting in a Detroit house, and his remains were either buried or cremated shortly thereafter.

More recently, in 2017, James Buccellato, a criminology professor at Northern Arizona University, reflected on some of the outlying ideas: “The craziest theory that I’ve ever heard was that he was actually, this was a while back, but that he was actually still alive and that he as being kept somewhere alive by the Mafia; sort of an ‘Elvis is still alive’ kind of theory.”

For his part, when pressed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Scorsese suggested that the truth of Hoffa’s disappearance is perhaps the least compelling part of the story: “What would happen if we knew exactly how the JFK assassination was worked out? What does it do? It gives us a couple of good articles, a couple of movies and people talking about [it] at dinner parties. The point is, it’s not about the facts. It’s the world [the characters are] in, the way they behave. It’s about [a character] stuck in a certain situation. You’re obligated to behave a certain way and you realize you may have made a mistake.”

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