Who was the real Irishman in Scorsese's new film?
Caitriona Palmer in Washington uncovers the true story behind the Irish mobster who shot notorious Trade Union boss Jimmy Hoffa
Published 12/03/2011 | 05:00
Anyone can commit a murder, but, according to mobster Russell Bufalino, no one could kill a man like Frank Sheeran, aka 'The Irishman'.
An Irish-American gangster with a ruthless reputation, Sheeran killed dozens of victims across America in a two-decade campaign of carnage and violence that sickened even the most hardened FBI officials.
Sheeran, a former trucker and labour union official, is also believed to have shot death the legendary Jimmy Hoffa, president of the powerful Teamsters Union, who had strong connections to organised crime. Hoffa's disappearance in July 1975 is probably the greatest murder mystery in US history.
This week veteran Hollywood actor Robert De Niro confirmed that he will play Frank Sheeran in a much-anticipated Martin Scorsese film, expected to be titled The Irishman.
The movie will bring together some of Hollywood's most respected wise guy alum who mesmerised moviegoers with their brutal portrayal of La Cosa Nostra in previous Scorsese mob flicks such as Goodfellas.
Stefe Zallian, writer of Gangs of New York, has penned the script, and Scorsese has said that filming could start later this year.
"It's a movie based on a book called I Heard You Paint Houses," De Niro said this week. "It's about a guy who confessed that he killed Hoffa and also Joe Gallo over here on Hester Street. And so I'm going to play that character; Joe Pesci's gonna be in it and Al Pacino is going to be in it and Marty's going to direct it."
I Heard You Paint Houses is a book written by Sheeran's former attorney, Charles Brandt, and is based on extensive interviews Brandt conducted with the elderly hitman in the years before his death in 2003.
To paint a house is Mafia code for killing someone: the paint representing the blood that is splattered after a murder. "I heard you paint houses," were the first words that Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Sheeran, whom he allegedly hired to carry out hits on some of his enemies.
A devout Catholic from Philadelphia whose father's family came from Ireland, Sheeran was a troublesome misfit who found an unlikely talent for killing during a stint overseas in the American army during WWII.
"The war taught me how to control my feelings when called for. If you want to know how I felt . . . I felt nothing," said Sheeran. "You get used to death. You get used to killing."
Sheeran's ruthlessness and his ability to detach from his gruesome work was a talent highly prized by the Mafia dons. The 'Quiet Don', Russell Bufalino, boss of the Bufalino crime family, took Sheeran under his wing in 1955, nicknamed him 'The Irishman', and soon realised his potential to 'paint houses'.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," mob boss Angelo Bruno told The Irishman before his first hit.
"You didn't have to go down the street and enrol in some courses at the University of Pennsylvania to know what he meant," Sheeran said. "It was like when an officer would tell you to take a couple of German prisoners back behind the line and for you to 'hurry back'. You did what you had to do."
A 6ft 4in Irish giant with a rosy complexion, Sheeran did not look anything like his sallow-skinned Mafioso buddies, a distinction that the mob played to their advantage. "An old-time Irish guy with a lot of combat experience was a benefit," he said.
When Bufalino wanted to 'take care' of Crazy Joe Gallo -- a renowned New York City gangster -- at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, Sheeran was told he was the man for the job.
"I don't look like a mafia shooter. I have very fair skin. None of these Little Italy people or Crazy Joe and his people had ever seen me before," Sheeran remembered.
'I walked in the Mulberry street door where Gallo was. Crazy Joey swung around out of his chair, headed toward the corner door. He made it through to the outside. He got shot three times. He had no chance of making it."
As his reputation grew, Sheeran was soon hired by Jimmy Hoffa to be a labour union official -- and the executor of Hoffa's dirty work.
Working for Hoffa, Sheeran coolly recounts killing three people in one day. "I flew to Puerto Rico and took care of two matters. Then I flew to Chicago and took care of one matter. Then I flew to San Francisco . . . to meet up with Jimmy."
Jimmy Hoffa, whom Sheeran called "one of the two greatest men I ever met" -- was jailed in 1967 for fraud. Pardoned by President Nixon in 1971, Hoffa immediately tried to regain control of the Teamsters Union. When he met resistance from the Mafia, he threatened to 'rat them out', effectively signing his own death warrant.
Sheeran -- in deep with both Hoffa and Bufalino -- was told he had a choice: kill Hoffa or be killed himself. Sheeran owed debts to both men but his debt to Bufalino was the greatest.
According to Sheeran, on July 30, 1975, The Irishman picked up Hoffa at a restaurant in Detroit and drove him to an empty house in the suburbs. Once inside, two bullets behind Hoffa's right ear did the job.
"My friend didn't suffer," remembers Sheeran matter-of-factly.
Despite endless speculation about the fate of Hoffa's corpse -- popular lore says Hoffa is buried beneath the end zone of the Giant's baseball stadium -- Sheeran claims that the union leader's body was taken immediately by a "cleaner" to a funeral parlour in Detroit for cremation.
When Sheeran returned to Ohio hours after the killing, he was ordered to report back to his mentor , Bufalino. The mobster was asleep in the back seat of a Lincoln, just as Sheeran had left him hours before.
"Russell woke up and winked his good eye at me and said softly with his raspy voice, 'Anyway, I hope you had a pleasant flight, my Irish friend'.
"'I hope you had a good sleep,' I said."