Powerful Teamsters labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa was last seen in a restaurant parking lot near Detroit in 1975. The mystery of his disappearance has fueled books and movies ever since, but it gets star treatment in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, inspired by Charles Brandt’s 2004 work I Heard You Paint Houses (Steerforth).
Al Pacino is Hoffa; Harvey Keitel is mobster Angelo Bruno; Joe Pesci is crime boss Russell Bufalino, and Robert De Niro is Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, the man who said he killed Hoffa.
The movie opened the New York Film Festival Sept. 27 and will be in select theaters starting Nov. 1 before coming to Netflix Nov. 27. (Scorsese went to Netflix after Paramount balked at the film’s $159 million budget, which included special effects to “de-age” actors.)
Sheeran’s story and the influence of organized crime on labor unions is told by Brandt, former chief deputy attorney general of Delaware, homicide investigator and defense attorney. Brandt got Sheeran an early release from prison for medical reasons, then conducted five years of interviews with him, including a deathbed confession.
Brandt had script meetings with Scorsese, producer Emma Tillinger, Oscar-winning scriptwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and Robert De Niro. “Later during filming, they consulted me regularly by phone,” said Brandt via his publisher.
After growing up tough in Philadelphia, Sheeran learned to kill in World War II as a rifleman in the Army’s 45th Infantry Division, noted for its 411 days in combat. He came back a changed man, but PTSD wasn’t a diagnosis then. “Somewhere overseas I had tightened up inside, and I never loosened up again. You get used to death. You get used to killing,” Sheeran told Brandt.
After the war, Sheeran joined the Teamsters. By chance, while driving a truck for a grocery chain, he met Russell Bufalino, crime family boss of northeastern Pennsylvania. “He was as big as Al Capone had been, maybe bigger,” Sheeran told Brandt.
Eventually Sheeran became a high-ranking union official and hit man, and Bufalino introduced him to Hoffa. The Teamsters had complicated associations with mobsters who also wanted to control the trucking industry.
“I heard you paint houses,” Hoffa first said to Sheeran, crime-speak for acts that put blood on walls. The two became friends. Sheeran was someone Hoffa trusted.
Hoffa wanted to reclaim the Teamsters presidency, and pledged to stop the practice of lending money from its pension fund to “certain people,” crime-speak for organized crime figures. Bufalino disagreed.
One chilling detail after another, I Heard You Paint Houses weaves together threads that have long dangled, including mob ties to the death of John F. Kennedy and attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Sheeran also said he delivered money to Attorney General John Mitchell in return for Richard Nixon pardoning Hoffa after five years of a 13-year sentence for attempted bribery and fraud.
Earlier attempts at a movie based on Robert F. Kennedy’s book, The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions, were canceled after threats that Teamsters drivers wouldn’t deliver the film to theaters, and audiences would be stink-bombed. Production companies got the point, according to Sheeran.
Brandt also interviewed undercover FBI investigator Joe Pistone for Donnie Brasco — Unfinished Business. He’s currently working on a book that promises to tell the true story of the Kennedy assassination and its cover-up.