Unlike Martin Scorsese’s other famous mobster films, “The Irishman,” starring Robert De Niro as mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, is at least partly a true story based on actual historical figures. The film, now in theaters nationwide and soon to be released on Netflix, is adapted from a 2004 book by Charles Brandt called “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which tells Sheeran’s life story—including his confession, at the end of his life, that he killed Jimmy Hoffa.
The epic film, which also stars Al Pacino as Hoffa and Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino, is brilliant on its own merits and well deserves its 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But not everyone is happy about the film’s premise that Sheeran was a notorious mafia hitman who was chosen to kill Hoffa precisely because Hoffa was his close friend and mentor, and would therefore never suspect him.
Hoffa’s murder is one of the great unsolved killings of the last century and the subject of countless conspiracy theories, so of course “The Irishman” is bringing out a host of naysayers and supposed Hoffa experts who are eager to denounce Sheeran as a liar and Brandt as a fraud. One representative article by Vince Wade in The Daily Beast dismisses Sheeran’s account of the Hoffa murder as a “hoax” that “doesn’t comport with what is known about the Hoffa case.”
But what’s definitely not known about the Hoffa case is who in fact killed the man and what he or she (or they) did with his body. Like other critics of “The Irishman,” Wade glosses over that fact in his piece, instead quoting Dan Moldea, an investigative reporter and the author of “The Hoffa Wars,” who says Sheeran’s story is all wrong.
The problem is, Moldea comes off as a little unhinged in Wade’s piece. He apparently tried to convince De Niro not to do the film by telling him he was being “conned,” at which point the conversation “turned hostile.” Moldea said, “I talked to him the way he talks to people in the movies.”
By contrast, Brandt is a former homicide investigator, prosecutor, and chief deputy attorney general of Delaware. The idea that he “conned” Scorsese and De Niro or that he conspired with Sheeran to concoct a conspiracy theory about Hoffa’s murder is a little far-fetched. In fact, there’s much about Brandt’s account of Sheeran’s life that’s plausible, and much else that’s verifiably true. For one thing, Bufalino, the soft-spoken crime boss played masterfully by Pesci, is exactly who Sheeran said he was. I know because I read Bufalino’s FBI file.
How I Got Ahold of Russell Bufalino’s FBI File
Back in 2006 I was working as a reporter for the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, not far from where some of the events in the film take place. A colleague of mine at the paper had requested the FBI file of Bufalino through the Freedom of Information Act in hopes of writing about the mob boss, who had lived nearly his entire life in a small town just north of Wilkes-Barre called Pittston.
My colleague left the paper before the file came, but he left instructions that if it ever did come I would have first dibs on a Bufalino profile. I forgot about the whole thing until months later when I came into the office and found a 114-page FBI file sitting on my desk. Some of it was redacted but much of it wasn’t. The file spanned three decades, with the first entry dating from 1953 when Bufalino was described as “the political and underworld leader” of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and upstate New York.
I dug into the file and began working on the piece. Before long my editor approached me one afternoon while I was searching through the news archives looking for an old article on Bufalino. He told me he thought it was great that I was doing the piece but he wanted to caution me. The Bufalino family, he said, still lived in the Pittston area, was still quite active in the community, and was very sensitive about anything printed about Bufalino, their family patriarch.
He stressed that he wasn’t telling me not to write the piece, but that I should be very careful that everything I did write is backed up by documentation. He also said it was okay if I decided there wasn’t enough in the FBI file to write the piece.
But there was, and I eventually wrote a profile based on the FBI file and the archives at the Times-Leader, which republished the profile earlier this year shortly after news broke about the Scorsese film. The main takeaway is that, true to Pesci’s portrayal, Bufalino was a major mafia kingpin who kept an incredibly low profile.
He ran a vast criminal enterprise from northeast Pennsylvania, where he owned at least seven garment factories and for a time controlled all the dress contracts in New York City. That was just one of his many businesses. He was involved in union racketeering, jewelry fencing, and gambling operations throughout the region. As early as 1957 the FBI noted that Bufalino “apparently has a ‘hold’ on all persons involved in gambling activities in the Pittston area, in that he, Bufalino, gets a ‘cut’ from each of them.”
Bufalino was also instrumental in organizing the mob nationally. In November 1957, he helped organize a meeting of mob bosses from all over the country in Apalachin, New York, to prevent a gang war following the murder of mob kingpin Albert Anastasia in New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel a month earlier. Local police, working on an anonymous tip, raided the meeting without knowing what it was about or who the men were.
In the raid, some 58 mafia bosses were arrested, including Bufalino, while another 50 escaped into the woods. Criminal charges against the bosses were dropped but the episode brought organized crime into the spotlight—La Cosa Nostra was real, and it spanned the country.
Does ‘The Irishman’ Depict Missing American History?
It was also more powerful than almost anyone realized. The FBI file describes how throughout the 1950s Bufalino frequently traveled to Cuba, where he had extensive business interests including a racetrack and a casino—all of which he lost when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. He wasn’t the only American with such ties to Cuba. As I noted in my profile:
An FBI dossier from July 20, 1956, mentions a trip Bufalino made to Cuba with several business associates including someone from Medico Electric Co., which was awarded $800,000 in war contracts in 1951. The Pennsylvania Organized Crime Commission’s 1980 report identified Bufalino as a silent partner in Medico Industries, the largest supplier of ammunition to the U.S. government.
Bufalino’s Cuba connection is included in “The Irishman.” In one sequence, Bufalino tells Sheeran to drive a truck loaded with military-grade weapons down the east coast to Florida, weapons that were then used in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
A few weeks after my profile ran, I got an email from Charles Brandt. He said he had never seen Bufalino’s FBI file and that my article was the first time he’d seen it referenced as a source. Brandt became close friends with Sheeran after he was hired to secure the ailing mobster’s early release from prison on medical grounds. His book is the result of more than five years of interviews with Sheeran. In our brief correspondence, Brandt told me he believed Sheeran was telling the truth and that he had approached the interviews as a kind of confession, especially his admission about killing Hoffa, his close friend. Brandt echoed this view in a recent interview with the Irish Examiner, saying Sheeran was “tortured by his conscience as far as the Hoffa murder was concerned.”
We’ll likely never know if Sheeran was telling the truth, but it’s hard to watch Scorsese’s latest mob masterpiece and not see it as something more than a tall tale about a bygone underworld, but as a plausible account of a missing piece of American history.