Al Pacino, right, as Jimmy Hoffa in the Senate chambers in “The Irishman.” (NETFLIX)

Al Pacino, right, as Jimmy Hoffa in the Senate chambers in “The Irishman.” (NETFLIX)

‘The Irishman’ — The real people behind Martin Scorsese’s Philadelphia mob movie

  • Fri Nov 29th, 2019 3:30pm
  • Life

By Nick Vadala

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Director Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, “The Irishman,” hit Netflix on Wednesday to tell the tale of reputed Philadelphia mob associate Frank Sheeran.

Based on author Charles Brandt’s 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the film takes place across several decades, but of particular focus is Sheeran’s claim that he killed former International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975.

Hoffa famously went missing that year in Detroit, and while his body was never found, he was declared legally dead in 1982. But as Sheeran told Brandt on his deathbed in 2003, he was actually behind the famed labor leader’s disappearance after killing him with two gunshots in an empty Detroit house. Hoffa’s body, Sheeran added, was burned to ash at a nearby crematorium, which explains why his remains have never turned up.

“When Jimmy saw that the house was empty, that nobody came out of any of the rooms to greet him, he knew right away what it was,” Sheeran said in the book. “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. My friend didn’t suffer.”

However, being as “The Irishman” is something of a historical drama based on true events, it has caught some flak over the veracity of Sheeran’s claims. After all, Sheeran did change his story; he told the Daily News in 1995 that he had “nothing to do” with Hoffa’s killing. But actor Robert De Niro, who plays Sheeran in the film, recently shrugged off that criticism, saying in a recent IndieWire interview that Sheeran’s take “made a lot of sense to me.”

Whether it’s completely accurate or not, after a decade in development and $160 million spent in its making, “The Irishman” has arrived in all 3 { hours of its mobbed-up glory. Here, we run down some of the real-life people who appear as characters in the film.


A product of Darby, Delaware County, Frank Sheeran was a former president of Wilmington’s Teamsters Local 326 and purported mafia hit man whose main claim to fame was killing Jimmy Hoffa in a mob assassination in 1975. But as Slate wrote earlier this year, Sheeran could also be referred to as the “Forrest Gump of organized crime” because he also claimed to have been clandestinely involved with major events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as well as the murders of other Mafiosi, like Crazy Joe Gallo, and bribes to people including President Richard Nixon — some of whom actually make it into “The Irishman.” Ultimately, Sheeran, who is played by De Niro in the movie, died in a Philadelphia-area nursing home at age 83 in 2003.


As De Niro’s Sheeran says in “The Irishman,” Jimmy Hoffa was about as famous as Elvis Presley or the Beatles in his day — and not just because he mysteriously disappeared. Hoffa was a firebrand labor organizer who became involved with the mob before he was convicted of jury tampering, bribery, and fraud in 1964 over using the union’s pension fund for loans to organized crime leaders. Played by Al Pacino, Hoffa ultimately served several years in prison for his crimes. The film alleges Hoffa was assassinated by Sheeran in a mob-sanctioned hit in Detroit in 1975 while attempting to regain power in the Teamsters union. The Hoffa case has never been solved.


A central character in “The Irishman,” Russell Bufalino was a Northeastern Pennsylvania mafia boss who, as the film portrays, served as one of Sheeran’s early connections to the criminal underworld. In the film, Bufalino, who is played by actor Joe Pesci, introduces Sheeran to Hoffa, who happens to be a client of the mob boss’s brother, attorney William Bufalino. Russell Bufalino also later plays a primary role in ordering the labor union leader’s murder, allegedly at Sheeran’s hand, and serves time in prison alongside Sheeran on charges unrelated to Hoffa’s disappearance. The longtime mob leader ultimately died of natural causes in 1994 in a northeastern Pennsylvania hospital at age 90 and reportedly maintained his influence on mob activities into his old age.


Known as “Tony Pro,” Anthony Provenzano was a higher-up in Teamsters Local 560 in Union City, N.J., but he also served as a mafia captain. “The Irishman” primarily focuses on Pro’s role as a bitter rival to Hoffa. In the film, the relationship between Hoffa and Pro —who is played by actor Stephen Graham (“This is England” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) —comes to a head while the two serve a prison sentence together, resulting in a physical altercation due in part to Hoffa’s use of the phrase “you people” in reference to Italians. A reconciliation meeting with Pro is later used as a front that leads to the Hoffa murder. Pro died in prison in 1988 at age 71 while doing time in connection with the murder of a fellow Local 560 official.


While he may be something of a minor character in “The Irishman,” in Philadelphia mafia lore, Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio was purportedly anything but. A reputed Philadelphia mob hit man, loan shark, and captain, DiTullio reportedly mentored future local mafia bosses like Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and Ralph Natale, though his son, Marco, disputed those claims in an interview with The Inquirer in 2017. Whatever his role, however, DiTullio was based out of his Friendly Lounge bar at 8th and Washington in South Philly, which is featured several times early on in “The Irishman.” Played by actor Bobby Cannavale, Skinny Razor, who died of natural causes in 1966 at age 60, serves as an early mob contact for Sheeran in “The Irishman.”


Known as the “Gentle Don” for his relatively violence-averse approach to mob dealings, boss Angelo Bruno ran the Philadelphia mafia for about two decades until he was gunned down at age 69 outside of his home at 10th and Snyder in South Philly in 1980. A relatively small part in “The Irishman,” Bruno, portrayed by Harvey Keitel, is among the first mafia figures Sheeran comes into contact with after making the acquaintance of DiTullio and Bufalino. In the film, Sheeran agrees to blow up a Delaware-based laundry service in which Bruno has an interest, and Bufalino convinces his fellow mob boss to take a conciliatory meeting with the future hit man, leading to Sheeran’s first mob-sanctioned murder.


Known as “Fat Tony” for … obvious reasons, Anthony Salerno was a New York City mob leader who worked with the Genovese crime family in New York City —often with a cigar in hand, as depicted in “The Irishman” by actor Domenick Lombardozzi (“The Wire”). The film portrays Salerno as a confidant of Bufalino’s, as well as one of the central mob figures behind the mafia-ordered murder of Hoffa, though initially he instructs Sheeran to tell the Teamsters leader to “relax” and retire from union life to no avail. Salerno went to prison on racketeering charges in 1986, and died of a stroke in a federal facility in Missouri in 1992 at age 80.


An enforcer and hit man for New York City’s Profaci crime family, “Crazy Joe” Gallo appears in “The Irishman” primarily as Sheeran’s murder victim in a plot point that contradicts the official story regarding the Mafioso’s killing. Ostensibly, Gallo, who is played in the film by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, was killed by four gunmen in 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan while out celebrating his 43rd birthday. However, as the film tells it, Sheeran was the real killer and lone gunman, having received the order to kill Gallo after the mobster was rude to Bufalino during a party on the night of his murder. As with Hoffa’s case, Sheeran’s role in Gallo’s murder has never been confirmed.