New Netflix Movie 'The Irishman' Brings a Delaware Organized Crime Figure to Life

The film, based on Charles Brandt's novel about mobster Frank Sheeran, hits the streaming service this month.


Published:

 

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman.”/Photo courtesy of Netflix

 

When Charles Brandt heard the door to South Philly’s Mona Lisa restaurant lock behind him in 1991, he was almost certain he was going to die.

“It was mobster heaven,” Brandt says of the now shuttered spot. “There were gangsters everywhere. When somebody clicked that lock, [the sound] went right through me.”

The occasion was a meeting with Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran,  a compelling character in the Pennsylvania and Delaware alliance between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and organized crime in the 1970s and ’80s.

While his Irish heritage meant he would never be a full part of the mob, Sheeran’s arc intersected enough fascinating characters and historic moments that his story is every bit as compelling as those of the more famous, or infamous, people with whom he consorted.

After using his expertise as a medical malpractice lawyer to secure Sheeran’s early release from prison due to medical ailments, Brandt, a former Delaware prosecutor who now splits his time between Lewes and Ketchum, Idaho, had scheduled a meeting with Sheeran to discuss whether they could work together on a book about Sheeran’s fascinating life in the Teamsters and as a mafia associate.

Instead of having a get-to-know-you chat with Brandt, Sheeran took Brandt to meet with big shots in the Philadelphia mob. Sheeran was at the Mona Lisa to force deadbeats to pay back some loans he had on the street before he had gone to prison.     

Brandt knew he would be speaking with Sheeran about some pretty shady characters. He just didn’t think he would be meeting them.

Brandt sat in the restaurant for what he estimates was five hours while Sheeran stated his case before the assembled “jury” of organized crime chieftains. Sheeran ended up getting a judgment that assured him $1,500 a week from the delinquent borrower and was quite proud of the result.

“[Sheeran] told me, ‘See the respect I get? They usually only do that for Italians,’” Brandt recalls.

Author and former Delaware prosecutor Charles Brandt wrote “I Heard You Paint Houses” based on interviews with Frank Sheeran./Photo by Kristin Cheatwood

That night was key to the long relationship between Brandt and Sheeran, which produced several byproducts—the most notable being a confession that seemingly solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: the murder of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran told Brandt directly that he committed the crime, asserting that despite urban legend, Hoffa’s remains would never be found in the end zone at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey—because they were incinerated in Detroit.

Sheeran’s admission—and many others—form the basis of Brandt’s true-crime book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” first published in 2004, and the basis of the Netflix film “The Irishman,” set for release this month in theaters and via the streaming platform.

Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film had Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian adapt Brandt’s book for the screen, and the project boasts a hall-of-fame mob-movie cast that includes Robert De Niro as the lead character, Al Pacino as Hoffa, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel—with Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano in supporting roles.

“To me, this story is kind of great. It was fascinating and simple. I liked the character, how he was introduced to this world and slowly saw how it worked.”—Robert De Niro

With a staggering $200 million budget—a number reported by the Ringer website in August—it’s Scorsese’s priciest project to-date.

Paramount was set to produce the film but passed because of rising costs associated with the special effects necessary to drastically de-age the cast, including De Niro, 76, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Netflix later picked up the film.

Most of the film was shot in New York, but with integral pieces of  Sheeran’s life taking place in Philadelphia, Wilmington and throughout Delaware County, Pennsylvania, it’s a safe bet local spots will still receive a nod.

In the time between Brandt’s harrowing encounter with Sheeran and the movie reaching audiences on screens large and small lies a collection of plot twists, long interregnums and plenty of hard work. There is also dramatic tension provided by a cohort that doesn’t believe Sheeran whacked Hoffa. It has been a long, twisting road.

“I could write a book about patience,” Brandt says.

A CINEMATIC LIFE

Born in Darby, Pennsylvania, in 1920, Sheeran was the son of an Irish father and a Swedish mother. His father, Tom Sheeran, worked just about any job he could to support his family, including helping to build the Ben Franklin Bridge.

Tom was an amateur boxer, and his toughness as a father gave Frank the perfect disposition to survive life in a rough neighborhood during the Great Depression.

Sheeran senior was a house painter—among a variety of other things—which makes the title of Brandt’s book even more interesting. But there’s a difference between working in flat latex and splattering a victim’s innards across walls.

Frank Sheeran during his time as president of Wilmington’s Teamsters Local 326./
Photo courtesy of Charles Brandt/Frank Sheeran

According to Sheeran, “painting houses” meant shooting people, a grisly analogy to the accompanying spray of blood and gore. But the two pursuits had no common denominators. One beautified. One destroyed.

It wasn’t necessarily a common term. For instance, author and former Philadelphia Inquirer writer George Anastasia, who covered the Philly mob for 20 years and has written extensively about it since, never heard of it.

“I have heard people say, ‘I heard you did some work,’” Anastasia says.

The professions of father and son didn’t overlap, but violence was a common denominator in both their lives.

Sheeran became so skilled with his fists that Tom brought him to local speakeasys when his son was 10 years old and bet on him in boxing matches against teenagers, which he often won. When he didn’t, his father delivered a smack to the head.

Five years after he was expelled from Darby High School in ninth grade for breaking the principal’s jaw with a punch during a disciplinary dispute, Sheeran enlisted in the Army. World War II was under way, and he was deployed to Europe with the 45th Infantry Division, serving a grueling 400 days of action.

It was there that he learned Italian and developed a taste for brutal violence. The 45th served under the ultimate command of Gen. George Patton, who reveled in the division’s efficient and bloodthirsty ways, according to Brandt.

As the war ground on, Sheeran earned a reputation as someone capable of handling just about anything his superiors needed done.

That included killing prisoners of war, and ambushing a convoy containing food for German officers and killing the soldiers leading it.

“By this time, I thought nothing of doing what I had to do,” Sheeran told Brandt. That willingness to follow orders would eventually serve him well outside the military.

After the war, Sheeran returned to the Philadelphia area and worked a series of dead-end jobs and small-time rackets for more than a decade.

During the mid-1950s, he met Russell Bufalino, head of the northeast Pennsylvania mob, at a truck stop and ran into him a couple of years later at Villa di Roma restaurant in South Philly.

Sheeran was smart enough to realize Bufalino’s status and how it could help him. He began to do small jobs for the mob boss providing muscle and menace. Through Bufalino, he encountered many other underworld characters. Because Sheeran wasn’t Italian, he couldn’t become a member of the mafia—that honor was reserved for those of pure Italian blood—but that didn’t mean he couldn’t handle work of all kinds for them. And his ability to speak Italian ingratiated him with his mob benefactors.

He and Bufalino grew close, and the understated, publicity-shy boss served as something of a guardian angel for Sheeran, keeping him safe from the various criminals with which he regularly interacted

“He saved my life over and over again,” Sheeran told Brandt. In return, Sheeran did what he was asked.

At right, Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino with De Niro as Sheeran./Photo courtesy of Netflix

Sheeran’s ties to Bufalino were tight, but he was also closely linked to Hoffa, who he met through Bufalino and who helped him become the leader of Teamsters Local 326 in Wilmington after splitting it off from the Philadelphia local.

Sheeran died in 2003 at age 83 after a life that could—and did—fill a book and a movie, even if some don’t believe he killed Hoffa. His war record and exploits within the corrupt world of organized labor make for a fascinating story.

“My take on it is that it will probably be a great movie, but the story doesn’t have to be true to be a great movie,” says Anastasia.

He doesn’t believe Sheeran was the triggerman on the Hoffa disappearance, and he might be right. But even the biggest skeptics agree that Sheeran had a role in the murder, even if it was just to lure Hoffa to the site where he was shot.

“[Sheeran] was very intelligent, very witty and probably the only gangster ever to teach ballroom dancing. For a 6-foot-4, 220-pound gorilla, he was light-footed,” Brandt says.

“We had a lot of fun. He would take me to mafia hangouts. He told mafia people I was writing a book to prove he had nothing to do with Hoffa, while at the same time serially confessing to killing multiple people.”

As time went on, that story changed. Dramatically.

THE HOFFA CONNECTION

When it comes to compelling 20th-century characters, few compare to Hoffa. He served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for 14 years (1957–’71) and was the target—and quarry—of then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In 1964, Hoffa went to prison after being sentenced to 13 years on fraud and bribery convictions.

Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa at a United Brotherhood of Teamsters event./
Courtesy of Charles Brandt/Frank Sheeran

Hoffa received a presidential pardon from Richard Nixon and, during his attempt to recapture the top spot in the Teamsters world, “disappeared.” His  murder is still referred to in that way despite the number of people who have discussed Hoffa’s killing.

In Sheeran’s retelling, he and Hoffa grew so close that when the Teamsters held Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night in October 1974 at the old Latin Casino in south Jersey, Hoffa was the main speaker and presented Sheeran with a solid gold watch encrusted with diamonds. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran says former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo was at the event, as was the city’s NAACP head, Cecil B. Moore.

Sheeran was presented with a plaque honoring him as “Teamsters Man of the Year.”  Of course, Bufalino was there. Jerry Vale sang “Volare.” It was a big night, one that demonstrated the strong connection between Sheeran and Hoffa—and between organized crime and labor.

“Organized crime always benefited from ties to labor,” Anastasia says. “Labor gave it legitimacy and leverage.”

“The mob controlled every aspect of the Teamsters,” Brandt says. “They controlled the pension funds. If you wanted to open a casino in Las Vegas, you went to Allen Dorfman in Chicago, the man who controlled the pension fund. He would tell you to go see a man who owned a drapery company in Pittston, Pennsylvania—Russell Bufalino—and tell him how much you needed.

“Russell would say, ‘Add 10 percent to that for me.’ It was his finder’s fee. Russell would then split that with others,” Brandt says.

The Teamsters’ pension fund, Brandt asserts, was second only to Chase Bank in real estate investment. And none of its clients could be found on Wall Street.

Seven years later when Nixon pardoned him, but one of the conditions was that Hoffa was not allowed to engage in union activities until 1980. He didn’t like that and planned on trying to retake control of the Teamsters in ’76, Brandt says.

To do that, he needed to reestablish himself in the union and planned to do so in Detroit, where he still had influence. Sheeran said this displeased elements of the mafia, some of whom were worried his ties to Nixon meant he was cooperating with the FBI.

By the summer of 1975, Hoffa was no longer an ally, Sheeran told Brandt. He was someone who had to be erased.

A DISPUTED DISAPPEARANCE

Brandt’s relationship with Sheeran began in 1990 when an associate of the Angelo Bruno crime family asked the attorney to help get Sheeran out of prison. He was 13 years into a 32-year sentence for labor racketeering and suffered from arthritis and a dropped foot. Brandt was a medical malpractice attorney and succeeded in springing Sheeran.

Frank Sheeran during his later years while working with author Charles Brandt.
/Photo courtesy of Charles Brandt/Frank Sheeran

During a lunch date not long after, Sheeran expressed his interest in writing a book about how he didn’t have anything to do with the Hoffa murder. “He told me he was tired of being written about in all these books and articles about the Hoffa disappearance,” he recalls. While in prison, Sheeran had read Brandt’s book “The Right to Remain Silent,” which was about crimes Brandt helped solve through his interrogation expertise. Brandt agreed to work with Sheeran, but in subsequent interviews he felt as if the former labor leader was holding back. “He was scared to death,” Brandt says. “He told me, ‘You can’t write all this. These people are still alive.’”

According to Kitty Caparella, who covered the mob for 15 of her 38 years with the Philadelphia Daily News, Sheeran asked her four times to write his book, and she turned him down.

“I didn’t think he would tell me the truth,” Caparella says. “I didn’t know if I could confirm what he told me, because everybody was dead. That posed a bit of a problem. But he was a hilarious character, and he told great stories.”

In 1999, Sheeran visited Monsignor Frederick Helduser, then-pastor of St. Dorothy Parish in Drexel Hill, and confessed his sins in the hopes of gaining entrance to heaven upon his death. After that, Sheeran told Brandt everything. “He had the desire to get the whole thing off his chest,” Brandt says.

Sheeran’s account of Hoffa’s killing is a fantastic story, and it solves the mystery. But Dan Moldea, a veteran investigative journalist in Washington, D.C., who has been researching the Hoffa disappearance for decades, isn’t buying it. “I’m not the only voice out there expressing skepticism,” he says.

According to Moldea’s research, Sheeran did not kill Hoffa. The job was done by Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio. Bufalino and Tony “Tony Pro” Provenzano authorized it. Sheeran helped convince Hoffa to get into the car and ride to the house where the killing took place, but Briguglio pulled the trigger, Moldea says.

“Hoffa was murdered in Detroit, loaded into a 55-gallon drum, stuffed into a Gateway Transportation truck and taken to an undisclosed location in New Jersey,” Moldea shares. He insists that Sheeran was low on cash when he connected with Brandt and decided to concoct the tale of his killing Hoffa in order to profit.

“For money, Frank Sheeran confessed to a crime he did not commit,” Moldea says. “I admire Charlie Brandt for what he did, but it is a one-source book. It hardly solved the Jimmy Hoffa case.”

While Moldea continues to chase his “white whale,” Brandt is secure in the fact that he and Sheeran have presented the truth, and challenges anyone to refute his credentials.

“I would ask any naysayer, ‘How many homicides have you investigated? What do you know about interrogating?’” Brandt says. “I wrote the book.”

As for Moldea? “He’s out there,” Brandt says. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

BRINGING ‘THE IRISHMAN’ TO LIFE

It could be said that De Niro and Pacino are the modern-day film industry’s definition of gangsters. Much like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney did in the 1930s and ’40s, their work in the first two “Godfather” films, as well as films like “Scarface,” “Casino,” and “Goodfellas” set the standard for late 20th- century mobster epics.

In pursuing the story of “The Irishman,” De Niro says he was originally reading “I Heard You Paint Houses” as research for another film he was developing with Scorsese when he got hooked on the story of Frank Sheeran.

“I read it and said, ‘Jesus. To me this story is kind of great,’” he told The Irish Sun in September. “It was fascinating and simple. I liked the character, how he was introduced to this world and slowly saw how it worked.”

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said he immediately talked up the book to Scorsese and suggested they pursue it in addition to the existing project. The initial plan was to try to combine the two projects, but with both De Niro and Scorsese, Sheeran’s tale won out. “We were trying to meld the two and it really wouldn’t make sense with the story, and then Marty got Steve Zaillian working on the script,” De Niro says.

As for the de-aging effects, De Niro told The Hollywood Reporter he’s happy with the results. “I think it’s great,” he says. “They’re really doing a terrific job and I’m anxious to see the whole thing put together.”

Ask Al Pacino, who plays Hoffa, whether he thinks Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa, and even he is reticent.

“Seriously, I don’t know,” he tells Delaware Today.

But he seems like a believer.

“It seems that way,” he adds.

“The film unfolds and presents an interesting portrait of our life in this country, both political and underworld.” —Al Pacino

This is Pacino’s first time working with Scorsese, which Pacino describes as “easy as a soft rain.” He says Sheeran’s account of his life and the events surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance “felt truly authentic. His story is fascinating and compelling.”

The movie took more than a decade to make, and the script underwent considerable surgery. Brandt met with Scorsese and De Niro in New York to provide as much context as possible.

Since the book expanded after its original publication to include more Sheeran stories as the mob figures involed died out and increased corroboration, the plot evolved and grew.

The movie is primarily about Sheeran, but Pacino’s Hoffa will still attract attention. While he understands the relationship that Hoffa cultivated with organized crime, Pacino sees the labor leader as more than a thug or mob partner, at least earlier in his life.

“I can say he was much more of a radical,” Pacino says. “I thought he was interested in the worker. He was an eclectic thinker, meaning you couldn’t call what he thought about anything. It was usually the opposite of what you’d think. At age 17, he was fighting for the worker. He was a person of vision, and in that sense pretty rare, as all the real leaders are.”

Scorsese has been nominated for nine Oscars and has taken home one of them for 2007’s “The Departed.” But can Netflix’s “The Irishman” bring home another one for the director? Even Moldea says he will “be first in line” and will “probably see the movie 20 times,” even though there will be “a lot of discrepancies” with his own research. Moldea reports that he met De Niro a few years back and told the famous actor he was being “conned” by Brandt about Sheeran’s role in the Hoffa murder. De Niro reportedly wasn’t too happy to hear that.

“I’m not the only one questioning the credibility of Frank Sheeran, I assure you,” Moldea says.

Since Hoffa and Sheeran—and just about everybody else associated with the disappearance—are dead, there can be no definitive solution to the mystery. Moldea continues to pursue the story. Brandt maintains that he has completed it. And the silver screen will shine with some of the film industry’s most incandescent stars as they provide a look at a slice of America’s underbelly.

“The film unfolds and presents an interesting portrait of our life in this country, both political and underworld,” Pacino says.