Some backstory: The Irishman is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by former onetime homicide prosecutor and investigator Charles Brandt. And it’s absolutely stuffed with figures and events from just about every corner of mob history in America—including Jimmy Hoffa, the Bufalino crime family, the Teamsters union, and even a small reference to the mafia’s suspected involvement in John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
I Heard You Paint Houses, though, is mainly focused on telling the story of alleged mafia hitman Frank Sheeran—whose nickname was “The Irishman” (he was raised by an Irish-Catholic family). Since Scorsese’s The Irishman is told from the perspective of an aging Sheeran, played by Robert DeNiro in the film, it wouldn’t hurt to study up on the man if you want to get the most out of your watch.
Who was Frank Sheeran?
I Heard You Paint Houses gives the full Frank Sheeran origin story (which is told through interviews with Sheeran himself), but you only need to be familiar with a few beats to follow along with DeNiro’s brilliant turn as the man.
Sheeran came up in Great Depression-era Philadelphia in the 1920s‚ taking strange jobs along the way, like assisting a carnival barker. Even stranger: Sheeran competed in dance competitions (he was damn good at the jitterbug), eventually turning his skill into a profit when he started giving dance lessons.
Shortly after he turned 21 years old, Sheeran enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941‚ where he served across North Africa and Europe for over 400 days—about four times the amount of the average time in the service back then. During those days, Sheeran allegedly got involved in some pretty nasty war crimes, claiming to have been involved with violence against German POWs, and horrific events like the Dachau massacre.
“You get used to death. You get used to killing,” Sheeran said of his time in the army. “You lost the moral skill you had developed in civilian life. You developed a hard covering, like being encased in lead.”
He was discharged in the fall of 1945, returning to Philadelphia. There, he had some financial trouble as a truck driver trying to raise a family—and that’s when his life began to change.
Did he really have mafia ties?
In need of some cash, and having already showed a knack for getting involved in criminal shadiness during his time in the service, Sheeran was pretty much a blue-chip mafia recruit in the 1950s. He meets mob boss Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci in The Irishman)—and for those keeping track at home, this is what more or less sets the rest of Sheeran’s life of alleged crime into motion.
According to accounts from I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran starts committing crimes as hired muscle for the Bufalino family. The biggest job during this time (and this has all been called into dispute, as we’ll get to later) was an altercation at Umberto’s Clam House in New York City on April 7, 1972. Here, Sheeran claimed to have murdered Joey Gallo, a prominent member of the Colombo crime family.
We have one last big character from The Irishman to get to—Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino. Bufalino, the extremely well-connected man he was, introduced Sheeran to Hoffa, who was the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a two-million-worker-strong labor union strongly opposed by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (Now might be a good time to read up on those JFK conspiracy theories.)
The two worked closely with each other until the 1970s, when Sheeran claimed to have received an order to kill Hoffa. The way Sheeran told it, he drove up with two associates to a Detroit house, and shot Hoffa in the back of the head.
What was his legacy after I Heard You Paint Houses?
Sheeran died of cancer in 2003—but not before telling Charles Brandt his life story for I Heard You Paint Houses, which would come out the following year. With the release of The Irishman, the truth of Sheeran’s various accounts have been called into question.
In August, Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote an essay for Slate that claims Sheeran fabricated a large portion of what he disclosed in his interviews with Brandt. This includes the Joey Gallo murder, which Goldsmith says is still technically unsolved (no one was arrested or charged in the killing), as well as the Hoffa confession. Considering the long, wild history of end-of-life Hoffa accounts, Sheeran’s story could easily be not totally accurate, as Goldsmith supposes that a different Hoffa enforcer, Salvatore Briguglio, was the one who was directly involved in the killing.
The publisher of I Heard You Paint Houses replied to Goldsmith’s essay about a week later in Slate, writing:
“Since publishing I Heard You Paint Houses 15 years ago, we have received substantial independent third party corroboration of its revelations and conclusions, so much in fact that we added a 57-page Conclusion to the current edition to go along with a 14-page Epilogue that was added to the first paperback edition in 2005 detailing much of that corroboration.”
Sheeran’s tale may well be of the he-said-she-said variety for the foreseeable future. As Goldsmith writes, it’s “All in all, an astounding saga. Almost too good to be true… No, let’s say it: too good to be true.”
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