‘The Irishman’: discover the real life stories behind Scorsese’s latest mob epic

Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?

No question about it, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – released today in cinemas, with a Netflix showing to follow very soon on 27 November – is an incredible movie. It’s also a very complex one with a vast array of characters – and a huge amount of discrepancy happening on true crime forums across the Internet right now, regarding the validity of the film’s claim to be a ‘true story’. Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Who did, indeed…

With this in mind, we thought it important you go into the movie with as much knowledge as you possibly can do. Here’s what you need to know about all the real-life major players involved in the story of The Irishman

The Irishman cast

Frank Sheeran and Robert De Niro in ‘The Irishman’. Credit: Getty / Netflix

Frank Sheeran – played by Robert De Niro

Portrayed by Scorsese stalwart Robert De Niro, Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran was a labour union official, accused of having links to the Bufalino crime family. Born 25 October 1920 to an Irish Catholic father and a Swedish mother (the former being a house painter, which, dovetailing with the Mafia slang for shooting someone in the head, provides the title of former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defence attorney Charles Brand’ts 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the basis for Steven Zaillian’s screenplay), Sheeran served in World War II, primarily in North Africa but also across Europe. He confessed during extensive interviews with Brandt that he’d illegally executed many surrendering German soldiers and enemy prisoners of war. It was during the war he said, that he first developed a ‘callousness’ towards the taking of human life.

Upon leaving the military, Sheeran became a truck driver – while offering his services as a hitman on the side. He became an associate of Mafia bosses Russell Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (played by Harvey Keitel), with the former – the head of the Bufalino crime family – becoming a lifelong mentor figure to him. In 1972 he murdered Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (in the movie, played by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco), an enforcer for the New York City-based Profaci crime family. Then, via Bufalino, he became friendly with Jimmy Hoffa, president of corrupt labour union organisation the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Hoffa went missing in July 1975, and was declared dead in 1982. Sheeran later confessed to Brandt that he was responsible for the killing, though the FBI have never been able to connect him with the crime. Sheeran, who married twice and fathered four children, died of cancer, aged 83, at a nursing home in Philadelphia in 2003.

The Irishman cast

Russell Bufalino and Joe Pesci in ‘The Irishman’. Credit: Getty

Russell Bufalino – played by Joe Pesci

Also known as ‘McGee’ or ‘The Old Man’, Rosario Alberto Bufalino is played by Joe Pesci, the 76-year-old gangster movie legend being coaxed from semi-adhered-to ‘retirement’ by Scorsese to take the part.

Crime boss Bufalino was born on 25 September 1903 in Montedoro, Sicily. In 1906 he and his family emigrated to New York, later settling in Buffalo. Bufalino became engaged in criminality from an early age. By the time he was 25 his criminal record showed arrests for crimes such as dealing narcotics and fencing stolen goods. When prohibition arrived in 1919, he embraced bootlegging with gusto. Through this he came to meet fellow bootlegger Joseph Barbara, and when Barbara became boss of the north-eastern Pennsylvania crime family in 1940, Bufalino was named as underboss. Then, after a major Mafia summit in 1957, held in Apalachin, New York, was raided (leading to the arrests of some 69 Mafia bigwigs – including Bufalino) Barbara was forced to step down due to the resulting embarrassment to the assembled crime families. Bufalino stepped up.

A period of great prosperity for the family followed over the next two decades. Much liked – and perhaps more importantly, feared – Bufalino was even asked to helm the Genovese crime family by the Mafia Commission (an actual thing, though they aren’t believed to have met since 1985) when said family was experiencing difficulties in establishing hierarchy.

Eventually, Bufalino was nailed on extortion charges in 1977, and imprisoned the following year. While inside, he would use Frank Sheeran to conduct his business beyond prison walls. Bufalino would spend the rest of his life in and out of prison as his empire – and the influence of the Mafia in general – crumbled during the ’80s.

Bufalino – still being watched by authorities into old age – died of natural causes at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston, Pennsylvania on 25 February 1994. He was 90 years old. 

The Irishman cast

Jimmy Hoffa and Al Pacino in ‘The Irishman’. Credit: Getty / Netflix

Jimmy Hoffa – played by Al Pacino

One of the most important characters in The Irishman cast is Jimmy Hoffa, played by the great Al Pachino. It is his first time working with Scorsese ever. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the union trickster goes to jail. But why didn’t he serve his full eight-year sentence for jury tampering in 1965? Well, because President Richard Nixon gave him a presidential pardon… with a hitch. Hoffa had to stay clear of politics until 1980. The pardon was less a blessing than a curse. It made many in the Mafia paranoid that Hoffa had been released early so he could spy for the FBI. It made Hoffa paranoid that his ban from meddling in workers’ affairs was a gift to Frank Fitzsimmons for the Teamsters endorsing Nixon’s 1972 re-election. A mess, frankly.

Last seen standing in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township, Hoffa’s body has never been found.

The Irishman cast

Bill Bufalino and Ray Romano in ‘The Irishman’. Credit: Getty / Netflix

Bill Bufalino – played by Ray Romano

Played by Ray Romano, Bill Bufalino was an American attorney who represented the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1941 until 1971. He was also the cousin of the aforementioned Russell Bufalino. Despite this familial connection, Bill Bufalino would sue Senator John L. McClellan, an Arkansas Democrat, and Robert F. Kennedy for damaging his reputation with accusations of organised crime connections (he lost).

One of nine children from a coal mining family, Bufalino had trained to be a Catholic priest before switching to law two years later. Upon Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975, the Pennsylvania-born attorney – who died of leukaemia on 12 May 1990 – claimed Jimmy Hoffa was killed by the CIA owing to his knowledge of an alleged government plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro, via the use of the Mafia.

The Irishman cast

Anthony Provenzano and Stephen Graham. Credit: Getty

Anthony Provenzano – played by Stephen Graham

This Is England actor Stephen Graham plays ‘Tony Pro’, Caporegime (translation: captain) of the Genovese crime family. Initially on good terms with Teamsters Union director Jimmy Hoffa, the pair became enemies after Hoffa disrespected the mobster, with Hoffa blaming Provenzano for his increased association with organised crime and Provenzano carrying resentment over issues regarding his pension. A chance meeting at an airport resulted in Hoffa breaking a bottle over Provenzano’s head (charmingly, Provenzano responded by threatening to ‘tear the heart out’ of Hoffa’s grandchildren).

Somewhat incredibly, Provenzano was a close ally of President Richard Nixon. The disgraced president made his first public appearance since his resignation 10 weeks after Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975, playing golf with Provenzano. He died in prison in 1988, aged 71. He’d been jailed since 1978 for his involvement in the murder of International Brotherhood Of Teamsters secretary-treasurer Anthony Castellito. The body was never found, believed to have been disposed of via tree shredder, gulp.

The Irishman cast

Robert F. Kennedy at an election rally in 1968. Credit: Getty

Robert F. Kennedy – played by Jack Huston

Brother of JFK – the much loved 35th President of the United States of America – and 64th United States Attorney General in his own right, RFK isn’t just an icon of modern American liberalism, but he was a staunch enemy of the Mafia.

During his tenure as attorney general it’s said that convictions against organised crime figures rose by 800 per cent. He was especially committed to the jailing of Jimmy Hoffa and in 1960 wrote the book The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions. When the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was subsequently jailed for jury tampering in 1964, it’s said that Kennedy issued personal messages of congratulations to the three prosecutors who convicted him.

After winning the California primary, during his attempt to become the Democratic presidential candidate, Kennedy was assassinated on 5 June 1968. He was shot by a 24-year-old Palestinian man, allegedly as revenge for RFK’s support of Israel during the Six-Day War the year prior. Regardless, rumours abound regarding the Mafia’s involvement in the killing. Robert Kennedy was 42. His death came five years after the assassination of his brother John.

The Irishman cast

Frank Fitzsimmons and Gary Basaraba. Credit: Getty

Frank Fitzsimmons – played by Gary Basaraba

Portrayed by Gary Basaraba – the voice of Hefty Smurf in 2011’s The Smurfs –  Frank Edward Fitzsimmons was acting president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters during Hoffa’s imprisonment from 1967 to 1971 and president proper from 1971 to 1981. Often ridiculed by other significant players in the Teamsters for being dithery and mocked for being overweight and inarticulate, he was expected to fail, badly, upon taking the reigns from Hoffa during his imprisonment. He didn’t – far from it – and he and Hoffa would clash upon the latter’s 1971 release.

Fitzsimmons died of lung cancer, aged 72, in San Diego, California, on 6 May 1981.

The Irishman cast

Chuckie O’Brien and Jesse Plemons in ‘The Irishman’. Credit: Getty / Netflix

Chuckie O’Brien – played by Jesse Plemons

The character played by Jesse Plemons is something of an enigma in The Irishman’s story. Raised as Jimmy Hoffa’s adopted son – and the basis for the Tom Hagen character in the book and film versions (in which the character is played by Robert Duvall) of The Godfather – the extent of O’Brien’s involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance has never been fully established. What is certain is that O’Brien and Hoffa were at at odds at the time…

‘The Irishman’ is released in a limited theatrical run in the UK today (8 November)