New Netflix Biopic Immortalizes Local Mafia Man Frank Sheeran
"The Irishman" follows the life of a mob associate rumored to be involved in Jimmy Hoffa's murder.
When Charlie Brandt heard the door to the Mona Lisa restaurant lock behind him in 1991, he was pretty sure he was going to die. “It was mobster heaven—there were gangsters everywhere,” says Brandt of the long-gone South Philadelphia spot.
Having used his expertise as a medical malpractice lawyer to secure Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s early release from prison, Brandt had scheduled a meeting with his client to discuss a book about his life. In lieu of a get-to-know-you chat, Sheeran took Brandt and his lawyer, Jimmy Lynch, to meet with some big shots in the Philadelphia mob. Turns out Sheeran was there to force some deadbeats to pay back loans he had on the street before his prison stay. “When somebody clicked that lock, [the sound] went right through me,” Brandt recalls.
So began a long relationship that produced several byproducts, most notably the Delaware County native’s confession that seemingly solves one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: Sheeran was the one who murdered Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, and his remains will never be found in the end zone of what is now MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. That’s because they were incinerated in Detroit.
Those assertions—and a lot more—can be found in Brandt’s book, I Heard You Paint Houses. First published in 2004, it has now spawned the Netflix film The Irishman, which will see a limited release in theaters on Nov. 1. The movie was directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, both Oscar-winning heavyweights. The cast includes crime movie institutions Robert De Niro (as Sheeran), Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, with Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano in supporting roles. Netflix will start streaming the movie on Nov. 27.
Brandt knew he’d be speaking with Sheeran about some pretty shady characters—he just didn’t think he’d be meeting them in person. He estimates he sat in the Mona Lisa for five hours while Sheeran stated his case before the “jury” of organized-crime chieftains. It ended in a judgment that assured him $1,500 a week from the delinquent borrower. “[Sheeran] told me, ‘See the respect I get? They usually only do that for Italians,’” says Brandt.
Though he was never officially part of the mob, Sheeran intersected with enough fascinating characters that his story is every bit as compelling as any mafia tale. “He was very intelligent, very witty and probably the only gangster ever to teach ballroom dancing,” says Brandt of Sheeran, who died in 2003 at the age of 83. “For a 6-foot-4, 220-pound gorilla, he was really light-footed. We spent [several] years together [for the book].”
Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia covered the Philly mob for 20 years, writing extensively about it ever since. “My take is that it will probably be a great movie,” he says. “But the story doesn’t have to be true to be a great movie.”
For his part, Anastasia doesn’t believe Sheeran was the triggerman in the Hoffa “disappearance”—and he may be right. But even skeptics agree that Sheeran had a role in the murder, even if it was only to lure Hoffa to the site where he was shot. Sheeran first developed a taste for violence as an Army MP, and he continued to provide muscle and menace for various underworld characters—most notably Russell Bufalino, then head of the northeast Pennsylvania mob. He was also tight with Hoffa, who spun off a local Teamsters chapter in Delaware for his friend to run.
Initially, Sheeran wanted to make it known that he hadn’t killed Hoffa. “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,” says Brandt.
As time went on, his story changed.
The son of an Irish father and a Swedish mother, Frank Sheeran was born in Darby in 1920. His dad was a house painter, among other things. In Sheeran’s case, “painting houses” referred to the accompanying spray of blood and bodily matter that came with shooting people—hence the title of Brandt’s book. It wasn’t necessarily a common term. Mob expert Anastasia had never heard of it. “I have heard people say, ‘I heard you did some work,’” he notes.
Tom Sheeran found just about any job he could to earn the money needed to support his family, even helping with the construction of the Ben Franklin
AUTHOR CHARLES BRANDT. PHOTO BY KRISTIN CHEATWORTH.
Bridge. He was also an amateur boxer, and his son became so good with his fists that his father would bet on 10-year-old Frank in speakeasy boxing matches against teenagers. Frank often won. When he didn’t, Tom delivered a smack to the head.
Frank was expelled from high school in ninth grade for breaking the principal’s jaw with a punch during a disciplinary dispute. His father—who often punished Frank by forcing him to fight him wearing boxing gloves—was furious. By then, however, Frank was 16 and too big to be tamed, telling his father, “You better get another punching bag.”
Five years later, Sheeran enlisted in the Army and was sent to Europe as part of the 45th Infantry Division, where he saw more than 400 days of action in World War II. The 45th served under the ultimate command of Gen. George Patton, who reveled in the division’s efficient and bloodthirsty ways.
As the war moved on, Sheeran developed a reputation as someone capable of handling just about anything his superiors required. That included killing POWs and ambushing a convoy with food for German officers, eliminating the soldiers leading it. “By this time, I thought nothing of doing what I had to do,” says Sheeran in the book.
After the war, he returned to the Philadelphia area and worked a series of dead-end jobs for more than a decade. In the mid-1950s, he met mob boss Bufalino at a truck stop, running into him a few years later at Villa di Roma restaurant in South Philly.
Sheeran wasn’t Italian, so he couldn’t become a member of the mafia, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t handle “work” of all kinds for them. He and Bufalino became close. The understated, publicity-shy leader of the upstate Pennsylvania mob looked out for Sheeran, ensuring that he didn’t get into trouble with the various criminals he became involved with. “He saved my life over and over again,” Sheeran says in the book.
In return, Sheeran did what he was asked.
When it comes to compelling 20th-century characters, few compare to Jimmy Hoffa. The president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957 to 1971 and a target of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Hoffa received a presidential pardon from Richard Nixon. During his attempt to recapture the top spot in the Teamsters, Hoffa “disappeared.” That his murder is still referred to in that way is amusing, given the number of people who’ve discussed Hoffa’s killing.
In Sheeran’s version, he and Hoffa had become close. In the 1970s, the link between organized labor and organized crime became stronger than ever, and Sheeran was part of both worlds. Hoffa helped him become the leader of Teamsters Local 326 in Delaware. “Organized crime always benefited from ties to labor,” notes Anastasia. “Labor gave it legitimacy and leverage.”
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According to Brandt, the Teamsters pension fund was second only to Chase Bank in real estate investment—and
none of its clients could be found on Wall Street. “The mob controlled every aspect of the Teamsters,” says Brandt.
At a Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night in October 1974, Hoffa was the main speaker, presenting Sheeran with a solid-gold watch encrusted with diamonds. According to Sheeran’s account, Philly mayor Frank Rizzo was at the event, as was Philadelphia NAACP head Cecil B. Moore. Sheeran was presented with a plaque for Teamsters Man of the Year. Jerry Vale sang “Volare.” Bufalino was there, too.
Ten years earlier, Hoffa had received two sentences totaling 13 years for fraud and bribery convictions. In 1971, Nixon pardoned him—on the condition that Hoffa didn’t engage in union activities until 1980. He planned retaking control of the Teamsters in 1976 anyway, seeking to reestablish himself in Detroit, where he continued to have some influence.
None of that pleased elements of the mafia. Due to the Nixon connection, some were worried that he was cooperating with the FBI. By the summer of 1975, Hoffa was no longer an ally. He was someone who needed to be erased.
In 1990, an associate of the Angelo Bruno crime family asked Brandt to help Sheeran, who was 13 years into a 32-year sentence for labor racketeering. The medical malpractice attorney succeeded in springing Sheeran for physical reasons (arthritis, a dropped foot). During a lunch date not long after, Sheeran expressed his interest in writing a book. “He was tired of being written about in all these books and articles about the Hoffa disappearance,” Brandt says.
While in prison, Sheeran had read Brandt’s The Right to Remain Silent, about crimes he helped solve through his interrogation expertise. Agreeing to work with Sheeran, Brandt later felt like 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.’”
Kitty Caparella says Sheeran asked her four times to write his book, and she turned him down. “I didn’t think he’d tell me the truth,” says Caparella, who covered the mob for 15 of her 38 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. “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 the late Msgr. Frederick Helduser, then pastor of St. Dorothy Parish in Drexel Hill, to confess his sins in 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 told Brandt that forces within the mob wanted Hoffa dead, prompted by his desire to take over the union. According to the book, Sheeran and his wife were on their way to a wedding in Detroit, driving from Pennsylvania with Bufalino, whose wife and sister-in-law were also in the car. Bufalino asked the Irishman to handle the job. Sheeran knew that if he didn’t, he’d be dead, too.
En route to Detroit, the mob boss asked Sheeran to make a detour. He boarded a plane in Ohio and headed to Detroit, where Hoffa thought he was meeting Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano at the Red Fox Restaurant. Instead, Hoffa found a car waiting with Sheeran and other associates, who were there to drive him to a nearby house where the two Tonys were allegedly waiting.
When he arrived to find neither man, Hoffa tried to escape. “Jimmy bumped into me hard,” Sheeran says in the book. “If he saw the piece in my hand, he had to think I had it out to protect him. He took a quick step to go around me and get to the door. He reached for the knob and 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.”
In Sheeran’s account, two men who’d been waiting in the house put Hoffa into a body bag and drove him to an incinerator, where he was “cremated.” Sheeran boarded the plane, flew back to Ohio, where Bufalino and the others were waiting, and headed to the wedding.
Veteran investigative journalist Dan Moldea has been researching the Hoffa disappearance for nearly five decades, and he isn’t buying that story. “I’m not the only voice out there expressing skepticism,” he says.
According to Moldea’s research and interviews, the job was done by Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio and authorized by Bufalino and Provenzano. Sheeran helped convince Hoffa to get into the car and ride to the house, but Briguglio pulled the trigger. “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,” says Moldea.
Moldea insists that Sheeran was low on cash when he connected with Brandt, concocting his tale to profit from it. “I admire Charlie Brandt for what he did, but it’s a one-source book,” says Moldea. “It hardly solved the Jimmy Hoffa case.”
Nonetheless, Brandt is secure in the fact that he and Sheeran presented the truth. “I’d ask any naysayer, ‘How many homicides have you investigated? What do you know about interrogating?’” says Brandt. “I wrote the book.”
Who does Al Pacino think killed Jimmy Hoffa? “Seriously, I don’t know,” he says.
But the Oscar-winning actor does acknowledge that Frank Sheeran is a safe bet. “It seems that way,” says Pacino when presented with the possibility.
Pacino plays Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Surprisingly, it’s his first time working with the director, noting that the experience was as “easy as a soft rain.” He adds that Sheeran’s account of his life and the events surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance “felt truly authentic.”
The movie took more than a decade to make, and the script underwent considerable surgery. Brandt met with Scorsese and Robert De Niro in New York to provide as much context as possible. Since its original publication, the book was expanded to include more Sheeran tales. With increased corroboration, the plot evolved and grew.
Though the film is primarily about Sheeran, Pacino’s Hoffa will no doubt attract considerable attention. While he understands the relationship Hoffa cultivated with organized crime, Pacino sees the labor leader as more than a thug or mob partner—at least earlier in his life. “He was much more of a radical,” says Pacino. “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.”
The film should generate some Oscar buzz. Even Moldea says he’ll “probably see the movie 20 times.” There will also be “a lot of discrepancies” to go with the reports that Moldea told De Niro a few years back that the actor was being “conned” by Brandt about Sheeran’s role in the Hoffa murder. Obviously, De Niro wasn’t too happy to hear that. “I’m not the only one questioning the credibility of Frank Sheeran, I assure you,” Moldea says.
There’s bound to be some controversy surrounding the film. Since Hoffa, Sheeran and just about everyone else associated with the disappearance are dead, there can be no definitive resolution. Moldea will continue to pursue the story; Brandt will maintain that he has completed it. As for the film, it “presents an interesting portrait of our life in this country, both political and underworld,” Pacino says.
And it’s a hell of a story.