The Irishman is a movie about a hit man who claimed he killed onetime Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa.
It murders the truth.
Based on a book devoid of evidence, The Irishman still seems certain to be a contender for Oscar nominations. Standards of proof vary from one profession to the next, so Netflix and director Martin Scorsese need not concern themselves with honesty when making a movie.
But everyone should know that the wild story they’re pitching landed on the spike at the Philadelphia Daily News.
Zack Stalberg, now retired in Lamy, was the legendary Daily News editor who killed it.
He and his reporters knew all about the speculation that Frank Sheeran, head of a Teamsters local in nearby Wilmington, Del., had killed Hoffa.
Federal prosecutors had even questioned Sheeran about Hoffa’s disappearance. He invoked the Fifth Amendment when they brought him before a grand jury.
Then the case went cold. Hoffa’s body was never found, and no one was ever charged in his disappearance and murder.
Sheeran went to prison for other crimes, claiming all the while he was the victim of vengeful investigators.
“I feel I have been definitely framed by the government,” he said in 1979 after taking the unusual step of calling a news conference, one of the few organized crime figures ever to do so. “The government feels I know information about the Hoffa case, which I don’t. That’s why they’re doing this.”
Along the East Coast, occasional innuendo continued about Sheeran murdering Hoffa on the order of Russell Bufalino, the crime boss of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Stalberg’s staff investigated but found the claim had no factual basis.
“It was B.S.,” Stalberg told me.
Sheeran should have been pleased that a big-city newspaper editor believed he played no part in Hoffa’s murder. But after years of complaining that he was persecuted for something he didn’t do, Sheeran incriminated himself.
He collaborated with his attorney, Charles Brandt, on a book in which he claimed responsibility for not one but two of the underworld’s most publicized murders.
First, Sheeran said, he shot and killed the gangster Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in New York City in April 1972.
After getting away with murder, Sheeran claimed, he killed Hoffa in Detroit with two bullets to the brain in July 1975.
Brandt, a medical malpractice attorney who had helped Sheeran obtain an early release from federal prison because of declining health, wrote the bad book outlining Sheeran’s claims.
First published in 2004, it’s titled I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy Hoffa.
I recently reread the book and found it just as pointless the second time around. The euphemism about painting houses supposedly was Hoffa’s own coded language for mob executions.
Brandt once wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press in which he tried to cover all the holes in his book. By then, Sheeran had died in a nursing home, so Brandt was left alone to carry on the mythology that he had solved Hoffa’s murder.
“Sheeran was a close confidant of Hoffa and was forced to kill his friend and mentor by his godfather, Russell Bufalino,” Brandt wrote. “As Sheeran expressed it: ‘If I had said no to Russell, Jimmy would have been just as dead and I would have gone to Australia with him.’ ”
The Irishman is in limited release. It has an all-star cast. Robert De Niro has the lead as Sheeran. Joe Pesci portrays Bufalino and Al Pacino has the role of Hoffa.
Somehow I can’t imagine Pacino being convincing in his depiction of the squat, ferocious labor leader who vanished without a trace.
But so what if he doesn’t look the part? Casting is a minor matter when a hoaxer’s book is pitched as nothing but the truth.
De Niro and Scorsese have a track record of combining to make entertaining movies. No doubt Hoffa’s real killers, wherever they are, would get a good laugh at this one.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.