- - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Netflix reported that more than 26 million people initially watched Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Irishman.”

I’ve enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s classic crime films, such as “Mean Streets,” “Casino” and “Goodfellas,” so I looked forward to watching “The Irishman.” I was also interested in watching the film as part of it covers organized crime in South Philadelphia, where I grew up.

I watched “The Irishman” on the night it premiered on Netflix and although the film was slow, long and a bit too talky, I enjoyed it.

But I viewed the film as fiction.

I read “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the book “The Irishman” was based on, some years ago. According to the author, Charles Brant, Frank Sheeran confessed to him that he murdered former Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa and New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo. He also confessed that he was involved in the murder of President Kennedy and that he knew of a bribery scheme between President Nixon and Jimmy Hoffa



I don’t believe a word of it.

The late Frank Sheeran (portrayed by Robert De Niro in the film) was a Philadelphia small-time crook who became a Teamsters union official and grew close to Jimmy Hoffa (portrayed by Al Pacino), and he was connected to Western Pennsylvania Cosa Nostra boss Russel Bufalino (portrayed by Joe Pesci) and South Philly/South Jersey Cosa Nostra boss Angelo Bruno (portrayed by Harvey Keitel).

According to the criminals and cops from that era that I spoke to, Sheeran was a serial liar.

I interviewed former Philadelphia Cosa Nostra boss Ralph Natale and I asked him about Frank Sheeran’s claims.

“Let me tell you about Frank Sheeran. He’s nothing but a drunk and he imagines things,” Natale said “I know who killed Hoffa. His name was Tommy Andretta. His brother was with him and there was the other guy they killed in New York, Salvatore Briguglio. This was a hit squad from “Tony Pro” Provenzano, who was my dear friend. You know how many guys claim to have killed Jimmy Hoffa? I think 15.”    

Bill Tonelli, a writer who grew up in South Philly, debunked Sheeran’s claims in a piece at Slate. He called Sheeran “the Forrest Gump of organized crime.” 

“Only if you had been paying close attention to the exploits of the South Philadelphia mafia back in its glory days (the second half of the 20th century) might you have noticed Sheeran’s existence. Even there he was a second stringer — a local Teamsters union official, meaning he was completely crooked, who hung around with mobsters, especially Russell Bufalino, a boss from backwater Scranton, Pennsylvania. Sheeran was Irish, which limited any Cosa Nostra career ambitions he might have had, and so he seemed to be just a 6-foot-4, 250-pound gorilla with a dream. He died in obscurity, in a nursing home, in 2003.” 

Bill Tonelli spoke to John Carlyle Berkery, who allegedly was the boss of Philly’s Irish mob, which had connections to South Philly’s Cosa Nostra.

“Frank Sheeran never killed a fly. The only things he ever killed were countless jugs of red wine.”

Dan Moldea, an investigative reporter and author of “The Hoffa Wars,” also dismissed Sheeran’s claims. He said that Sheeran was in the car that lured Hoffa, but he believes “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, an enforcer for the Genovese crime family, killed Hoffa.

“This is a one-source story about a pathological liar,” Dan Moldea said.

Dan Moldea said he met with Robert De Niro and told him that Sheeran’s story was not historically accurate.

“He of course is an authority on Hoffa and everything else,” Mr. De Niro said. “As Marty says, ‘We’re not saying we’re telling the actual story. We’re telling our story.’”

In a roundtable discussion with Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, Robert Di Nero and Joe Pesci that appeared on Netflix following the premiere of the film, Mr. Scorsese addressed the criticism that Sheeran’s story was false.

“Who knows what really went on? We don’t know,” Mr. Scorsese said. “This is a version thereof, so to speak.”

Mr. Scorsese said he relied on Charles Brant’s book, and that the book’s story was as good any other.

Regarding Hoffa, the director said, “The point is, he disappeared.”

“The Irishman” is no “Goodfellas,” but it is a fine film that showcases the talents of its elderly actors. (The film could have been called “Oldfellas”).

A good number of people refuse to watch “The Irishman” due to Robert De Niro’s outspoken views of President Trump. It is one thing to express one’s political views publicly, but it is quite another thing to do so crudely, stupidly and with such vitriol.

So watch “The Irishman,” if you will, but I suggest you regard it as fiction.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

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