‘Our Local Gangster’ Headed to the Big Screen

Scott Pruden

Scott Pruden

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De Niro, Scorsese will produce film based on true-crime bestseller about mob figure Frank Sheeran

Delaware Valley Teamsters Union bigwig and admitted mob associate Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran might seem like an odd subject for a Martin Scorsese-helmed crime movie.

Sheeran, who died in 2003, is a bit different from the protagonists of Scorsese mob movies like Goodfellas and Casino. The hulking World War II vet, at 6’4” and with nary a drop of Italian blood, goes against much of the general public’s conventional knowledge about organized crime figures.

But his life, as told in author Charles Brandt’s true-crime thriller I Heard You Paint Houses, is anything but conventional. In the book, Sheeran claims to have been either at the fringes or the center of some of the biggest stories of the 20th century, including the disappearance of International Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa.

Brandt’s book will form the basis of the forthcoming Scorsese-directed feature film The Irishman, produced by Robert De Niro’s TriBeCa Productions and starring De Niro as Sheeran. Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are also reportedly attached to the project, slated to shoot in 2017, with distribution through Paramount Pictures.

The movie will be of particular interest to Delawareans thanks to Sheeran’s longtime status as “our local gangster,” says Brandt.

Sheeran was president of Wilmington Teamsters Local 326 starting in 1966 when it was split off from its Philadelphia parent. He surrendered the post in 1976 after he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on federal racketeering charges.

Plenty of Wilmington References

“The newspaper reporters of the day would invariably find good copy when they wrote about Frank,” Brandt says. “He was very colorful.”

In addition to Local 326, then headquartered on Front Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), the book name-checks a number of Wilmington locations, suggesting the potential for some local shout-outs in the movie.

Brandt, who maintains a Delaware home in Lewes and a second one in Idaho, says the pending film version of his book couldn’t be in better hands.

“It’s unimaginable. If you sat down and wrote a book about the Hoffa disappearance and you had a magic wand, your first choice would be for Scorsese to direct it and your second choice would be for De Niro to be in it,” he says. “It’s at the highest level you can imagine for a book about the Mafia, to have landed on board with those guys. I can die now. It’s a dream come true.”

In the book, Brandt, a New York native and University of Delaware graduate who in the early 1970s became the First State’s chief deputy attorney general, combines Sheeran’s direct testimony and his own legal and journalistic legwork to create not just a vivid picture of a mob loyalist and prolific assassin, but a man tormented by a cruel childhood, the scars of war and remorse for betraying those closest to him.

The title of the book comes from the first words Sheeran says Hoffa ever spoke to him during a phone call arranged by mob boss Russell Bufalino. “Painting a house” was vivid mob slang for a killing, alluding to the blood spatter that remained on the walls after a hit.

Interviews with Sheeran

In his personal testimony, recorded by Brandt in one-on-one interviews over the course of five years, Sheeran offers direct insight to his experience growing up on the fringes of pre-war Philadelphia, the horrors of his 411 days in combat during World War II, and the political machinations of the various crime families operating in the United States after the war ended.

The ailing and remorseful Sheeran says he was the sole killer in the 1972 hit on New York mobster “Crazy” Joey Gallo —a killing long thought to be perpetrated by several gunmen. And almost like a mobbed-up Forrest Gump, he also admits to having a hand in critical moments of American history, including the CIA’s invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But the most definitive account focuses on the disappearance of Hoffa, who vanished without a trace on July 30, 1975. In the book, Sheeran admits to knowing exactly what happened to Hoffa that day because he was the one who pulled the trigger.

Born in Darby, Pa., Sheeran parlayed his work as a truck driver and small-time hustler into friendships with some of the most powerful underworld figures in Philadelphia. He thrived in a world dominated by Italians—the shamrock in the red sauce, as it were—and rose to a level of respect among American organized crime usually reached only by “made” men, the mob elite who by definition had to be of Italian heritage.

Philly mobsters—particularly his main benefactor, Bufalino—were charmed by his command of Italian, which he picked up during the war, as well as his loyalty, trustworthiness and brutal efficiency. At the same time as he took care of assassinations for the mob, he maintained a “straight” job, climbing the ladder of the Philadelphia Teamsters organization to eventually run the Wilmington local. Along the way, he fostered a close friendship with Hoffa, who ran the International Teamsters with not just an iron fist, but also with the willingness to lend money from the union’s retirement fund to his organized crime associates.

Hoffa’s fate has been an enduring mystery for more than 40 years, with local, state and federal law enforcement, filmmakers and amateur investigators all insisting they’ve determined what happened to him after he went missing from his Michigan cabin. Books, magazine articles and the Jack Nicholson film Hoffa have suggested a variety of fates, but Sheeran’s account stands out by offering a first-person description of the killing itself.

The Irishman on the Big Screen

Tribeca originally contacted Brandt regarding the availability of film rights for I Heard You Paint Houses in 2007, then began working with screenwriter Steve Zaillian, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Schindler’s List.

“De Niro and Zaillian gave the book to Martin Scorsese,” Brandt says. “He read it and loved it, so a package was put together with Paramount Pictures, with Scorsese and De Niro producing it, De Niro starring in it and Zaillian screenwriting it.”

By August of 2009 the screenplay was complete. But De Niro and Zaillian weren’t finished just yet. De Niro invited Brandt to come to New York and share any additional information with Scorsese and Zaillian that hadn’t been included in the 2004 and 2005 printings of I Heard You Paint Houses.

“That material I’d kept out of the book because it involved Mafia figures who were still alive and flourishing,” Brandt says. “But by 2009, the principal among them, Russell Bufalino, had died, and Billy D’Elia became the new boss. And Billy didn’t like me, so I didn’t mention anything about Billy in the book.”

By 2009, D’Elia had been arrested and turned state’s evidence in cooperation with the FBI.
“When [the FBI] went to him, the first question they asked him was, ‘What happened to Hoffa,’ and he told them to read my book,” he says.

That conversation with the filmmakers also resulted in 57 pages of testimony from Sheeran and independent corroboration of Sheeran’s claims being added to the 2016 edition of I Heard You Paint Houses.

“This has the material I gave them and then it has a ton of corroboration about not just Hoffa and Crazy Joey Gallo, but corroborates the Mafia’s role in the assassination of JFK,” he says. “Sheeran had made these confessions to me, and now they’re totally corroborated.”

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