Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman Glosses Over a Key Point

Hey, you missed a spot. Martin Scorsese's The Irishman paints over some interrelated mob hits.

This article contains small The Irishman spoilers.

You have to have some knowledge of mob history to appreciate segments of The Irishman. Director Martin Scorsese is telling a very long history, based on an exhaustive book, I Heard You Paint Houses by author Charles Brandt. The biography details Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro in the film, confessing to killing about 30 people. So Scorsese can be pardoned for skimming past key points, especially where Sheeran isn’t even part of a contract.

For example, Scorsese shows us a shooting in Columbus Circle. The film notes how significant the event is, but doesn’t present a full background, making it look like Joseph Colombo was killed by the African American shooter. He wasn’t. This is a necessary cut; the movie is three and a half hours long already (longer than it takes to paint some exteriors), but it ties into the underlying controversy surrounding the title character.

In this specific instance, the Colombo Family was originally called the Profaci Family, one of the first of the Five Families who ruled the Commission, the ruling body of the mafia. They were in the midst of an insurrection so large it was turned into the film The Godfather. Joseph Colombo formed The Italian-American Civil Rights League in 1969, with the almost express purpose of getting the words “mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” pulled from The Godfather screenplay. The guy who might have put the hit on Joseph Colombo might have been one of the Barbershop Quintet, which took out Albert Anastasia, the Lord High Executioner, played by Garry Pastore in Scorsese’s new film. The Irishman, in an otherwise spectacular recreation of the 57th Street back entrance, shows Sheeran making the historic hit. He also gets to clean up the witness, the real hitter on the Anastasia killing. The only man with the nuts to make a play on a head of a family who was nuts enough to kidnap a crime boss and get away with it. The guy has to go. The film gets one thing spectacularly correct: “Crazy” Joe “The Blond” Gallo was a hero in Brooklyn.

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Jimi Hendrix died in 1970. Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died in 1971. Joey Gallo, played by Sebastian Maniscalco in The Irishman, died in 1972. Sheeran claims he kissed Gallo on his 43rd birthday, on the corner of Mulberry and Hester Streets at Umberto’s Clam House. It’s now on Broome St. Try the scungilli. Gallo was shot and killed there at 5 a.m. after seeing Don Rickles (played by Jim Norton in the film) at the Copa with his friend, future Law & Order star Jerry Orbach. Gallo met the actor because he didn’t like the way Orbach played him in the film The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which also featured a young De Niro. Orbach never copped to eating at Umberto’s that morning. He was a stand-up guy, that Jerry.

Gallo was out that night with his new bride, Sina Essary. Incidentally, David Steinberg, the guy who directs Curb Your Enthusiasm and used to direct Seinfeld, was Best Man at their wedding. On that fateful night though, Gallo died running from her and the table. He wanted to draw fire away from his wife. Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy co-wrote a romantic song about the slain mobster, “Joey,” from Dylan’s 1976 album Desire. Joe knew a lot about music. He tried to book Charles Mingus at a jazz club he owned in the Village. He was part of the Barbershop Quintet, which closed the curtain on the Lord High Executioner. He and his brother Larry, who played violin, were called to appear before the McLellan Commission on crime for their influence on the jukebox “rackets.”

Bobby Kennedy (played by Jack Huston in The Irishman) referred to Joey as the “jukebox king” when his brother was running for president. When Gallo offered campaign assistance, Bobby said the best way to help was to endorse his opponent. Joey thought that was funny. Gallo’s fellow initiates into the family of crime might have thought “Crazy Joe” was high on heroin. The week before Gallo got his button, they kept him in a hotel room and wouldn’t let him out, just to make sure he didn’t get the sweats. When he got out of prison, the families worried about the associations he made in the joint. Joey was hanging at the coffee shops in the Village. He was smoking hash with a dealer named Ali Baba, and had a midget on his crew named Mondo.

Joe Colombo was gunned down at an Italian Pride Rally. The shooter, who posed as a cameraman, was African American, and Joe was hanging out with black inmates he knew from prison. While serving time, Gallo went into the cell of the head Ku Klux Klansman, bit his nose off, and spit it into a toilet right in front of a guard. When there was violence in Brooklyn’s East New York, a then-Italian neighborhood which was becoming predominantly African American, Mayor John Lindsay called in Joe’s brother Albert “Kid Blast” Gallo for appeasement. Albert Gallo and the Red Hook crew also got their pictures in Life magazine for saving six Puerto Rican kids who were trapped on the third story of a building which was on fire down the block from the President Street “Dormitory” (It was where the crew was holed up during the Gallo-Profaci war.)

The street war forced the Gallo gang to go “to the mattresses,” a phrase heard in The Godfather, along with the phrase “sleeping with the fishes,” which was coined after someone dropped a fish wrapped up in Joe Jelly’s jacket. Colombo’s civil rights group held rallies around New York City, including one at Madison Square Garden, that raised $500,000 to help efforts to shutter production. Colombo was shot and paralyzed at the second Italian Unity Day on June 28, 1971. Joe Gallo was shot on April 7, 1972.

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Sheeran claims he killed Joe Gallo while John “The Redhead” Francis, another Irish American mobster, drove the getaway car. Joseph Luparelli, a close associate of Joseph Yacovelli, who was the acting head of the Colombo family after the Columbus Circle shooting, turned himself in for the killing, according to The New York Times. His story was very simple: it was a neighborhood thing. He saw him, got his gun, got the go ahead, and went back to carry out a contract. Luparelli happened to be sitting at the clam bar in Umberto’s with a friend at about 4:30 am when Gallo came in with his wife, her 10‐year‐old daughter, Gallo’s sister, his bodyguard Peter Diapoulas, and his date.

When the party came in, Luparelli told the Feds he dropped his spoon and hurried out of the restaurant. Gallo had been marked for execution by the Colombo family. Sheeran says the hit had nothing to do with Colombo feud but because Gallo was rude to Sheeran’s boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in The Irishman, earlier that evening at the Copacabana nightclub. Sheeran says he was informed of Gallo’s whereabouts by neighborhood spies.

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The seafood restaurant was a last minute decision. Gallo had been wandering around Chinatown trying to find a place still open when they wandered into Umberto’s Clam House, which was owned by a mobster named Matty “the Horse” Ianniello (The Horse also reputedly controlled the Stonewall Inn in 1969 when police harassment triggered the riots that launched the gay rights movement.) Umberto’s was across the street from a restaurant called Vincent’s, which was run by a bigger gangster. Umberto’s used to get the overflow from Vincent’s.

Luparelli left when Gallo came in and alerted Colombo associates who were at a hangout nearby. He got the go-ahead from the acting boss. Thus a crew that included Philip Gambino, Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase, and two unidentified men drove two cars to Mulberry Street. One was the “crash” car, the other was a getaway car. Four men went into Umberto’s through the back door, and Luparelli stayed behind the wheel of one of the cars. Twenty shots were fired in just a few seconds. Pete “the Greek” Diapoulas was shot in the ass. Gallo was shot three times, stumbled into the street, and collapsed. He was pronounced dead in the emergency room at Beekman-Downtown Hospital.

Diapoulas would later tell The New York Times that Di Biaso, who was a former member of the Genovese family before shifting to the Colombo group, was the primary shooter. Gallo’s widow told Slate magazine the killers were “little, short, fat Italians.” In his 1992 memoir, The Coffey Files, NYPD Detective Joe Coffey, who was one of the lead detectives on the Gallo case, said he was told by informants Di Biase, who was five feet and eight inches, was the triggerman. Sheeran was six feet and four inches tall. Thirty-two years after the shooting, I Heard You Paint Houses author Brandt showed Sheeran’s photo to an anonymous witness who went on to become a New York Times editor. She was a college student visiting New York and was at Umberto’s that night. She said she recognized Sheeran as the lone gunman. Coffey later confirmed Sheeran as the shooter, saying the NYPD “knew it was a large lone gunman and he certainly wasn’t Italian.”

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While Sheeran maintains Gallo’s death had nothing to do with the Colombo war, the execution set off another series of battles between Gallo’s crew and the former Profaci Family. Ten men were killed over the next few days. It ended in 1974, when the Commission merged Albert Gallo and his gang into Genovese Family capo Vincent “Chin” Gigante’s crew.

Sheeran also claimed he helped arm anti-Castro forces involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as a contract for the U.S. government, and transported three rifles to David Ferrie which may have fortified the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. According to Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino in Scorsese’s movie) wanted Kennedy dead because Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, was harassing him.

In the Brandt’s 2004 book, Sheeran also claims he drove his boss Russell Bufalino to the Nov. 14, 1957 summit of the American Mafia held at the home of mobster Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara, in Apalachin, New York. The meeting, which is also the subject of the upcoming independent film Mob Town, was called by Vito Genovese, who took the top slot in the Luciano crime family, making it the Genovese family. He was putting in his claim to inherit Lucky Luciano’s role as capo dei capi, boss of bosses. The meeting was held a few weeks after the Anastasia execution. It was attended by over 100 bosses from the U.S., Canada, and Italy. The meeting was raided by New York State cops who detained and indicted more than 60 attendees. Bufalino was the first to file an appeal. They all got off.

When you add the claim that he was responsible for the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, it makes sense. Sheeran has been called the “Forrest Gump of organized crime.” But he may have also been its Walter Mitty. The Hoffex Memo, the FBI’s 57-page official comprehensive casefile from 1976, confirms Sheeran was in Detroit when the Teamster boss disappeared but concludes mafia enforcer Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio did the job. There just wasn’t enough evidence to prove it. Sheeran was indicted for ordering two murders, but not for carrying them out. He was never convicted.

Painting houses is a mob term for contract killings, a sloppy job where blood gets splattered everywhere. Scorsese is not sloppy; he lays down tarp and puts blue masking tape over the trim. The Irishman is detailed work with the broad strokes complimenting the veneer. He doesn’t gloss over the details, but you can see through the varnish to the chips in Sheeran’s malarkey. 

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.