The Irishman: Real Life Gangsters From Philly and New York

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman contains a who's who of union racketeering gangsters. Here's who's who.

The Irishman,  Al Pacino and Ray Romano

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of a dedicated union man who bent some rules and broke some shoes. The film stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the loyal teamster who did wet work on the side and executions for a price. Al Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, one of the jobs Sheeran confessed to doing. Joe Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, an influential Philadelphia mob boss. These are all historic figures who have made appearances on newsreels or televised witness testimonials.

The Irishman is loaded with real mob history and any gangster film aficionado will love it, but you may need a brush up on some of the players. We’ve already discussed some of the hits and misses Sheeran took in his career, but here are the guys who populated his neighborhood.

The Irishman Robert De Niro and Al Pacino React to JFK

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro)

Scorsese is up to his old tricks of making pearls out of swine. His gangster classic Goodfellas told the story of a rat fink bastard, Henry Hill, a Lucchese family associate who got 50 of his friends pinched after informing starting in 1980. The Irishman kisses the blarney stone of the luckiest low level mafia associate and finds a tragic hero.

According to Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, Sheeran saw himself as a Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront when he became a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Mob fans know Terry Malloy was a cheese-eater who admitted he felt guilty about ratting himself for years. At the end of his life, Sheeran confessed all his sins to his priest, who probably suggested a trip to Lourdes as the only possible penance.

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read more: The History of the Real Goodfellas

Sheeran was born on Oct. 25, 1920 in Darby, a Philadelphia suburb. His father Thomas Francis Sheeran Jr. painted houses in the city. Not the same way Sheeran learned in the Army when he volunteered for World War II Airborne duty in 1941. He was part of the elite 45th Infantry Division, known as “The Thunderbirds.” Most soldiers serve about 100 days in combat before rotating out, but Sheeran pulled 411 days of combat duty. 

The movie points out how Sheeran learned to speak Italian when he fought in the invasion of Sicily. The book details Sheeran confessing to summary executions and massacres the Geneva Convention never could have foreseen. Sheeran told Brandt some massacres were revenge killings in the heat of battle. But fuck trying to surrender to the Irishman. He was part of the Dachau massacre, and he is pretty blasé about it in the book. When he was discharged from the army in October 1945, the day before he turned 25, he drove a truck. He made extra cash strong-arming people and selling meat for himself on his routes. Mafia boss Angelo Bruno noticed him. Philadelphia crime boss Russell Bufalino mentored Sheeran, before hooking him up with Hoffa. As the ultimate Teamster insider Sheeran made uncooperative union members and rival unions go away.

Not very long before his disappearance, Hoffa flew to Philadelphia to be the featured speaker at Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night at the city’s Latin Casino. “There were 3,000 of my good friends and family, including the mayor, the district attorney, guys I fought in the war with, the singer Jerry Vale, and the Golddigger Dancers with legs that didn’t quit, and certain other guests,” Sheeran remembered in I Heard You Paint Houses. This included Bufalino. “Jerry Vale sang Russ’s favorite song, ‘Spanish Eyes,’ for him” Sheeran remembered in the book.

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci)

Russell Bufalino may have been inadvertently responsible for the public getting knowledge about the American Mafia. He came to the public eye in October 1963 when Genovese family soldier Joseph Valachi named his name on national television when he testified at the McClellan Senate hearings. But the government might not even have known about the existence of La Cosa Nostra if it weren’t for the Nov. 14, 1957 American Mafia summit in Apalachin, New York. Bufalino helped arrange the meeting, setting up hotel rooms and ordering the food for 101 top mobsters representing all 27 U.S. crime families, along with representatives from Canada and Sicily.

The meeting was called by New York family boss Vito Genovese, who had taken over the family Charles “Lucky” Luciano started. Lucky had been deported, Albert Anastasia had been executed, and Frank Costello retired from family business after a failed execution attempt. Genovese wanted to throw a party to let everyone know he was the new boss of bosses. The summit was held at the house of Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara, and is the subject of an upcoming independent film, Mob Town. A state cop called in the feds after noticing the Barber’s son booking rooms at a local hotel. About 70 gangsters, including Bufalino, were pinched and the Mafia’s cover was blown. Barbara retired in 1958, making Bufalino the acting boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. Buffalino had been acting head of the Genovese family after Albert Anastasia was whacked in a barber’s chair. When Barbara died in June 1959, Bufalino became the official family boss. He ruled the Bufalino crime family from 1959 to 1989.

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read more – The Irishman Review: Death of a Goodfella

Rosario Alberto Bufalino was born on Sept. 25, 1903 in Montedoro, Sicily. His family emigrated to America in 1906. He began his crime career with gambling, theft, and debt collection but jumped into the bootleg business after Prohibition became law in 1919. He worked with Barbara starting in the early 1920s and was underboss when Barbara became boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family in 1940. Bufalino wasn’t in the inner circle of New York’s five families, but was a respected advisor in crucial business.

The Bufalino family was small, with only 30 to 40 made men, but operated in Pittston, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as well as upstate New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and south Florida. He came under the scrutiny of the government committees and subcommittees on ties between organized crime and the Teamsters union. The 1960 Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations labeled Bufalino “one of the most ruthless and powerful leaders of the Mafia in the United States.” That didn’t stop the CIA from calling on him, at least according to stories tying Bufalino to a plot to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro. There are also baseless rumors that Bufalino was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1977, Bufalino was indicted on extortion charges and named consigliere Eddie Sciandra as acting boss. Bufalino was convicted on Aug. 8, 1978. He was sentenced to four years. When he got out, he was under scrutiny for the Mafia Commission Trial of 1986. He was indicted in a murder plot when Los Angeles mob boss Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno lived up to his nickname and testified against Bufalino, who was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Bufalino got out of prison in 1989 and died of natural causes on Feb. 25, 1994. He was 90. The feds watched him until his death.

Mob Boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel)

Angelo Bruno brought order to chaos for the Philadelphia mob in a leadership that lasted a generation. Known as “the Gentle Don” or “the Docile Don,” Bruno was shot in the head while sitting in a car outside of his house on March 21, 1980. He was 69. He took over the city’s operations from Joseph Ida in 1959 and kept the family out of the news and out of the sights of law enforcement. Bruno worked in his father’s grocery store when he was a kid and approached crime like a businessman. He preferred bribery over murder. The family made more and the cost of human life, as far as mob soldiers killed on the job, was kept to a minimum.

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Born Angelo Annaloro on May 21, 1910 in Caltanissetta, Sicily, he took his paternal grandmother’s maiden name Bruno after getting mobbed up in his teens. It was also a tribute to “Joe Bruno” Dovi who ran Philadelphia from 1936 to 1946. Angelo Bruno’s mob sponsor was Michael Maggio, who founded the M. Maggio Cheese Corp. and was on the nationwide criminal watch list. Bruno was a close associate of Carlo Gambino, who headed the New York family that carried his name.

read more: Goodfellas and the Mysterious Fate of Tommy DeSimone

In spite of several arrests, Bruno’s longest jail term was for refusing to testify before a grand jury. It was for two years. Preferring the traditional rackets of bookmaking and loansharking, Bruno didn’t let his family get into heroin trafficking but did take a tax when other gangs dealt in the neighborhood. He got into a turf dispute with the New York families over gambling in Atlantic City.

Bruno was killed on March 21, 1980, probably on the orders of his consigliere, Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro, whose naked and beaten body was found in a trunk in the Bronx a few weeks after. After Caponigro was killed, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa was named boss. He kept the title for one year.

Phil Testa (Larry Romano)

“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night and they blew up his house too,” Bruce Springsteen sang on “Atlantic City.” He was singing the praises of “the Julius Caesar of the Philadelphia Mob,” Philip Charles Testa. He got the nickname “The Chicken Man” because he ran a successful poultry business. Testa was born in Philadelphia, on April 21, 1924 and became friends with Angelo Bruno while he was still a teenager.

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Testa ran his crew out of the back of the Bank Street Restaurant. He changed the name of the restaurant to Virgilio’s at the end of the ‘70s in honor of Virgil “The Blade” Mariutti, who ran it. The bartender was Scarfo family capo Frank Monte. After the overthrow of the “Mustache Petes” of the first generation of the American Mafia, it became part of the code for made men not to let hair grow above the top lip. This was something they took an oath on, and yet Testa, who saw himself as a Roman general, grew a thick bushy mustache. He embraced the Sicilian mafia traditions and taught his son Salvatore the old ways.

read more: The Real History of The Godfather Movies and Book

Testa was indicted on gambling and loansharking charges along with several other associates in one of the first cases built on the RICO Act. They were caught in a February 1981 government sting called Operation Gangplank by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia. Testa was assassinated on March 15, 1981. A nail bomb exploded under his front porch as he was opening the front door. Witnesses claimed pieces of Testa’s body were scattered blocks away.

Testa’s son Salvatore, who knew the rules of La Cosa Nostra better than most long standing members, settled the vendetta. He personally hunted down and killed Frank “Chickie” Narducci Sr., who pulled the coup on the Scarfo family which got his father killed. He waited exactly one year after his father’s death before he stuffed cherry bombs down the throat of Rocco Marinucci, the man who detonated the bomb.

Anthony “Tony Pro” (Stephen Graham)

Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano plead the Fifth 44 times when he was called to testify before a Senate rackets committee in 1959. He wouldn’t even confirm his name when future Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked. Lips are just as buttoned on his whereabouts on the night Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. The Teamster leader was supposed to meet Provenzano at the Red Fox restaurant. It was the last place he was ever seen. Within a year of Hoffa’s disappearance, Provenzano was photographed with Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons and former President Richard Nixon while they were playing golf.

Tony Pro joined the teamsters during the Depression. Born May 7, 1917 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he was 15 when he quit school to work at the H.P. Welch Trucking Company. He was 17 when he started driving a truck out of a terminal in Hackensack, New Jersey for $10 a week. He was shop steward by the time he was 24 and headed up Teamsters Local 560 in 1958.

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Provenzano tried professional boxing for a short while but found bigger battles for better payoffs. He was listed by the New Jersey State Police as a soldier in the Genovese family, along with his brothers Salvatore and Nunzio, who allegedly dominated the trucking union for the crime group. According to testimony from a 1961 murder, Provenzano paid mob enforcer Harold Konigsberg $15,000 to kill Local 560 Secretary-Treasurer Anthony Castellito. Konigsberg and three other men lured the treasurer to his summer home in Kerhonkson, New York. Loan shark Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio allegedly hit Castellito in the head with a lead truncheon and garroted him with piano wire. Castellito’s body was never found. It was reportedly put through a tree shredder in New Jersey. Provenzano was in Florida at the time.

read more: Who Really Killed Jimmy Hoffa?

According to most reports, Provenzano and Hoffa were close early in their careers but it went stale. Tony Pro used union funds as his personal account with the full support of Hoffa. The two ultimately went to jail for it, spending overlapping sentences at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Provenzano protected Hoffa in jail, but when Hoffa couldn’t secure a Teamsters loan for a restaurant Provenzano wanted to open, they got into a fight. According to both the book and the movie, Hoffa told the capo “It’s because of people like you that I got into trouble in the first place.” Provenzano took that as a slur against Italian-Americans.

They also had a confrontation after their sentences, according to the book Desperate Bargain: Why Jimmy Hoffa Had to Die by Lester Velie. An airport encounter turned into a fist fight, which ended when Hoffa broke a bottle over Provenzano’s head at an airport. Provenzano threatened to retaliate against Hoffa’s grandchildren.

Nixon pardoned Hoffa in 1971, allegedly after a large bribe was delivered. Hoffa got the pardon with the provision he could not engage in union activity. Provenzano’s parole banned him from union activity for five years. At the end of the five-year period, Hoffa opposed Provenzano’s attempt to retake Local 560 while Tony Pro opposed Hoffa’s attempt to get reelected President of the Teamsters. Hoffa disappeared in 1975. Provenzano was convicted in the Castellito murder In 1978. Provenzano died of heart failure in prison at age 71 on Dec. 12, 1988. He had been serving a 20-year, 11-month and 29-day sentence on two racketeering conspiracy offenses.

Albert Anastasia (Garry Pastore)

Albert Anastasia controlled the Brooklyn docks, the very same dockyards at the center of the series of crime-busting articles which inspired On the Waterfront. He’s best known for forming the Syndicate’s enforcement arm, Murder, Inc. with Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the nation’s leading labor racketeer. “The Lord High Executioner” was also the guy who tried to get Lucky Luciano pardoned by protecting the waterfront during World War II.

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Born Umberto Anastasio in Calabria, Italy, in 1902, he changed his name to Albert Anastasia while sitting on death row at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y., in 1922. He’d been convicted of stabbing dockworker George Turino in March of 1921. He got off on appeal due to lack of evidence after key witnesses in the state’s case disappearred. Anastasia had been working as a longshoreman since he jumped off an Italian freighter to settle in Brooklyn on September 12, 1917. By the late 1920s, Anastasia controlled six local chapters of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

“My dad worked for him when he returned from World War II,” Garry Pastore (The Sopranos) tells Den of Geek. “He and his brother Anthony ran Marra Bros. at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father was a winch man or a dock boss. A guy came in shortly after that who was a friend of Frank Costello and his name was, Marty ‘The Horse’ Ianniello. Pastore, who plays Anastasia in both The Irishman and the upcoming independent film Mob Town, plays Ianniello in the HBO series The Deuce.

Anastasia has been fingered as one of the four gunmen who assassinated Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria in the Castellammarese War in 1931. The hit, which was carried out along with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Vito Genovese, and either Frank Costello or Joe Adonis, put Luciano in charge of the Mafia Commission. To reward Anastasia’s loyalty, Luciano put him and Lepke in charge of “The Brownsville Boys,” the Jewish and Italian murder-for-hire contractors who worked out of the back room of a candy store called Midnight Rose’s.

While the government was going after Murder Inc. in 1942, Anastasia joined the U.S. Army, training soldiers to be longshoremen. He rose to the rank of technical sergeant and received U.S. citizenship as a reward. Anastasia also went from underboss to boss of what became the Gambino crime family. Anastasia was executed while he sat in a barber’s chair at the Park Sheraton Hotel on 870 7th Avenue. Frank Sheeran took credit for the hit in Brandt’s book, but the job was probably done by Joe Gallo and the barbershop quintet.

Joseph Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco)

The Irishman calls Joe “The Blond” Gallo a hero in Brooklyn. The New York Mafia Commission called him “Crazy Joe” because he upset a lot of apple carts in the old, established ways of this thing of theirs. Bob Dylan just called him “Joey” in his ode to his favorite gangster off the 1976 album Desire. I already detailed Gallo’s story here, so I’ll let Dylan do the honors here. Joe Gallo was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when. He opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion. His brother Larry was the oldest. His baby brother Albert, was called “Kid Blast.”

Dylan says the Gallo crew lived off gambling and running numbers, but he didn’t mention they were also in jukebox distributing. A lot of gangsters had vinyl territories. Gallo’s Ace Vending supplied records throughout south Brooklyn. Gallo would later go a step further, moving to the Village and opening a Jazz club. “When they tried to strangle Larry, Joey almost hit the roof,” Dylan sings, and this very real scene was captured in the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, The Godfather: Part II.

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read more: Why The Godfather Almost Didn’t Happen

Joey did 10 years in Attica, reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich. They threw him in the hole one time for trying’ to stop a strike. This is true. According to the book The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld by Tom Folsom, Gallo didn’t want harder time. Dylan sang “his closest friends were black men ‘cause they seemed to understand.” Folsom’s book tells how Gallo bit off the nose of a top Ku Klux Klansman and spit it in a sink in front of a guard, and insisted on breaking the color barrier in all things from getting his hair cut to offering lucrative, high profile contracts.

“One day they blew him down in a clam bar in New York,” Dylan sang of the Gallo execution at Umberto’s. “He pushed the table over to protect his family. Then he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy.” Frank Sheeran claims to have done the hit. But he claims a lot of things, including one of the hits “Crazy Joe” Gallo committed.

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 JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.