“Only three people in the world have one of these, and only one of them is Irish,” Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, tells Robert De Niro‘s Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese‘s gangster swan song, The Irishman. Bufalino, a crime figure so powerful he dictated casting to the producers of The Godfather, presents the Teamsters union official and sometime contract killer, with a gold ring. You just want to kiss it, like the capos of the Corleone Family do with Don Michael’s ring at the ending of the Francis Ford Coppola classic.
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 biography, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. In the book, Sheeran calls Bufalino “one of the two greatest men I ever met.” The other was Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino in the film. Sheeran was loyal to Hoffa, but nowhere near as he was to Bufalino. He may have killed Hoffa on Bufalino’s say-so.
“Russell presented me with a gold ring that he had made up special for just three people – himself, his underboss, and me,” Sheeran remembers in Brandt’s book. The film makes it sound like Angelo Bruno, played by Harvey Keitel, has the third. But Bruno was the boss of the Philadelphia mob family, not Bufalino’s underboss. James Osticco, whose real name was Vincenzo Sticco, was the first underboss of the Bufalino Family. Osticco was convicted of jury tampering in the early 1980s, and he got another five years tagged on to his sentence conspiracy to commit arson. William “Big Billy” D’Elia, became the new boss of the Bufalino crime family after Bufalino died in 1994. The acting boss had been Edward Sciandra. Big Billy had the third ring.
The diamond-encrusted insignia rings were made from three dollar liberty coins that were introduced in 1855. “The coins themselves are quite rare and would have been quite expensive when Russell had them made into 14 carat gold rings surrounded by 25 diamonds,” the film’s costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson told Town and Country. But Sheeran explain in the book, “Russ was big in the jewelry-fencing and cat-burglar world. He was a silent partner in a number of jewelry stores on Jeweler’s Row in New York City.”
Russ was big in everything. He ruled the Bufalino crime family from 1959 to 1989. The ring signifies a very personal triad. It does not signify Sheeran was a member of the mafia. Pesci’s Bufalino wears the ring on his pinky, a Hollywood staple for mob affiliated accessories. Family boss Joe Bonanno, who kept a low profile, wore one flashy pinky ring. There’s no photographic evidence of flashy gangster Al Capone wearing a pinky ring, although De Niro sports a beautiful one when he played him in The Untouchables. Edward G. Robinson didn’t always wear it on his pinky as the Capone-inspired Rico in Little Caesar. Michael Corleone wears a subtle gold pink ring in The Godfather. His father, Don Vito, played by Marlon Brando, did not. Humprey Bogart’s Baby Face Martin wears one in Dead End. Wesley Snipes’ Nino Brown wears a big beautiful pinky ring in New Jack City.
“The gold watch Jimmy gave me is still on my wrist, and the gold ring Russell gave me is still on my finger here at the assisted-living home,” Sheeran says in Brandt’s book. The film opens and closes at the home. The Irishman is a jewel, a very personal gift from Scorsese and his inner circle.
The Irishman is currently streaming on Netflix.
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.