Many people indulging in Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic have a fascination with the real story behind each character. The Irishman is, on one level, a movie about an old man coming to terms with the costs of his choices. And the gangster lifestyle came at a cost indeed for some of the real people whose lives are chronicled in the Netflix film. (Be forewarned that there will be spoilers for the movie in this article.)
How did the real people behind each character die in real life? What was their cause of death? Who died in gangland hits and what happened? What’s the accuracy of the film? You can see a roundup later in this article.
Character after character, the movie informs us, was bumped off or otherwise met an untimely end. That’s not true, though, of Sheeran and Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, his benefactor, who get to enjoy something the Godfather never did: Old age. Of course, as Yeats reminds us, there “is no country for old men” because they are “fastened to a dying animal.” And so we see Sheeran at the end of his life, alone, infirm, in a wheelchair. In a way, the character’s physical disintegration tracks that of the waning mob post RICO. It’s also a fitting bookend for director Martin Scorcese’s earlier gangster films.
As for Jimmy Hoffa, of course, his cause of death is unknown. His body was never found, but he was legally declared dead. Sheeran claimed he shot Hoffa in a house where the Teamsters boss was lured in Detroit. Sheeran confessed in the Charles Brandt book, I Heard You Paint Houses. Some people don’t buy it.
The characters shown in The Irishman were all real people: Jimmy Hoffa (obviously), Frank Sheeran, Russell Bufalino, Chuckie O’Brien, and so forth. Whether the storyline is real is up for debate; as far back as the 1970s, the newspapers were pinpointing a group of suspects that didn’t include Sheeran in Hoffa’s presumed death. Many experts believe that mobster Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio pulled the trigger at the request of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, likely with involvement from Anthony Giacalone and at the ultimate order of Bufalino and, perhaps, the powerful Genovese Crime Family boss “Fat Tony” Salerno.
In real life, as in the Netflix movie, Tony Pro had a falling out with Hoffa in prison, and Hoffa thought he was meeting Provenzano and Giacalone at a Detroit restaurant the day he disappeared, but they didn’t show. Authorities do believe Hoffa’s foster son, O’Brien, was driving the car that took him to the death house (but even the real Sheeran didn’t think O’Brien knew what was about to go down.) O’Brien is still alive. He lives in Florida, where he continues to deny involvement in Hoffa’s death. In later years, DNA testing did show that a hair from Jimmy Hoffa was found in the car.
Here’s what you need to know about the cause of death and true story of the real characters:
According to his obituary, Frank J. Sheeran, “formerly of Bensalem, PA and Wilmington, DE” died on December 14, 2003. He was described as the “beloved father of MaryAnne Cahill (Richard), Connie Griffin and Delores Miller (Michael); loving grandfather of Christopher, Karen, Brittany and Jake; great grandfather of Sarah.” Interment was to be at Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.
The cause of death was cancer, Esquire reported. He was 83 years old. The Brandt book claims that, after confessing, Brandt and Sheeran prayed together and “then he stopped eating. A man who ‘painted houses’ and determined the life expectancy of more than two dozen other men – not counting those he killed in combat – determined his own.”
One of Sheeran’s four daughters has also died. Maryanne Francis (Sheeran) Cahill died at age 69. “Maryanne was a registered nurse and worked at both Fitzgerald Mercy and Bryn Mawr Hospitals. She was passionate about her career and her co-workers at both places became lifelong friends. She was an avid reader and loved to bake for her family,” the obit reads.
Frank’s first wife, Mary Leddy, whom he divorced in 1968, died on April 6, 2005. She was living in West Chester, Pennsylvania, at the time of her death. Frank’s other daughters are still alive, including Peggy, and it’s true she stopped talking to her dad for good when Hoffa disappeared. “I was very close to Peggy, but she doesn’t talk to me anymore, not since Jimmy disappeared,” the real Sheeran said in the book (you can read more about Peggy here.) Irene Sheeran, Frank’s second wife and the mother of their daughter, Connie, passed away in December 1995. Her maiden name was Gray.
(Hoffa’s wife Josephine Poszywak Hoffa died at age 62 in 1980 in Detroit. Her New York Times obituary said she had been “seriously ill with heart problems” for a decade. The article says she never recovered from his disappearance.)
The generally accepted theories in Hoffa’s death have focused on a group of mobsters tied to Russ Bufalino and Anthony Provenzano (Tony Pro). That doesn’t mean it’s impossible that Sheeran’s Hoffa confessional is true; he clearly was deeply affiliated with all of the characters in the group, according to news articles from the 1970s, and, as a real-life Hoffa friend (and Delaware Teamsters boss), his presence might have lured Hoffa into a sense of security. Sheeran, who had long-standing mob ties, especially to Bufalino, did make the list of 12 suspects in the 1976 Hoffex memo, which was authored by the lead FBI case agent. You can read it here. But an informant told authorities early on that the killer was someone else.
Way back in December 1975, an article in the Orlando Sentinel reported that a then-mysterious informant had named three New Jersey teamsters with alleged Mafia ties in Hoffa’s disappearance. Salvatore Briguglio, 47, then of Paramus, New Jersey, and his brother, Gabriel, of East Rutherford, and Thomas Andretta, 38, of Hasbrouck Heights, were ordered to appear before a police lineup after being named by the informant.
Police and federal sources said that Hoffa’s disappearance was “approved by the highest echelons of organized crime.” Both Sally Bugs and Andretta had ties to the Genovese crime family in New York, according to the article. William Bufalino, the lawyer tied to Russell Bufalino, claimed in the story that none of the brothers had been in Detroit before the disappearance.
It described Briguglio as “business agent of Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey,” once headed by Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano. Provenzano is the mobster who had a falling out in prison and later with Hoffa, as chronicled in Sheeran’s book, news articles from the time, and the Netflix movie. News articles from the time indicate that it was widely believed that Tony Pro, who was closely associated with Sally Bugs, ordered the hit, with orders from more powerful crime bosses, but wasn’t at the scene himself.
In real life, Sheeran was, indeed, known as “The Irishman” or “Big Irish Frank Sheeran.” He was a truck driver and World War II veteran before taking over a Wilmington, Delaware union branch. He was the son of Thomas Francis Sheeran, an Irish-American painter in Philadelphia, and Mary Hanson, who was of Swedish descent. He was convicted of racketeering in a trial in which the government raised his ties to Bufalino, for whom he ran errands, according to Ancestry records and newspaper articles from the 1970s. You can read more about his background here.
Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno
In The Irishman, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno is played by Domenick Lombardozzi and is seen conspiring to end the life of Jimmy Hoffa. He is the boss of Tony Pro Provenzano.
The real Salerno died in prison in 1992 at the age of 80, according to The New York Times, which described him as “the rough-talking, cigar-chomping boss of the Genovese crime family who rose from running numbers in East Harlem to rigging construction bids on Manhattan skyscrapers.”
The Times obit said that Salerno had been in failing health and had been in prison since 1989. The cause of death was complications after a stroke. He was affiliated with the Genovese Crime Family.
According to that obituary, Fat Tony Salerno was identified by federal authorities as a senior member of the fabled “Commission,” which was the “ruling council” of the Mafia’s Five Families. “His influence ranged from Miami’s waterfront to Cleveland labor unions to New York City’s concrete industry,” The New York Times reported.
Fat Tony avoided drugs and thus avoided prison until his 70s. “He spent his entire life hustling and controlling the streets of East Harlem,” according to Gangster Report. In 1986, Fortune Magazine called Fat Tony Salerno America’s most powerful and wealthiest mobster. Thus, if he wanted Jimmy Hoffa gone, he’d be gone.
A 1989 article in the Kenosha News alleged that a magazine article’s authors claimed Fat Tony Salerno gave permission to Provenzano for the Hoffa killing. A 1994 article in the Sydney Morning Herald explained how a new book had alleged that Salerno ordered the execution after Hoffa punched Provenzano during an argument about whether Hoffa would again control the union after getting out of jail. Told the mob was happy with the new president, Hoffa “threatened to expose the Genovese family’s extortions from the union,” the article said, so Salerno decided he had to go. Other articles claim that it was Russell Bufalino who ordered the hit or that, as Netflix shows, it was Salerno and Bufalino together.
Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano
In the movie (and real life) mobster Anthony Tony Pro Provenzano is shown in a simmering feud with Hoffa. Many experts believe he was involved in ordering Hoffa’s death. Provenzano was one of two mobsters Hoffa thought he was meeting at a restaurant that day.
According to Tony Pro’s obituary in The New York Times, he died at age 71 in a hospital while serving a racketeering sentence in a Lompoc, California prison. The cause of death was a heart attack.
Tony Pro’s possible involvement in the Hoffa disappearance is no big revelation, though. The same year Hoffa vanished, a 1975 AP article described Tony Pro as another key figure in the Hoffa case. He told investigators “he was playing cards with Stephen Andretta in Union City, New Jersey the day Hoffa disappeared,” the AP article stated. It described how reports indicated that Provenzano, a “Teamster boss in New Jersey” was supposed to be meeting Hoffa at a Detroit restaurant. Instead, Hoffa disappeared.
According to an FBI report, Provenzano was a “soldier in the Genovese crime family who was a close associate of Hoffa in the early 1960s” and was deemed a primary suspect in Hoffa’s disappearance. Provenzano was also a shop steward in a trucking company and he was the person in charge of “bookmaking, numbers and loan sharking,” AP reported.
Russell Bufalino, the powerful Pennsylvania crime family leader, died at the age of 91 after spending several years in a nursing home.
A Times Leader article reported that Russell Bufalino had died at age 91 at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital. In the obit, he was described as “the last of Pennsylvania’s old-school Mafioso” and the “don of dons.”
Authorities were concerned that his death would “trigger a power struggle.” The obit said that Bufalino had been living in a nursing home after being released from federal prison in 1989.
A February, 1994 Associated Press article reported that Bufalino had lived in a Kingston nursing home for more than two years. Hospital officials would not release a cause of death, the AP reported, but he was 91. The AP quoted him as once challenging officials to “do something about it” or “leave me alone.”
His wife Carolyn (Carrie) Bufalino died in Wesley Village, Jenkins Township in 2006 of old age. She was born in 1911.
In real life, Russell Bufalino was a powerful Pennsylvania Mafia boss known as “McGee” and the “Old Man.” He ran a string of garment businesses, but he was really at the helm of a ruthless crime family with roots in Sicily, and he was also a key figure in theories surrounding the disappearance of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.
A Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1989 report indicated that the Russell Bufalino Family, in 1980, was described as operating “in northeastern Pennsylvania, New York State and New York City” and “may be the most powerful Cosa Nostra Family in the Commonwealth…the power which is held by Bufalino and his Family should not be underestimated.”
The family traced its origins to the 1880s in the Pittston area of Luzerne County. Rosario Albert Bufalino, Russell’s real name, was born on October 29, 1903 in Sicily, the report says. He became the boss of the northeastern Pennsylvania Cosa Nostra Family in 1959, one of the nation’s “most ruthless and powerful organized crime figures.”
In fact, Rosario Bufalino was credited with arranging the infamous “Apalachin Convention” of leading organized crime figures in 1957. The commission’s report says the family’s power was “established in labor racketeering in the region’s garment and coal industries.” William D’Elia, Bufalino’s successor and described in news articles as the purported Bufalino family chieftain through the 2010s, was the holder of the third gold ring, according to the Brandt book (Sheeran and Russell had the others, according to the book and Netflix show.) See Russell Bufalino’s FBI file here.
Russ was “very spry,” and born in Sicily but “spoke perfect English.” He was married to wife Carrie but they didn’t have children, the Brandt book says. Russell said of Jimmy, according to Sheeran in the book: “Your friend made one threat too many in his life… there won’t be a body. My Irishman, we did all we could for the man. Nobody could tell that man what it is. We get into Detroit together Wednesday night.” At the time, Hoffa was “as famous as Elvis.”
Bufalino’s wife, Carolina Sciandra, Carrie, was “related to the Sciandra line of La Cosa Nostra.” Her family didn’t have bosses in it but went back “to the earliest days of the American Mafia.” Sheeran said that, of all of the crime bosses he met, Russell’s “mannerisms and style” most fit those depicted by Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Yet his name was not widely known to the public, and he liked it that way.
Angelo Bruno is the powerful Philadelphia crime boss seen hunkering down with Russell Bufalino in The Irishman, presumably plotting nefarious things. In real life, he met a bloody end. Bruno is played by Harvey Keitel.
Bruno was dead in real life by March 21, 1980. If you want, you can see extremely graphic crime scene footage on YouTube.
In April 1980, a Standard-Speaker article reported that authorities suspected Bruno’s death “may be” part of “an underworld struggle for control of the East Coast drug trade.” He was “shotgunned to death while sitting in an automobile in front of his home,” the article stated. Theories bandied about ranged from a fight over power to “mob efforts to move into the Atlantic City casino business,” the article reported.
A UPI article in March 1980 reported that Bruno was “gunned down in a gangland-style execution last night as he sat in his car in front of his modest home.” He was 69 and returning from dinner at a South Philly restaurant. The bullet struck him “behind the right ear,” according to the article, which said that the driver was John Stanfa, 39, a contractor. He was also shot but survived and had given Bruno a ride home.
Police were “seeking two suspects, who were on foot,” according to the article. The article claimed that a $250,00 contract was “put on Bruno shortly after Carmine Galante, reputed New York crime boss, was slain.”
It was believed, according to the article, that both killings were related to a power struggle over the casino industry and the Bruno killing also might be connected to the “heroin-smuggling arrest” of two brothers related to Carlo Gambino. Bruno opposed drug dealing and there was concerned he “would talk about drug dealing.”
According to a 1980 article in the Boston Globe, a federal informant told UPI that Bruno was executed on the order of a “top New York crime boss” by a hit team that also murdered Anthony Russo, a New Jersey mob boss. The crime families were feuding over casinos. Bruno already controlled “the alleged numbers racket in New Jersey” and wanted to “stay in charge,” but other families wanted in.
In 1981, the New York Times reported that Philip C. Testa, the new head of organized crime in Philadelphia, was killed at age 56. It was the third violent death linked to Bruno’s shooting, according to the Times. Other deaths included the discovery of the “battered, nude bodies of Antonio Caponigro, 67, and his 69-year-old brother-in-law, Alfred Salerno.” According to National Crime Syndicate, as Testa “was opening the door, a nail bomb exploded under his front porch.” He was known as the Chicken Man because of prominent scars from chicken pox.
According to the Times, despite the casino theory, Arthur Shuman, Philadelphia’s Chief Assistant District Attorney, has said investigators “have concluded that Mr. Caponigro ordered Mr. Bruno’s death and was killed in retaliation.”
The Times reported that, before Bruno’s murder, Caponigro “met several times” with Stanfa, who disappeared after testifying before a grand jury.
In August 1980, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, Stanfa and Caponigro (who was known as Tony Bananas) were designated “principal suspects” in Bruno’s death. When Caponigro’s body was found, it was stuffed into a trunk with ripped up $20 bills stuffed into it.
The story said that Stanfa “gave different versions of how the shooting occurred and generally refused full cooperation with police.”
The story described Stanfa as a runner and Caponigro as a high-ranking capo who may have wanted “to increase mob activity in Atlantic City” and open South Jersey and Philadelphia to illegal narcotics, which Bruno opposed. Today, Stanfa is serving a life prison term for other crimes.
Bill Bufalino, the lawyer who constantly showed up to represent members of the Bufalino Crime Family (in real life too), died in a retirement community in Florida in 1992, according to Gangster Report, which indicated Bufalino’s daughter’s wedding was the mob event it was shown to be in The Irishman.
An article in the Arizona Republic, dated May 19, 1990, stated that Bill Bufalino’s cause of death was heart failure at age 72. He died at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and had homes there and in Pompano Beach, Florida. He retired from law practice in 1982. He was described in obits as the attorney for Jimmy Hoffa. According to Vulture, he had leukemia.
Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio
We see Sally Bugs with his big glasses laying linoleum in the Hoffa death house and peppering Hoffa’s foster son, O’Brien, with endless questions about his fish. In real life, Briguglio, pegged by some experts as the likely Hoffa triggerman, died a violent death outside a Little Italy restaurant.
Way back in December 1975, an article in the Orlando Sentinel said that Hoffa’s disappearance was “approved by the highest echelons of organized crime.” Sally Bugs had ties to the Genovese crime family in New York, according to the article. He was “business agent of Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey,” once headed by Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and, thus, a Provenzano associate.
In real life, he met a bloody end outside Benito’s II restaurant on Mulberry Street. One article in the Lebanon Daily News, on March 14, 1982 said that authorities suspected that Briguglio was executed “because he failed to pay a $10,000 debt.” The killing went unsolved.
In 1978, the AP reported that homicide detectives considered the murder of Briguglio to be “gangland style” and were investigating whether it was a contract killing. Two guns were used. “He had a number of enemies. There are a lot of people out there who wanted him dead,” said Deputy Chief of Detectives Martin Duffy in that article. “But we don’t know who killed him or why.”
He was slain “in a spray of gunfire” around 11:15 p.m. outside the restaurant. Witnesses saw him “struggle with two men, who knocked him to the ground and shot him four times in the face and once in the head.”
There’s no evidence, publicly available anyway, that Sheeran had anything to do with Sally Bugs’ murder.
Crazy Joe Gallo
The Netflix movie shows Sheeran murdering Crazy Joe Gallo Gangland style in a restaurant. Although Sheeran claimed he was the killer, eyewitnesses described short Italian men who look nothing like Sheeran. Presumably his size and Irishness would have made him stand out to witnesses?
An article on Slate.com by Bill Tonelli casts doubt on Sheeran’s stories that he killed both Jimmy Hoffa and Gallo. It says the accepted version of the Gallo death was always that a convicted murderer named Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase was the killer.
An AP story on April 8, 1972 described how the murder of Joe Gallo went down. Six diners were celebrating his birthday but had “barely finished their clams” when shots rang out and “90 seconds later, Gallo was dead.”
It was one gunman who fired three bullets after bursting into the Clam House by that account. Gallo was shot in the shoulder. “He stumbled to his feet in stunned disbelief” and fled across the room. He was shot a second time, in the buttocks, before making it outside where he collapsed and died. His bodyguard was struck. His sister was also present. There were 20 bullets fired with four guns inside the establishment. It was widely believed that the Gallo hit was revenge for his perceived role in the severe wounding of Joseph Colombo at an Italian event.
The Slate article says the Clam House where Crazy Joe died was owned by a mobster named Matty the Horse. A “hood” connected to the Colombo family saw him there, told his bosses, and was ordered to take Gallo out. The article says newspaper articles at the time described the shooter as looking like Di Biase not Sheeran: “about 5-foot-8, stocky, about 40 years old and with receding dark hair.”
Sheeran was Irish and Swedish and well over 6 foot tall. Gallo’s wife told Slate that there was more than one killer, describing them as “little, short, fat Italians” – again, not Sheeran’s description at all.
A 1972 article in The New York Times reported that Joseph Luparelli, who was in police custody, had claimed that he and four other men killed Gallo. Joseph Yacovelli, acting head of the Colombo family, was believed to have “sanctioned the Gallo murder” – not Russell Bufalino.
Luparelli claimed he was sitting at the clam bar when Gallo walked in. He knew that Gallo had “for several months…been marked for execution by the Colombo family” so he left the restaurant and asked for Yacovelli. At that point, Carmine Di Biase, who was a former Genovese member, called Yacovelli. Then, Di Biase and Philip Gambino, a “Colombo man,” left the restaurant and returned with guns.
Di Biase, Gambino and two unidentified brothers drove to Umberto’s. Luparelli stayed at the wheel of the car as the men entered the restaurant. Di Biase, previously accused of murder, “pulled out a gun and opened fire,” according to The Times. Luparelli later went to the FBI because he was afraid he’d be killed.
No one has been charged in the death.
Although Anastasia is not a character in The Irishman, his murder in a barber shop is shown early on in the film. In real life, the hit took place at the Park Sheraton Hotel on 870 7th Avenue. According to National Crime Syndicate, Anastasia was murdered by two men wearing scarves while he sat in the barber’s chair and his bodyguard went for a walk.
His nicknames were “Mad Hatter” and “Lord High Executioner.” He was at the head for years of Murder Inc., which was a part of the Mafia syndicate that carried out hundreds of hits for the Five Families and Mafia commission. He was put there by Lucky Luciano. Some people think the Genovese Crime Family was behind Anastasia’s 1957 death. See his FBI files here.
READ NEXT: The Story of Peggy Sheeran.