It”s one of the most enduring narratives in American crime history, and there”s more to it than we see in Martin Scorsese”s film.
You are watching: Hoffa the real story
Among the many triumphs of Martin Scorsese”s The Irishman is the pitch-perfect casting of Al Pacino. The actor portrays controversial union boss Jimmy Hoffa in the new gangster epic, making for one of Pacino”s greatest roles in decades. But it”s also a character that allows Pacino the opportunity to play a role that he does best: portraying real people. From NYPD officer Frank Serpico in Serpico to bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino has established himself as one of cinema”s greatest imitators. And, like many of the magnanimous real-life character”s he”s portrayed in his decades-long career, the true story of Jimmy Hoffa needs little embellishment for the purposes of storytelling. Hoffa made a lot of enemies in his day–and a lot of dangerous friends, too. His death is still a mystery. But the real-life events that preceded his disappearance are some of the most enduring tales of corruption and power in American history.
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Where did Hoffa come from?
Hoffa was born in 1913 in Brazil, Indiana. His father, a coal miner, died of lung cancer when Jimmy was only seven–a real-life tragedy that proved at an early age the dire importance of safe working conditions and employee rights. By 1930, Hoffa was already organizing strikes while working at the Kroger grocery store in Detroit. He quit school when he was only 14, and involved himself in union work from an early age, fighting his way up the ranks through the “30s and “40s, serving as chairman of the Central States Drivers Council, then the Vice President of the Teamsters chapter in Detroit. In 1957, Hoffa was elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He established himself as one of the most famous figures in union organizing history–and became, at one point, among the most powerful men in America.
What did Hoffa do as the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters?Under Hoffa”s rule, the Teamsters grew to become the largest labor union in the U.S. He fought viciously for workers” rights and earned key victories, such as in 1964 when he put forth a massive freight-hauling agreement that managed to secure on one contract nearly all the truck drivers in America. Hoffa wasn”t just famous. He was a household name in his time. Back then, almost one third of Americans belonged to a union–and the Teamsters were the largest one of all. So, his influence stretched far and wide. Like De Niro says in The Irishman, Hoffa”s reputation was comparable to that of The Beatles or Elvis Presley. But as Hoffa grew in power, he also receded into a nasty and violent web of organized crime.
How was Hoffa connected to the mob and Frank Sheeran?Frank Sheeran, the real-life mob enforcer who Robert De Niro plays in Irishman, said that he was Hoffa”s right hand man, and that he was eventually tasked with killing the union boss in 1975. But this is all from an unsubstantiated, first-hand account that was first shared by Sheeran late in life to author Charles Brandt who recorded the anecdotes in his seminal mob book, I Heard You Paint Houses. The stories Brandt put in his book come from Sheeran alone, and Scorsese”s movie put them onto the screen. It”s not clear as to whether Sheeran and Hoffa were as close as Sheeran says. But it is true that the Teamsters union had deep connections to the mafia. And that Hoffa himself was in the mix.
It all comes down to the pension fund. The Teamsters, with their membership skyrocketing under Hoffa”s rule, accrued a huge bank account that drew the interest of the mafia. The Teamsters pension fund became a vital piece of the mafia ecosystem, providing riches for the members of the Cosa Nostra, supplying cash flow for the construction of Las Vegas casinos, and helping to rig political elections that would put pro-mob (and pro-union) officials in power. And, of course, Hoffa got a piece of the pie, too.
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How did he clash with the Kennedy”s and the U.S. Government?
This deep entanglement with the mafia made Hoffa a prime target of the Kennedy brothers. As shown in The Irishman, there was heated contention between the famed American political dynasty and Hoffa. Robert F. Kennedy became attorney general in 1961 and led a relentless crusade against organized crime in America. To RFK, Hoffa represented the exact sort of mafia-brand corruption that the Kennedy organization was seeking to eradicate in the U.S. Hoffa”s personal attorney, portrayed by Ray Romano in Irishman, was cousin of Russel Bufalino, the infamous Pennsylvania-area mob boss who”s played by Joe Pesci in the film. Kennedy believed Hoffa was using Teamsters money to pay off mob organizations in the country, and despite Hoffa”s astoundingly successful efforts to avoid litigation for years, RFK finally managed to convict the union boss in 1964. After spending three years attempting to appeal the charges, Hoffa was sentenced to 13 years in prison starting in 1967 for bribery and fraud. But, thanks to Hoffa”s powerful anti-Kennedy presence in the American political scene, his days in federal prison ended after only five years. When Nixon came into power, he commuted Hoffa”s sentence.
How did Hoffa die and why is it still a mystery?Despite imprisonment, Hoffa remained president of the Teamsters union until 1971, refusing to step down even while behind bars. Part of Nixon”s stipulation in the commutation was that Hoffa would no longer engage in union activity until 1980. But Hoffa, characteristically aggressive, could not abide by that ruling, and is widely believed to have worked behind the scenes in this period to reclaim his union leadership. As The Irishman surmises, this was Hoffa”s biggest mistake. Though Hoffa”s death is a mystery, many believe it to be a mob-related hit. His efforts to re-establish his own power in the Teamsters union was apparently not a popular move for his mob associates, and in 1975, Hoffa disappeared. The last known whereabouts of Hoffa were his home in Detroit, where he”d reportedly left to have a meeting at a restaurant with mob and union-related officials Anthony Provenzano and Anthony Giacalone. But Hoffa never returned home that day. In 1982, after unsuccessful attempts to track down the whereabouts of the former union boss, Hoffa was legally declared presumed dead.
Why some people challenge the claims in The Irishman.
Hoffa”s disappearance is one of the most enduring mysteries of American crime history. Several books have been written on the matter, and it”s an enigma that has eluded investigators and casual mafia enthusiasts for close to 40 years. Scorsese”s new film, unfortunately, is not the end of that story. Based on unproven claims from I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman is by no means a work of nonfiction. Many critics have discredited Sheeran”s claims in I Heard You Paint Houses. In the last few decades, 14 people have claimed to have killed Hoffa. And even though FBI files report that Sheeran was in Detroit at the time of Hoffa”s death, some accounts say he might have been involved in the murder, but inflated the major role that he claimed to have.
Dom NeroDom Nero is a staff video editor at brianowens.tv, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.
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