The string of violence preceding the kidnapping and murder of historic labor union chief Jimmy Hoffa in 1975 will be depicted in The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated mob “supergroup” film about the relationship between Hoffa and east coast mafia hit man Frank (The Irishman) Sheeran currently in production in New York. This week, Scorsese and company will shoot a scene in Long Island’s Hempstead Harbor where Michigan Teamsters’ boss Dave Johnson has his boat blown to pieces in a marina bombing, part of a series of intimidation tactics launched by Hoffa’s former backers in the mob and aimed at him and his inner circle. Hempstead Harbor is standing in for the Detroit River where the explosion actually took place 42 years ago.
Jimmy Hoffa was president of the goliath Teamsters Union from 1958 through 1971. He was killed for attempting to reclaim power against the wishes of the mafia. Johnson served as president of Local 299, Hoffa’s home base in Detroit and was a longtime staunch Hoffa ally.
Right before he died in 2003, Frank Sheeran said he was the triggerman in Hoffa’s iconic, still-unsolved slaying, an assertion the FBI rejected after a DNA scrub of the house in Northwest Detroit that Sheeran said he clipped Hoffa in came up empty. Robert De Niro is playing Sheeran in the upcoming Scorsese flick based on Charlie Brandt’s 2004 best-selling book entitled I Heard You Paint Houses, while Al Pacino is cast as Hoffa.
Hoffa vanished from a suburban Detroit restaurant parking lot on the afternoon of July 30, 1975 on his way to a lunch meeting with two mobsters. He had used his close relationship with the mob in the Midwest to maneuver up the ranks of the union in the 1940s and 50s, but butted heads with his gangster benefactors in the years before he was slain due to his dogged desire to return to the Teamsters’ top spot after a prison stint for bribery. Those in the mob once loyal to Hoffa had shifted their allegiances to his successor and one-time vice president, Frank Fitzsimmons.
Actor Gary Basaraba is playing Fitzsimmons, but it is unknown who will be in the role of Johnson. The 1978 movie Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel and taking place in a Detroit auto factory, featured a character loosely based on Dave Johnson (called Eddie Johnson) played by Harry Bellaver.
As a means of thwarting Hoffa’s effort to recapture the union’s presidency, the mob constructed a Teamsters “goon squad” to ignite a strong-arm campaign against him. That campaign was in high gear in the summer of 1975.
Besides his boat being bombed, Johnson had the windows in his office shot out by gunfire one night. Six weeks prior to Hoffa’s murder, another Teamsters loyalist of his named Ralph Proctor was jumped and severely beaten outside Nemo’s bar and grill down the street from Local 299. Frank Fitzsimmons and his son, Richard (Little Fitz) Fitzsimmons, survived a car bombing in Nemo’s parking lot less than three weeks before Hoffa went missing unscathed.
Hoffa himself was blamed for the attack on the two Fitzsimmons. Johnson and Richard Fitzsimmons had been battling for control of Local 299 in the months surrounding Hoffa’s murder.
Nobody has ever been arrested or charged in the world-famous Hoffa homicide probe. Proctor and fellow Hoffa friend and Teamsters official Otto Wendel were both killed gangland style in the Detroit area in the years following Hoffa’s disappearance. Wendel was shot to death in 1978. Proctor was shot to death in 1984.
Scorsese has collected a star-studded ensemble for his Irishman movie. Besides De Niro and Pacino, he recruited Joe Pesci out of retirement to play Northeast Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino and cast Harvey Keitel as Philadelphia mafia don Angelo Bruno. Bufalino and Bruno were a pair of one-time Hoffa mob confidants that sanctioned his assassination. Sheeran was Bufalino’s right hand man and a Teamsters boss out of Delaware. Cameras began rolling on the 100-million dollar Netflix production last month and the movie is expected to have a limited theatre run in late 2018 or early 2019.