'The Irishman': 12 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

12:12 PM 11/30/2019

by Katherine Schaffstall

Read on to see how Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and more of the cast prepared for their roles in Martin Scorsese's Netflix crime drama.

World Premiere of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman - Still 2 - Publicity-H 2019

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman tells the true story of mob hitman and World War II veteran Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (Robert De Niro). The film follows Sheeran in his later years of life as he reflects on the events that defined his career as a notorious hitman, particularly the role he played in the disappearance of labor leader and his longtime friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film also looks back at Sheeran's involvement with the Bufalino crime family.

While the cause of Hoffa's death has never been confirmed, Sheeran claimed that he was responsible for his friend's death. As for the Bufalino crime family, they were known for their mafia activity in Pennsylvania. In the film, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) mentors Sheeran in the world of organized crime while fostering the friendship between Sheeran and Hoffa.

Many of the characters were members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is a labor union made up of blue-collar and professional workers. During the time period covered by the film, the union was known for participating in organized crime.

The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses.

Scorsese directed and produced the film alongside De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett and Gabriele Israilovici. Steven Zaillian penned the screenplay.

Other actors playing real-life characters in the film include Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Anna Paquin, Sebastian Maniscalco, Ray Romano and Jesse Plemons.

The film hit select theaters on Nov. 1 before streaming on Netflix on Nov. 27.

Read on to find out how the actors prepared to play their real-life counterparts.

  • Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, portrayed by Robert De Niro

    De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, who is also known as "The Irishman." The film is told from his point of view as he gives an insider account of his life as a hitman. He touches on his involvement with the darkest side of organized crime and its inner workings, rivalries, arcane social structures and its connection to mainstream politics.

    Sheeran was a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who, shortly before his death in 2003, took credit for the death of Teamster leader Hoffa in 1975.

    De Niro has been involved with the making of The Irishman for 12 years.

    "It's a terrific book … I read it and I said, 'Marty [Scorsese], you should read this book because I think maybe this is what we should try and [do],'" the actor told The Hollywood Reporter In Studio. "We started this whole process in 2007, so it's been a long time coming. I'm excited to see it and to share it after all this time working on it."

    In order to play Sheeran at different ages, De Niro relied on VFX and makeup. The film used digital de-aging work handled by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic to help the actors span decades.

    The actor explained the de-aging process when he stopped by The Tonight Show in September 2019. "We had slight dots. They didn't want it to get in our way," he said of how he was digitally de-aged. "This they did very subtly and so on, so they had references for all kinds of cameras taking pictures and a special camera photographing us."

    De Niro added that he slightly changed his voice "more toward the end" to better depict the character at different ages.

  • Jimmy Hoffa, portrayed by Al Pacino

    Pacino plays Hoffa, the controversial leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He consolidated his power in the 1940s and '50s, which led to his rise in fame as the head of the country's strongest union. Hoffa was convicted in the 1960s for jury tampering, bribery and fraud. After spending five years in prison, he was released with the goal of regaining his power.

    Hoffa disappeared on July 30, 1975, after he claimed that he had been stood up at a meeting. His unlocked car was found the following day, though there was no evidence of foul play. After years of investigations into Hoffa's disappearance, he was declared legally dead on July 30, 1982.

    Like De Niro, Pacino also underwent a de-aging process to play his character at multiple ages.

    "I was playing Jimmy Hoffa at the age of 39, they're doing that on a computer," Pacino told The Bill Simmons Podcast. "We went through all these tests and things." The actor explained that the camera process involved "computers mounted on the sides of cameras" that "were programmed to capture the actors at various ages, making them appear physically transformed in every frame."

    Pacino shared that many film crewmembers helped him keep his ages straight while filming. "Someone would come up to me and say, 'You're 39.' [You'd recall] some sort of memory of 39, and your body tries to acclimate to that and think that way. They remind you of it," he said.

    The actor spoke to Empire about the physical hurdles of playing a younger character, including the struggle to energetically run up a set of stairs while filming. "Hoffa was a very energetic fella!" he said. "Somehow I managed to do it with real alacrity. During the take, it was powerful. I did think, 'How did I manage to do that?'"

  • Russell Bufalino, portrayed by Joe Pesci

    Pesci stars in The Irishman as Russell Bufalino. Due to his powerful status in Pennsylvania, Bufalino was able to hide a vast domain of criminal activity behind his curtain business. He acted as Sheeran's mentor in the ways of the criminal underworld, and fostered the friendship between Sheeran and Hoffa.

    Known for his mob work, Bufalino first began his criminal activities as a teenager in Buffalo, New York, before he moved to Kingston, Pennsylvania, in 1940 to supervise his family operations. Bufalino served as the boss of a small group of criminals, who engaged in illegal gambling, loan sharking and labor racketeering. Additionally, he worked closely with the Cosa Nostra criminal group.

    In 1978, Bufalino was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for his part in an extortion attempt. He later returned to prison after he was indicted for plotting to murder the man who had testified before a grand jury against him in 1977.

    Following his time in prison, Bufalino's role as the leader of the crime family came to an end in 1989. He died of natural causes in 1994 at the age of 90.

    Pesci spoke about what it was like to work with Scorsese when the cast, director and producers appeared on a panel at Lincoln Center following a New York Film Festival screening of the film in September. "I do whatever he tells me to," he said of the director, according to CNN.

  • Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio, portrayed by Bobby Cannavale

    Cannavale plays Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio, who, in the film, was Sheeran's boss during his younger years.

    "I got to play this great character named Skinny Razor. Best name ever," Cannavale said about the role when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in July 2018.

    He added that it was "wild" to play De Niro's character's boss. "These guys are like my heroes. But I got to be cool, you know, cause I've got to work with them," he said of working with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Scorsese. "In my head my voice is screaming. Like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe it!' But I'm coming off really aloof."

    Cannavale spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at The Irishman's world premiere at the New York Film Festival about the film's length, which clocks in at 209 minutes. "It's a Martin Scorsese movie with Bob De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci — it's an incredible film. I didn't want it to end," said the actor.

    He added he felt like the length of the film was "deliberate." Cannavale continued, "I think that there's something very sad about that ending. It's so epic in scale that it can't be any shorter. And there's something about the ending of that movie and what it's saying about mortality and how it stretches out at the end, particularly the last half-hour, that I found to be very affecting and very much felt like what death feels like. I just felt the weight of the end of that movie, and seeing those guys, so old, coming to the end of their lives, really landed with me, and I thought it needed to have that kind of length and scale. It tells a story that spans 40 years. You need the time, and Marty's not really known for making short movies."

  • Angelo Bruno, portrayed by Harvey Keitel

    Keitel stars in the film as Angelo Bruno, a Sicilian-American mobster who was best known for being the boss of the Philadelphia crime family for two decades, beginning in 1959. During his 20 years as a mob leader, Bruno successfully avoided the intense media and law enforcement scrutiny and outbursts of violence that other crime families often faced. And Bruno avoided lengthy prison terms despite several arrests.

    Bruno died of a gunshot wound orchestrated by members of the Philadelphia family in 1980. He was 69.

    Keitel spoke about working with Scorsese on the film at the London Film Festival. "It's a project very special to Marty and Robert [De Niro], particularly. And they added Joe Pesci to it and Al Pacino. It became a very special project," he told HeyUGuys on the red carpet.

    The actor also spoke about why he felt it was important for the story to be told in 2019. "They say politics is the business of the city and right now politics is very prevalent in all our lives," he said. "It's very timely. It's an exploration of that, an exploration of the soul of the city."

  • Anthony Provenzano, portrayed by Stephen Graham

    Graham plays Anthony Provenzano, who was also known as Tony Pro. He was the captain of the Genovese crime family and known for his association with Teamsters Union director Hoffa due to his role as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 560 vice president in Union City, New Jersey.

    With Hoffa's permission, Provenzano used his job as Teamsters vice president to take union funds for his personal use. The two were eventually jailed for their activities. Following their imprisonment, Hoffa and Provenzano had a violent confrontation during a meeting at an airport, after which Provenzano was forbidden from engaging with the union for five years as part of his parole.

    In 1978, Provenzano was arrested for his involvement in the 1961 murder of Local 560 secretary-treasurer Anthony Castellito. Provenzano later died in 1988 of heart failure. He was 71.

    While talking to HeyUGuys at the London Film Festival, Graham said it was "a hell of an experience" to work on the film. "I never, even in my wildest dreams, thought I'd be in a film with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel. Just never think it's gonna happen," he said.

    Graham added that Provenzano was "a great character" to play. "With Marty, the conversations we had is that we wanted him to be a little live wired and this ball of energy," he said. "That opportunity to create something brilliant like that, that really attracted me to it."

  • Anthony Salerno, portrayed by Domenick Lombardozzi

    Lombardozzi stars in the film as Anthony Salerno. Also known as "Fat Tony," the New York mobster served as the front boss of the Genovese crime family from 1981 until his conviction in 1986. Salerno was indicted for federal racketeering and accused of illegally aiding the election of Roy Lee Williams to the national presidency of the Teamsters Union.

    While Lombardozzi has not spoken much about his character or the film, he did give fans an inside look at the preparation process to get into character. The actor shared a photo of himself in a makeup chair as he got into character as Salerno on Instagram. "Half way mark for #tonysalerno & #theirishman," he captioned a photo posted on March 1.

  • Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo, portrayed by Sebastian Maniscalco

    Maniscalco appears in the film as Joseph Gallo. In addition to his nickname "Crazy Joe," he was also known as "Joe the Blond." The New York gangster was part of the Profaci crime family, later known as the Colombo crime family.

    Gallo was murdered by members of the Patriarca crime family on his 43rd birthday. 

    The actor stopped by The Tonight Show in September to talk about the film. "The movie is unbelievable. It's the Italian superheroes I grew up with," he said before he listed the cast. "My parents don't even believe I'm in it."

    After he said that he "didn't want to disappoint" anyone with his portrayal, Maniscalco shared that he got into character by dyeing his chest hair. "I read somewhere that Gallo had black or brown-ish hair, but he had blond chest hair," he said. "I dyed my chest hair blond just in case Scorsese said, 'Listen, you're gonna need to take your shirt off.' I had blond chest hair."

    He added that he was "very nervous" to work with the legendary cast. "I didn't sleep for two nights prior to the scene. So my first scene was with Pesci and De Niro, and De Niro came on set and he came up to me and was like, 'I hear you're doing good things,'" he recalled. "I said, 'Oh, OK. Does he know that I do stand-up or …' And I wasn't gonna ask him."

    Despite being asked if he was the comic relief on set, Maniscalco said that he "stayed in my lane" during filming.

  • Bill Bufalino, portrayed by Ray Romano

    Romano stars in the film as Bill Bufalino. Born William Eugene Bufalino, the American attorney represented the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1947 to 1971. He retired in 1982. Bufalino worked closely with Hoffa until his disappearance.

    The actor revealed in The IMDb Studio at Sundance that he did not have to audition for the role because he previously worked with Scorsese on the HBO series Vinyl. "In The Irishman, he just cast me because he liked me in that," said the actor. "But now I'm playing a different role, so that was frightening as hell because how does he know I can do this? Because on Vinyl he saw it on tape. Here he's just trusting it that I'm gonna come in and be with Pesci and De Niro and be able to fit in. It scared the hell out of me."

    Romano also spoke to THR at the New York Film Festival about the film's length. The actor said that the movie "could've been another hour as far as I was concerned. Just go to the bathroom before it starts, and you'll just get immersed in it. It has so much. It has what you would expect from a Marty Scorsese movie, and then more. It has this heart, this story, this conflict, this human-interest element to it that is more prevalent than any of his other movies, so there's something there for everybody and something that will compel you and keep you there for three [hours] and 20 [minutes], and you won't even feel it."

  • Chuckie O'Brien, portrayed by Jesse Plemons

    Plemons portrays Hoffa's foster son Chuckie O'Brien in The Irishman. Police officers and Hoffa's family believed that O'Brien was involved in Hoffa's disappearance, despite a lack of solid evidence tying him to what happened.

    Plemons told AM New York that he prepared for the role by researching O'Brien online. "The production tracked down an audio recording of him maybe four days before I started, which was wonderful — and pretty terrifying with how last-minute it was," the actor added. "It definitely helped just to have some idea of who he was and how he sounded rather than just reading about him."

    Plemons also spoke to Backstage about working with the all-star cast. "It was, you know, just exactly the type of thing you think: Someday, I might find myself there, watching these guys. It's something I'll never forget," he said. "I could retire and be OK with that."

  • Peggy Sheeran, portrayed by Anna Paquin

    Paquin plays Peggy Sheeran, the daughter of De Niro's character, who seems to figure out her father's deadly occupation, causing the two to become estranged in Frank Sheeran's later years.

    Paquin spoke to HeyUGuys about working with Scorsese, which she said was on her bucket list.

    "If Martin Scorsese had asked me to come play a tree that stood in a corner and had Christmas lights hung on it, that would have appealed to me," she admitted about what attracted her to the film. "As it happens, Peggy's like the moral compass of the film, which is kind of a bonus, but I literally would've done anything."

    The actress added that The Irishman was "more emotional and moving" than other films in the genre. "Despite his behavior, you end up really feeling for Bob [De Niro]'s character," she said.

  • Carrie Bufalino, portrayed by Kathrine Narducci

    Narducci appears in the film as Carrie Bufalino, the wife of Russell Bufalino. While not much is known about the real Carrie Bufalino, Narducci has been vocal about her pleasant experience on the set of the film.

    "Every single struggling actor, every made actor would like to be a part of [a movie like this]. And I feel like I'm blessed. And I am humbled and honored that they gave me a chance to be in that group. It's an actor's playground," Narducci told Fox News about The Irishman.

    The actress added that she enjoyed working with Scorsese because he encourages actors to have freedom while filming. "You don't feel such a bind to the script," she recalled. "You go off book and there's a lot of freedom and fun in that."