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The Gruesome Real-Life Mob Hits That Inspired 'The Irishman'

Robert De Niro's character, Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, has always taken credit for one of mobdom's most infamous hits – but who was really responsible?

by Tom Folsom
04 December 2019, 11:07am

Robert De Niro filming Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman'. Photo: James Devaney / GC Images

Mob hits just aren't what they used to be. Ask Sylvester Zottola, the reputed Bonanno Family crime figure who was whacked in the Bronx in October of 2018 while waiting at a McDonald's drive-thru window. Come on, wise-guys, what are we supposed to make of this… Sicilian McMessage? Zottola sleeps with the Fillet-o-Fishes.

How far we have fallen from the glory days of gangland killings, an era faithfully recreated in Martin Scorsese's latest gangster epic The Irishman, streaming on Netflix and starring Robert De Niro as the burly, stoic hit man Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran. For mob aficionados, the film is a veritable greatest hits compilation, a throwback to an age when executioners did their jobs with a bit of flair.

Let's take a closer look at a scene in The Irishman in which mob boss Albert Anastasia, played by Gerry Pastore, eases into the pneumatic chair for his shave and a haircut at the Park Sheraton Hotel barbershop in midtown Manhattan on the morning of the 25th of October, 1957.

Anastasia practically wrote the playbook on mob hits as the "Lord High Executioner" of Murder Inc., the infamous corporate killing enterprise employed by the Mafia to make troublemakers disappear. When a meddlesome labor leader needed to be taken care of, Anastasia simply had him strangled in a shack on the Brooklyn waterfront, then planted him in a chicken yard across the street from Dirty Face Jimmy's brother-in-law's place in New Jersey.

Murder Inc. disposed of their victims efficiently, no fuss, to avoid any sensationalism that attracted unwanted attention. Which is why Anastasia would have hated to go out the way he did, gunned down in a barber chair in broad daylight shortly after rush-hour.

Arguably the most infamous hit in mobdom, the murder made the front page of the tabloids with the image of Anastasia's body draped by barber towels, lying in a pool of blood and bay rum aftershave. Tailor-made for Hollywood, the hit has now earned its place on the big screen thanks to Scorsese, who offers us another character who meets an equally splashy end in The Irishman.

crazy joe gallo
Joseph "Crazy Joe' Gallo. Photo: Jim Mooney / NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

Hailing from Red Hook, Brooklyn (and featured in the song "Joey" by Bob Dylan), Crazy Joe Gallo – played by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco – was a small-time hood in the jukebox racket who didn't care for the understated style of Anastasia. To Joey, if you were going to be a gangster, you ought to act like the ones from the movies – flashy gun-toting anti-heroes in zoot suits, like Jimmy Cagney, who went down in a blaze of glory. Obsessed with gangster films, Joey based his "crazy" persona on the giggling psycho killer in the film noir Kiss of Death, correctly figuring that a terrifying mix of wisecracks and menace – like the Joker – would scare the hell out of his extortion victims.

So when the cinematic killing of Anastasia came along, Joey decided to let the underworld know that he was the auteur who pulled off this well-executed job, perpetrated by five hitmen disguised by pulled-down fedoras, bandanas around their faces and green sunglasses. Tres chic. Sitting with four friends at a table at Club Playboy in Manhattan, a gossipy underworld hive, Joey boldly announced with his flair for the dramatic, "You can just call the five of us the Barbershop Quintet!" It's certainly up for debate whether or not he did the Anastasia hit, but by tactfully taking credit, Joey launched himself to mob stardom.

He soon made it to the big time by getting called before the Senate Rackets Committee along with a who's who of the underworld, as we see in The Irishman, when Joey makes his television debut wisecracking before chief counsel RFK and defiantly wearing his sunglasses while testifying. It isn't the first time Scorsese has featured Crazy Joe. Remember the nostalgic lament from Goodfellas spoken in voiceover by Ray Liotta's Henry Hill? "It was a glorious time… before Crazy Joe decided to take on a boss and start a war."

Holing up and "going to the mattresses" with his brothers in a Brooklyn tenement in 1961, Joey waged guerrilla war against his crime family, which wasn't giving the Gallo brothers their due. The blow-by-blows of the Gallo war entertained tabloid readers throughout the decade, turning Joey into a 60s radical in his own right, who dared to defy the Mafia establishment. As Bob Dylan would say of Joey, "I never considered him a gangster. I always thought of him as some kind of hero in some kind of way. An underdog fighting against the elements." Sent to prison on an extortion charge, Joey had the dubious distinction of trying to make the Mafia an equal opportunity employer by forging alliances with African-American heroin dealers like the future Harlem kingpin Nicky Barnes.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, Joey's new mob boss Joe Colombo – played in The Irishman by John Polce – finally caught on to the spirit of the 60s by creating a civil rights league. In hindsight, there's a fair share of irony as to its origins, but at the time the Italian-American Civil Rights League was a force to be reckoned with, picketing the FBI for branding all Italian-Americans as mobsters, staging a benefit concert by Frank Sinatra at the Felt Forum in New York City and demanding concessions from the producers of The Godfather that the word "Mafia" be removed from the script (it was never actually there in the first place).

Colombo's main event was his Unity Day Rally held at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which promised to bring hundreds of thousands of supporters wearing "Numero Uno" buttons – a show of Italian-Americans' political heft. Out of prison, Joey made his feelings on the matter clear when Colombo's capos came to Red Hook with rally posters. Joey tore up the posters, kicked the capos off his turf and told his gang to "grease the pistols".

In The Irishman, we see what happened to Joe Colombo's rally when, on the 28th of June, 1971, African-American hit man Jerome Johnson fires three shots into Colombo's head. Before anyone could question Johnson, someone walked up and shot him dead. All eyes in the Colombo Family turned to Crazy Joe, given his drive to recruit African-Americans into the mob. If Joey was crazy enough to do the Anastasia job, he was crazy enough to find a Harlem hitman to kill Colombo in broad daylight in the middle of a rally. Convicted guilty in absentia in the Mafia's kangaroo court, an open underworld contract was put out on Crazy Joe.

This is the state of affairs at the Copacabana nightclub on the 6th of April, 1972, replayed in The Irishman as Joey celebrates his 43rd birthday. After making a spectacle of himself and drawing attention from comedian Don Rickles (Jim Norton) onstage, Joey insults Mafia boss Russ Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, for wearing a Numero Uno button. In turn, Bufalino sends his personal hitman, Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, downtown to kill Crazy Joe a few hours later in Little Italy.

crazy joe gallo funeral
The funeral of "Crazy Joe" Gallo. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Umberto's Clam House, 5:23AM – "Crazy Joe" Gallo, 43, in a blue pinstripe suit, has an early-morning family dinner of scungilli salad and boiled shrimp when bullets fly from the side door. Bottles of ketchup and hot sauce crash with the plates as Joey throws the butcher block table over his wife and stepdaughter to protect them. Stray bullets chip white cement walls as he sprints towards the front door. Shot in the back, Joey staggers out, steadies himself on his parked black Cadillac, and drops dead on his back onto Mulberry Street.

The hit will be forever canonised in the lore of Little Italy. Tourists will come to Umberto's Clam House and ask to see the bullet holes. They certainly don't come for the clams. Italian locals joke that the hitman went for the chef but missed. Now, a new generation will now head to Umberto's (sorry, not the original) to see where the Irishman knocked off Crazy Joe. But before we plunk down on overpriced lobster fra diavolo, it’s worth pausing to ask: did Frank Sheeran kill Crazy Joe?

In the course of writing my book, The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld, I asked this question to Albert Seedman, the former NYPD Chief of Detectives who investigated Crazy Joe's killing. He told me he didn't think so. Countering him was a journalist who, when she was a college student, was eyewitness to the killing, having been at Umberto's that night. She was the source for Charles Brandt, who wrote I Heard You Paint Houses, the true crime book The Irishman is based on. A recent piece in Slate covering the usual suspects quotes Joey's widow saying the hitmen were "little, short, fat Italians". Not a 6'4" Irishman.

The short answer is we'll never know. If the job's done right, nobody's supposed to find out whodunnit. Maybe Sheeran wanted to gain a little notoriety for himself in the nursing home where he met a peaceful end in 2003. Or the chance to be glorified in a Scorsese movie. In Hollywood, it's all about the credit

Tagged:
true story
The Irishman
crazy joe gallo
frank sheeran