Inevitably, when a movie is based on actual events in living memory, viewers start to ask questions about the veracity of what they just watched. That’s particularly true of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which deals with the mystery behind vanished Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa, because generally accepted mob history seems to have been rewritten to place obscure gangsters at the center of the action.
Unable to just say “Fuhgeddaboudit,” I decided to call Salvatore Gravano, a.k.a. Sammy the Bull, and ask him about the real-life hits at the heart of The Irishman, which was just nominated for Best Picture and Director Oscars. The 74-year-old former Gambino family underboss, who is preparing to launch a podcast, is widely regarded as the most important witness in law enforcement’s battle with the Mafia. The ex-wiseguy, who admits to involvement in 19 murders — including the infamous 1985 Paul Castellano hit outside Sparks Steak House that brought John Gotti to power — was arrested on December 11, 1990, and soon cut a deal with prosecutors.
I reached him at an undisclosed location, and here’s his personal movie review, slightly condensed and edited. If you haven’t seen The Irishman yet, take note: Spoilers are everywhere.
What were your impressions of The Irishman?
It was not as well done as I thought would be, with everybody who was in it. They could’ve did a much better job. You know, they’re all big actors when it comes to Mafia movies, stuff like that. So I really actually thought it would be a lot better.
It was very long. That’s number one. Number two, a lot of the stuff in the actual movie was wrong. The Irishman did not do the shooting. He’s not the guy who killed Jimmy Hoffa. From what I understood it was given to Tony Provenzano, who was a very powerful captain of the Genovese family, and his man, his guy Sally-something-or-other, whatever the fuck his name was — I can’t think of it.
“Sally Bugs” Briguglio?
Yes, Sally Bugs. From what I understood, he was the guy who actually killed Hoffa. So the story was wrong. It was all done wrong! Matter of fact, Joe Pesci, the guy he played?
Yeah. They exaggerated Russell Bufalino’s part in this thing. There’s times in the movie when they are talking about getting back to “the real boss,” like it’s Bufalino. Angelo Bruno was the boss of the Philadelphia mob, not Russell Bufalino. So they got this whole fucking thing twisted and turned around. I don’t know who told them what. Now, Russell Bufalino did head a faction — I’m not sure if he was a boss or he was a major captain. But I don’t even know if he had any part in the damn thing. So they got the whole thing fucked up.
Frank Sheeran, the real-life Irishman, talked to Charles Brandt, who wrote the book the movie was based on. Sheeran died a year before the book came out. But taking credit for the Hoffa hit and the famous Joe Gallo hit makes for a good story. Do you think that might have been the driver here — selling books?
I didn’t really think about where it came from and how it came about, but it was wrong — the Gallo hit really had nothing to do with this whole movie. They got the Irishman killing Gallo, which is insane. He had no part in that whatsoever. I believe it was Carmine Persico and a few other people who killed him … I don’t know how [the filmmakers] did what they did.
I guess they took it from that book with all this bullshit in it, and they ran with that. So now I guess they got to live with it.
In Underboss, the book you collaborated on with Peter Maas, you say that the Gallo hit was sanctioned by mob boss Joe Colombo because Gallo refused to meet with him.
That’s who put it out. It was a Colombo thing. There was a war. And the second part of that war, when Crazy Joe Gallo came out of prison, I was with the Colombo family. I was with the Carmine Persico faction and then was transferred out to the Gambino family. [After Joe Colombo was killed in 1971,] Persico took over and I believe he had four guys finish the job. The restaurant where Crazy Joe got shot, Umberto’s Clam House, was [Genovese family member Matthew Ianniello] Matty the Horse’s restaurant. He was part of that hit. He okayed it. A Colombo member saw Gallo come in, and it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I think they sent a message to Matty right away. He gave a nod. “He’s in my restaurant? Go ahead, take him out.” They went in the fucking restaurant and shot him.
What did you think of the way they treated the Hoffa hit?
I mean, this wasn’t a complicated hit. They exaggerated his part. He was running the union. When he went to prison, they liked him. He was their boy. From what I understood, when Hoffa came out, they told him, “First of all, legally, you can’t run the union. Secondly, you could be a middle man between us and [the union head] because you still have a lot of knowledge about the union. Whatever comes down from the unions, you will get a nice piece of it. Then you will hand over the other piece where it belongs. To us. We run the union. We own the union.” He wouldn’t accept it. They had a few conversations with him, and then the decision was: Fuck him, take him out.
Would that have been Angelo Bruno? Who would sanction that?
It might’ve been a couple of bosses that had something to do with that union. It might been Angelo Bruno. Obviously, it must have had something to do with the Genovese family.
Were you a fan of Goodfellas?
Yeah, I was a fan of Goodfellas, and I knew some of the people that were involved in that whole thing. And that was fairly accurate. You know when they went through the basement to get into the Copacabana? That’s the way I used to get in. Me and my friends, we’d go right down there — boom, right in, sitting at somebody’s table. That’s the way we lived. It had a lot of truth, though I’m sure there was some Hollywood involved.
Did the details of the Hoffa hit seem right to you?
What they done with the body, I really don’t know. I don’t think anybody really knows for sure unless you were involved in it. This is not something that they normally talk about! In the movie, they burned him. I don’t buy the story they took them back to New Jersey. Why would they tell a hit guy, “Go kill him in Detroit, and then drive back with him in the trunk of a car a thousand miles”? I can’t even imagine somebody telling me something like that. I would tell him, “I’ll kill him — you drive him back. If we get stopped for a fucking bad light or a speeding ticket or something, we got a dead body!” That don’t make sense at all.
Did it make sense to you that Sheeran left the gun on Hoffa’s body?
No, no. Fuck you — I’ll take care of the gun myself. That’s my gun. My prints on it. I ain’t leaving it to nobody. I don’t give a fuck who said that. Put the gun on top of the guy’s body? Why the fuck would you do that?
I guess because it’s a movie and it’s dramatic?
That’s gotta be it. But I mean, it’s ridiculous. I would never do that. And you can quote me, I would never do that.