Who Is The Irishman? Robert De Niro’s Title Character Explained

Robert De Niro will play the titular character in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, but who exactly is he? We explain the story of Frank Sheeran.

Robert De Niro The Irishman Netflix Explained

Robert De Niro will play the title character in Martin Scorsese's new Netflix movie, but who exactly is The Irishman? De Niro has reunited with Scorsese for their first feature together since 1995's Casino, with Al Pacino and Joe Pesci also onboard for what's shaping up to be a true-crime epic, with the Raging Bull and Goodfellas star leading The Irishman as Frank Sheeran.

Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman will chronicle the majority of Sheeran's life through flashbacks, with digital de-aging techniques allowing De Niro to play the character as young as 30 in the film. The recently revealed trailer for The Irishman promises a sprawling mob movie, and that fits with what's known about Sheeran's life.

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Related: The Irishman Release Date: When Scorsese’s Netflix Movie (Probably) Drops

Sheeran, born in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania, came from a strict Irish Catholic background, hence him later earning the nickname 'The Irishman'. When he was just 20-years-old he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served for four years, although it was a decision that would ultimately shape his entire life. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he was sent overseas to fight in World War 2, completing a campaign in Italy before moving across to be part of the landings in Southern France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the invasion of Germany.

The Irishman First Look

As per Sheeran himself, it was during World World 2 that he first developed his remorselessness when killing people, admitting to the execution and massacre of several German prisoners-of-war. After being discharged from the army in 1945 he became a truck driver, but it's also here when he started working in organized crime, which including serving as a hitman. Sheeran built a particularly close relationship with Mafia boss Russell Bufalino, who'll be portrayed by Pesci in The Irishman.

It was through his connection with Bufalino that Sheeran started working for labor union The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), where he became close friends with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino's character in The Irishman). Sheeran would carry out hits for Hoffa, which included murdering rival union members, as organized crime increasingly took hold of IBT. The title of Brandt's book comes from the first words Hoffa said to Sheeran, which were supposedly "I heard you paint houses", meaning carry out hits, to which Sheeran is said to have replied, "I do my own carpentry too", implying that he would get rid of the bodies himself.

The key event in the lives of Sheeran and Hoffa, and one The Irishman will focus heavily on, is the disappearance of the former in 1975. Hoffa's last known whereabouts were in a suburb of Detroit, where he was supposedly going to meet with two Mafia bosses, at least one of whom had been threatening him. Hoffa's car was found in the car park of a local restaurant, but no trace of Hoffa himself has ever been found. In his book, Brandt claims that Sheeran confessed to murdering Hoffa, however, Sheeran's role has been disputed, since blood found at the house where he alleged the murder took place didn't match up with Hoffa's DNA.

Related: 12 Best Robert De Niro Performances Of All Time

Sheeran died from cancer at the age of 83 on December 14, 2003. The Irishman will feature an old Sheeran looking back upon his entire life, meaning we're likely to see many of these events play out on-screen, especially his apparent role in the disappearance of Hoffa. Given the uncertainty around that incident, it'll be fascinating to see just how Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian handle it. The Irishman promises to be a towering portrayal of organized crime, and Sheeran sounds like the sort of figure to get another great performance out of De Niro.

More: Everything We Know About Martin Scorsese's Netflix Movie The Irishman

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