One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 60
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
James Riddle Hoffa, better known as Jimmy Hoffa, the labor leader who served as the president of the Teamsters Union for 15 years (from 1954 to 1971), is back in the news again. This despite his having been legally declared dead back in July, 1982, seven years after he mysteriously disappeared in July, 1975.
A week ago, on November 18, it was reported that the F.B.I. has launched a new investigation on the site of a local landfill in Jersey City, N.J., where a construction worker, in a deathbed revelation, claimed he and his father buried Hoffa’s body underground in a steel drum back in 1975. While it’s generally been accepted that Hoffa was murdered—he had been involved with organized crime for years and had previously been convicted of jury tampering, bribery, conspiracy and fraud—the body of the controversial labor leader has never been found, as his legend continues to keep people fascinated.
The whole “Where is Jimmy Hoffa?” question has been bantered about for quite a while. (One theory has him buried beneath the old Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands.) But this week’s news is the most prominent headline Hoffa has received in a while and, as such, prompted me to revisit the late labor boss and his various portrayals onscreen over the past 50 years.
Hollywood didn’t come sniffing around the Jimmy Hoffa story directly in the beginning, though there were a couple of fictional Hoffa surrogates following his disappearance. Sylvester Stallone portrayed labor leader Johnny Kovak in Norman Jewison’s 1978 drama F.I.S.T. (that’s the “Federation of Inter-State Truckers,” a none-too-subtle reference to the Teamsters), for starters, and later Treat Williams was featured as a Teamsters honcho named Jimmy Conway O’Donnell in Sergio Leone’s crime saga Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
But the subject of Hoffa and his controversial career was not examined by name until the mid-Eighties—and even then, it was only in a handful of television projects, with theatrical films not yet on the docket.
A pair of these are TV movies in which Hoffa’s character played only a supporting role in another notable person’s narrative. In The Jesse Owens Story from 1984, Hoffa meets with the famed track and field athlete in the early Seventies and attempts to convince him to use his influence in enlisting more black truckers and cab drivers in the Chicago area. The results aren’t very pleasant, despite Hoffa being portrayed by Tom Bosley, then at the tail end of his decade-long run as everyone’s favorite dad, Howard “Mr. C” Cunningham, on the TV’s beloved Happy Days (1974-1984).
Hoffa was also a bridesmaid and not yet the bride in Robert Kennedy: His Life and Times (1985), a three-part, five-hour miniseries highlighting RFK’s involvement in the fight for civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, America’s entry into Viet Nam and, of course, Kennedy’s decade-long conflict with Hoffa over his alleged criminality and corruption. Familiar character actor Trey Wilson--affectionately remembered for his lighter roles in such films as Raising Arizona (1987), Bull Durham (1988) and Great Balls of Fire (1989)--took on the role of Hoffa in this go-round, pumping up the volume as he and Kennedy went at each other during a series of televised Justice Department hearings. So ugly was the back-and-forth between the two that John F. Kennedy aide Pierre Salinger referred to the pair’s relationship as “a blood feud,” a characterization that was also used as the title of the most prominent Hoffa TV project of that time.
The two-part, four-hour miniseries Blood Feud (1983) centers wholly on the conflict between Hoffa and Kennedy, which lasted until the latter’s assassination in 1968. Hoffa is portrayed with seething, in-your-face rage by Robert Blake, an about-face from the hooker-embracing, cockatoo-loving persona he developed as a plainclothes detective in television’s Baretta (1975-78). TV veteran Thomas Wagner brought similar intensity to his supporting appearance as the late Teamster titan in the forgotten 1993 small-screen flick Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair about an alleged dalliance between RFK and you-know-who.
It was in the Nineties that Hollywood took its first theatrical swing at Hoffa with a large-scale bio-pic in 1992’s bluntly titled Hoffa, directed by Danny DeVito, written by David Mamet and starring Jack Nicholson.
Handsomely mounted, veraciously written and solidly acted by Nicholson beneath a prosthetic nose and hairpiece, Hoffa tracks its title character’s rise from trucker to labor organizer to nationally recognized Teamster leader. A long drama filled with a lot of scenes of men shouting at each other at union gatherings, management meetings and government hearings, Hoffa isn’t really much fun—it’s not supposed to be—but it’s not very compelling, either.
Critics and audiences clearly felt the same way, and Hoffa was received tepidly across the board when it was released during the ’92 holiday season. Nicholson went on the record to blame the film’s poor performance on the studio’s decision to move his other film from that year, the legal drama A Few Good Men, to the same release date. That’s one possible explanation, but I’m also thinking that labor disputes and violent Teamster strikes don’t necessarily make for fun holiday fare. Ho-ho-ho.
Nearly three decades later, Hollywood took another substantial swing at the Hoffa saga with 2019’s epic The Irishman. Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Steve Zaillian from the memoir by Frank Sheeran, it stars heavyweights Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino as Hoffa. Now that's a lot of Academy Awards!
The Irishman follows trucker Sheeran (De Niro) and his lengthy involvement with Pennsylvania’s Bufalino crime family and, subsequently, Hoffa. And Sheeran also claims responsibility for the disappearance (read: murder) of Jimmy Hoffa, along with other headline-grabbing crimes, including the rubout of mobster Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in 1972.
Following years of development and a number of studios getting involved and then dropping out, streaming superpower Netflix purchased the rights to The Irishman for $105 million and financed the film. The budget reportedly grew to a whopping $200 million. A significant part of the expense was due to a recently developed three-camera technology used to facilitate extensive “de-aging” digital effects for De Niro, Pacino and Pesci for the film’s “younger” sequences. It is the most expensive film in Scorsese’s storied career, and with a running time of 209 minutes, it’s also the longest.
Pacino’s approach to Hoffa is far more restrained than that of his predecessors, Nicholson included, though his anger is always brewing right beneath the surface of a seemingly intelligent and controlled veneer. It’s the same kind of quiet, intense menace Pacino brought to Michael Corleone in the Godfather films 50 years ago. He is the strongest player in the talented ensemble of this ambitious, long film. (There, I said it again.)
Unlike the first two Godfather entries, The Irishman didn’t bring home any Academy Awards, despite being nominated for 10 of them,including one for Pacino for Best Supporting Actor. The film may have performed well on Netflix—we’ll never know for sure since Netflix does not publicly disclose its streaming figures—but it’s a good guess that it rustled up more publicity for its production and principals than it interested viewers for its overly long examination of the latter part of Hoffa’s life.
There probably won’t be another Jimmy Hoffa project on the horizon for a while, and almost certainly not one starring an A-lister like Nicholson or Pacino. But Hoffa’s story tale is clearly far from over with the latest developments surrounding the whereabouts of his body—an impressive feat for a man who was declared dead nearly 40 years ago.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.