It’s a personalty quirk in The Irishman that’s designed perhaps to humanize the man: Jimmy Hoffa, the sturdy and charismatic Teamsters boss, is constantly seen with his spoon in an ice cream bowl. (Warning: There are some spoilers for the Netflix movie in this article.)
The ice cream normalizes a man once as well-known as Elvis (according to the movie and the book it’s based on, Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses.) The ice cream motif makes Hoffa’s character seem more like a real person, a guy just like us, so we care more when he gets bumped off by Delaware union boss Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro). The ice cream he shares with Sheeran’s daughter Peggy helps us understand later on why she cares enough when Hoffa disappears to never, ever talk to her dad again (they bonded.) Ice cream sands off the edges of the temperamental Hoffa; there’s something wholesome about ice cream (hey, it’s a movie, so it’s not just about ice cream.)
Lots of people don’t think Sheeran really killed Hoffa, but that’s another story. That dishonor, if you will, is often attributed to the guy with the big glasses who peppers Hoffa’s nephew Chuckie O’Brien with questions about a fish later on in the Netflix movie: Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio. No one thinks the low-level gangsters were calling the shots, though. Even back in the 1970s, news articles make it clear that authorities thought Hoffa was dead and the hit was ordered from the upper tiers of Mafia society.
A union tough guy with mob ties liking ice cream is somewhat reminiscent of the banality of Tony Soprano’s mundane suburban concerns juxtaposed against sociopathy. Real villainy is complex. When it comes to the Mafia, especially, what’s always fascinated about them is how they can engage in criminality and then return home to the dinner table, guys with an honor code and love of family.
Back to the ice cream. Is it true? Did Jimmy Hoffa really have that much interest in ice cream? We turned to The Brandt book to see. Ice cream is a common prop used in movies, of course (although nowhere near as clever as Red Apple cigarettes turning up in Tarantino films.) Here’s a roundup of 19 famous movie ice cream scenes. There was even ice cream in The Shining, Roman Holiday, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Characters need quirks to seem real (although to be honest, the scenes in The Irishman never really seemed like Jimmy Hoffa eating ice cream. They seemed like Al Pacino eating ice cream while pretending to be Jimmy Hoffa.)
Here’s what you need to know:
The Brandt Book Does Mention Hoffa Liking Ice Cream
The Brandt book does mention ice cream a couple times, and, in one reference, it reveals that, in fact, the real-life Hoffa liked ice cream.
“For $3 you could join the inmates for lunch. Wednesday lunch was spaghetti and meatballs. Jimmy loved spaghetti and meatballs. I would give Jimmy my meatballs for a treat. Jimmy loved ice cream too. Sometimes it would be just a social visit between us.” That was in a passage discussing Jimmy Hoffa’s time spent in jail.
It turns out that Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino liked ice cream too, according to the Brandt book. His nickname was McGee. “McGee loved his ice cream and I would make sure he got some every day, because you only got commissary privileges once a week. I would pay whoever had commissary that day to get me some ice cream for Russ,” the book says.
Sheeran’s mother “ate a quart of ice cream every day. I used to go down to the ice-cream parlor for her every night. You would bring your own bowl and they would give you so many dips of ice cream. They knew to expect me,” he told Brandt.
In a 1991 story published by The Chicago Tribune, Hoffa’s daughter described her father in great detail, and ice cream figures into it. “He`d always take us to the movies, anything we wanted to see,” she said in the story. “We’d pack a bunch of kids in the car, friends and cousins, and Mom would stay home. We’d stop and get ice cream on the way back, at the Jim Dandy Dairy-it was a tradition.”
She provided other personality quirks to the Tribune: Her dad didn’t have the patience to watch TV unless it was “news and documentaries”; he never showed anger at home; he could predict the weather by looking at the sky; and he had hands so strong he could crack walnuts with them.
Slate unearthed a 1994 newspaper column that reported how Hoffa “brought a group of high-living men to a soda shop for chocolate ice cream” and “was the cleanest man who ever lived. He never had a drink of liquor in his life. He never had coffee in his life. He didn’t smoke cigarettes. He didn’t womanize.”
That could make a pretty boring character on film; hence, the ice cream.
Al Pacino Explained to EW That Hoffa Needed a Physical Vice in the Movie
Indeed, no other than Al Pacino, who played Hoffa in the Netflix movie, explained to Entertainment Weekly why the screenwriters chose to make Hoffa eating ice cream a recurring theme. He told the site that Hoffa needed, as EW put it, a physical vice. He didn’t have many in real life, so they didn’t have a lot to work with there.
“You got to have something,” Pacino told EW. “He wasn’t a drinker, wasn’t a smoker. He liked his ice cream. Ice cream was a pause in his life where he could think and just sit with it — at least, that’s the way I thought of it.”
Hoffa eats ice cream in the movie in very different scenes, including the scene in which he’s bonding with Sheeran’s daughter Peggy. She plays the role of his conscience. He’s eating it again when he has a showdown in prison with another mobster, Tony Pro Provenzano, who many people think orchestrated the hit (with Briguglio pulling the trigger and Russ Bufalino ultimately ordering the hit). He also eats ice cream in a scene with Sheeran. Thus, there’s no commonality when it comes to the type of people he is with when he turns to ice cream.
Slate hunted through two other biographies of Hoffa and didn’t find any references to ice cream. GQ reminds us that Tony Montana “tries to pick up a girl by offering her ice cream” in Scarface.
READ NEXT: Read More About Peggy Sheeran.