To get to the big man, you had to get past the toughs.

Guys with calloused hands and hard-set jaws, massed there at the bar in the Rickshaw, a mob hangout with a pagoda on the roof, across from the racetrack in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“What are you doin’ here?” they asked, not in a welcoming manner, when the young lawyer walked in.

“I’m here to see Frank,” said the lawyer, a 33-year-old named Glenn Zeitz, who had hangdog eyes and a perfect part.

“It was like the Red Sea parted,” Zeitz, now semiretired, recalled one recent morning, looking back on that day 40 years ago.

The big man came into view at the other side of the bar, a glass of red wine in his hand, a 6-foot-4 inch, 250-pound hulk. Frank Sheeran — known as “Big Irish,” the Teamsters honcho, the legend.

Sheeran only wanted to know a few things before hiring his new lawyer. Was Zeitz mostly a skirt chaser or mostly a drinker? Zeitz answered by ordering a Crown Royal. The other thing he wanted to know is whether Zeitz would promise to pound two ideas into the heads of the feds and the public: Sheeran would never be a rat and, most important, he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, his boss, the Teamsters powerhouse.

That settled, Sheeran handed Zeitz an envelope. It had $10,000 in cash inside.

The brief encounter set in motion a decades-long business and personal relationship that still gnaws at Zeitz. Over the years, one of Sheeran’s daughters — and, on occasion, Sheeran himself — have suggested that Sheeran killed Hoffa, a claim that would put to rest one of the great mysteries in American criminal history.

In all that time, Sheeran’s tendency to tell many versions of the Hoffa disappearance cut into his credibility, even after he purportedly confessed to the crime shortly before his 2003 death. But the notion of the big man as Hoffa’s executioner has never been given a greater platform and more promotion than it has in the last few weeks with the unveiling of the blockbuster Netflix film, “The Irishman,” starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and Al Pacino as Hoffa.

"Joker" took the lead with 11 Academy Awards nominations on Jan. 13. Take a look at other highlights — and snubs. (The Washington Post)

The film, which garnered 10 Oscars nominations, is based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by a former prosecutor, crime novelist and erstwhile attorney of Sheeran’s, Charles Brandt. Both the book and the film unequivocally portray Sheeran as Hoffa’s killer, as well as fingering him as the killer of “Crazy Joe” Gallo, the victim in one of the most notorious unsolved killings in Mafia history. The film, like many movies that depict real people and events, is once again raising questions about how the public consumes history, and whether a disputed or skewed version of events shown on the screen can become received wisdom.

Since the publication of “I Heard You Paint Houses,” Zeitz has quietly nursed an obsession, in a sense building a defense of Sheeran, acting as his old friend’s posthumous lawyer. Zeitz hired a private investigator and consulted a pricey legal-ethics adviser to determine what he could reveal without violating the attorney-client privilege, which extends beyond death.

Recently Zeitz opened his massive private archive to The Washington Post — boxes piled in the basement and the private office of his Moorestown estate filled with thousands of documents, including never-before-seen handwritten notes and bawdy greeting cards Sheeran sent to Zeitz, previously undisclosed investigation reports, and memos so old that the staples have gone rusty.

Zeitz’s argument is plain, dovetailing with numerous Hoffa experts, as well as former FBI agents involved in the Hoffa case: the movie and the book got it wrong.

Brandt did not respond to multiple interview requests.

“Charles Brandt and I are confident of his book’s veracity and there is plenty of evidence to support our belief,” his publisher, Chip Fleischer of Steerforth Press, said via email. “As a former chief deputy attorney general of the state of Delaware, homicide investigator, homicide prosecutor, criminal defense attorney specializing in homicide and a recognized expert on interrogating reluctant witnesses, Charlie has brought all of his knowledge and experience to bear in order to try to ensure that only the truth made it into his book.”

Painting in broad strokes

Frank Sheeran was a truck driver and meat delivery man in the 1950s when he befriended Russell Bufalino, a powerful Pennsylvania mob boss who is portrayed by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman.” Bufalino introduced Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa and the big man became a top union official and a close confidant of the Teamsters boss — then one of the most influential and famous people in United States.

In Brandt’s book, which the author says is derived from taped interviews, Sheeran claims that the first words Hoffa ever said to him were, “I heard you paint houses.”

“The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody,” Sheeran says in the book.

The catchy phrase became the title of Brandt’s book, which boasts of “closing the case on Jimmy Hoffa.” But the idea that any mobster actually used the phrase in real life has been greeted with derision by Hoffa experts. Among those who have written scathing takedowns of the film and book are mob experts, such as Bill Tonelli in, and Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard law professor and former George W. Bush administration assistant attorney general, who is the stepson of the Chuckie O’Brien, the Hoffa aide who is portrayed in the film and book as driving the Teamsters leader to the house where he was killed.

Three veteran FBI agents who worked the Hoffa case told Zeitz’s private investigator that they never heard the phrase during their surveillance of Sheeran and his mob associates or in any other organized crime case during their long careers around the country, according to written confidential investigation reports included in Zeitz’s documents cache that have never been disclosed publicly and were obtained by The Post after being stored in secure locations for years.

Netflix declined interview requests for screenwriter Steve Zaillian, De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. In a recent interview with Indiewire, De Niro references remarks made by Scorsese to address doubts about the film: “As Marty says, ‘We’re not saying we’re telling the actual story. We’re telling our story. I believed it.’”

Changing story

The essential event in both the book and the movie is the disappearance of Hoffa in July 1975. A generation of investigative reporters, crime buffs, law enforcement officials and authors have tried to solve the mystery. Sheeran was long considered a significant figure with inside knowledge about the saga, but few considered him Hoffa’s killer.

Sheeran kept inserting himself into the saga, dropping tantalizing hints. But there was a problem: Sheeran couldn’t keep his story straight.

“Frank was prone to say just about anything,” Zeitz said.

Indeed, as the years went along, and he lost touch with Zeitz, Sheeran spun many a yarn about Hoffa. He said two Sicilian war orphans killed Hoffa. He said Vietnamese mercenaries killed him. He said a hit on Hoffa was ordered by high-ranking officials in the Republican Party or the Nixon White House, or Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell.

He could be aggressive in denying involvement. An attorney of his once threatened to sue Dan Moldea, a Washington-based Hoffa expert, for suggesting Sheeran was connected to the disappearance.

Sheeran tried to sell a book proposal using a forged letter from Hoffa. He and a co-author churned out a manuscript asserting that Hoffa was killed by the mobster Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio — a theory endorsed by some Hoffa disappearance experts. (Even the title of that manuscript raises questions. It’s called “Stand Up Guy: Frank ‘Big Irish’ Sheeran,” according to Moldea, who has access to the manuscript. “The Irishman” wasn’t Sheeran’s nickname, according to Zeitz and many others.)

At the time of Hoffa’s disappearance, the Teamsters leader was trying to wrest back control of the union after serving long prison stints for jury tampering and fraud. The Teamsters had been taken over by Frank Fitzsimmons, a union boss who’d gained favor with mob figures believed to favor him over Hoffa, who’d been publicly critical of organized crime. Hoffa was last seen getting into a car outside Detroit. Sheeran, Bufalino and other alleged organized crime figures were on their way to the same city for a wedding. The disappearance sparked a sprawling investigation that kept coming up empty.

Zeitz, now 72, says he is of the “belief and opinion” that Sheeran was “in the vicinity” of Hoffa’s disappearance. Zeitz added, based on his access to FBI records and other research, that “I’m clearly stating he did not shoot Jimmy Hoffa.”

The FBI had its suspicions about Sheeran, naming him as one of many suspects in Hoffa’s disappearance in a later-declassified memo that mentions him only briefly while focusing more attention on other possible killers and conspirators. Eric Shawn, a Fox News anchor and host of Fox Nation’s “Riddle: The Search for James R. Hoffa,” has pressed the government to release documents that remain hidden or heavily redacted, such as a Department of Justice memo that says Sally Bugs got the “actual assignment” to kill Hoffa.

“The truth is in the FBI files,” Shawn said in an interview. “We should all know what the FBI is hiding.”

In 1979, four years after Hoffa’s disappearance, Sheeran was indicted on unrelated charges of ordering the killing of two union leaders. Zeitz represented a reputed mobster, known as Lou Buttons, who was never convicted of mob-related activity and had been indicted along with Sheeran, but tried separately. Both men were found not guilty in a Philadelphia federal court.

Zeitz had caught Sheeran’s eye. A few months after he was acquitted, Sheeran was indicted again, this time in a massive multi-defendant labor racketeering case in a Delaware federal court. That’s when he summoned Zeitz to the bar at the Rickshaw. A fellow attorney, James Schwartzman, had recommended Zeitz, in part because he was the only attorney he could think of whom Sheeran couldn’t drink under the table.

'Your drinking partner, Frank'

The atmosphere was charged in those days. A mob war was raging in Philadelphia. The famed mob boss, Angelo Bruno, “the Gentle Don,” had been gunned down outside his home. Zeitz was stepping deeper into a dangerous world.

Both Zeitz and Sheeran worried that they were being surveilled. They used codes to arrange their meetings, which took place at tables stacked with Sheeran’s wine bottles and Zeitz’s Crown Royals. The code referred to the last meal they’d eaten together at the place.

It could be rigatoni marinara or ossobuco at places such as La Veranda and Cous’ Little Italy, a South Philly mob hangout where mobster “Barracuda Frank” Sindone was killed. Zeitz needed to maintain a list of each meal to keep it all straight.

Sheeran’s life was quickly unraveling. With Zeitz as his attorney, he was convicted in the face of overwhelming evidence in the Delaware federal racketeering case. He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

He was also convicted in a Delaware state court and sentenced to 14 more years, while being represented by another attorney, of ordering an FBI informant named Charlie Allen to blow up a crane company and assault the firm’s owner.

In his plea deal, Allen portrayed himself as an underling who took orders from Sheeran. Allen admitted to committing crimes at the behest of Sheeran — the murder of a labor organizer, conspiracy to commit two other murders, arson and a hotel bombing. He also pleaded guilty to conspiring with Hoffa to kill Fitzsimmons, Hoffa’s Teamsters rival, and other unnamed people.

But, in Allen’s plea, he never accuses Sheeran of being a triggerman. Zeitz points to the plea to support his contention that Sheeran served in a management capacity overseeing killings and beatings, but did not — as he is portrayed in “The Irishman” — act as an assassin himself.

From prison in the early and mid-1980s, Sheeran sent long, plaintive letters to Zeitz, complaining about his treatment behind bars or bouncing around ideas for his federal appeal. He signs one letter, “Your drinking partner, Frank.”

All these years, Zeitz has kept another letter Sheeran sent him from prison just before Christmas 1985 with some advice on being a father to his sons. On a recent afternoon, Zeitz sat in his cluttered but elegantly appointed home office and sobbed as he read the letter aloud.

“If they compare themselves with others they may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than themselves,” Sheeran writes in looping cursive, signing off, “Your friend Frank.” The postscript reads: “First drink at the Rickshaw is on you.”

Stuck in prison, cut off from his union paychecks and pension, and the largesse of his mob friends, Sheeran watched his finances dwindle. But he had one thing — a big thing — that he thought he could sell.

'Laughable, sad, desperate'

In 1991, Brandt and a law partner secured an early release for Sheeran from state prison on medical grounds. Promotional materials for Brandt’s book say he’d been hired by “the Philly mob.”

A free man again, Sheeran set about trying to figure out how to parlay his connection to the Hoffa mystery. Nothing would sell like a clean confession.

“Frank from the very beginning wanted to mon­etize his story,” Zeitz said.

But, even when he was taking credit for the killing, he was fuzzy on the details. The literary agent Harry Katz told the Philadelphia Daily News that Sheeran had claimed to have shot Hoffa in a car, then driven the body to a waste treatment facility, where it was incinerated. In the Brandt book, Sheeran claims to have shot Hoffa in the back of the head in a Detroit home. There is no ambiguity in the “Irishman,” though: De Niro shoots Pacino twice.

In the 1990s, Sheeran entered into a deal with Brandt to share profits on the book that became “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The book is derived, according to Brandt, from interviews conducted over a five-year period leading up to Sheeran’s death in 2003. (Brandt and his publisher declined to provide samples of the video interviews to The Post. Andrew Sluss, an FBI agent who reviewed the tapes, told the Lawfare blog that “the video I saw of Sheeran was a laughable, sad, desperate attempt to create a record.”)

Sheeran’s credibility has come under assault since the publication of the book. Numerous details attributed to Sheeran are disputed by FBI agents involved in the Hoffa investigation who were interviewed by Richard Macko, a retired FBI agent whom Zeitz hired as his private investigator.

In one dramatic scene, Sheeran describes a confrontation with Allen in which the informant asks him whether he killed Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran says he was furious and FBI agents monitoring the conversation feared that he was about to “whack” Allen.

“The FBI came out of the walls to surround Allen to protect him,” Sheeran says. “The restaurant was crawling with agents.”

John Tamm, the case agent in multiple Sheeran probes, told Zeitz’s investigator that Sheeran and Allen never had a discussion “regarding the murder or disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa” while Allen was wearing a wire for the FBI, according to a lengthy 2017 memo in Zeitz’s archive that has never been disclosed publicly.

Sheeran’s most sensational claims were also vigorously disputed, according to lengthy private memos that lay out the results of the probe conducted by Zeitz’s investigator.

James Maher, one of four agents monitoring Allen, called Sheeran a union “thug and not a hit man,” according to the investigator’s reports.

“It does not make any sense that he did [it] because with such a high-profile ‘hit’ it would have had to be either a ‘made’ guy or someone who took the job to be ‘made,’ ” Maher said, using a term that refers to people who have been initiated into the Mafia, a designation available only to Italians.

In Brandt’s book, however, Sheeran is portrayed as operating at the highest levels of the Mafia. One section claims that Sheeran is accused of being one of only two non-Italian members of the Mafia’s ruling body — the Commission of La Cosa Nostra — in a late-1980s civil racketeering lawsuit filed by Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Another section says the suit accuses him of acting “in concert with” the ruling commission. In fact, the suit makes neither accusation, according to an attorney who handled the case for Giuliani’s office and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

The FBI agents interviewed by Zeitz’s investigator were equally unimpressed by Sheeran’s claim in the Brandt book to have killed Crazy Joe Gallo, an infamous hit that took place during a 1972 birthday dinner for the mobster at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy, and is still talked about. The FBI had long thought that Italian assassins did the hit.

Tamm called the idea that Sheeran committed the killing “preposterous,” noting that he would have stood out to witnesses because he was “a big imposing man . . . with a pockmarked face, ruddy complexion, bulbous nose and meat-hook hands.”

Brandt, however, writes that Sheeran’s account of the Gallo killing was corroborated in the mid-2000s by an editor at the New York Times who had witnessed the execution when she was a teenager. Two persons familiar with her account identified the woman as the veteran journalist Joan Nassivera. Nassivera declined to be interviewed.

Brandt’s book has become a bestseller. The book is bolstered by an assertion from the famed forensic pathologist Michael Baden that it “solves” the Hoffa mystery. In an interview with The Post, Baden said he reviewed written reports, including Sheeran’s purported confession, but no physical evidence. Baden added that he would be unwilling to testify under oath that the facts supported Sheeran’s claim.

The book also places heavy emphasis on comments by Robert Garrity, an FBI agent in the Hoffa investigation, who is quoted saying the FBI always “liked” Sheeran for the Hoffa killing.

In a brief interview with The Post, Garrity said he’d had a change of heart.

“I’ve since come to believe that’s not true,” he said.

'Good movie, terrible history'

Brandt’s book eventually caught the attention of someone who really mattered in Hollywood — De Niro, who has played some of the big screen’s most unforgettable organized crime figures.

In 2008, DeNiro and Scorsese announced a deal to adapt “I Heard You Paint Houses” into a feature film. Word of those plans was greeted with puzzlement among the legions of Hoffa-disappearance enthusiasts.

De Niro traveled to Washington to attend an annual writers’ dinner hosted by Moldea, the Hoffa expert and author, at the Old Europe restaurant in the Glover Park neighborhood.

Moldea and De Niro sat at a table near the restaurant’s cuckoo clock to talk.

“He started saying, ‘This is the story,’ ” Moldea recalled in an interview. “This is what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.”

“I said, ‘Bob, you’re getting conned if you believe that.’ ”

Moldea said he was surprised at how little De Niro knew about the facts of the case.

“He got his back up. He was steaming,” Moldea says. “He was convinced.”

De Niro confirmed in an Indiewire interview that he was warned by Moldea: “I wasn’t getting conned.”

Years later, Moldea has taken to playing the movie on a continuous loop at his home office in Washington’s Palisades neighborhood.

“I like the movie,” Moldea said. “But it was based on BS. Good movie, terrible history.”

Zeitz made his way to New York City to watch “The Irishman” at a film festival before it was released on Netflix. He liked it, too. Except, that is, for the portrayal of Sheeran as a ruthless and frequent hit man who pumps two bullets into Hoffa.

In his office, surrounded by boxes of documents about his old friend, Zeitz sometimes imagines what it would be like if Sheeran were still around to see “The Irishman.”

“If he could come back and we could watch the movie together,” Zeitz said, “we’d be laughing our butts off.”

Alice Crites contributed to this article.