Road trip to see ‘The Irishman’ evokes Royko memories

Late Chicago writer liked tough guy movies, too
Road trip to see ‘The Irishman’ evokes Royko memories

Call me old school, but I wanted to see Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “The Irishman,” on a big theater screen.

And even though it was mostly financed by Netflix and will begin playing on the streaming service Nov. 27, earlier this fall a limited theatrical release was announced. It turns out it will play at a Madison theater, Flix Brewhouse at East Towne Mall, starting Thursday, Nov. 21.

But my wife and I didn’t know that when we bought tickets to see the film Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theatres’ Century Centre Cinema in Chicago.

I think we would have gone to Chicago anyway. My sister lives there, so it was a chance to visit, and Jeanan and I were both feeling the need to get out of Dodge and look at something different for a couple of days. Chicago fit that bill.

“The Irishman,” directed by Scorsese, stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and is based on the nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt.

It’s a terrific film. De Niro plays mob hit man Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran; Pacino is union majordomo Jimmy Hoffa; and Pesci plays the real-life mob boss who ultimately sends Sheeran after Hoffa. Great performances all around. Don’t let the running time — three and a half hours — scare you.

There has been, inevitably, some controversy around the film. Some prominent articles have questioned the accuracy of Brandt’s book, which included confessional interviews with Sheeran.

Outside the movie itself, Scorsese stirred things up by suggesting in an interview that all the Marvel comics superhero movies aren’t cinema. Then he wrote a New York Times piece explaining himself.

What I know is that I came out of “The Irishman” feeling moved by its ambitious scope and elegiac tone, as De Niro — the hit man grown old, his health failing — faces a reckoning, including a daughter who won’t talk to him.

It hit home for me on the drive to Chicago how impossibly quickly the years fly by. I realized that 20 years ago this month, November 1999, I spent every weekend in Chicago.

My first real book, “The World of Mike Royko,” an illustrated biography of the celebrated Chicago newspaper columnist, had been published in late October. After a launch party at the Billy Goat Tavern, there were book signings all around Chicago every Saturday for weeks. I remember hearing Ron Dayne break the NCAA rushing record while driving on Interstate 90 listening to Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas. That was Nov. 13, 1999.

It doesn’t seem like 20 years. I vividly recall coming down the steps of the Billy Goat for the party and being overwhelmed at the sight of Mike’s friends and colleagues — Mike died in 1997 — and getting a hug from Bob Royko, Mike’s brother, who lived in Madison and believed in me to do the book.

All these years later, Mike Royko’s brilliance endures. I gave a lunch talk last week at Good Shepard Lutheran Church in Madison, and, as always, my Royko stories got the biggest reaction.

One of my favorite Royko columns concerned the Chicago police sending an officer to guard Frank Sinatra’s hotel suite when the singer was in town for a concert. Royko couldn’t understand why taxpayers should pay to guard someone like Sinatra, given the presence of all his flunkies.

Sinatra, incensed, sent Royko a registered letter saying he had not requested the police guard. He also demanded Royko apologize for suggesting he had flunkies.

The next day, Royko wrote: “If you say you have no flunkies, I take your word and apologize. I even apologize to the flunky who delivered the letter.”

Driving home recently from Chicago, with “The Irishman” still resonating, I recalled that Royko occasionally wrote about movies. His progressive friends didn’t get it, but Royko loved John Wayne films. He liked that they usually had happy endings. Royko didn’t go to the theater to feel bad. “If I want to become depressed,” he wrote, “I can go to work, instead.”

Royko would have enjoyed the scene in “The Irishman” in which De Niro’s character whacks Joey Gallo in Umberto’s Clam House, a restaurant in New York City. I know because in 1980, bored covering the Democratic National Convention in New York, Royko got in a cab and told the driver to take him to Umberto’s.

“It’s the only joint on Mulberry Street,” Royko wrote later, “that can boast that Crazy Joey Gallo was ventilated while eating its magnificent linguine and clam sauce.”

Mike’s widow, Judy Royko, once told me that on one of their first dates, Mike took her to the romantic comedy “My Favorite Year,” starring Peter O’Toole. I hope I am remembering this correctly. Judy said that after Mike dropped her at her door, she watched as he walked away, and saw Mike Royko — Chicago’s tough guy — jumped in the air and clicked his heels.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.