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'Hoffa with a halo' film angers Kennedy aides: Phil Reeves in Los Angeles on a row over Hollywood's distortion of history

IT IS MORE than 17 years since Jimmy Hoffa disappeared from a Detroit restaurant car park to end up as part of a sports stadium, in a trash compactor or as fish food at the bottom of a lake, depending on what theory you subscribe to.

Yet the Teamsters union leader has once again swaggered into the field of public attention, an imposing figure in a gathering debate about how the United States - and especially Hollywood - recycles its past.

The issue has been ignited by Hoffa, a recently released 'docu-drama' starring Jack Nicholson, which has prompted accusations that the film industry is playing fast and loose with history and is willing to distort the biography of one of America's more notorious crooks for the sake of box office dollars.

Similar doubts were raised about Spike Lee's film portrayal of the black nationalist Malcolm X and, before that, Oliver Stone's version of John Kennedy's assassination, in the film JFK.

Hoffa's disappearance - he has not been seen since the day he vanished after falling victim, according to one theory, to a mob hit - ranks with Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Elvis as subjects of national obsession.

The film, due out in Britain in March, does not ignore Hoffa's role as the roughneck trade unionist who dealt with mobsters and turned a blind eye to the unsavoury methods of his colleagues. But its director, Danny DeVito, portrays Hoffa as an attractive man, a roll-your-sleeves- up good guy who was stomped on by the US government; especially by his arch-enemy Robert Kennedy, the US Attorney-General.

Too many Americans, however, have a different memory of the 10 years, between 1957 and 1967, during which Hoffa ran the Teamsters, before he was packed off to prison for jury tampering, fraud and conspiracy. (He served more than four years in prison before his sentence was commuted by Richard Nixon.)

Too many have no recollection of DeVito's idealised Hoffa, but remember all too clearly the bullying and corruption. Nor have they forgotten Hoffa's alleged remark, when President Kennedy was murdered: 'I hope the worms eat his eyes out.'

Strong critics of the movie include two men who worked for Robert Kennedy at the US Justice Department. Ronald Goldfarb, a former special prosecutor assigned to organised crime during the Kennedy admnistration, dismisses Hoffa as 'total trash', not least because it misleadingly describes the Teamster 'as a man besieged by a wimpy, nerdy, spoilt brat of an incompetent Robert Kennedy'.

John Seigenthaler, who was Kennedy's administrative assistant for 18 months, is equally damning. He argues that Hoffa fails to probe the depth of the 'crud-encrusted character', and omits critical episodes in his life. Even Hoffa's extraordinary disappearance, in 1975, is falsified, with a non-existent character being given a leading role.

The film gives the impression that Hoffa was singled out for persecution for one relatively noble offence. And it does not mention that the Eisenhower administration brought three unsuccessful prosecutions against Hoffa; that attempts were made to fix juries during his trials; that, for all his professed concern for his members, Hoffa and his cronies enriched themselves handsomely from the union pension fund.

One could argue that none of this matters much; after all, Hoffa is only entertainment. But Professor Seigenthaler, a retired journalist turned academic, sees it as an alarming a piece of Hollywood revisionism which influences the general perception of a thoroughly nasty individual. 'Hoffa is chequebook literature,' he says. 'There are a lot of artists in this country who simply would not have done the film.'

This is not the first time that an attempt by Hollywood to tackle the subject of Jimmy Hoffa and racketeering has been less than successful. A film was proposed more than 30 years ago, only to be crushed by threats, corruption and the cowardice of the studios.

In 1961, Jerry Wald, a leading Hollywood producer, decided he wanted to make a movie based on The Enemy Within, a book by Robert Kennedy who, as chief counsel to the Senate's rackets committee, was already well-versed in the underworld.

But Budd Schulberg, the writer of the Oscar-winning classic On the Waterfront, whom Kennedy chose to do the script, said later that Twentieth Century Fox got cold feet after a Teamsters henchman walked into the studio chief's office and announced that that, if the film was produced, drivers would refuse to deliver prints to cinemas, and any audiences would be driven from their seats by stink-bomb attacks.

Schulberg eventually got a nibble from Columbia, but a meeting was suddenly cancelled after the studio received a letter from Hoffa's lawyers.

Now, for different reasons, Hollywood has again failed to portray the truth. If Hoffa escaped the concrete mixer and was able to watch this dramatised biography, he would surely congratulate himself that this was one jury that did not need to be nobbled.

(Photographs omitted)