February 01, 1993 12:00 PM

DETROIT LABOR LAWYER JAMES PHILLIP Hoffa, 51, sits motionless at the conclusion of Hoffa, the epic docudrama about his pugnacious father, the legendary Jimmy. He has just witnessed onscreen the death of the volatile Teamsters leader in a fictionalized shooting, and he seems stunned. His mouth sags, and tears fill his eyes before he finally blurts out his reaction: “I didn’t like it.” But it takes several minutes before he can regain his composure enough to explain why. “The ending was too graphic.” he says. “And they didn’t depict the way he was.”

The elder Hoffa may have been an emotional powerhouse, but he was not, says his son, the angry bear portrayed by Jack Nicholson. “My dad was a very upbeat and happy person,” he says. “He was a great kidder. Jim still smiles at his father’s response after he was acquitted of bribery charges leveled against him in 1962, when Robert Kennedy was Attorney General. “Kennedy made the comment, ‘If Hoffa is acquitted, I’ll jump off the top of the Capitol dome,’ ” Jim says. “So when my father was cleared, he sent Kennedy a parachute.” Kennedy had the last laugh, however, when Hoffa was subsequently convicted of jury tampering, fraud and misuse of Teamster pension funds.

Jimmy Hoffa was also a devoted family man, his son says. “He was an old-fashioned father, who didn’t show affection very much.” Jim says. “But he had a ready smile.” The elder Hoffa never spanked his son, leaving that to his wife, Josephine, a former laundry worker who died in 1980, five years after Jimmy’s disappearance. Growing up in Detroit, Jim enjoyed going on occasional vacation outings with his father. “He had me out bird hunting with a shotgun when I was 9,” Jim says. “And every summer we’d have a bet on who got the biggest fish.” But Hoffa was often away on union business, and Jim—who was an all-slate lineman for Detroit’s Cooley Cardinals in high school—still regrets that his father never attended one of his games. “I wish he could have found time,” Jim says. “For him, football wasn’t important.”

Work was. “He was Type A all the way,” Jim says. “He was always the guy who said, ‘Let’s do this, do that.’ We’d go for Sunday drives, and more often than not we’d end up where there was a strike going on.” After his fraud and jury-tampering convictions landed him in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., in 1967, Hoffa continued to work—with his son, by then a lawyer, acting as his go-between. “He was like a caged lion in prison,” Jim says. “All he talked about was his union.”

Hoffa’s 13-year sentence was commuted in 1971 by President Richard Nixon on the condition that he not reclaim his job as union president. Hoffa was still fighting to get that restriction overturned when he disappeared in 1975. Federal officials believe Hoffa was assassinated because he refused to kowtow to Genovese crime-family leader Anthony Provenzano, but no one has ever been charged with the murder, and Hoffa’s body has never been found. Jim was at a vacation cottage in Northern Michigan with his wife, Ginger, and their two sons—David, now 22, and Geoffrey, 20—when the elder Hoffa vanished. “My mother called about 6:30 a.m. and told me that he hadn’t come home,” he says. “Right away I expected the worst. He never stayed out without letting us know.”

In recent years Jim and his sister, Barbara Crancer, 54, a St. Louis administrative-law judge, have tried to get access to government files on their father’s disappearance through the Freedom of Information Act. But the FBI has blocked their request, claiming the case is still pending. “We hope this film will put pressure on the government to open the files,” says Jim.

The younger Hoffa, who had no input into the film script, rejects the movie’s premise that Hoffa set himself up for a fall by approving loans to the Mafia from the Teamsters’ pension fund. “That’s much ado about nothing,” he insists. “I’m sure there are more illegal practices on Wall Street than in the Teamsters.” But he is reluctant to criticize the film too harshly. “There is too much good coming from it.” he says. “Every time I turn on TV, [director] Danny DeVito is saying, ‘Hoffa is a hero. Hoffa helped the working man.’ ” And despite what he sees as inaccuracies, he thinks the movie might help his father’s image. “There were so many vicious attacks on my father during his life. I hope somehow that history will treat him more gently,” he says. “Maybe the movie is the beginning of that new perspective.”



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