French Connection Det. Sonny Grosso Smiles Down from the Great Precinct in the Sky
January 22 marks the one year passing of heroic French Connection NYPD Det. Sonny Grosso. Nicknamed “Cloudy” by Det. Eddie Egan, his longtime NYPD partner, Sonny Grosso’s funeral mass a year ago was all about looking up to the glorious light above the clouds — a “who’s who” of combined law enforcement, political and celebrity congregants paid their respects.
But what would make Sonny Grosso smile now was that at the end of 2020, Time Magazine named The French Connection movie to the list of The 10 Best Movies Based on a True Story, as chosen by TIME staff and a select group of historians.
Of the thrilling movie, which earned 5 Academy Awards, Time writes: “While Friedkin took some liberties with the film, including its iconic car chase, he was committed to keeping the story fairly realistic. To aid with this, he brought on Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the NYPD detectives who provided the inspiration for the film’s protagonists, Detective ‘Popeye’ Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (played by Roy Scheider). Egan and Grosso served as technical advisers on set for the entirety of production, as well as both acting in small cameos in the film…”
Hundreds of people, from New York and beyond, turned out for Gr0sso’s wake vigil and funeral services — just before the lockdown took hold of the Big Apple. Here is my take on beloved Sonny Grosso, a fair but tough police officer, and how people paid their respects to him.
A Magnificent Send Off for Sonny Grosso, French Connection Detective and TV/Movie producer
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” — Apostle Paul to Timothy
This was the scene at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in East Harlem. If you peered in from the outside, it was like peeking into a bedazzled jewel box. Brilliant natural light fractured through the awesome stained glass windows and danced across the floor. Great marble-like arches bowed over the “who’s who” of the combined law enforcement, political and celebrity congregation. The church was filled to capacity. And, in turn, each looked up to a visual cornucopia of fresco paintings on the domed ceiling of the church’s rotunda. Grosso’s casket had been escorted to the church by a police honor guard dressed in their crisp NYPD “blues” and white gloves. Standing to attention, and not budging from their sworn duty to honor their fallen comrade, they waited outside to take him to his final resting place.
For a man, who grew up around the corner from Mt. Carmel, and who was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, there was a sense of respect and veneration about the whole event. As a turbulence of delightful forms emerged from the rising scented smoke, it was as if Grosso’s indefatigable spirit rose up with the incense toward the ceiling above everyone.
Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello eloquently presided over the service, with Sonny Grosso’s loving family in attendance, including his own four children and his five grandchildren, along with his gracious, long time partner Christina Krauss. It was an absolutely fitting tribute and celebration of a life gloriously lived.
Msgr. Jamie began the beautiful eulogies and was incredible with his personal anecdotes, having known Sonny since he was in the seminary. Afterwards, everyone commented on how wonderful his words were. Salvatore “Sonny” Junior lovingly read his own heartfelt poem which was on the back of the prayer card. Others like author Adriana Trigiani and producer Liza Persky (daughter of Grosso’s great pal Billy Persky) also spoke of their fondness for Sonny and they read what Billy had written about him.
Then, famous actor/comedian/talk show host Joe Piscopo, who also starred on Saturday Night Live, almost brought down the house in a respectful, loving way. He hit all the right notes, and was right on with his balance of tenderness and humor — we all needed some humor. Piscopo was phenomenal. Like quipping that “nobody ever knew where Sonny lived, except Christina, because he needed her. She was his 911.” Everybody laughed, because everyone knew Sonny never gave his address out. At the end, Joe joyously sang Sinatra’s “My Way” in honor of Sonny but changed the lyrics to be for Sonny. Everyone was touched.
The day before, Sonny’s “wake” vigil was kept at the prestigious Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side of the Park. Proceedings took place in one extended shift from 2–9pm, and over 300 people paid their respects to Sonny while Christina and Grosso’s family presided. Everybody who was anybody attended, from heads of networks, top city officials and money people, lawyers and judges, police chiefs and their “amazing officers” in uniform, media people, New York sports legends like Rangers hero Rod Gilbert…and the “everyman” like the doorman Eddie next door to where Sonny lived. Sonny made friends with everyone. Other friends and co-workers dropped everything and also flew down from Canada, where Sonny spent over 20 years producing almost 900 hours of movie/TV shows.
And Frankie Jr., Tom and Ronnie, Dino and Jessica, Joey and Nicky Vest all paid a visit from across the street at Rao’s — “New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurant” as Vanity Fair called it. Rao’s itself had played such a central focus in Sonny’s life from a kid playing stickball on the street and in Jefferson Park across the way, to him holding court at his “Monday’s at Rao’s” get-togethers where he invited the likes of his pals like Judge Eddie Torres and director Billy Friedkin. Additionally, celebrities like Jack Nicholson, President Bill Clinton, Rod Stewart, Joe Torre (former manager of Sonny’s beloved Yankees), and Rusty Staub (Mets), all visited him at his table.
Indeed, the French Connection detective Sonny Grosso loved people. And, everybody loved Sonny Grosso. He was the epitome of a people’s person, as he loved bringing people together. For over 20 years, Sonny would hold weekly dinners at places like Carlo and Adelina’s Place and the Wet Paint Café in Toronto when he was filming there. And, then at famous New York eateries like Puglia and Manducatis, and Rao’s.
So, it made sense that for one more time at his own wake and funeral, Sonny Grosso brought people from diverse backgrounds together. At the gorgeous, well-appointed funeral home, Christina tells how she heard more heartfelt stories about Sonny and how people had met and known him. She says he was such a force of nature, that people expressed to her and to others how exquisitely painful their loss was.
In a later “celebration of a life well lived” at one of Sonny’s favorite restaurants, Manducatis, a group of intimate friends gathered to offer up more love and memories. Those included former NYPD Chief of Department Joseph Esposito, who was with the NYPD from 1968–2013, and who said of his celebrated hero: “Sonny was a great man, a great human being, and an icon of a police detective.” Also present was Sonny’s boyhood pal Edwin Torres, a former New York State Supreme Court judge and award-winning author (“Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours,” both adapted as movies). “Judge” Torres said, “Sonny, my man, was my hero in every sense of the word” and “as we grew, Sonny became a legend whose humanity never faltered.”
“Throw off the cloak of fear, and the shroud of doubt, then put on the wings of faith…”
Everything about those special days was underscored by dignity and respect, and the events were so befitting of him, because he was a larger than life character. In fact, there’s a telling story about Grosso, who was still a member of the NYPD, and working on one of his first movie production jobs as a key technical advisor on The Godfather. Sonny queried the reality of what would be left of someone being cut down by several machine guns as was intended for James Caan as “Sonny Corleone” in the infamous tollbooth scene from the movie. Sonny was there to bring a sense of “real-to-reel” life to the shoot. But, director Francis Ford Coppola, in his wisdom, suggested that Caan’s character was bigger than life, and so he needed to be dramatically eliminated in a larger than life way.
In the last few weeks of his life, Christina tells of how Sonny’s personal nurse Dawn Hilton would read chapters from his upcoming and posthumous memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso. Sonny would smile and say, “Oh, that’s me.” And, then he would add, “Now here’s the rest of the story.” He was inspired to fill in details and color. Dawn said it was thrilling to read to Sonny about his own life. And, then on his final morning, Christina read the key chapter about “the mistake that made” Sonny’s police career, and while he was barely conscious, she swears, he squeezed her hand in acknowledgment.
So, here’s a toast to you our dear sweet friend and mentor Sonny Grosso, as you visit those in the Great Precinct in paradise, and then as you hold court in that Great Restaurant in the Sky, telling tales and regaling family and friends with your unforgettable stories from a life truly well lived. For those of us who are still here and miss the great man, we can envision the late but magnificent poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen reciting his “Anthem” to Sonny Grosso:
“Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen
RIP Salvatore “Sonny” Grosso: July 21, 1930 — January 22. 2020. Click on the underlined hyperlinks of his New York Times obituary, the French Connection Trailer, Documentary, and Oscar Best Picture and Best Director presentations. Sonny Grosso’s “Harlem to Hollywood” memoir will be posthumously published for the Holidays later in 2021. As the memoir’s Prolog suggests, “Buckle up, it’s going to be one hell of a ride!”