On the Anniversary of the passing of The French Connection’s Sonny Grosso — Mangiamo!
Indeed, Let’s eat.
The five-time Oscar-winning movie The French Connection was recently playing on the TCM network and there’s a scene where NYPD detectives Doyle and Russo (based on real-life cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso) are on stakeout. While the two cops freeze their tootsies off, dining on “stale pizza” and cold coffee, they watch as the bad guys savor snails and fine wine in a cozy restaurant.
The scene is ironic because NYPD detective/TV and film producer Sonny Grosso, who passed away two years ago this month, loved to eat with his film crews, and many friends. Ever since he ate “macaroni” with thick red sauce while watching his grandfather listen to opera on the radio while growing up in Italian Harlem, sharing food was like breathing air for Grosso — a way to tell stories, to spread love and laughs, and re-create the family Sunday dinner.
I’ve had the pleasure of sharing food with Grosso in Los Angeles, Toronto and in Grosso’s beloved hometown, New York City — in restaurants from Carlo & Adelina’s Place in downtown Toronto, to Puglia’s in Little Italy, Rao’s in Italian Harlem, Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, and Manducati’s in Long Island City. In honor of our dear Sonny Grosso’s passing, here are some “dining” story excerpts from his upcoming posthumous memoir.
The original Rao’s, the Italian restaurant founded in 1896 at 455 114th Street, only has nine tables but it’s the hardest “get” in New York. You have to be invited by one of Rao’s regulars…One of its Monday night regular diners (was) celebrated and retired NYPD detective, Sonny Grosso, whose life story was turned into the five-time Oscar winning movie, The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin in 1971. Grosso, who became an award-winning producer of TV shows and movies after he retired from the NYPD, lived and grew up around the corner from Rao’s on 115th Street.
Grosso was once and heartwarmingly surprised by who dined with him — one of the biggest movie stars ever and 3-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson. Grosso says Jack’s visit sent Rao’s influential clientele into a tizzy but what was so heart-warming was that Nicholson himself had presented the Best Picture Oscar to The French Connection’s producer Phil D’Antoni back at the 44th Academy Awards. So it was life coming full circle for Grosso:
“I told Jack about my mother’s Saturday ‘shopping’ trips in the neighborhood. She’d go out for two hours from eleven to one with a little apron on because she used to touch everything under the sun. When she came back, she knew who was pregnant, who was getting divorced, who went to jail, who was dating who, who had a fight. She had the scoop on everything because all the women would tell her exactly what’s what. Saturday was really for getting the news, for getting all the gossip to tell my father about. She was like a throwback Entertainment Weekly or TMZ correspondent, getting all the juicy stories!
“Jack laughed his head off and told me he could relate because we had things in common. He grew up in Asbury Park in New Jersey where my mother was raised. As a kid, he was also a big Yankees fan and a bleacher bum like me, watching with eyes wide open as our heroes like Joe DiMaggio performed their magic.”
Grosso said Nicholson graciously accommodated all photo requests inside Rao’s and the delighted customers gave him a standing ovation when he left.
Growing up as a child of the first generation Italian-Americans, Grosso and his pals were taught to reach out for the American dream. Each block in his Italian Harlem neighborhood had the smells of Sunday sauce and soft pretzels, along with the sounds of Jimmy Roselli singing “Mala Femmena” — “every Italian guy’s anthem” back then.
Grosso, who became an award winning producer of TV series and movies after he retired from the NYPD, said that DiMaggio never disappointed him “on the field or as a human being.” In fact, Grosso had a once-in-a-lifetime, four-hour plus dinner conversation at Manducati’s restaurant in Queens with his hero. Set up by his pal, Dr. Rock Positano, as a special birthday gift, Grosso explains:
“DiMaggio and I had an unforgettable conversation. And, just so you know, there were three subjects you didn’t talk about with Joe: Marilyn, Frank Sinatra and JFK. If you did, he’d say he was going to the bathroom and then he wouldn’t come back! So we spoke about everything else and about my desire to produce his movie biography. When Joe left after dinner, I said to him, “Joe, I’ve waited my whole life for this. So how about a little hug and kiss?” He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you have to.” So joking I said, “On the lips?” He replied, “Hey, c’mon, take it easy!” We laughed, I hugged him and then Joe said, “Me and my lawyer are writing a book and I told him, If anybody films this book it’s going to be Sonny Grosso.” Joe left and I’m floating on air. I rushed back in and told my friends he’s writing a book and he wants me to produce his movie.”
As a token of remembrance for that unforgettable evening, the owner of Manducati’s had the chair, that the legend had sat on, engraved with his “#5” and with the names “Sonny Grosso and Joe DiMaggio.”
Grosso added, “When I sent Joe a photo of the chair, he wrote back thanking me but then asked, ‘Hey, Sonny, who says you get top billing?’ Not long after, the Yankee Clipper took ill and passed away. But that famous chair still floats around Manducati’s today and the story behind it helps me keep Joe DiMaggio’s memory alive.”
Here’s yet another jaw-dropping excerpt about the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, from Grosso’s upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood: My Real to Reel Life.
“I worked on three movies with Sinatra as a technical advisor and sometime personal bodyguard. To me, he was the biggest star of all time. He took me to hear him sing at three concerts and we had dinner so many times. Here’s one story. While we were filming Contract on Cherry Street, there was a city blackout and Sinatra had to walk down forty-six flights of stairs at his hotel but he didn’t complain. Anyway, we hired an extra generator to be set up next to the Precinct where we were filming. And the NYPD bosses actually came down to the Precinct during the blackout, because we had electricity there. It became police headquarters while we shot the scene and until the blackout was lifted and full electricity restored.
“So, I’m talking to the director Billy Graham about the way we were going to shoot a night scene. Way behind us you could barely see the Empire State Building with the little bit of natural light there was. So, Graham says, ‘What a great shot this could be if we had the Empire State Building lit.’ So, I go inside Sinatra’s trailer and he says, ‘Are we ready?’ I nod. And Sinatra asks, ‘What kind of shot is he doing?’ I reply, ‘Well, he wants to do a shot with you and the Empire State Building in the background. But we can barely see it. And he was telling me how great it would be if the building was lit, not blacked out.’ Sinatra smiles at me and says, ‘You want it lit?’ I look at him wondering, Fuggedaboudit? It’s like eleven thirty at night. What’s he going to do about it? But he picks up a phone at the Precinct and I don’t know who he dialed but he made the call. And presto, within fifteen minutes, the Empire State Building is lit up for the shot. We later found out, they got it lit with their own back-up generators in the building. But, who in God’s name would have that power — the Chairman of the Board — you bet your ass!”
Sonny, whose birthday is on July 21, adds one more heartwarming story about the real Sinatra:
“While we were still filming Contract on Cherry Street, one evening he got me to go to Puglia’s restaurant in Little Italy, and I walk into a surprise party for me — everyone was there, the whole crew and all, and no one was working. And then Frank sang Happy Birthday to me. It was a command performance. So, me being me, I pulled out a buck for a tip. And, him being him, he took it. I loved that guy!”
RIP Sonny Grosso, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Elaine Kaufman, Frankie Pellegrino, Rod Gilbert, Vincenzo Cerbone, and all those other people who are sharing “macaroni” in the Great Restaurant in the Sky.
Roses are red, violets are blue, to our “Top Cop” Sonny, we all miss you.
Check out the highlighted links like Jack Nicholson presenting the Best Picture Oscar to The French Connection producer Phil D’Antoni. Also, click on the 3 sub-headlines to view Sonny Grosso’s story/blogs on HuffPost; click on The French Connection trailer, on Frankie Pellegrino at Rao’s, and, on Sonny Grosso on The New Yorkers.