Raconteur. Bard. Spinner of Yarns — Sonny Grosso’s key contribution to The Godfather 50 years ago
In a recent and insightful story about the 50th anniversary of the release of The Godfather, the headline read: “The Godfather review — a brutal sweep of magnificent storytelling.” Premiering on March 15, then going to wide release on March 24 1972, The Godfather’s director Francis Ford Coppola was aided by an all-star acting cast and an NYPD detective who was still on the force.
Indeed, the prolog to Det. Sonny Grosso’s upcoming and posthumous memoir begins:
Raconteur. Bard. Spinner of Yarns
Storytellers have always enthralled us because when we create stories, we create gods, heroes, bad guys, and magic. One of the youngest first-grade detectives in NYPD history, Sonny Grosso later became an award-winning television and movie producer. Grosso is one of those captivating storytellers. Like when people drop everything to hear him tell how he still carries his service revolver, the very one that Al Pacino as Michael Corleone used in that famous restaurant scene in The Godfather — when Det. Grosso was a technical advisor, and a budding film producer. Always sticking with his gut instincts, Grosso initially learned his new craft working on Oscar-winning Best Picture films The French Connection, and The Godfather, two of AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies.
In fact, The French Connection director William Friedkin was so impressed with Grosso’s real-life savvy from having grown up on Harlem’s streets, that right after they shot the last scene, he drove Grosso to Filmways Studio at 127th Street and Second Ave. where they were doing prep work for The Godfather. Friedkin advised director Francis Ford Coppola that he had to lean on the still active NYPD detective.
Grosso describes that momentous meeting: “Billy introduces me to Coppola, saying, ‘You can’t do a movie in New York without Grosso’s gorillas, you know, his guys.’ So, when Coppola says to me ‘I got to hire you’ I say ‘Great’ and then he asks, ‘How much do you want?’ I had split $300/week with Det. Eddie Egan for our own French Connection movie because that’s all they had for technical advisors. So, I say to Coppola, “Listen, Billy tells me I should do this and I’d love to work with you but. . .” He didn’t hear me out and goes, “How about a thousand a week?’ I leaned over to Billy and whisper, ‘You son of a gun, here’s a movie (The French Connection) about me and my partner, we help you every step of the way, we work on the book, we work on the scenes and dialog and you give us three hundred to split?!’ To which Billy added these pearls of wisdom, ‘Sonny, remember, who brought you there.’ No fooling!”
Born and bred in Harlem, Grosso knew the City like the back of his hand, and he was next working as a technical advisor on The Godfather. And, soon meeting the all-star cast, including the great man, Marlon Brando himself.
Grosso recalls: “I was walking by Brando’s trailer, and suddenly he tapped on his window and said, ‘Sonny, come in here for a minute.’ Even though I tried to be cool, Brando the god is calling me into his trailer. I shake his hand and he says, ‘So, you’re the cop that made ‘The French Connection?’… ‘Can you get me a copy of the book?’ Being a wiseass, I wanted to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t,’ to tease him but I immediately ran out to get a copy and he shouts, ‘Sonny, and autograph it!’ I was six feet off the ground. I mean I was a kid from Harlem. And, Marlon Brando, the guy who was bigger than life, who shouted ‘Hey, Stella!’ and ‘been a contender,’ wanted my autographed copy of Robin Moore’s book about our case. Who would believe it? I sure didn’t!
“Brando waves me into his trailer again, gives me a cup of coffee and proceeds to ask me some of the most intelligent questions I ever got about The French Connection case and book. He’d read the whole damn thing overnight and he asked me things like the weight of the car in France and how it changed when we got a hold of it in New York. I told him I came up with that key information. Marlon was amazed at my story and I was totally impressed with his interest.”
As for Brando’s fellow actors on The Godfather, including Al Pacino who Grosso did five movies with, Grosso says they treated Brando with the respect he was due. And he had a real sense of humor, with Brando reportedly mooning his fellow actors on the set one time. But Grosso quips he was happy Brando wasn’t in the scene when the real-life NYPD detective had an acting cameo in which he had to do a “several” unintentionally hilarious takes on his line, “The kid’s clean, Captain. He’s a war hero…”
And, Grosso continues: “But Brando was often like a lone wolf. While the other guys were shooting the breeze before a scene, Brando would have four panels set up around a stool where he sat getting into character. He’d be alone on set getting into the feel of the scene, or whatever it was he had to do — his ‘method.’ He improvised that orange peel thing just before his death scene. Francis asked him how they could make that scene where he’s playing with his grandson believable. Brando said, ‘Here’s how I play with kids,’ and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and stuck them into his mouth. He’d also improvised by using Kleenex in his mouth to puff up his cheeks. What a guy! What an actor! And, what an unforgettable time in my life.”
Grosso further recalls: “On the set, Coppola would ask me things about cops and wiseguys. One story is about the scene where James Caan as passionate but hothead Sonny Corleone is shot at the tollbooth. Every night, Francis and I would talk about what we were going to film the next day. So, he asks me about the tollbooth scene and I suggest, ‘You know when you use a machine gun, it makes a hole only this big going in but this much bigger going out. So, when you got five guys shooting machine guns, not only will you not find Jimmy Caan, you won’t find the f-ing car he drove up in.’ Francis says, ‘Let me think about that.’ Next morning I’m getting a haircut for the scene, where I’m playing one of those shooters, and Francis says, ‘You know, Sonny, I thought about what you said and I respect what you do and I know you’re an expert. But we’re going to do it another way.’
“As cops we don’t even know what’ll happen when our guns go off. But Francis explains, ‘I understand what you’re saying. But Sonny Corleone is bigger than life in this movie and you can’t shoot him unless you shoot him bigger than life.’ I’m thinking, ‘Nobody will hear from this director again.’ And the next year, he’s Academy Award winning director Francis Ford Coppola. That made me feel two inches high. But the good thing is, it taught me was that everything isn’t the way that you think it is in the entertainment business. And you’re allowed to take some creative license. Little by little, I learned from that. Meanwhile, Jimmy Caan got torn to shreds at the tollbooth.”
As with The French Connection and The Seven-Ups film shoots, Grosso got some additional work acting in The Godfather — what a concept, using a highly decorated and “real” NYPD detective to play a “reel” cop.
Anyway, Grosso jokes about another of his acting scenes in Coppola’s memorable movie: “My other scene was outside the hospital after Don Corleone has been shot. Pacino as Michael is standing guard and tells the other kid to put his hand in his pocket to make it look like he’s packing. The wiseguys come, they see the two of them and drive off. Then the cops led by Sterling Hayden’s corrupt character turn up. Michael says, ‘Where the hell are the cops who’re supposed to be guarding my father? Are they on your payroll?’ Sterling says to my character, ‘Phil, take him in.’ And I try to say, ‘The kid’s clean, Captain. He’s a war hero…’ But every time my nervous voice would get really high. Everybody would line up, the boom microphone would move in, Al Pacino and all those big shot actors are looking at me, and the guy would say, ‘Speed. . .action.’ Then he’d point to me and I’d say in a high voice, ‘The kid’s clean. . .’ As I got more nervous, my voice got higher. Francis would say, ‘Sonny, you’re a cop, say it like you’d say it for real as a cop.’ And I’d say it back to him just fine. Then we’d go back to the scene. ‘Action!’ But when I opened my mouth that high voice returned. I just couldn’t help it. So, finally after about ten takes, I said, ‘Francis, just kill me please!’ He said, ‘We can’t, you’re already established (in the scene).’ To this day, I don’t know if that’s my voice or somebody’s else’s voice they dubbed into the edit. The lesson it taught me was to have respect for the actors and what they do. It’s too easy to sit back and be critical of things. So, it’s an important ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ lesson.”
Of author Mario Puzo, Grosso says, “Mario originally told me, ‘It’s a bunch of stories about all the things that you and I heard growing up as an Italian-American kid. And I’ve put all of these stories together in a book and made it about a family.’ The wind-up is that The Godfather won three Oscars, including Best Picture which was fittingly presented to producer Al Ruddy, the man who figured out all the problems for Francis, and gave us a classic, unforgettable movie.”
Grosso actually ended up revolutionizing the role of the technical consultant for cop movies and legendary TV cop shows like Kojak with Telly Savalas, and TV movies like Contract on Cherry Street with Frank Sinatra in the 1970s. Then, after retiring from the NYPD, Grosso became a celebrated producer himself, working on a string of hit TV series (Night Heat, Top Cops, True Blue), innovative reality shows like Top Cops and Secret Service, among many others.
About Grosso’s overall influence, film critic James Monaco once observed, “Sonny Grosso has had a hand in most of the major cop films and television series of the 1970s” while jokingly speculating that someday scholars would discuss “Grossovian subtexts” about the period’s police dramas.
To which Grosso humbly suggested, “I was proud to bring an element of reality, of real to reel, as a technical advisor on these groundbreaking shows and movies. And as I moved away from the NYPD — retiring after 22 years — I learned how the entertainment business really worked from some of America’s greatest filmmakers like Friedkin, Coppola and producer Phil D’Antoni (Bullitt, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups), and how they took ‘creative’ but successful license going from real to reel.”
Check out the highlighted links in the story, and here as Clint Eastwood presents The Best Picture award to The Godfather producer Al Ruddy. Also, click on the highlighted links for The Godfather and The French Connection trailers, and, also on Sonny Grosso on The New Yorkers, on the tollbooth shooting and outside the hospital in The Godfather, and on The French Connection documentary.