Retired French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso: “The mistake that made my Police career”
Brrr! As the big 2020 winter freeze envelops Manhattan, retired NYPD detective and TV/Movie producer Sonny Grosso recalls that 50 years ago, he and his NYPD partner Eddie Egan were freezing off their “cojones” while advising director William Friedkin as he filmed The French Connection movie on the frozen streets of New York. The movie starred Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle) and Roy Scheider (Buddy Russo) who were portraying the real-life story of Grosso and Egan. And, Grosso, humorously recalls, “I’ve lived in New York all my life, and that winter in 1970/71 when were shooting the movie, was one of the coldest ever. In one scene, Hackman and Scheider, the actors, were literally freezing on a stakeout while the actors playing the French heroin dealers enjoy a sumptuous meal. It was just like that for Egan and me, when we were on the real stakeout, eating stale pizza and drinking cold coffee.”
Those eye-opening, honest and sometimes brutal stories from the five-time Oscar-winning French movie are at the heart of Grosso’s upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life, by French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso.
Here’s another excerpt from Grosso’s memoir, told in his own irrepressible New Yorker’s voice, and it goes back to the “mistake that made his Police Career” and changed his life forever:
So, back to Grosso’s boyhood days playing stickball in the street or chatting up the Spanish girls with their exotic Spanish eyes:
“So even if my tap dancing career was over before it started, hanging out in Jefferson Park was definitely in. It was just around the corner from our place and right across the way from Rao’s Restaurant. It was our home away from home and during summertime, we’d play ball and swim all day, even if we ended up looking like prunes. And, we learned how to break balls, New York style. Our Pleasant Avenue (Red Wings) gang would put up a stink about our Puerto Rican friends, which included my pal Eddie Torres, swimming in the pool. We’d tease, ‘When you guys get out, you leave a greasy ring around the pool.’ They’d shoot back, ‘Oh, yeah! Then why do they call you Italians, greaseballs?’ They gave as good as they got. We’d have a rumble then break up laughing, jump back in the pool and do it all over again. Those indeed were the days…And I still remember those beautiful Spanish girts.”
While Jefferson Park played a key role in Grosso becoming a cop, another venue that’s forever anchored in his life is Rao’s Restaurant right across from Jefferson Park. A Vanity Fair magazine headline once proclaimed, “Welcome to Rao’s, New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurant.”
At the red carpet premiere for Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, at the New York Film Festival, actors such as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale talked about many things New York. And, also about the hardest “get” in the City. That famous place is venerable eatery, Rao’s Restaurant, which opened in Italian Harlem in 1896 at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue.
You have to be invited by one of Rao’s regulars to get into this cozy establishment with only a handful of tables. It’s frequented by a who’s who of the rich and famous. And, there’s also one table set aside for the locals with “bent noses,” as Sonny quips — you know, the neighborhood guys.
Anyway, at the film’s premiere, one star jokingly told the New York Times that you have to “kill somebody,” to get in. Bobby Cannavale suggested more correctly: “You got to make buddies with Bo Dietl, or Woody Allen, or Sonny Grosso,” referring to the NYPD detective immortalized in The French Connection. “Those are the three guys I’ve been there with.”
Cannavale, who co-starred in a Grosso-produced movie N.Y.-70 with Donnie Wahlberg, is right about Sonny Grosso. Grosso grew up around the corner on 115th Street, the street that appeared in The French Connection movie and also in The Godfather. On these two movies, NYPD detective Grosso was also a technical advisor, while still doing his day job. Grosso’s real-life story was turned into reel-life and the Oscar winning movie The French Connection in 1971. He later became an award-winning producer of TV shows and movies after he retired from the NYPD. Grosso is as authentic a New Yorker as they come, remembering what an impact Rao’s had on his early life.
So, Grosso explains:
“Rao’s was fascinating to us kids, there were all sorts of stories like the neighborhood ‘action’ guys who’d go there to eat. But East Harlem really was a family place where you could smell Sunday sauce, and where we kids played stickball in the street and watched wide-eyed at life going by. My childhood pal Eddie Torres once noted that Joe Rao had something in his car that he’d press and when he approached his garage, the door would open. So we used to sit in the park in the bushes across the street from his house. We’d buy pretzels and popcorn, like we were going to the movies, and just wait. One day, I went by myself. I saw the garage door open up, and then suddenly Joe Rao drives down the block and pulls into the garage. To me it was like space travel — like, Beam me up, Scotty! We didn’t know from remote controllers. When the garage door closed behind him, I ran around the corner shouting, ‘I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it!’ They’re going, “Yeah, bullshit!” And I’m trying to explain to my pals, ‘No, he had this thing, the door went up, he wasn’t even there.’”
Then, when he was an older teenager, Grosso tried to impress a girl by taking her to famous Rao’s:
“I was almost eighteen, and she was really beautiful. Everybody in the neighborhood and all the wiseguys were trying to get with her. When I came to pick her up, I only had a learner’s permit, but I borrowed my uncle’s car. I arrived at her place and her parents were looking down from their window and all the neighbors were on the stoop staring. They’d all heard I was taking her to Rao’s. And, she kept asking, ‘You’re really going to take me to Rao’s?’ And I’m talking it up big-time, So when I walked inside the restaurant, Joe gives me a hug and I introduce him to her. Joe used to keep an eye on me after my father died when I was only fourteen. He had even graciously come to my dad’s funeral. So he says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I say, ‘Well, we were going to have something to eat.’ He says, ‘Do me a favor, Sonny, come back when you’re both eighteen.’ I was pissed off but I say to her, ‘Well, I’ll drive you home.’ She says, ‘Don’t bother, I can walk,’ because she lived only two blocks away! Many years later when I became a cop, I went to Joe and asked, ‘What the hell was that about? You embarrassed the hell out of me.’ He said they (police) were taking pictures from across the street and if they saw underage kids coming in, they could raid Rao’s and take his liquor license away. I said, ‘Why couldn’t you tell me something?’ He replied, ‘I’m not going to talk to you about that when you’re underage.’ It made sense.”
After finishing their Armed Forces stint in the early 1950s, Sonny Grosso and his boyhood pals were back to doing what they did best — being guys:
“After my best friends and I had finished serving our Army time, we were back in Jefferson Park playing hoops. We were called the ‘Sons of Rest’ by people in our neighborhood because none of us were working yet. We were playing two on two, and two others were waiting under the basket to play the winners. And, this other pal of ours comes over to the fence and says he’s going downtown to pick up some applications for the New York Fire Department, and he wanted to borrow my car. I tell him, ‘I got a flat and I got no spare.’ Another guy says, ‘Sorry, I got no gas.’ But our enterprising pal replies, ‘Okay, okay. So, do you want me to pick up some applications for you guys, anyway?’ And, we all add, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But we really weren’t that interested. After all, we were the Sons of Rest, you know what I mean, and we wanted to get back to our game.
“So while we continued to play ball, this guy goes all the way downtown from upper Manhattan in Harlem. The buses back then weren’t as fast and efficient as they are now. He picks up seven applications — one for himself and six for us. He comes back and passes them through the fence to us. But we saw they weren’t for the Fire Department they were for the Police Department. He’d picked up the wrong applications!”
Grosso has great respect for the NYFD because firemen like cops run towards a fire and other “tragic” incidents, while others run from them. But Sonny Grosso as a fireman doesn’t quite have the same ring, now does it? He continues his story:
“The way it eventually turned out, five of us from that day at the Park made it into the Police Academy. But the poor guy who went all the way downtown, he didn’t make it. You say to yourself, ‘If there’s a big guy up above, jeez, at least let this guy make it!’ But he didn’t! Hey, I never wanted to become a policeman. As a kid, we were always running from the cops. They chased you from playing crap games. They took your stickball bat away and put it down the sewer. If you were making noises, they’d come chase your ass. Cops spoiled all your fun, so no way I was looking to join up. But once you filled out the application, some other things started to come into play. First, there were all these tests you were given. If you pass the mental test, you get to take the physical, then they do a background check. Thing is, being how I was a good student, I always wanted to pass every test. It became a competitive thing for me.”
From playing stickball and softball to supporting the Yankees, Grosso was always competitive, like his father Benny, who was a competitive bowler. But he had other things to consider:
“On top of all that, there was that police pension incentive. With my father gone, we had no money and I had to think about my family. Getting a regular paycheck was everything. Plus, the NYPD had a deal where you could retire after twenty years and wind up with half your pay. Even today I still get a pension check. So it was a paying job with a pension and security for the future. The advice I got from my family was to ‘always think of the future.’ So I took all the tests and became a policeman.
“Thank God, I did. I ended up having the time of my life, spending twenty-two years with the NYPD. It was exciting, dangerous and fun. And I’d do it all over again. Actually, when I stopped getting an orgasm every time I heard a cell door slam, I knew it was time to leave the NYPD, know what I mean. And, I owe it all to that little mistake that happened in Jefferson Park. Speaking of mistakes, if you Wikipedia me, it says I was born in Dusseldorf. Go figure because I’ve never even been to Europe!”
Badabing, badaboom. Still going strong, Sonny Grosso wishes everyone a Happy New 2020!
Stay tuned for the upcoming book, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by French Connection detective Sonny Grosso. Ashley Jude Collie’s new dystopian novel, REJEX, is available on Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK), and Amazon worldwide.