The Academy Awards and why The French Connection’s Real-life Detective Watched the 1972 Oscars Alone at Home

The French Connection winners (D’Antoni, Hackman, Friedkin) with Jane Fonda

The French Connection movie was initially turned down by every studio, including twice by some studios. But producer Phil D’Antoni and director William Friedkin persisted, and Fox’s Dick Zanuck finally called them in, saying, “I’ve got a $1.5 million sitting in a drawer, if you can make it for that, go ahead!”

As Sonny Grosso, one half of the dynamic real-life NYPD detective duo, whom the movie is based upon, adds, “It’s those kind of moments that make movie magic.”

Including the mind-boggling moment that saw detective Sonny Grosso sitting alone in a Harlem apartment on Academy night 1972 when his story was nominated for multiple Oscars. This was a guy who’d been on the job for 20 years on the dangerous streets of Harlem, that were rife with crime, and yet he had a deep-seated fear of flying. So on that memorable night, he sat alone and watched his filmmaking friends and partner detective Eddie Egan accept one Academy award after another for a total haul of 5 Oscars.

As Grosso recalls, “Frank Sinatra, who I worked with on three movies, sang in My Way, ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again too few to mention.’ Well, that’s one regret I have, for not going!”

NYPD Detectives Grosso and Egan bringing real-life to the reel screen

On the day that NYPD detectives Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan made their famous French Connection case in 1961, Grosso humbly reports, “It made the headlines of every paper across the country because there was nothing happening anywhere else. Now that’s good fortune!”

The story of this groundbreaking case was ultimately turned into that movie that earned 5 Oscar Awards in 1972 — the Best Picture Award was given out by a young Jack Nicholson to producer D’Antoni — and a listing as one of AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies.

Indeed, The French Connection story still resonates today as a gritty, realistic portrayal of life as a police detective back then — the memorable car chase by detective Doyle (Gene Hackman playing Egan’s role) still ranks as one of the greatest in cinematic history. And then there’s that stark depiction of a stakeout by detectives Doyle and Russo (Roy Scheider playing Grosso’s role) being forced to eat stale pizza and drink cold coffee while trying to stay warm in the middle of a brutal New York winter. Meanwhile the bad guys are dining on escargots and fine wine across the street.

Without false modesty, Gross explains:

“In 1961, the papers had headlines like — ‘$32,000,000 Cache of Dope Seized in New York.’ While ‘we’ were highlighted, without the tireless work of so many others, this case would never have been made. It was the first time the drugs, the customers, the connection and the money all came together on the streets of New York. The papers and the TV played the hell out of this case. But it wasn’t easy pulling it off. Then, a few years later things happened that turned the ‘real’ events of this case into ‘reel’ events, beginning with the book written by Robin Moore along with us two detectives.”

Det. Grosso offers technical advice to Hackman on French Connection set

Going to Moore’s home in Jamaica to work with the author on the French Connection book was going to be another exciting first for Grosso and Egan, who most saw as being like oil and water. But they were partners together for 16 years often leading the NYPD in narcotics arrests. Grosso admits that Egan had had twelve partners the year before he became his partner, and says, “Nobody wanted to work with him.” In fact, Grosso reveals that Roy Scheider, who played him in the movie earning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal. jokingly asked Sonny, “How could you stand this guy Egan as your partner, because he’s being a big pain in the ass on the set, too.”

Sonny recalls, “I said, ‘Roy, if I didn’t like him who would?’ Roy slapped his hands and said, ‘Now I know how I’m going to play you!’ And he must’ve known something because he got that Oscar nomination, and Hackman won the Oscar!”

While, Grosso and Egan were a dynamic duo on the streets, there was this other big problem facing author Moore. For tough-as-nails Grosso, the guy who’d take a bullet for a friend, well, we’ll let him explain it:

“Quite simply, I was scared shitless of flying. But after days of Egan getting on my case, Eddie finally talked me into going to Jamaica to write the book with Robin. So, I get all packed, I get to the airport — in those days, you went to the plane by walking on the tarmac — and we climb up the stairs, get on the plane. The stewardess goes through the adjust-your-seatbelts, safety instructions and everything. But before they can close the door, I panicked. I got up and ran up the aisle, ran down the stairs, and raced back across the tarmac like my ass was on fire. Somehow, they got me back onto the plane on another day, but that’s another story. But as for why flying scares me, I still don’t get it.”

And it was his ongoing fear of flying that later found him sitting alone in his apartment in New York while their movie The French Connection cleaned up at the Academy Awards. Grosso laughs, “And all my pals were celebrating — Egan, Billy Friedkin, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and producer Phil D’Antoni. One of the few regrets I’ve had in my life, but what’s a guy going to do?”

Grosso wishes all the 2019 Academy Award nominees the very best, and hope none of them get stuck watching the big show all alone, while others make magical moments!

Check out the underlined hyperlinks for the trailer, car chase, and other goodies from The French Connection movie.

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.

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