The Godfather’s Two Sonnys (Corleone & Grosso) are Now Trading Stories in the Great Restaurant in the Sky
This tale is from the set of the unforgettable and Oscar winning morality tale, The Godfather, as told to this writer by Sonny Grosso.
The character Sonny Corleone was played by the great actor and even more irrepressible human James Caan. Sonny Grosso, was the legendary NYPD detective, whose policing efforts on the streets of New York were told in the 5-time Oscar winning movie, The French Connection. Grosso had been introduced to director Francis Ford Coppola by director Billy Friedkin, and was hired as a technical consultant on the set of The Godfather, allowing him to memorably interact with the A-list cadre of actors — Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Caan, who sadly and recently passed on. Caan’s filmography included Misery, Thief, Brian’s Song, The Gambler and Rollerball.
Grosso, who was to become an award-winning producer, himself, of TV shows and movies after he retired from the NYPD, told me that he and Caan became fast friends, while working on that set. At the famous Rao’s Restaurant in the former Italian Harlem, Grosso often regaled this writer and his guests with stories from The Godfather. Grosso showed his screen namesake what New York was about, once telling us:
“To help Jimmy research his role as Sonny Corleone, I really showed him my New York, and even took him to meet some bent noses at the social clubs I knew from growing up in Italian Harlem. In fact, that great scene in the movie where Jimmy as Sonny goes to seek revenge for the beating of his pregnant sister, Connie, by the wife-beating Carlo, was just around the corner from where I used to live. And as technical consultant, I had to meet up with the wiseguys at the local social club to get permission to film there. That’s a whole other story…”
Anyway, here’s an entertaining tale about the two Sonnys, an excerpt from Sonny Grosso’s upcoming and posthumous memoir, Harlem to Hollywood — My Real to Reel Life:
“Coppola would ask me things about cops and wiseguys. One story is about the scene where James Caan as passionate but hotheaded 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 actually 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 next year, he’s Academy Award winning director Francis Ford Coppola. That made me feel two inches high. But the good thing 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.”
At a restaurant down in Little Italy, Grosso also once told me about how Jimmy Caan showed the famous detective what Los Angeles was all about. After The Godfather shoot, Grosso went out to LA for some movie promotion work and was staying with Gene Hackman and his family when Caan turned up:
“Jimmy said to us, ‘Gene, what the hell do you have him in here for when you’ve got a wife and two kids and family responsibilities? Sonny, you’re coming with me. So, I packed and we take off in Jimmy’s convertible and he says, ‘What, you’re going out to soccer games with this guy and his family. What are you crazy? Let me show you my L.A.’ I stayed with Jimmy and we went everywhere. We went to the Playboy Mansion, hung out on the Sunset Strip. Jimmy Caan was one of the kings of Hollywood — and, he really did show me his City of Angels!”
One more thing that Grosso told me about Jimmy Caan from The Godfather set was that all the actors would try to impress the awesome Marlon Brando:
“As Jimmy was full of life, he always tried to make Brando laugh with his impressions, which were really good. They say imitation is the best form of flattery and they certainly wanted to flatter Brando. I mean, let’s face it, Brando was the big shot among big shots. This was the guy shouting ‘Stella!’ — the role that catapulted him to fame in Streetcar.”
Here’s to the two “Sonnys” — Jimmy’s Sonny Corleone and Det. Sonny Grosso — and to the moments of movie magic they made.
FYI, click on the highlighted words to see links to The French Connection trailer and car chase, The Godfather trailer and to Jimmy Caan’s tollbooth scene, and his memorial story in the Hollywood Reporter, and also to Sonny Grosso’s own magnificent send off when he passed in 2020.