A Tribute to Sonny Grosso
From this past Thursday’s New York Post:
“Former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose police work with partner Eddie Egan was used as the plot for the classic 1971 cop flick The French Connection, died Wednesday. He was 89…Grosso’s foray into Hollywood began with the The French Connection as he and Egan consulted on the film and served as the real-life inspiration for fictional detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo. He went on to become a prolific producer and consultant for television and movies, working on shows such as Kojak, Night Heat and Baretta.”
It’s always odd reading an obituary piece of someone you know, even odder when it’s of someone you consider a friend. You realize just how much of the person you knew isn’t in those few column inches. There are some biographical facts, a tribute sentence or two, but I look at the obits for Sonny Grosso and I wonder, Where’s Sonny? Because he’s not in those pieces.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend, but then he was one of those people that after your first meeting which ran long because he couldn’t stop telling stories you felt like you’d been friends a long time. And after you’d known him a long time, you felt like you’d always known him. I got to thinking of him like an uncle who lived far away so you didn’t see him too often but were always happy to hear he was coming to town.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend which, because we were both Italian, meant there were times that even though I loved him I wanted to strangle him, and even as I wanted to strangle him, I loved him. Unless I miss my guess, there were times I suspect he felt the same way.
I don’t remember exactly when I met Sonny. I believe it was some time in the 1990s. We were introduced by Bill Persky, a TV writer/producer/director with whom I’d done some work and who – God bless him – was always looking for ways to juice what laughably could be considered my “writing career.” He thought because of Sonny’s police background and an affinity for related material, which I shared, we’d make a compatible couple.
It never quite happened; close, but not quite. But it didn’t stop me from coming by to talk about this and that and to quickly become part of Sonny’s huge – and I mean huge – circle of friends, because it seemed to me everybody Sonny came into contact with became a friend. That was him. “All the good people in the business,” Sonny once told me, “are good with people.” You didn’t have to know Sonny long to know he was good people.
He would regularly invite me and my wife to an annual dinner he held down in Little Italy as a commemoration to his mother, and there was the time he invited me to just hang out with him at his table at Rao’s, a culty Italian restaurant in East Harlem (this is why it’s culty; tables are “assigned” to regular customers and whether or not you ever get a table depends on whether or not co-owner Frank “Frankie No” Pelligrino decides you should have a table; Sonny had one, the Clintons didn’t get one).
I would see pictures of a slim, almost gawky Sonny from his days on the police force and always have trouble connecting that to the burly, huggable teddy bearish guy I knew. And he was a hugger; maybe it was the Italian in him. I never saw him more huggably teddy bearish than when he met my daughters. I used to work at HBO, and on one of those bring-your-kids-to-work days, after work, I decided to swing up to Sonny’s office and introduce him to my little girls. He was incredibly sweet to them, and after a few minutes you would’ve thought he was their uncle. He would always ask about them after that, always, and they still talk about him even though that was something like fifteen, sixteen years ago.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t always love and kisses between me and Sonny (he was a kisser, too; God love my people!). One long-simmering frustration, shared with me by Bill Persky since this was why he’d brought us together in the first place, was Sonny wouldn’t consider me for writing work. He was supportive of my work, wonderfully complimentary, but because my c.v. was so lightweight (and, yes, it was), he was concerned how network execs would react to me as part of a project.
“Sonny’s not afraid of going into a room where there’s a guy with a gun,” a mutual friend told me, “but get him into a room filled with guys in suits, and he gets nervous.”
He didn’t think much of a lot of the decision-makers on TV. Over the nearly four decades he was involved in the entertainment business, he’d judged it changed, and not for the better. “The guys who used to run it ran the whole show, they knew everybody. The guys who took their place hadn’t been involved at that level. They were like being the coach’s son, assuming they knew the game, but they didn’t…
“I work at a network, and this person here is my assistant. I leave, that person gets elevated. But that person doesn’t have the same talent. There’s been an overall letdown in talent.”
One time I asked him about the difference between his days on the force and working in television. “You’ve got this lieutenant, you hate this guy, he’s a prick, but you know when you go through a door he’s going to be there with you. It’s not like that in TV; nobody’s got your back.”
So why stay in the business? “It’s like a broad. She’s got great tits, a great ass, great legs, but an ugly face. You say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll live with it’.”
(For a while there, it seemed like every time I asked Sonny about something, the response was always in the form of how whatever the topic was was “like a broad.” Like when I asked him what it was like working with Eddie Egan. “I loved the guy,” he told me, but Egan – who, I got the impression, could be a bit of a hot dog – rubbed a lot of other cops the wrong way. When Sonny was partnered up with Egan, he’d find dog turds in his station mailbox. “Finally, I had to talk to these guys. I told them, ‘I know you guys got a problem with him, but this is like a broad I’m married to; maybe you don’t like her but she’s my wife so you gotta show respect.”)
One of those times when I wanted to strangle Sonny was over a feature screenplay Bill Pesky and I had written together about the Italian POWs kept in the U.S. during WW II. It was a forgotten historical footnote that struck a chord with Sonny. It was an inspirational story about people overcoming their prejudices, it was about Italians in America, it had a mix of the funny, the sweet, the tragic, and even a touch of romance. He loved it and wanted to try to get it made.
After a possible co-production arrangement with some Italian entities came apart, Sonny called Billy and me up to his office to talk about another possibility. He wanted to pitch it to Hallmark.
Billy and I were not happy. That would mean chopping anywhere from a quarter to one-third out of the script to get it to fit into a TV movie slot, and it being Hallmark, we knew that in that process, the touch of romance would become the main story and in the schmaltziest of ways. We thought the piece deserved better, so we said no. Sonny got pissed. We got pissed. Each side got convinced the other side didn’t “get it” so everybody got more pissed.
End of project.
(To be fair, after years of not being able to find a home for the project and with two kids in college, it occurs to me we should’ve taken Sonny up on his offer; a paycheck for a diabetically sweet and corny Hallmark romance would’ve been better than no paycheck at all.)
The other time I wanted to strangle Sonny was the one time he did send work my way. He was developing a TV movie project, but his writer was sick. Sonny was racing a deadline and needed a draft or the project was dead. He wanted me. The catch was the writer was a Name and his name was one of the reasons a network was interested in the project. The network couldn’t know the Name wasn’t writing the draft; I’d have to be a ghost.
I was ok with that. I’d get to prove my talent for Sonny and that might pay off somewhere down the road, and I’d get the always-desired paycheck. I wound up doing two drafts for Sonny, but then it occurred to me that a film made from those drafts was going to be more me than the Name. I wanted some kind of on-screen credit. Sonny got pissed because I didn’t officially exist as far as the network was concerned. I got pissed. We both got so pissed we didn’t talk for the longest time. A year, maybe. Maybe more.
Then the movie came out. By that time, that particular network was out of the TV movie business and it was clear from the lack of support they gave the airing that they were just burning this thing off. When I watched it, what was also clear was that the script had been run through an awful lot of reworking to the point where, even under WGA standards, I doubt I would’ve rated a credit. So, it’d been a big fight about nothing.
And, I missed him.
I apologized for having been a pain in the ass (after all, technically speaking, I was the one who had welshed on our arrangement), and it seemed almost instantly with Sonny, in that particularly Sonny way of his, as if none of this had ever happened. Sonny understood: “All you fucking writers are crazy.”
Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who once called screenwriting “shit work” – the equivalent of housework in that it was necessary but invisible and disrespected – said he considered himself a novelist who also wrote screenplays (if you’re looking down on me, Mr. Goldman, a little mercy if I don’t quite have it word perfect). In retrospect, I think of Sonny as a cop who worked in entertainment.
He worked in TV and film almost twice as long as he’d been on the force, had won a few awards, and even turned out one bonafide classic: the completely un-Sonnyesque Peewee’s Playhouse. But in his 22 years on the force, he became – and remains – one of the most decorated cops ever to serve in the NYPD, and the famous “French Connection” case made by he and Egan was, at the time, the largest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history. He made Detective First Grade faster than anyone in the history of the department. When I would go up to Sonny’s cluttered offices, there were more police memorabilia on the walls and shelves than Hollywood stuff.
My day job is as a college instructor, and as such I’ve taught a number of military service veterans. My one-time Marine students taught me that no one is ever an “ex-Marine.” An ex-Marine is someone who was thrown out of the service. All others who served are former Marines; they’re always going to be part of The Corps. That was Sonny and the cops. He was never an ex-cop; he was a former police officer, and as such, he never lost his cop’s instincts.
A few days before Christmas in 2003, Sonny was at his table at Rao’s, had gone out to his car to get some bottles of wine he had as gifts for his dinner guests, when two mob guys at the bar got into a tiff. As mob tiffs tend to do, this wound up with one guy shooting the other guy. Sonny immediately grabbed one of the ladies at his table who worked with him, pulled her outside to safety before going back into Rao’s; not bad reactions for a seventy-odd-year-old guy with bad knees.
I think of this and I’m reminded of the scene in Ronin (1998) where Robert De Niro deliberately knocks a coffee cup off a table to test one of the other crew of ex-spies recruited for a job. When the other man nabs the cup before it hits the ground, he mutters, “Old instincts die hard.”
Thinking of Sonny, I’m thinking for him they never died.
I may not have gotten much screenwriting work from Sonny, but I did get a lot of material out of him. I have a police novel coming out this summer, and some of it takes place in New York in the early 1960s, and a lot of it in New York in the early 1980s. Sonny was always available for a talk, telling me what it was like to be on the job in those days. And, over the years of hearing his stories, I had a better handle on the policeman’s mindset, even took specific things Sonny had said and put them into the mouths of my characters.
More directly, he was always available for an interview for an essay I was writing. With other people, I could do an email Q & A, but with Sonny, it had to be a phone conversation, because, God love ’im, the man loved to talk. I can’t remember any conversation with Sonny that didn’t digress and wander and would’ve gone on forever if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else at a certain time.
But besides being fun and often funny, those chats were always an education, and they helped make my pieces publishable. Some of those pieces were written for the guys who now edit Goomba Stomp.
Talking about the making of The French Connection, Sonny told me about prepping Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (playing fictionalized versions of Egan and Sonny respectively) for one of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces; rousting an all-black bar that’s a hangout for low-level dope peddlers.”
“‘Eddie must’ve done the thing in the bar a dozen times in those three weeks (we were with the actors). I’d seen him do it a thousand times before.’ According to Grosso, during the first week, the actors would stand outside the bar while he and Egan went inside; the second week, the actors would be inside with the detectives while they rousted the bar. ‘The third week, we waited outside while Gene and Roy did it!’”
On how the entertainment industry had changed over his years in the business:
“I find it sad that you and I have a conversation where I say, ‘Where’s the place for a Capra?’ and you say maybe we couldn’t even get The French Connection made today. Maybe you could make it today. But Popeye’d have to be way better looking. And they’d give him a girlfriend. And there’d have to be more action. Lots more action…Somebody said to me, is the problem that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth? The problem is, there are too many people in the kitchen who can’t cook.”
On how the heart of any story is a character the audience wants to spend time with:
“The shooting (in The Godfather) and all that bullshit was window dressing. What you cared about was that family, what Michael (Corleone) did for that family, and what the family did to him, his brother betraying him (in The Godfather: Part II). That’s the stuff you cared about. Don’t get me wrong. You need the window dressing! It’s great you got the goods in the story, but nobody comes in because you got Bon Ami (fogging) the window. You gotta have the shooting and the good-looking guy and tits, but, in the end, does (the audience) want to spend time with this guy? You could do a show about a dog catcher and make it work if you get the right guy.”
Interviewing him about Point Blank, the true account of an anti-corruption investigation gone tragically awry he co-wrote with Philip Rosenberg. I asked him, “What can an author learn working with a cop that he/she can’t get from research?”
“Six million fucking things…It could be a tennis player or a bowler or a writer, it doesn’t matter, but the real guys bring so many things that are interesting…”
I lost my friend Sonny Grosso this week. And if he was still alive, I’d want to strangle him for leaving.