THE FRENCH CONNECTION
William Friedkin’s cop classic is 45. To celebrate, we asked him and Christopher Mcquarrie to dinner, and picked up the cheque.
Mcquarrie: So how did you two meet? Friedkin: I met Sonny and Eddie at Al & Dick’s Steakhouse on West 54th in 1970. First, though, I met Phil D’antoni, the producer. He came to me in the steam room at Paramount Pictures, which was a famous steam room. Steve Mcqueen would go there, Clark Gable, Michael Landon, Cornel Wilde, a whole bunch of others. It was the greatest steam room I’ve ever been in. Phil told me about this story he had called The French Connection and the two detectives who broke the case. I thought it was interesting. He gave me Robin Moore’s book, which I could never finish. It was too procedural. But I went back to New York and at Al & Dick’s Steakhouse I met Sonny and Eddie, and that was it. It was that dynamic I picked up on between them that I made the film about.
Grosso: He added the stuff that made The French Connection.
Friedkin: Everything that is in the film is basically something I saw them do. That scene in the all-black bar [where Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and Roy Scheider’s Russo storm a bar and line up the clientele against a wall, looking for drugs]? I saw that 20 or 30 times with them, verbatim.
Grosso: Egan used to come in and sometimes he’d even fire a shot and yell, “Alright, Popeye’s here!” We used to tease him. The story was he hung [out] down by the docks and we started to call him Popeye the sailor man.
Friedkin: Egan had two .38 policeman specials; he would take out one and hand it to me. He would say, “Watch the back door.”
Mcquarrie: I have heard, and this may be apocryphal, that when the audience saw that, they cheered because someone was finally showing the police as they were. Friedkin: It wasn’t sugar-coated. It wasn’t bullshit. And they respected that. The black audiences respected that, that we showed how these particular cops actually behaved. Almost all the good guys on the street had a schtick. Grosso: It got to a point where the black people in Harlem used to brag that they’d been busted by Egan. They’d say, “Well, Popeye busted me.” That was something. Friedkin: Who was that guy — Bumpy Johnson? They made a movie about him with Denzel Washington [Johnson was played by Clarence Williams III, and was a mentor to Washington’s Frank Lucas]. He was a big black guy. Mcquarrie: American Gangster. Friedkin: Eddie Egan would be up in Harlem and I’d be with him. Bumpy Johnson would be sitting in a restaurant, remember? And Egan would take his hat and pour some beer into Bumpy’s hat and stick it on his head. Grosso: Or put an egg in it. Eddie was the kind of guy who would do it to legitimate people too. After Hackman did his first scene, Eddie says, in front of everybody there, “Who told you to play this like a fag?” Eddie had to strike for the temple with a hammer right away. There was no nudging. Mcquarrie: Oh God. What was Hackman’s reaction? Grosso: Hackman wanted to quit after that. Friedkin: Hackman knew he didn’t get it. The first day we did 37 takes of the “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” scene. I staged it the way I saw it happen, which was the two of them in a detective car, flanking the suspect. Around halfway through I thought, “This thing can play if I let these guys move around and shoot it with two cameras.” Scheider was great, the black kid was great, but Hackman couldn’t do it and the next day he quit the picture. His agent said to him, “Gene, you
can own this picture. You own it.” So he stayed, but he didn’t get Eddie. I don’t know if he ever got Eddie. Grosso: A lot of times I didn’t get Eddie.
Mcquarrie: What did you figure out? Friedkin: Gene hated all authority. I figured out that even though I was ten years younger than him, I was the authority figure on set. So I treated him really terribly. He would do a scene and instead of saying, “Gene, cut, would you like to try another?” I’d say, “Hold it, stop, what the fuck are you doing? You gotta get a day job, man. This is really fucked up.” He’d say, “Alright, why don’t you come here and show me exactly how to do it?” I’d show him something and he’d do it with great anger. One day we did that and he walked off the set for the rest of the day. I’d get him to that point almost every day. He had no idea how far I was going to take him.
Mcquarrie: How did Hackman come on? Friedkin: Gene was the last man standing. We didn’t want him.
Mcquarrie: Who did you want? Friedkin: Eddie wanted to play himself, but I had a slightly different take on Eddie. I said to Dick Zanuck [then head of 20th Century Fox], “Do you know a guy called Jimmy Breslin?” Mcquarrie: Yeah, he was a great reporter [now 85, he still writes for the New York Daily News]. Friedkin: He had a column. He had a big, heavyset, dark, brooding Irish disposition. That’s how you would describe Eddie. I knew Breslin and I thought this would be interesting, so I started rehearsing with him. Mcquarrie: Ha! Really? Friedkin: I had Breslin and Roy Scheider and the young black actor who’s in the first scene, Alan Weeks, who died recently. I had them rehearsing the Poughkeepsie scene. The first day of rehearsal, Jimmy was brilliant. He was fantastic. The second day he forgot what he did the first day and he couldn’t remember anything. Wednesday, he showed up drunk and couldn’t do nothing. Thursday, he came in really sad and apologetic. [But] he came in Friday and said, “Hey, isn’t there a car chase in this movie?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I told my mother on her death bed I would never drive a car. I don’t know how to drive!” I said, “You’re fired!” That was it. That was the end of The Breslin Experiment. The first guy after Breslin was Peter Boyle, who had just made a movie called… Mcquarrie: Joe. Friedkin: He was powerful and strong. Terrific actor, big guy, could be a cop. We went to Boyle and he says to us, “I don’t want to do pictures like this. I want to do romantic comedies.” This guy looked in the mirror and he saw Cary Grant. Mel Brooks saw Young Frankenstein! Phil Rosenthal, the producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, which Peter was on for nine years, said there wasn’t a day on the set in nine years that Peter Boyle didn’t collar somebody and say, “You know I turned down The French Connection?” Grosso: Nobody would have been greater than the guy you ultimately went with. Mcquarrie: So as somebody who didn’t want Hackman, and I’ve been there when I’m deadset against somebody and they turn out to be a revelation, how did you wind up with him in the movie? Friedkin: He was suggested by his agent. The only thing I’d seen him do was Bonnie And Clyde, playing Warren Beatty’s brother. He was good but he didn’t look to me like a lead. Mcquarrie: It’s a very broad role. Friedkin: Phil and I had lunch with him and I’m telling you, I think I fell asleep at the lunch. He was so boring. He was really a boring guy.
After we left, I said, “Phil, I don’t see it. I don’t see this guy playing Eddie.” We had nobody else. We had to let the studio know by Monday if we were going to go with Gene Hackman or not make the picture. We were invited by Sonny and Eddie to the Policeman’s Ball on the Saturday night at the Sheraton Hotel on 7th Avenue. And I’m looking at Phil all night. He’s very sad. Phil stood by me when there were studios who would have made this picture with another director. I said, “Phil, I know there’s no other answer. Let’s go with Hackman.” I did so with that much enthusiasm. Zero.
Grosso: Thank God you did that.
Mcquarrie: I believe Hackman was paid 50 thousand?
Friedkin: Well, we paid him 25 thousand and when the film came out and was a hit, immediately the head of the studio called Phil and he called me, because we had a percentage, and he said, “Would you mind if we gave Hackman another 25 grand?” So he got 50 grand. Scheider got 25. Mcquarrie: I’ve directed three car chases [in The Way Of The Gun, Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation]. We studied French Connection every time. Every time. And we still can’t beat it.
Friedkin: Well, we had no permits to do any of it. Mcquarrie: None? Friedkin: Nothing. None of it was staged.
The crashes that occur were accidents that happened. We had one special effects guy, his name was Sass Bedig, and he used to walk around with all his tools on his belt, hanging down his legs. Every time the chase car got hit, because I could never repeat it, he would go in and pull the fender out from the wheel and get the car moving again. We had one car. We had another part of a car that was dedicated to when Hackman drove. When Hackman didn’t drive, it was driven by the stuntman, Bill Hickman, who played Mulderig, the Fed who gets killed at the end. Mcquarrie: He’s also in Bullitt, and he’s also the driver in The Seven-ups. Friedkin: He was the best stunt driver in the world. Mcquarrie: He’s not a bad actor either. Friedkin: Yeah. That chase came about because we were sitting in a bar on Front St after we had finished shooting everything I had planned. He used to call me Boss. He was about 15 years older than me. He said, “So, Boss, how did you like the chase?” I said, “Jesus, Bill, you haven’t shown me a damn thing. It’s lame, the chase is lame, it’s not gonna mean shit.” His face went red. He said, “You wanna see some driving?” I said, “I’d like to.” He said, “Put the cameras out there tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.” We were in Coney Island and we mounted a camera on the front bumper of the car, we had a camera locked off in the passenger seat. I operated the camera over Hickman’s shoulder. Mcquarrie: You did all of that coverage at the same time? Friedkin: All at the same time. Which was rare. He took that car for 26 blocks at 90 miles an hour and he blew every stop sign, every red light. He just blew through traffic and all the cross traffic you see. We didn’t have any other cars. It was only a miracle that nobody got killed or hurt, thank God. I would never do that today, I hasten to add. I was just crazy. And almost all the shots in that chase was off that one 26-block run. Mcquarrie: Let me get this straight. Essentially the 26-block run was your master. From that, you then layered in the exterior shots. Friedkin: We made a few more. Grosso: To make sure he got what he wanted, he put me and Egan in cars to follow that madman. Friedkin: So if something happened, they would come out with a badge. The only thing we had permission to do was on the elevated train. We had to pay a guy off.
Mcquarrie: I figured there was a story in the L. Friedkin: The only thing we thought we would need permission for was to take a camera on the elevated train and do the stuff with the French assassin we had to do. We went to see a guy at the transit authority. First thing I said to him was, “How fast can these trains go?” He said, “Fifty miles per hour.” I said, “Great! That means we can do this chase. A car going 90 could catch a train going 50.” He said, “Great? You don’t expect me to give you permission to shoot this thing you just described?” I said, “Why not? Just a couple of weekends and we’ll do it after the rush hour.” He said, “That would be very difficult.” So we got up and thanked him. As we’re going out the door, the guy says, “Where are you going? I said difficult, but not impossible.” And D’antoni, who was a Sicilian, knew what that meant. He said, “How much?” And the guy said, “Forty grand and a oneway ticket to Jamaica.” I said, “Why a one-way ticket?” He said, “If I let you guys do what you just told me you’re gonna do, I will be fired and I want to live in Jamaica.” That’s what happened.
Mcquarrie: He got fired? Friedkin: And I hope he lived happily ever after.
Mcquarrie: He just cashed out. Friedkin: We just kept moving. I would make things up. It was the coldest winter in the history of New York then. Sometimes there’d be snow all over and we’d be outside trying to shoot surveillance scenes and I couldn’t shoot.
Mcquarrie: Because of continuity. Friedkin: Yeah. So we’d go inside somewhere and do something. My girlfriend at the time, her mother owned an apartment at The Pierre hotel and that’s where we shot the scene with the kid who tested the dope. In my girlfriend’s mother’s apartment at The Pierre. And she had no idea how we were going to use her apartment. We used all her furniture. And that was real heroin.
Mcquarrie: That was real heroin? Friedkin: Oh yeah. Grosso: Billy said, “Make sure it’s real. I don’t care how you do it or where you have to go.”
Friedkin: The test for heroin was this chemical solution. When it hit the real powder it would turn purple. If it didn’t turn purple, it wasn’t real stuff. So you couldn’t use flour or sugar or some damn thing to shoot that test. You had to have heroin. So I said to Sonny, “I need this much heroin,” and it was on the set the next day [laughs].
Mcquarrie: What was the fallout after the film came out? Grosso: I became big in showbiz!
Friedkin: To every other cop in any precinct in New York in those days, they were heroic. But to the brass, they broke the rules. And that’s all the brass cared about.
Mcquarrie: What was the brass’ reaction to the depiction of police like that?
Friedkin: Well, they busted Eddie off the police force. Everything these guys did was against the rules. They had no budget to buy narcotics, and that’s the only way you would get information from a snitch. If you didn’t hear through a snitch, as they do in the movie, that there’s a big shipment supposed to come in from France, how would they know this? So they’d confiscate these bags from big scores and they’d give a snitch a bag in order to get information on something bigger.
Grosso: It was evidence. You had to take evidence out of the lab or wherever it is, use it in the trial, go back and give it back, and you had to do that 15 times in 15 days. So instead of doing that we’d find ways to shortcut it. We’d put it in our lockers and they found, [during] a case Eddie was working on, stuff in his locker.
Friedkin: They brought charges against him. And I was a character witness for Eddie at his interdepartmental hearing.
Mcquarrie: Was he cleared? Friedkin: They cut him loose after 19 years. He needed 20 years to get his pension. Those two were the most decorated cops in the Narcotics Bureau then and they broke them up.
Grosso: What we were doing wasn’t for personal gratification. What we were trying was to circumvent the stupid laws or non-laws that were put in place that made it difficult to get these fucking guys. Why should they be allowed to be out there selling drugs and making millions of dollars? And because of technicalities we couldn’t make a case about them.
Mcquarrie: What happened to Egan after that? Friedkin: Eddie made some movies. He was an advisor, he got some acting jobs. He was in a movie
called Badge 373, which was his badge number. Then Eddie opened a bar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, called The Fort Lauderdale Connection. He used to get up on the floor with a microphone
and sing My Way. He was a character. Grosso: I was always worried about how far
he would go. But my mother knew I was okay because Eddie would get me home safe every
night. He was the best cop I ever worked with.
WITH THAT, THE bill comes (“This is Empire magazine’s cheque!” yells Friedkin, much to our delight). Chazz Palminteri’s Ristorante Italiano closed for the night some minutes ago, and it’s time to go home. Friedkin embraces Grosso, makes plans to meet Mcquarrie back in LA, and cabs are hailed. But before we go, Mcquarrie has one last question. “Is there anything in The French Connection you would do differently?” The answer is simple. “Nothing,” says Friedkin of the movie that still lights up his face as he talks about it 45 years on. “I wouldn’t change a frame.”
Sonny Grosso, Christopher Mcquarrie and William Friedkin, photographed exclusively for Empire at Chazz Palminteri Ristorante Italiano, New York, on 22 August, 2016.
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider). Their names were changed from Egan and Grosso, says Friedkin, “because the lawyers at Fox were so stupid”.