Sonny Grosso, the true-blue New York City police detective who with his gung-ho partner made the record heroin bust that inspired the Oscar-winning film “The French Connection,” died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his longtime companion, Christina Kraus.
A product of East Harlem and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Grosso rose to the rank of detective first grade in the New York Police Department faster than any predecessor. He followed his 22 years on the force with a second career as a television producer and consultant for television shows about law enforcement, including “Kojak,” “Baretta” and “Night Heat,” and for the movie “The Godfather,” in which he played a detective named Phil.
Until he died, Mr. Grosso carried his off-duty .38-caliber Colt revolver, the very same gun that was taped to the tank of a toilet and fired (using blanks) by Al Pacino in a mob hit in “The Godfather.”
But Mr. Grosso was best known as the model for Buddy Russo, played by Roy Scheider in William Friedkin’s 1971 action thriller, “The French Connection,” which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. Gene Hackman portrayed Popeye Doyle, a doppelgänger for Mr. Grosso’s real-life partner, Edward R. Egan, who was revered for his bravery and nicknamed Bullets because he enjoyed firing his revolver for flamboyant effect. (Mr. Egan died in 1995.)
The film, a fictionalized account based on Robin Moore’s book of the same name, recounts how the case unfolded after the two detectives, out for drinks at the Copacabana nightclub, spotted known drug dealers adulating an unidentified man, whom they later discovered owned a greasy spoon luncheonette in Brooklyn.
They followed him on a hunch, and the trail led to a French smuggler who was shipping 100 pounds of heroin — some of it stolen from a police vault — to the United States. Mr. Grosso determined the magnitude of the cache by weighing the Frenchman’s 1960 Buick Invicta when it arrived by ship and again when it was about to be transported back to France. (Mr. Grosso appears uncredited in the movie as a mob courier.)
Police said the seizure was a record amount at the time.
“He made that case,” Randy Jurgenson, another former partner on the police force, said of Mr. Grosso in a phone interview.
The “French Connection” movie might have made it seem as if Mr. Egan was more menacing than Mr. Grosso. But Mr. Grosso was no pushover.
“I played Sonny’s character as more of a calming influence,” Mr. Friedkin, the director, said in a published interview. “Thing is about Sonny, if he’s your friend, he’d stop a bullet for you. Eddie had that Irish bluster, but Sonny had that Italian iron fist. You did not mess with Sonny Grasso.”
Edward Conlon, a former detective who became a best-selling author, compared Mr. Egan and Mr. Grosso this way: “One was the gas pedal; the other was the brake.”
As a police officer from 1954 to 1976, Mr. Grosso handled cases that involved the Black Liberation Army and the 1980 murder of a young violinist backstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
His television and film career was equally gritty. Mr. Grosso played a counterfeiter in a 1973 film he wrote about his own career, “The Seven-Ups,” which also starred Mr. Scheider. He portrayed the sidekick of a detective played by Frank Sinatra in the 1977 TV movie “Contract on Cherry Street.”
Mr. Grosso produced, acted in or consulted on so many police dramas that the critic James Monaco jocularly predicted that someday scholars would be dissecting “Grossovian subtexts” behind his oeuvre.
Despite his celebrity while still a detective, Mr. Gross maintained his reputation for being loyal, generous and unpretentious.
Yes, he happened to be a regular at Rao’s, the tiny cliquish eatery on Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem that has occasionally had unsavory associations. But it also happens to be a neighborhood hangout, just around the corner from where he was born.
Even there, drama intruded one night before Christmas in 2003, when a patron who objected to the singing of one of Mr. Grosso’s dinner guests was shot dead by another customer.
Salvatore Anthony Grosso was born on July 21, 1930. His father, Benedetto, was a truck driver who died when Sonny was still a teenager. His mother was Lillian (Vetrano) Grosso.
In addition to Ms. Kraus, his companion of 43 years, Mr. Grosso is survived by a son, Salvatore; three daughters, Donna and Gloria Grosso and Tina Salino; two sisters, Antoinette Treanor and Celeste Grosso; and five grandchildren.
In 1997, Mr. Grosso received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for being “an Italian American first, a cop second, a producer third and a trusted and valued friend always.”
Another example of the longevity of his friendships was his relationship with Larry Jacobson, a television veteran with whom he had formed a production company not long after retiring from the police force.
“We’ve been together so long,” Mr. Grosso told The New York Times in 2005, “that if I had killed him 25 years ago, I’d be out on good behavior by now.”
Recalling the crime-ridden city of decades earlier, Mr. Grosso explained how the police, and his partner in particular, had responded to the drug dealing that stoked homicides to record highs.
“It was a war then, and you had to act differently,” he said. “The junk epidemic was bursting out of Harlem.
“That’s why Eddie acted crazier than the people we were chasing. He had one philosophy: ‘It’s our job to put the bad guys in jail; don’t worry about the prosecutors and the judges.’ He was a madman, but he made sure I got home every night.”
“Those days,” Mr. Grosso said a little nostalgically, “we were just allowed to be cops.”
The city had changed for the better since then, he said. In 2005, he was producing a TV pilot, “N.Y.-70,” which invoked the tumultuous bygone decade when crime, racial tension and political conflict consumed the city,
“Just think how smart you can be,” Mr. Grosso mused, “writing lines when you know what’s going to happen in the next 30 years.”
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