Speaking about Father’s Day, President Obama once suggested: “In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence—both in my life and in the lives of others.” For those of us not fortunate enough to have a dad present throughout our early lives, fatherly mentors can come in various guises.
Retired NYPD officer Salvatore “Sonny” Grosso—one of two narcotics detectives who inspired 1971’s Best Picture, The French Connection—can relate. He lost his own father early, then became a father figure himself to more young cops and showbiz aspirants than you can count.
Grosso, pictured above with French Connection star Gene Hackman, mentored cadets at the NYPD Academy. He put on informative and sometimes hilarious skits—using a cardboard cutout squad car—and showed the recruits ‘what’s what,’ like how to safely pull someone over. Later, after working as a producer and technical advisor on shows like Kojak and Night Heat, he shared his TV and movie wisdom with the next generation.
“When handcuffing suspects and throwing them in the cage, it was traumatic at first. I’d tell the cadets, you’ve got to get over the shock of it, or else you can’t be a doctor or a nurse or a fireman… and especially a cop because our job requires us to run towards the problem while everyone else is running away from it.”
Now in his eighties and long retired from the force, Grosso has made several off-duty arrests. He still carries his shiny gold detective shield and his old-style revolver, the very one that Al Pacino as Michael Corleone used in the famous restaurant shooting scene in The Godfather. Grosso consulted on that classic and also appeared in it as, you guessed it, a cop.
For the first installment of our new Father Figures series, we sat down with the straight shooter to talk about losing his dad, fatherly advice and mentorship.
Your father used to take you to see the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio but you lost him early, so who stepped up to the plate for you?
My father, Benny, was a great guy. He coached our softball team. That’s why I wanted to be play for the Yankees—I think every kid felt that way. Everyone loved him, but he had a sudden heart attack, when he was bowling with his team, and passed away when I was 14, leaving our mother, me and three sisters. I didn’t want to go back to school, there was no more living for me. I was so mad at God. I grew up in East Harlem and there were criminals around. But I credit my grandfather and my uncle Danny who made me go back to school. My uncle even offered to pay for my college. Turned out he died before I got to college—ain’t that how it goes?!
Even though you became a highly decorated and famous police officer, did you ever think about going over to the dark side?
Sure I did. Growing up, I did my share of things, I wasn’t a goody-goody. But I never disrespected anybody. I never robbed anybody. When we were young, we used to talk about the bad guys in our neighborhood who’d send some kids to get their car washed and then let you keep the change. Pick up a dime newspaper—give you 20 bucks and let you keep the change. They were part of those conversations we had. But fear of our fathers and God kept us in line.
Clockwise from top left: Grosso and partner Eddie Egan; Grosso and Egan with their cinematic counterparts, Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman; Grosso as a young detective.
‘Tough’ Joey Rao, who was partners with guys like Dutch Schulz, was like the godfather of your neighborhood and turned up at your father’s funeral, right?
Joe Rao and his brothers owned Rao’s Restaurant on 114th Street, where you still can’t get in unless invited and where I am a club member. Joe was a big shot in our neighborhood, and his restaurant was where all of the wise guys would drop by. So he came to Farenga’s funeral home with his coat draped over his shoulders—that classic look you see in the movies because it came from real people like him—and everybody’s whispering, “Look, it’s Joe Rao!”
And he’s got two guys, like two tree-trunks, beside him and my whole family is sitting in the front row. He takes my mother’s hand, kisses it and says, “We take care of our own in this neighborhood. So anything you need, you call.” Then he points to his two guys and they go over and kneel down in front of my father’s casket. I said to my sister, “Holy, this guy’s got to be big, he’s even got guys to kneel for him!”
So how did you get on the job with the NYPD?
With the loss of my father, security became important to me. Look, it was the same way for most of the guys. It was a paying job with a pension with security. And later I used to tell it straight to the young police recruits. That if a guy tells you he came on the job to stamp out drugs or to make this a better world, those are the kind of lines they only say in the movies. If you’re smart, you know you’re not going to make a dent—maybe some people’s lives you can help—but you’re not going to change the way the world thinks and acts. A pension is what was important to me to help my single mom with four kids.
Left: Grosso mentored Lou Moneta as a young cop—and gave him a role in a 2007 play he produced, Richard Vetere’s Be My Love: The Mario Lanza Story. Right: Grosso outside Rao’s with boyhood pal Judge Eddie Torres, author of Carlito’s Way.
You quickly became the youngest first grade detective and helped lead the biggest drug bust in NYPD history. How’d you pass on that knowledge and experience?
I’d tell the rookies that we go about our job the way most people go about their job. Every doctor who first cuts open a human body gets used to it. Just like us, when handcuffing suspects and throwing them in the cage, it was traumatic at first. But it’s your job, just like doctors get used to the horrors of sickness and blood, it’s traumatic at first, but somehow you learn to cope. I’d tell the cadets, you got to get over the shock of it, or else you can’t be a doctor or a nurse or a fireman…and especially a cop because our job requires us to run towards the problem while everyone else is running away from it.
What other advice did you give to rookies?
People often forget that the cop out there is somebody’s father, brother, sister, husband or wife. We’re not from another planet. We’re people just like them with the same issues as everyone else but we’re sworn to do something about those crimes out there and those unlawful people who commit them.
In 1972, the very same week that The French Connection won five Academy Awards, there was the infamous incident at Louis Farrakhan’s Harlem Mosque. Tell us about the young officer you had mentored, Phil Cardillo, who was unfortunately shot at the mosque.
I was already working part-time as a technical advisor on movies and television. And, the mosque incident, which I wrote about in my book (Murder at the Harlem Mosque), was the last big case I worked on before I retired in 1976. Patrolman Phil Cardillo was a good young friend of mine. I let him read my memo books to study and gave him advice whenever I could.
On that fateful day, he and his partner responded to what seemed a legitimate radio call for a cop in trouble at the mosque. They were met with fierce resistance, and sadly Cardillo was beaten and shot with his own gun and later died. No one was ever convicted of his murder, but over 40 years later through a lot of persistence, he and his family may be getting recognition for his sacrifice. They’re close to re-naming the street “Police Officer Phillip Cardillo Way” outside the NYPD’s new Police Academy in College Point, Queens. It’s something at least to show his family what we all thought of this kid—unlike the Mayor and Police Commissioner at the time, who didn’t even show up at his funeral!
Hotshot New York cops have friends in high places, like local sports legends Joe Torre and Michael Strahan.
Through your mid-1980s CBS-late night cop show, Night Heat, you gave many actors their first big US network jobs, including a teenaged Keanu Reeves and Eric McCormick (of Will & Grace fame). Tell us a story.
My producer mentor Phil D’Antoni (Bullitt, The French Connection) and I gave Richard Gere one of his first jobs in the TV movie Strikeforce in 1975. And, Timmy Van Patten acted on two of my shows before becoming a director and earning Emmy praise for The Sopranos. Here’s a story about Reeves, who played a mugger in two Night Heat episodes in 1985. Keanu went over with another actor to my director, Mario Azzopardi. They only had one line between them, and we gave it to the other guy, not Keanu. They’re standing around Mario and he says, “What’s up, guys?” – “We’d like to talk to you.” – “Talk about what?” – “Our characters’ motivation.” Mario looks to me and he’s thinking, “What the fuck?!” Then, Mario says in front of everyone: “Here’s how we do it. You (Keanu) play the tall mugger, and you (the other actor) play the short mugger.” And then he walked away.
That’s not quite the way I handled things. Anyone on my set knew they could always come to me with a problem. Since I was the boss and like a parent, maybe I had to see all sides. Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Robert Frost, said, ‘The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.’
What are some favorite words of wisdom given to you?
My grandfather, Anthony, who lived in Asbury Park, always had these great sayings he passed onto me, like: ‘Whether you make love or sauce, do it with every fiber in your body.’ Or, ‘When the chess game is over, the king and the pawn go in the same box.’ Those words helped me back then, and they ring true today.