In 1970, producer Philip D’Antoni and director William Friedkin set out to make a film based on the true story of one of the biggest drug busts in America history. They battled through studio rejection, casting drama, and a book that Friedkin couldn’t even get through to produce what became one of the most iconic crime thrillers of all time.
The French Connection won five Academy Awards, including Best Pictures, after its 1971 release, and still stands as one of the greatest films of the 1970s because of its gritty visual style, powerhouse performances, and one of the greatest car chase sequences ever put on film. Here are 14 facts about the making of The French Connection, from its roots to its release.
1. The real detectives are in the movie.
The French Connection is an adaptation of Robin Moore’s book of the same name, which was itself the true story of one of the biggest drug busts in American history, led by NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso in the early 1960s. Egan and Grosso remained close to the story throughout its development, and when the time came to actually make the film, they were both part of the process. Director William Friedkin kept them on-set almost every day as technical advisors, and even cast them in the film. Egan, the basis for “Popeye” Doyle, plays Doyle and Russo’s supervisor, Walt Simonson, which meant he got a chance to play his own boss. Grosso, the basis for “Cloudy” Russo, plays Clyde Klein, one of the two federal agents assigned to assist the detectives on the case.
Though Friedkin later recalled that the detectives thought his filmed version of events was fairly accurate, the director also noted that the film is an “impression” of the real case. In reality, the drug bust at the heart of The French Connection took several months to develop, and never involved a high-speed chase or a shootout.
2. William Friedkin wasn’t a fan of the book.
Robin Moore’s book The French Connection eventually found its way into the hands of Philip D’Antoni, a producer who was then fresh off the success of his first feature film, Bullitt. D’Antoni was taken by the story of these two New York cops with very different personalities who’d managed to pull off an amazing drug bust, and wanted to find the right director to make the gritty kind of drama he imagined. For that, he turned to William Friedkin, who recalled D’Antoni was particularly interested in him because of his background as a documentary filmmaker. D’Antoni and Friedkin went to New York to meet Egan and Grosso, and Friedkin saw the potential for a great film in their story. What he didn’t see, though, was the appeal of Moore’s book, which he claimed years later that he never actually finished.
“I never read Robin Moore’s book," Friedkin said. "I tried to. I don’t know how many pages I got through, not many. I couldn’t read it, I couldn’t follow it.”
3. The French Connection was turned down by almost every studio.
In early 1969, D’Antoni managed to set up The French Connection at National General Pictures, seemingly cementing backing for the film. Within a few months, though, things fell apart after D’Antoni reportedly said the budget for the film would be $4.5 million, something National General tried to retract with a later statement. National General then dropped the film, leaving D’Antoni and eventually Friedkin on the hunt for another studio. It wasn’t easy.
"This film was turned down twice by literally every studio in town,” Friedkin recalled. “Then Dick Zanuck, who was running 20th Century Fox, said to me, 'Look, I've got a million and a half bucks tucked away in a drawer here. If you can do this picture for that, go ahead. I don't really know what the hell it is, but I have a hunch it's something.'"
So, Friedkin and D’Antoni made The French Connection at Fox for Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown. Ironically, by the time the film was released, internal stress about the studio’s trajectory meant that Zanuck and Brown had both been let go from the studio, and Brown later recalled that they could only see the film if they bought a ticket for it like everyone else.
4. William Friedkin participated in drug busts.
Though Friedkin wasn’t necessarily that interested in the narrative as laid out by Robin Moore’s book, he was very interested in the actual street-level day-to-day existence of a narcotics detective in New York City. Taken by Egan and Grosso, Friedkin wanted to get an up close view of how the two detectives worked, and arranged frequent ride-alongs with them for both himself and his eventual stars, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. As the director later recalled, these trips were often about much more than observing.
“In fact, the scene where they come in, bust up a bar and grab all the stuff, I saw that three, four nights a week,” Friedkin recalled. “Usually Eddie Egan, who was the character who Hackman played, he would give me his gun in a situation like that. He would say, 'Here, watch the back.' And I would be standing in the back with a .38 and he did that with Hackman and Scheider and they got to know what it was like to do a frisk properly. Gene and Roy improvised that scene from having seen what Eddie and Sonny [Grosso] did."
5. Gene Hackman was not the first choice for Popeye Doyle.
When it came time to cast the brash detective “Popeye” Doyle, D’Antoni and Brown were gravitating toward Gene Hackman, then best known for films like I Never Sang for My Father. Zanuck was interested, but Friedkin was not.
“I instantly thought it was a bad idea,” Friedkin recalled.
At Zanuck’s urging, Friedkin had lunch with Hackman, and while the actor recalled it being a nice time, Friedkin later said he almost “fell asleep” during their first meeting. The film’s police advisors, including Grosso, were also skeptical of Hackman, and Hackman himself later recalled that Egan had wanted Rod Taylor to play the character based on him, because he thought they looked alike.
Friedkin, meanwhile, had his own ideas about who should play Popeye. He wanted Jackie Gleason, but Gleason’s last film at Fox was a financial failure and the studio wasn’t interested. Then he considered columnist Jimmy Breslin, but Breslin refused to drive a car and, it soon became clear, wasn’t exactly a natural actor. Eventually, with no convincing backup actor “in the bullpen,” D’Antoni issued an ultimatum to his director: Cast Hackman, or risk losing the production window on The French Connection.
“I said ‘Phil, you wanna do this with Hackman, I don’t believe in it, but I’ll do it with you,’” Friedkin recalled. “’We’ll give it our best shot.’”
Hackman won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Popeye Doyle.
6. Fernando Rey was cast because of a mixup.
To cast much of The French Connection, Friedkin came to rely on a “character around New York” named Robert Weiner. It was Weiner who initially brought Roy Scheider, who was cast without even auditioning, to Friedkin’s attention.
When it came to time to cast someone to play the French drug kingpin Alain Charnier, Friedkin went to Weiner and said “let’s get that French guy that was in Belle de Jour. What the hell’s his name?”
Weiner called Friedkin back and told him the actor he was thinking of was named Fernando Rey, and said Rey was available. Friedkin signed Rey, sight unseen, then went to pick him up at the airport when he arrived in New York. When the two men finally met face-to-face, Friedkin realized that, while he did recognize Rey, he was not the actor he’d been thinking of. Friedkin had really wanted Francisco Rabal. Instead, he was faced with Rey, who wouldn’t shave his goatee and noted that, as a Spanish actor, his French was not especially good.
"Rabal, it turned out, was unavailable and did not speak one word of English. So we went with Gene Hackman, who I didn't want, in one lead, and Fernando Rey, who I didn't want, in the other," Friedkin later recalled.
7. William Friedkin tried to “induce” a documentary feel.
Because he was taken by the street-level feel of The French Connection’s story, Friedkin wanted to infuse a sense of “induced documentary” into his film by making it look as often as possible like the camera operators just happened to witness two cops working the streets of New York. This was achieved, in part, by searching for the most authentic locations possible, but it was also achieved by never choreographing the film’s shots.
“In order to do that, from time to time, I would not rehearse the actors and the camera crew together,” Friedkin recalled. “I rehearsed them separately.”
That meant that, while the camera operators often knew what would happen in any given scene, they didn’t know exactly how it would happen, leaving them to capture Hackman and Scheider’s performances on the fly.
8. The “Poughkeepsie” dialogue was a real interrogation technique.
In keeping with the film’s documentary feel, much of the dialogue in The French Connection turned out to be improvised based on the situations in each scene. Because Egan and Grosso were often on-set as technical advisors, they were able to frequently offer up real phrases and words they might have used in the same situations. According to Friedkin and Grosso, this included Popeye’s famous “Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” dialogue.
“Yeah, that was a thing Eddie used to do that would drive me crazy,” Grosso recalled, “and when Billy wanted to do it in the movie I prayed to God, tried to talk him out of it.”
According to Friedkin and Hackman, Egan devised the “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” phrase as a deliberate non sequitir to throw off interrogation subjects while Grosso would ask more straightforward, legitimate questions.
“It means nothing,” Friedkin recalled.
9. Gene Hackman struggled with playing Popeye.
Though he’d been the producer’s choice for the role and was eager to get it right, Hackman found the time he spent on the set of The French Connection with Eddie Egan—the basis for Popeye Doyle—difficult, calling the veteran cop “insensitive.” Hackman’s discomfort with Egan’s own personality was compounded by the fact that he had to use a number of racial slurs, including the N-word, as part of his dialogue. Hackman expressed his concern about saying the words to Friedkin, who told him it was part of the movie and he had to say it.
“I just had to kind of suck it up and do the dialogue,” Hackman recalled.
According to Scheider, Hackman’s reservations also stemmed in part from his quest to make Popeye seem like a relatable character, when Friedkin saw him as a rough, brash cop who was willing to do whatever it took to solve the case.
“Gene kept trying to find a way to make the guy human ... and Billy kept saying ‘No, he’s a son of bitch. He’s no good, he’s a prick,'" Scheider said.
10. There was tension between Gene Hackman and William Friedkin.
Already saddled with a star he hadn’t wanted to cast in the first place, Friedkin became convinced that Hackman didn’t necessarily possess the savagery necessary to commit 100 percent to playing Popeye Doyle. He decided that, as a director, the best thing he could do would be to push Hackman to get him “crazy” on a daily basis.
“I decided to make myself his antagonist, and I had to light a fire under him every day,” Friedkin said.
This sense of antagonism came to a head while shooting the scene in which Doyle and Russo stand outside eating pizza in the cold while surveilling Charnier, who’s eating in a nice French restaurant. Friedkin wanted to shoot a close-up of Hackman’s hand as he rubbed them together, to indicate just how cold the two men were, and he demonstrated how he wanted Hackman to rub his hands. Hackman, displeased with Friedkin’s tone, decided to antagonize him right back and pretend that he didn’t understand exactly what Friedkin was looking for. The exchange got so heated that Hackman finally demanded that Friedkin step in front of the camera and demonstrate exactly what he should be doing with his hands. Friedkin did, and when they were done with the close-up, Hackman was done with work.
“And he walked off the set for the rest of the day,” Friedkin recalled.
11. The French Connection’s famous car chase was shot without permits.
The French Connection is perhaps best remembered today for its iconic chase sequence, in which Popeye Doyle commandeers a car to pursue Nicoli, Charnier’s chief enforcer, who’s commandeered an L train overhead. It’s a thrilling sequence, and it began with a conversation between Friedkin and D’Antoni as they walked the streets of New York City, spitballing ideas. D’Antoni demanded that whatever chase they came up with be better than the already legendary chase his previous film, Bullitt, had featured, and together the two men hit upon the idea that it shouldn’t be two cars, but rather a car and a train.
To get permission to use the correct train for the sequence, Friedkin recalled giving a New York transit official “$40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica,” because the official was certain he’d be fired for allowing them to shoot the sequence. The rest of the chase, including all the dynamic work with the car under the train tracks, was shot without permits. Friedkin used assistant directors, with the help of off-duty police officers, to clear out traffic on the blocks ahead of the shoot, but they were not always entirely successful. At least one of the crashes in the finished film was a real accident, not a planned stunt.
12. The car chase almost didn’t work.
The now-legendary chase scene in The French Connection was shot over the course of five weeks, with the shoot divided between time on the train and in the car and working around New York rush hour schedules. Even after all that work, though, Friedkin was concerned about the footage. After reviewing it, he realized it just wasn’t as “exciting” as he’d hoped it would be, and expressed that concern to stunt driver Bill Hickman.
As Friedkin later recalled at an Academy screening of the film, Hickman responded: “Put the car out there under the L tracks tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. You get in the car with me and I’ll show you some driving.”
The next day, Hickman—who was also a stunt driver in Bullitt—got in the car with Friedkin, who mounted one camera in the passenger seat and operated a second one himself from the backseat. According to the director, Hickman drove 26 blocks under the Stillwell Avenue L tracks at speeds of up to 90 mph, with only a police “gumball” light on top of the car to warn people what was coming. That gave Friedkin the extra speed and excitement he needed to complete the sequence.
13. The French Connection’s title was almost changed.
After all the casting drama and the cold shooting days and the high tension of the chase sequence, The French Connection finally entered post-production and was nearing completion when, according to D’Antoni, Fox’s promotional department sent him a memo declaring their intention to change the title. In the documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle, D’Antoni didn’t explain why the studio ultimately retracted that idea, but he did note that alternate titles for the film included Doyle and Popeye, both attempts to play up the tough cop at the center of the story.
14. William Friedkin doesn’t know what the ending means.
The French Connection’s ending is almost as famous as its chase scene, though not quite. The film seems to be ending happily for the cops, as they’re able to capture many of the people behind the heroin shipment, but Doyle isn’t satisfied with that. He pursues Charnier into the bowels of an abandoned building, determined to catch him, and is so jumpy that he very nearly fires on Russo when he sees him. Then, upon a seeing a shadowy figure in the distance, Popeye fires several times, only to discover the man was not Charnier, but one of the two federal agents helping them with the case. Unfazed and still determined, Popeye heads off into the darkness, still in pursuit, and we hear a single gunshot ring out. The title cards at the end of the film tell us that Popeye didn’t actually catch Charnier, so who was he shooting at? According to Friedkin, it’s a deliberately ambiguous moment to leave audiences wondering.
“People have asked me through the years what [that gunshot] meant. It doesn’t mean anything ... although it might,” the director said. “It might mean that this guy is so over the top at that point that he’s shooting at shadows.”
The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection (2000)