The Real Story Behind ‘The French Connection’

A series of wild events and true-life figures inspired William Friedkin's classic 1971 film.
French Connection Commentary

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true stories and figures behind William Friedkin’s The French Connection.

William Friedkin‘s 1971 classic, The French Connection, is one of the best films of its decade. It won five Oscars, including the awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Gene Hackman also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. And Roy Scheider was nominated in his role as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.

The screenplay, which also won an Oscar, is based on a fiction book of the same name by Robin Moore. Its story follows a pair of New York City detectives who pursue one of the world’s most prominent heroine smugglers, a Frenchman by the name of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).

The action never wanes as Doyle and Russo chase drug dealers and smugglers through the streets of Brooklyn. In fact, the film is so action-packed that you might forget it is based on a true story. Or, as Friedkin himself said, the film is an “impression of that case.

As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release this October, here is a look at the real events and people that inspired The French Connection.

The Real-life Cops Who Inspired The French Connection

Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle and Scheider’s “Cloudy” Russo are each based on real-life members of the New York Police Department.

Edward Egan

Doyle is based on Edward Egan, who according to his New York Times obituary, “became famous among colleagues and criminals for posing as a hot dog vendor, a deaf-mute, a priest, and a theatrical agent to make arrests.”

In fact, one scene early in the film seems to be directly inspired by Egan’s unusual — and questionable — tactics. From the obit:

“One winter, Mr. Egan plodded the streets of East Harlem in a Santa Claus suit, clanging a bronze bell. When the bell rang twice, his partner emerged to handcuff another drug peddler. In four days, they arrested 37 dealers.”

Egan made his professional acting debut in The French Connection as Popeye’s boss, Walt Simonson. After the film’s release, according to the obituary, Egan asked to retire from the force. But he was then “accused of withholding drugs and of failing to appear in court when he was scheduled to testify.” He was later dismissed from the NYPD. But then had the dismissal reversed in court after denying the charges.

He retired and lived in Florida and New York, where he continued to appear in numerous films and television shows. He died in 1995.

Sonny Grosso

Scheider’s Russo is based on Sonny Grosso, Egan’s partner. Grosso’s New York Times obituary makes clear that while Scheider portrays a more subdued detective, the real cop was “no pushover.” Friedkin is quoted in the obit as saying:

“I played Sonny’s character as more of a calming influence … 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 Grosso.”

Like Egan, Grosso also made the jump from the NYPD to Hollywood. He produced a number of films and television shows and acted in several others, including as a detective named Phil in The Godfather. In fact, according to the obituary, it was Mr. Grosso’s off-duty .38-caliber Colt revolver that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) taped to the tank of a toilet and used to kill a mob boss in one of the film’s most famous scenes. Grosso carried the gun with him until he died last January at the age of eighty-nine.

The Villains and Their Car

“The French Connection” refers generally to drug smuggling that took place mostly during the middle part of the 20th century. More specifically, the shipment of drugs into the United States through France. According to a 1972 New York Times article (“The French Connection — In Real Life”), it was in “makeshift laboratories in the Marseilles region [of France] that eighty percent of the ten to fourteen tons of heroin entering the United States annually [was] converted from morphine base into pure drug.”

Jean Jehan

Like the two policeman characters in The French Connection, two of the movie’s central villains are also based on real people. The chief and brains of the operation, Charnier, also known as “Frog One,” is based on drug kingpin Jean Jehan. According to another  New York Times article from 1972, he “was a tall, dapper Frenchman,” also known as “the Giant.”

In The French Connection, the man who provides cover for Charnier’s drug smuggling operation is Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), a French television star. Devereaux travels to New York via ocean liner. And brings his own car, a “sleek” 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark II. Millions of dollars of heroin are carefully concealed within the rocker panels of the car.

Jacques Angelvin

Devereaux is based on a real-life TV actor named Jacques Angelvin. In 1962, Jehan enlisted Angelvin to smuggle ninety-seven pounds of heroin into New York via his 1960 Buick. The plan is genius: Who would question such a glamorous figure traveling with his own vehicle?

The Real-life Bust of The French Connection

Just like in The French Connection, Jehan’s drug smuggling operation began to unravel, in part, at the Copacabana. As is recounted in the 2000 BBC documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection, after a long day on the job, Egan and Grosso stopped at the famed club for a drink. While there, they spotted several known “dope-pushers” at the club spending a lot of money.

Grosso recognized one individual in particular, Pasquale “Patsy” Fuca, the man in charge of a “dope empire” in New York. Fuca served as the inspiration for Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) in The French Connection. Like their fictional counterparts, the real-life duo decided to follow Fuca. They tailed him to a luncheonette, where they sat and watched as men they had seen at the Copacabana walked into the luncheonette with attaché cases. “And what that was,” Gross says in the documentary, “was people coming with money for the next shipment of drugs.”

After witnessing the stream of attaché cases, Egan and Grosso put in a request to tap the phones of their new suspects for sixty days. They were given thirty. Right at the end of the period, they listened in on a call from France, and they got the lead they needed.

The largest seizure of heroin ever

Once Jehan and Angelvin arrived in the United States, Egan and Grosso tailed them to Pier 46 in New York. According to Grosso:

We didn’t know what they were doing. We stood in nineteen degree weather while the ship was unloaded. What they were really watching is the car with the drugs in it coming off the ship, but we had no idea what they were watching. And that’s the first time we saw that car. And little by little, from following these people all over the place, we started piecing this together, and ultimately wound up making what they now call the largest seizure of heroin ever in the history of any municipal police department.

Those who have seen the film will know of its brilliant and intense ending. However, as the New York Times notes, their pursuit of the drugs actually ended “with two rather routine seizures” in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The Mystery

The ending of The French Connection involves a famously ambiguous scene in which Hackman as Popeye chases after Charnier in the basement of an abandoned warehouse. Popeye runs into another room, a shot fires, and the screen fades to black.

A series of still images of the characters then appear with facts about the case and their real-life counterparts. Charnier “was never caught” and is “believed to be living in France,” the film tells us. Jehan, like Charnier, also disappeared.

“We kept outstanding warrants for him, and we had different tips that he was spotted all over Europe, but we never found him,” Grosso said. And according to Friedkin, there were at one point more than fifty officers watching Jehan, and he still evaded capture.

According to Moore, per the New York Times, French authorities eventually apprehended Jehan in 1967 but did not expedite him due to his age. In 1972, citing the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the newspaper reported that Jehan had “since died,” thus ending one of the only remaining mysteries of the case.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.