The French Connection, which premiered in New York 50 years ago this week (October 7, 1971), is one of the most realistic police dramas in cinematic history. Directed with a tight hand by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), the film fearlessly shows its lead detective, Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), as both hero and anti-hero. You root for Doyle, but you also cringe when he resorts to illegal and sometimes cruel tactics in his relentless search of a French drug kingpin (Fernando Rey).
Hackman, now 91 and living a private life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, broke his long silence to comment on the film in a recent interview with The New York Post. The actor said The French Connection “certainly helped me in my career, and I am grateful for that,.”
But Friedkin recalls that Hackman was actually reluctant to play a character that was so fundamentally flawed.
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“He didn’t want to go that far into what he thought was racist behavior,” the director told Yahoo in 2018. “I didn’t agree that it was racist behavior. It was this guy trying to survive in places like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time and not take a bullet. So he didn’t want to really go that far, but we did, as far as we could.”
However, Hackman’s ‘everyman’ persona makes the movie. You can identify with him because he’s not a movie star. He looks like a guy who just might be a undercover detective in New York. At the time, Hackman had appeared in 17 movies, and even captured two Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor (Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang For My Father). But he had never been the lead in a movie of this size and importance. To many people watching The French Connection for the first time in 1971, he was a total unknown, which allowed them to be easily sucked into the story and suspense.
So now imagine if Hackman hadn’t gotten the role. Imagine if it had gone to…Jackie Gleason!
Today, it’s hard to imagine Jackie Gleason as the star of The French Connection.
In a 2015 interview with Deadline.com, Friedkin explained that he struggled over the casting of Popeye Doyle who was based on a real-life detective named Eddie ‘Popeye’ Egan. (Egan’s bust of an international heroin ring was chronicled in Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book, The French Connection.) He considered several big-name actors such as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, but decided their salary demands would break the budget. He then pivoted to realism, casting someone who would look authentic in the streets of New York.
No, not Gleason. Longtime New York journalist and bon vivant Jimmy Breslin.
Breslin had never even been in a movie, but Friedkin had a hunch that he could pull it off.
“I tested Jimmy Breslin for the lead in The French Connection, with (studio head Richard) Zanuck’s whole-hearted approval,” the director recalled. “Jimmy just couldn’t cut it, but he was the prototype for the guy I wanted.”
So Friedkin then thought of a real actor who was associated with New York. Yes, Gleason, the former star of The Honeymooners, which was set in Brooklyn. Despite being known largely (no pun intended) as a comedian, Jackie made his acting bones in such dramas as The Hustler and Requiem For a Heavyweight.
Friedkin loved the idea of casting ‘The Great One’ as Popeye Doyle, so much in fact that he offered him the part. But Zanuck, who was willing to cast a non-actor as the lead in a major motion picture, said no.
Gene Hackman roughs up a suspect in The French Connection.
“Gleason was willing to do the film and he was my idea of the character. But Zanuck said no,” Friedkin said. “Gleason had made the biggest bomb in the history of Fox, this silent movie about a clown, called Gigot. I wanted Gleason because the real cop was a heavy set Irish guy that you’d call Black Irish, dark and moody. That was the real guy, Eddie Egan. Gleason was closest to that, but the studio would have none of it.”
The director said he then considered several other actors before “reluctantly” agreeing to Hackman (because) “we were out of time and Zanuck kept calling the producer and me saying you better set this picture now because I’ll be fired before you start shooting. So reluctantly we went with Gene. One of the great actors in the history of American film, who was not my first, second or tenth choice for that part.”
The French Connection is now available on demand on Showtime. Here’s a scene from the film: