New York City No Longer Crime Capital

Monday, March 14, 2005

 

 

March 14, 2005 New York, No Longer a Crime Capital, Is Still Playing One on TVBy SAM ROBERTS

If it ever really was, New York is no longer the nation’s crime capital, but it remains the capital of television crime shows. So while crime still pays, maybe it pays better, as with fine antiques and wine, to invest in the vintage years.

That’s the betting behind an hourlong NBC pilot, conceived by Sonny Grosso, the cop-turned-producer, which wraps up three weeks of filming on location in New York this week. The crime drama’s working title, "NY70," invokes a tumultuous decade when crime, racial tension and political conflict consumed the city. The series is to be loosely based on "The French Connection" heroin smuggling case, which Mr. Grosso and his partner Eddie (Popeye) Egan cracked and which was the basis for the 1971 film that won five Oscars.

"I’m here today because of that case," Mr. Grosso said last week, sipping coffee in the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown, where a scene was being filmed in the presidential suite.

"The city is way better, cleaner, less crime," he said. "Crime is down so much now that we have to go back to the 70’s."

The first episode begins familiarly enough with Bobby Cannavale, playing Mr. Grosso, driving through Harlem as a radio newscaster delivers contemporary headlines about an unpopular foreign war and protests against the president.

"It sounds exactly like 2005," Mr. Grosso said. "You would swear we were talking about right now."

But then the camera pans to reveal a 1970’s streetscape, complete with a French Connection chase: an undercover cop in a Santa Claus suit is pursuing a drug dealer up the stairs to an elevated subway station.

"Just think how smart you can be writing lines when you know what’s going to happen in the next 30 years," Mr. Grosso said.

Another echo of the bad old days of the 60’s and 70’s, the Knapp Commission on police corruption, which also figures in Mr. Grosso’s show, reverberated last week in the federal indictment of two retired New York City police detectives, onetime partners, who were charged with taking part in eight murders on behalf of the Mafia – most while one or both were members of the force.

One of the detectives, Louis Eppolito, was a co-writer of a book about being a police officer with relatives in the mob. Mr. Grosso considered adapting the book for a television show, but recalled, "at the time it didn’t fit." No doubt, the story of Mr. Eppolito and the other detective, Stephen Caracappa, will now find its way to the screen. "It would be a hell of a show, but not something I would want to do," Mr. Grosso said. "All my life I have dealt with the positive nature of police shows. There are people who deal with the negative. Not me."

Mr. Grosso was on the police force from 1954 until 1976, when he retired as a first-grade detective, became an actor, film consultant and writer and formed a production company with Larry Jacobson, a television veteran.

"We’ve been together so long that if I had killed him 25 years ago, I’d be out on good behavior by now," Mr. Grosso said.

He walks with a cane these days, to favor a bad hip, and also carries a .38 Colt revolver, the very same gun that was taped to the back of a toilet and fired by Al Pacino in a mob killing during the filming of "The Godfather." Mr. Grosso was an adviser on that film and also acted in it, as a detective.

There was gunfire, too, on a night just before Christmas 2003, when a patron at Rao’s, the tiny Italian restaurant on Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, who objected to the singing of one of Mr. Grosso’s dinner guests that night, was shot dead by another customer. The restaurant is around the corner from the house in which Mr. Grosso grew up.

That Mr. Grosso and his partners are filming their entire show on location reflects another benchmark in the city’s revival. He produced hundreds of hours of television crime shows over two decades that supposedly take place in New York but were really shot in Canada, but now, he says, production costs here have become more competitive and the locations, in many cases, mirror the sites of the French Connection case itself or the film.

"New York becomes another character in the show," Mr. Grosso said. "The locations talk to you. You go to the right places in New York, they still look a lot like the 70’s. You give people a few Afros, park a couple of cars, but the buildings are the same."

"Hey, I’m still wearing clothes from the 70’s," Mr. Grosso said.

The show is being developed for NBC Universal and is to be broadcast in the fall. It stars Donnie Wahlberg as the Popeye Doyle character based on Mr. Egan, who died in 1995, and Tony Lo Bianco, who also starred in "The French Connection," as a congressman modeled on one of Mr. Grosso’s friends, former Representative Mario Biaggi of the Bronx. Rand Ravich wrote the pilot for the series, whose first year is to climax with the largest seizure ever of pure heroin.

In an interview, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly welcomed the possibility that declining crime in New York was prompting television writers and producers to mine the past for material.

"The environment was so different for cops in those days, the danger was much greater," he recalled. "Every job you went to was a possible ambush."

Commissioner Kelly, who was a sergeant in East Harlem then, crossed paths with Mr. Grosso in 1972 at the Black Muslim mosque where an officer was shot after police responded to a call.

Edward Conlon, a police officer and author of "Blue Blood," also recalled the crime rate from the early 1970’s: "Crime – both street crime and organized crime – were rampant, and seemingly intractable problems. You also had the battle within, as the Knapp Commission was tearing up the department. For many cops, it felt like their guns were being taken away to be repaired while they were left in a free-fire zone, and for cops like Sonny, they didn’t think their guns needed fixing."

Mr. Grosso said, "It was a war then, and you had to act differently." Recalling the level of heroin use then, 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, we were just allowed to be cops," Mr. Grosso said. "We’re in a different world now, so of course cops have to be different."

Mr. Kelly said that while "there’s a whole new set of concerns today with terrorism, in terms of the conventional crime threat it’s been significantly reduced."

"New Yorkers have become less tolerant of crime," he said, "but they also have become more blasé about the fact that it goes down, and goes down every year. It’s old news."

The television industry isn’t worried. "N.Y.P.D. Blue" ended its 12-year run earlier this month, but there has been no shortage of New York crime shows.

"Just because crime has gone down doesn’t mean people have lost interest in crime shows," Rene Balcer, producer of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," said in an interview. "Crime shows have traditionally come after great crime waves. With fear of terrorism, crime shows, cops shows, have a reassuring aspect to them."

Neal Baer, executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," said: "Our show is not so much about the danger of the city, but about the psychology of victims and perps. We don’t portray New York as a not very welcoming place."

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