To superhero movie fans, he’ll always be remembered as the guy who took on Christopher Reeve in three of the four Reeve Superman films. He taught a team of underdogs to be great in Hoosiers, he beat Clint Eastwood nearly to death in Unforgiven, and in The Royal Tenenbaums he was one of the worst fathers you could hope to have. At 91 years old, Gene Hackman has been part of some of the best films of the 20th and 21st centuries, and after a decade of public silence the actor granted an interview on the eve of one of his landmark films.
This Thursday, October 7, will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the crime thriller The French Connection based on the real life story of narcotics detectives who took down a wealthy heroin smuggler. Gene Hackman — who stars as the alcoholic and overtly racist detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle — spoke to the New York Post on the eve of the anniversary, as did director William Friedkin. The director told the paper that when The French Connection wrapped filming, he told one of the film’s producers that the movie would be good but that he shouldn’t bother getting his “Oscar speech ready.” Ironically, The French Connection would be nominated for eight Oscars the following year, winning five of them including Best Picture, Best Director, and Hackman’s first Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In spite of how important the film was to Gene Hackman’s career — he wouldn’t win another Oscar for twenty years, for 1992’s Unforgiven — he told the post that along with this year marking the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the last time Hackman bothered watching it. He said he watched the first screening in what he calls “a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility” and hasn’t seen it since. While he says he’s grateful the film helped his career, he isn’t sure what it’s legacy could be.
According to Friedkin — who would go on two years later to direct the horror classic The Exorcist — Gene Hackman and just about everyone else involved in making The French Connection is lucky to have survived the film. The director expresses shock at some of the things he was willing to do in order to get the film right. NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, who acted as consultant on the film, was often on hand to show his badge because of the long list of laws Friedkin broke to make the movie. In at least one example, Jurgensen needed to flash the badge at a police helicopter to keep the production out of hot water. When Friedkin needed to film a traffic jam, he got Jurgensen and other off-duty policemen to create a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge with their own cars, which attracted the attention of the police helicopter that promptly left — though Friedkin said “they were furious” — after seeing Jurgensen’s badge.
Then there was the crazy car chase scene that the New York Post calls “the best movie car chase of all time.” Friedkin filmed it without a permit and without a camera car because he couldn’t afford it. The director did much of the camera work himself because the cameramen all had families and he didn’t feel right putting them at risk. He told the Post it was by the “grace of God,” that no one was killed or seriously injured. Yet for all that, when asked about the chase, Gene Hackman said the one in 1968’s Bullitt was better.