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For Gene Hackman, the part of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle from The French Connection was a big break.
“I hadn’t really had first billing in a really important big picture,” he said. “It was written well enough and had enough background material behind it and enough reality, that it all worked.”
But the highlight of his career might not have been his. Sue Mengers, the well-known Hollywood force of nature agent, thought the part was out of his reach. The director allegedly wanted an unknown, and the studio wanted star power.
While Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were considered, ultimately the movie’s budget couldn’t handle their salary.
Director William Friedkin thought of a more realistic approach and tested journalist Jimmy Breslin. While he wasn’t a fit, the idea sparked another unusual casting option – Jackie Gleason.
“Gleason was willing to do the film and he was my idea of the character. But [producer Richard] Zanuck said no,” Friedkin recalled. “I wanted Gleason because the real cop was a heavy-set Irish guy.”
Others considered included Peter Boyle, Robert Mitchum, and Rod Taylor.
With time running out, Friedkin was pressured to make a decision.
“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.”
Regardless of whether he was a top candidate, Gene Hackman turned in an gripping performance – and one which earned him an Academy Award.
"It was really a thrill for me,” Hackman said.