Arguably one of the greatest films ever made about New York City, the film “Serpico” and the eponymous biography by author Peter Mass, which sold over three million copies, is also a story of North Brooklyn. If you have never seen Al Pacino’s depiction of the honest New York City cop, then you are missing one of the most tremendous film performances of the last 50 years. Pacino won a Golden Globe for his portrayal in 1974 and was also nominated for an Oscar for best actor in the same year.
The film, set in the late 60s and early 70s in Brooklyn and the Bronx, shines a light on a dark era of New York City history, accurately portraying parts of Williamsburg as a drug infested, dangerous den of crime. Locals will recognize many of the buildings and streets in the film.
In the late 1960s, New York City police officers were massively underpaid, which led to corruption on a massive scale. According to the book, large numbers of cops were taking bribes and turning a blind eye to a number of crimes from prostitution to gambling. Frank Serpico, however, was that rare person at that time, an honest cop who could not be bought. Serpico, born in South Brooklyn in 1936, served in Korea, before joining the force in 1959. When Serpico was a child his parents were store owners who were shaken down for payoffs by local police and the payoffs were a real financial burden to the struggling family. Serpico, recalling the hardship the payoffs placed on the family, vowed never to accept bribes.
Serpico’s honesty put him on a collision course with corrupt cops. Working as a plainclothes officer in Brooklyn, he reported credible evidence of widespread systematic police corruption in 1967, but initially, nothing happened. His revelations to a news reporter led to an April 25, 1970, New York Times front-page story on corruption in the NYPD, which drew national attention to the problem. Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a five-member panel to investigate accusations of police corruption, which became known as the Knapp Commission. Despite his heroic honesty, Serpico was vilified as a rat in much of the NYPD, perhaps becoming a man marked for revenge.
778 Driggs Avenue where Serpico was shot
Serpico was making a drug arrest on February 3, 1971, at 778 Driggs Avenue; the Building on the corner of S. 2nd Street is still standing. Four officers from the Brooklyn North police precinct received a tip that a drug deal was about to take place. Descending from the roof, Serpico reached the apartment door of two suspected drug dealers on the third floor where two other officers were standing behind him. Serpico knocked on the door, keeping his hand on his revolver. The door opened a few inches, just far enough for Serpico to wedge his body in, but he was unable to enter. Serpico called for help, but his fellow officers ignored him.
Serpico was then shot in the face by one of the suspects, with a .22 caliber pistol, the bullet striking him just below the eye, and lodging at the top of his jaw. He fired back; fell to the floor, while bleeding profusely. His police colleagues, however, refused to make a “10-13” dispatch to police headquarters, indicating that an officer had been shot. An elderly man who lived in the next apartment called the emergency services, reporting that a man had been shot, and stayed with Serpico. When a police car arrived and learned that Serpico was a fellow officer, they transported him in the patrol car to the now long-closed Greenpoint Hospital, less than two miles away on the corner of Jackson Street and Kingsland Avenue. The proximity of the hospital to the scene of the shooting probably saved Serpico’s life.
Greenpoint Hospital Jackson Street and Kingsland Avenue
Rushed into the emergency room, the hospital staff was shocked by the extent of the wound. X-rays revealed the .22-caibre bullet had entered the left-hand side of his face close to his nostril and fragmented with a major piece lodging in the bone of his left ear. The main concern was a tear to the cerebral membrane and possible infection of the brain. Remarkably, the bullet, which had just missed his carotid artery, had neither entered his brain, nor shattered his jawbone.
His recovery was simply remarkable. After six weeks, he was discharged from the hospital with the bullet fragments still in his head. The main long-term outcome was the permanent loss of hearing in his left ear. Not everyone, though, was pleased he recovered. While still in the hospital he received a get-well card with the words, “With sincere sympathy—that you didn’t get your brains blown out you rat bastard. Happy relapse.”
Late in 1971, Serpico testified before the commission that had been created after he first spoke out. Then, in 1972, after also testifying against the drug dealer who shot him – and still believing that fellow cops were behind his shooting – he retired on a $12,000 annual pension and exiled himself to Europe.
Besides the gripping drama, you can watch the film to see scenes that show how different the neighborhood was in 1973. The film captures an era in New York City and North Brooklyn that was radically different. Even if you have seen Serpico before, it is a compelling movie that still is riveting drama.