In this made-for-television movie, a pre-Married With Children Ed O’Neill takes over the role that won Gene Hackman an Oscar.
Popeye Doyle (played by O’Neill) is a hard-drinking, hard-living Irish police detective working out of New York City. Along with his more emotionally stable partner, Tony Parese (Matthew Laurence), Doyle spends his time busting drug dealers, going on stakeouts, and chasing junkies through the mean streets of NYC. When Jill, a beautiful young model (Audrey Landers) turns up dead, everyone assumes that it was an overdose. Doyle, however, has his doubts. All of her friends say that Jill never used drugs and, when Popeye searches her apartment, he doesn’t find any evidence that would point to her being junkie. Instead, he finds tapes that Jill made for various wealthy men. Convinced that Jill was murdered, Popeye is soon investigating the type of powerful people who are not used to being investigated.
In 1986, someone at NBC thought it would be a good idea to launch a series based on The French Connection. Since Gene Hackman was busy making movies and hadn’t come anywhere close to appearing on television since losing the role of the father on The Brady Bunch to Robert Reed, the role of Popeye was given to Ed O’Neill. At that time, O’Neill was an unknown who had appeared in a handful of plays, two movies, and one Red Lobster commercial. The movie, Popeye Doyle, was meant to serve as a pilot for the proposed television series. Needless to say, the film did not lead to a series. If it had, Ed O’Neill probably wouldn’t have been available to take the role of Al Bundy on Married With Children.
O’Neill is probably the main reason that anyone today would want to see Popeye Doyle, which is otherwise a routine cop movie. Except for a few scenes where he seems to be trying too hard to imitate Hackman’s iconic performance, O’Neill brings authentic working class swagger to the role. He drinks too much, he often says the wrong thing, and he pisses off all the right people. There are some scenes where O’Neill seems to blend right in with the pilot’s gritty visual style. (It was shot on location in Ed Koch-era New York.) There are other scenes where he gets so manic that he seems to be a man possessed. In the scene where he watches Candy Clark do an impromptu striptease, O’Neill as Doyle gets so excited that you worry about him. Interestingly, Doyle wanders through the film dressed like a slob and acting like a schlub but every beautiful woman he meets wants to have sex with him. In that regard, it is easy to imagine the movie as being some sort of elaborate daydream that Al Bundy had while selling shoes.
As for the events in The French Connection, they’re mentioned briefly at the start of the movie, when a reporter asks Doyle about that time he accidentally shot and killed a federal agent. Popeye Doyle still has many scenes that are meant to remind viewers of the first film. There’s a stakeout scene, where Doyle and Parese sit out in the cold while their target enjoys a nice night. There’s a scene where Doyle works undercover as a bum. And, of course, there’s a car chase, though it’s nowhere near as exciting as the one from The French Connection.
Popeye Doyle has never been officially released on DVD (or even VHS), though it is available on YouTube.