Law enforcement lost one of its most famous members on Jan. 6, when Dave Toschi — a detective with the San Francisco Police Department — passed away after a lengthy illness. Toschi was a brash, larger-than-life personality, even by the standards of his city, and he received his most famous assignment in 1969 when, alongside partner Bill Armstrong, he was tasked with handling the Zodiac serial-killer case. That, in turn, led to national prominence and attracted the attention of Hollywood, which soon used him as the template for two of its most memorable police-force protagonists — and, eventually, immortalized him in one of the new millennium’s best films.
I’m speaking, of course, about David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, in which Toschi is played by Mark Ruffalo. It’s one of Ruffalo’s finest performances, even if it sidesteps a less noble aspect of the man’s official conduct (which is noted in the Associated Press’s obituary) — namely, that Toschi was removed from the never-solved Zodiac case in 1978 after confessing to writing anonymous letters that praised his work to the San Francisco Chronicle. Nonetheless, while that stunt got him into trouble with his superiors, it hardly mattered to Tinseltown, which twice used Toschi as inspiration for a go-for-broke cop: Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968) and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971).
For the former, McQueen actually shadowed Toschi as he worked, basing his character’s fast-driving habits on the real-life sports car-loving detective.
And though Eastwood reportedly didn’t do likewise, his Dirty Harry — tasked with hunting down a Zodiac-style killer — was clearly modeled after Toschi as well. In fact, the connection between Toschi and Dirty Harry was outright underlined in Zodiac, when Ruffalo’s Toschi is approached in a theater while watching the Eastwood film, at which point he states that they’re already making movies about his life.
As Ruffalo noted in an Instagram post Thursday, he too spent time with Toschi while shooting Zodiac, and developed an appreciation for his subject.
The real Toschi later admitted to the Chronicle that although he enjoyed Fincher’s film, it wasn’t easy for him to sit through it: “I thought Ruffalo did a good job. I enjoy it, but it depresses me. After I watch it I get angry at myself because I couldn’t close the case.” That inability to nab the Zodiac killer haunted him for the rest of his life — resulting in ulcers, and compelling him to return to the scene of the crimes every year on their Oct. 11 anniversary. However, as evidenced by the three movies that came to life because of his career, his formidable Hollywood legacy remains an open-and-shut case.
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