Reheating ‘Cold Turkey:’ Greenfield’s enduring legacy with Norman Lear

By Michael Swanger


Greenfield didn’t need a second chance to make a first impression on famed Hollywood producer Norman Lear when he was scouting locations to film “Cold Turkey” in the summer of ‘69. Its picturesque town square and Iowa-friendly inhabitants provided the ideal setting for his satirical comedy about the fictional Iowa town of Eagle Rock, whose citizens accept and meet a tobacco company’s challenge to quit smoking (to go cold turkey) for a month to win $25 million.


“I fell in love with the square,” said Lear, 92, during a telephone interview from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I just loved Greenfield.”


Upon first glance, Lear envisioned scenes for “Cold Turkey” to be filmed in Greenfield’s Lancaster-style town square, one of only a few known to exist with its alleys extending from the corners and streets intersecting in mid-block. Among those scenes, was one of the movie’s memorable moments that set the comedic tone for “Cold Turkey.”


“There was a barbershop below the sidewalk on one corner of the square. I had a shot in mind that was perfect to be shot from the sidewalk level and that was a guy kicking a dog across the park,” said Lear. “The morning after the town had quit smoking after midnight I was doing this montage of people behaving badly because they were missing that puff that they had to have.  From the knees down you can see a pair of legs moving in one direction and a dog, cute as can be with a bow, coming in the other direction, and the legs kick the dog across the grass in front of Bob Newhart’s character, who is in a phone booth as the dog comes whizzing by.”


Of course, Lear is quick to note, the dog was not kicked. Instead, it was harnessed to a wire for the special effect. What moviegoers might not know, however, is that it was Lear who did the “kicking.”


“I was showing the trainer how we wanted it done and I did it so well that was the shot we used,” he said. “Somebody took a photo of it and you can see my foot above my head and this dog in mid air. I wish my dad was alive to see it because he always wanted me to play football, but I was no athlete.”


What Lear may have lacked in athletic prowess, he more than made up for with his creative genius. The renowned creator of such iconic television shows as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Lear revolutionized television. At their peak, his programs were viewed by more than 120 million people a week, with stories that addressed serious topics of the day including racism, war and poverty, yet still made audiences laugh.


Before he created and produced several groundbreaking television sitcoms, he wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and was the highest-paid comedy writer in the country. Movies followed, starring Frank Sinatra and Jason Robards. He returned to the big screen later in his career to help produce films like “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”


Yet it was 1971’s “Cold Turkey,” the only film that Lear wrote, directed and produced, that he credits for helping to shape his highly successful ‘70s television career. He said that the eight weeks he spent in 1969 filming “Cold Turkey” in Greenfield, which also included shoots in Orient, Macksburg, Winterset and Des Moines with local residents as extras, reinforced his belief that the audience would understand and appreciate his sense of humor and message, in spite of what network executives and their research may have indicated otherwise.


“I loved being in Iowa. I learned a great deal that helped me move forward because Iowa preceded the big part of my TV history, like ‘All in the Family,’” said Lear, who was named an Honorary Iowan in 1999. “If I hadn’t been in Iowa I wouldn’t have been able to say no to the network as often as I did and with the strength I was able to muster.


“They (Program Practices departments at the networks) used to say, among other things, when they would disagree with me and wanted something out of the script: ‘It won’t fly in the Bible Belt’ or ‘It won’t fly in Des Moines.’ So when I heard that I was able to say, and mean it thoroughly, ‘Don’t tell me it won’t fly in Des Moines. I come from Des Moines.’ That’s the way I felt and it prevented me from going along with a few silly things that would have resulted in thousands of silly things to follow. Because once you give in to that, you’re dead.”


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