Before there was “All in the Family,” before there was “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” before Norman Lear carved his name into sitcom legendary status, there was “Cold Turkey.”
And there was Greenfield, Iowa, an unlikely venue for a TV legend to make his first big impression.
But it was Greenfield where Lear made his mark with the film “Cold Turkey,” which he wrote, directed and produced.
Lear, who passed away Tuesday at age 101 after becoming one of the most successful and influential television creators and producers in history, died an official Honorary Iowan, leaving his mark on the state every bit as much as he did in the sitcom world.
Lear’s forever-connection to Iowa was captured in an Iowa History Journal article by Michael Swanger.
“I loved being in Iowa,” Lear told Swanger in an interview from his Beverly Hills, California, home when he was 92. “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.’ 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.”
“Cold Turkey,” filmed in 1969 mostly in Greenfield, but with scenes in Winterset, Orient, Macksburg and Des Moines, was the only film Lear wrote, directed and produced. It was released to critical praise in 1971.
A satirical comedy, its cast included Dick Van Dyke, Jean Stapleton and Bob Newhart, plus the comedy duo Bob and Ray. The movie’s storyline follows the fictional town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, as it tries to win a $25 million prize from a cigarette company by giving up smoking for a month. (Spoiler alert: The cigarette company isn’t going to surrender the cash without a fight.)
Iowan who was a film extra: ‘Norman was a real nice man’
For Greenfield, its time in the spotlight will not be forgotten, and the man who put it in the spotlight never forgot Greenfield.
“He had a picture of the Greenfield town square in his office,” said retired schoolteacher Dan Dickinson.
Dickinson was a freshman in high school when he had a part in the movie as an extra, playing baritone in a band.
“Norman was a real nice man, very down-to-earth. Even during the 11 nights when they filmed the final scene (where thousands of cigarettes are dropped onto the town square by helicopter), I don’t remember him ever getting upset,” he said.
Dickinson, who moved to Sheldon after the movie was shot, said he became somewhat of a celebrity in his new town.
“I had other kids coming up to me and asking for an autograph,” Dickinson said.
Greenfield theater renamed for Norman Lear
Carol Woolsey, who worked in an insurance office on the Greenfield square, remembers watching the filming and eventually joining the fun as an extra, along with many other local residents.
“When he picked us (Greenfield), we felt we were special, like it gave us an extra boost. We felt like maybe we could be something we never thought we could be,” Woolsey said.
Bill Yount knows firsthand the affection Lear had for the community of Greenfield. For Lear’s last visit there in 2014, Yount was his “handler” and was backstage with him just before he went on stage inside the historic opera house. The theater would be renamed the Norman Lear Theater that night.
“And he just started crying, it meant so much to him. He turned to me and asked, ‘Can I please give you a hug?’ And I said, ‘Sure, you can hug me as long as you like,’” Yount said.
“He always talked about how much he enjoyed making ‘Cold Turkey’ and how much he enjoyed being here,” Yount said.
The movie, with its satirical take on the dangers of smoking, also had one other very long-lasting impact on the little town of Greenfield, according to Dickinson and Woolsey.
“A lot of people here quit smoking after the movie and never went back,” Woolsey said.
Kevin Baskins covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at email@example.com.