Cold Turkey (film)

Cold Turkey is a 1971 satirical comedy film. It stars Dick Van Dyke plus a long list of comedic actors. The film was directed, co-produced and co-written by Norman Lear and is based on the unpublished novel I'm Giving Them Up for Good by Margaret and Neil Rau.

Cold Turkey
1971 movie poster by Sandy Kossin
Directed byNorman Lear
Produced byNorman Lear
Written byNorman Lear
William Price Fox, Jr.
Based onI'm Giving Them Up for Good
by Margaret and Neil Rau
StarringDick Van Dyke
Bob Newhart
Pippa Scott
Tom Poston
Edward Everett Horton
Bob and Ray
Jean Stapleton
Music byRandy Newman
CinematographyCharles F. Wheeler
Edited byJohn C. Horger
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
February 19, 1971
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$11,000,000[1]

The film was made in 1969, but was shelved for two years by the distributor due to concerns about its box-office potential.

A musical theatre version of Cold Turkey was workshopped at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington in February 2005.


As part of a public relations and marketing strategy to compare the empathy of Big Tobacco to the nobility of the Nobel Peace Prize, advertising executive Merwin Wren (Newhart) convinces the Valiant Tobacco Company to propose a challenge: a tax-free check for $25,000,000 ($170.8 million today) to any city or town in America that can stop smoking, going cold turkey, for thirty days.

According to Wren, the offer will generate Valiant worldwide free publicity and praise as a humanitarian gesture, but no town in America would ever be able to claim the prize, with cigarette smoking being too addictive to stop.

The Reverend Clayton Brooks (Van Dyke), a kindly but fearsome minister of the Eagle Rock Community Church, takes up the challenge as a spiritual call. He urges the economically depressed (fictional) community of Eagle Rock, Iowa, population 4,006, to go for the prize.

The town council has been trying to woo back the military ever since it closed a base a few years earlier, hoping its return would help the local cash flow. Families have been moving out almost on a monthly basis and the town center is almost deserted.

Reverend Brooks recruits every smoker in the town to sign up. Needled for being a former smoker, he begins smoking again to find solidarity with his "flock."

As the deadline to start the thirty-day clock approaches, only a very few of the town's residents haven't signed the no smoking pledge. One of them is alcoholic Edgar Stopworth, whom Reverend Brooks decides to pay a house call on, to convince him to take the pledge. But Edgar knows himself pretty well and in desperation tells the Reverend "My drinking is directly connected to my smoking. The booze bone's connected to the smoke bone." The Reverend looks defeated but comes up with the idea of Edgar leaving town for a thirty-day vacation, which Edgar immediately departs on. Problem solved.

At midnight, the challenge begins. For the next thirty days, no smoking is permitted, with Eagle Rock being the only city in America that got all of its smokers to pledge.

Once the no smoking ban begins, Reverend Brooks gets extremely frustrated with not being able to smoke. His only relief is having frequent sex with his wife Natalie. At one point she barely gets finished making the bed and straightening up from the preceding episode before the Reverend is back home again for more.

The tobacco company sends Merwin to report the progress of the townspeople's commitment. The company needs just one person to fail. Among the weakest: the elderly Doctor Proctor, who must always have a cigarette before surgery, and the anxiety-ridden wife of the mayor, Mrs. Wappler, who counts the small gherkin pickles she eats as the hours pass. However, a group of 29 non-smoking residents, all members of the ultra-conservative Christopher Mott Society (based on the John Birch Society) have been asked by Brooks to police all traffic entering Eagle Rock to ensure no tobacco products enter.

Eventually, the attention of the nation's leading newscasters at the time (all played by the comedy duo Bob and Ray), turns the small community's efforts into a matter of highly publicized failure or success. Soon the community is invaded by buxom "massage therapists," beer vendors, souvenir shops and more. Rev. Brooks appears on a Time magazine cover, which leads him to another epiphany: if he can save the town, he will be a hero.

Merwin is told by Valiant's board members to undermine the town's efforts at all costs, doing whatever he must to get someone to smoke before the thirty days are up, which includes speeding up the large clock in the town center prior to the end of the 30 day deadline, in the hopes that people will be tricked into starting to smoke again before they are allowed to.

Ultimately Eagle Rock succeeds and wins the $25 million prize. To cash in on the publicity, The President Of The United States (as seen from the side and back, then-President Richard M. Nixon) arrives in a motorcade and makes an announcement that Eagle Rock will be the home of the new missile plant. As the film ends, it shows the huge smokestacks of the new plant spewing volumes of black smoke into the air around Eagle Rock.


Cast notes

  • Veteran actor Edward Everett Horton, whose career began in 1906, plays tobacco company president Hiram C. "Mr. Tobacco' Grayson in a wheelchair and without dialogue. He is shown later in a limousine where Grayson farts, possibly the first time that flatulence is depicted in a U.S. movie. This was Horton's final role, and he died before the film was released.
  • Director/producer Norman Lear has a three-second cameo approximately 2/3 of the way into the film. He is shown as one of the townspeople sitting down and crying because he is unable to get a cigarette fix. He is also shown from the waist down, "kicking" a dog across the town square (the dog was actually attached to wires).
  • Maureen McCormick, best known for her role as Marcia Brady on television's The Brady Bunch, provides the voice of a talking doll in the film, which says "I love you! – smoking gives you cancer!"
  • The characters played by Bob and Ray are parodies of real-life news and broadcasting personalities: "Walter Chronic" (Walter Cronkite), "Hugh Upson" (Hugh Downs), "David Chetley" (Chet Huntley/David Brinkley), "Arthur Lordly" (Arthur Godfrey), "Paul Hardly" (Paul Harvey), and "Sandy Van Andy" (Sander Vanocur).
  • The film's promotional trailer is hosted by newscasters "Hardly Reasonable" (Harry Reasoner) and "Mike Walrus" (Mike Wallace). Neither the characters nor the actors who play them appear in the actual film; "Walrus" is played by Paul Dooley.
  • A number of actors appearing in the film – Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Benedict and Barnard Hughes—would go on to work with Lear in the coming years on his various television projects.

The only profanity used in its entirety in the film was by Judith Lowry, whose character often referred to "a bullshit." The president of the Valiant Tobacco Company was bleeped when he told David Chetley twice to "leave me the f(bleep)k alone."

Filming locations

Most of the film, which is set in the fictional small town of "Eagle Rock, Iowa", was shot in and around Greenfield, Iowa, and many local people were used as extras.[2] Some neighborhood scenes were shot in Winterset, Iowa. The Methodist church in Orient, Iowa, and the bank in Macksburg, Iowa, were used as well. The Grayson Mansion scenes were filmed at Terrace Hill, official residence of the governor of Iowa, located in Des Moines. Some were also shot in the town of Columbia in south central Kentucky.


Cold Turkey features original music by Randy Newman, including "He Gives Us All His Love", a ballad with a gospel influence that serves as the film's theme song. This was Newman's first film soundtrack.

In 2007 the Percepto Records label issued a limited-edition soundtrack CD for the film.[3]


Box office

The film earned $5.5 million in theatrical rentals at the North American box office.[4]

Arthur Krim of United Artists later did an assessment of the film as part of an evaluation of the company's inventory:

An old commitment to Dick Van Dyke, and what seemed to be a good idea for the American market, became an overpriced film with a has-been personality by the time of it's [sic] release. Albeit funny, the picture is way overpriced for its value, which is strictly for the American market – mainly for mid America. The producer and director went over a million dollars over budget on the film to deliver a minor American comedy with no overseas value. This film would be programmed today only if it could be made at one-half the cost.[5]


Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that "it is, within its limitations, a very engaging, very funny movie."[6] Variety called it "an often-hilarious, partly-muffed contemporary comedy" marred by "sluggish pacing" and a climax called "bizarre: Lear seems to have written himself into a corner, with no way out except to shift abruptly from human comedy to stylistic nonsense."[7] Roger Ebert gave it four stars and praised several aspects of the production before concluding "Even if you don't smoke, you'll find Cold Turkey funny."[8] Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it "a fine and funny idea for a short film," but "scene after scene runs too long. Too many gags are repeated too often."[9] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it "an enterprising, very amusing, very contemporary social commentary."[10] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote "A shallow, self-deluding sort of comedy, it fails to make sense out of its own premise and characters and then tries to cover up by getting cynical about everything-in-general. It's as if Lear had been inspired to imitate Billy Wilder at his worst."[11]

Home video releases

In 1993 Cold Turkey was released on VHS and LaserDisc, in the pan-and-scan format. In 2010, the film was released on DVD through with manufacturing on demand.[12]

See also


  1. "Cold Turkey, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  2. "45 years after filming of ‘Cold Turkey,' Greenfield, Iowa, rolls out red carpet for director Norman Lear’s return," by Andrew J. Nelson (Omaha World-Herald; December 13, 2014)
  3. Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine
  4. "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, January 7, 1976, p. 46.
  5. quoted in Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry, Wisconsin Press, 1987, p. 314.
  6. Canby, Vincent (March 18, 1971). "A Satirical Visit to a Greedy Small Town". The New York Times: 46.
  7. "Cold Turkey". Variety: 17. February 3, 1971.
  8. Ebert, Roger (April 14, 1971). "Cold Turkey". Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  9. Siskel, Gene (April 6, 1971). "Cold Turkey". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 4.
  10. Champlin, Charles (March 5, 1971). "'Cold Turkey' Views Greed". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 10.
  11. Arnold, Gary (March 9, 1971). "'Cold Turkey': Cold Turkey". The Washington Post: B8.
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