DES MOINES — Iowans are remembering accomplished TV and movie producer Norman Lear, who died this week at age 101. Back in 1969, Lear took over the town of Greenfield, Iowa, for filming “Cold Turkey,” which featured a list of stars, including Dick Van Dyke and Jean Stapleton.
Lear returned to Iowa in 2014, and in a Radio Iowa interview, recalled how “Cold Turkey” came out the same year his show, “All in the Family” premiered on CBS. The ground-breaking sitcom dealt with controversial issues previously ignored in comedies.
“When I was making ‘All in the Family’ and the network told me ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that’ and I would ask why, the answer was always one of two things; ‘It won’t fly in Des Moines’ or ‘there will be a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible Belt,’” Lear said. “Having had my experience in Des Moines, it was so easy for me to feel and say, ‘Wait, don’t tell me what will fly in Des Moines, I come from Des Moines.’ Spiritually, I felt exactly that way, I come from Des Moines.”
Lear wrote, directed and produced some of the most popular television shows of the 1970s, including “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” Lear said his experiences in Iowa stuck with him and influenced his daily life — which he credits in his many successes.
“It played a very big part in my feature at that time and it plays a very big part in my life today for the same reasons,” Lear said. “Cold Turkey” was filmed primarily in Greenfield, but also used locations in Winterset, Orient and Des Moines. The movie tells the story of a small town — fictional Eagle Rock, Iowa — that takes up the challenge for all its residents to quit smoking for one month to win a $25 million prize.
Lear, recalling the summer of ’69, remembers how Iowans adopted Van Dyke and how everyone in the cast enjoyed meeting the locals.
“I remember Dick Van Dyke and his relationship to the people he met there. He was and is a glorious guy and people fell in love with him and he fell in love with them,” Lear said. “I remember Vincent Gardenia, who was in a cast and was a great cook. We would have these wonderful barbecues the summer of the of the film and Gardena was the barbecue master.”
Lear had a photo from that summer in Iowa that he keeps framed in his home. “I have a photograph of my daughter Maggie, who’s now in her mid 50s, and she’s a little girl sitting on the lap of a guy whose face I’ll never forget – a farmer. He’s just sitting, leaning up against a tree and she’s in his lap. It’s a picture that graces my office to this day,” Lear said.
The native of Connecticut has a home in Vermont, but Lear was named an “Honorary Iowan” in 1999 when he returned to Greenfield with Van Dyke and others to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Cold Turkey.” Lear was in Iowa in 2014 as a special guest at the “Celebrate Iowa Gala” at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines.
An extra in the movie Lear filmed in Iowa 54 years ago says it was a surreal experience. Dan Dickinson was a teenager when Lear picked Greenfield to be the fictious “Eagle Rock, Iowa.”
“The story is that Norman came to our town and he really liked our square,” Dickinson says. “It’s a quaint little square. It’s on the National Historic Register and it’s a Lancaster Square, which means it has openings in the middle of the block as well as the corners, so it’s pretty rare.”
Dickinson, who was 14 at the time, was in the Greenfield high school band and the band was featured in the movie. The plan was to be done shooting by the time school started. “And that did not happen. Our scenes were night scenes and we would go to work at seven and get off at seven in the morning,” Dickinson says. “…Finally they allowed kids that were in the movie to come to school at noon.”
Dickinson earned $15 for 11 nights of shooting. “Big money back in 1969 for a kid (in his) freshman year in high school,” Dickson says.
Some of the stars of Cold Turkey went on to have roles in Lear’s TV sitcoms. Jean Stapleton, who starred as Edith Bunker in “All in the Family,” played a woman who ate pickles rather than smoke.
“It was kind of a surreal experience because you might be walking around the square and you might be walking into a shot,” Dickinson says. While “Cold Turkey” was filmed in 1969, it was released in 1971.