Monday, September 26, 2011

Cold Turkey

The Dick van Dyke Show Blogathon is an event honoring the career of Dick van Dyke and his eponymous television show, hosted by the blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. For a complete list of participants, visit the host site. The complete list of posts will go up October 3, 2011.

Cold Turkey
seen online via YouTube

To be honest, for years, Dick van Dyke was little more to me than that guy from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, two family musical movies I adored as a kid that I'd see on TV all the time. I loved his character in Mary Poppins in particular (in later years I would recognize his horrible Cockney English accent for what it is, and not care), partly because it's the better movie by far, but also because he knew things about Mary that no one else did, and he seemed to have a bit of magic all his own (remind me to one day share my theory of how Mary is actually a Timelord with you). My favorite scene was the one where him and his chimney sweep buddies are all dancing around on the roof.

Then at some point as an adult I read or heard about the old TV show that he used to star in with Mary Tyler Moore (who, it was recently announced, will receive a Life Achievement Award from SAG). It was pretty good, people said. Okay, I figured I'd get around to watching it one of these days, though it's probably not as good (so I thought) as my favorite old sitcom, The Honeymooners. (I still miss watching the Honeymooners marathons they used to show here in New York.)

A year or so ago, I finally did. I picked out a bunch of episodes from the first season that were on Hulu and I liked them. The humor is different from The Honeymooners; while Ralph Kramden is a coarse but lovable blue-collar hero, Rob Petrie is wittier and a bit more sophisticated. Plus, he's a father as well as a husband, so that adds another layer to his character. I like to think that Ralph and Rob would get along if they were to meet; certainly Ralph would be awestruck by Rob's job working in television. I could see him watching "The Alan Brady Show" and maybe even hitting Rob up for tickets for him and Alice to see it.

I can't say I'm too familiar with DVD's films outside of Mary and Chitty, however, though it should be said that those two films loom quite largely in my memory. The majority of his career has been spent on television, as have been most of his movies. Of his other theatrical films, I saw Bye Bye Birdie once when I was working in video retail. And then, several weeks ago, I read on a film blog somewhere about another film he made that sounded good called Cold Turkey.

The wacky premise is simple: an impoverished small Midwestern town takes part in a contest staged by a tobacco company in which everyone in town must forego smoking for 30 days. DVD is the preacher who spurs the town onward in their quest to win the $25 million prize, which would help restore their sagging economy. Cold Turkey was written, produced and directed by the great Norman Lear, who brought to the small screen such television classics as All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and more.

My friend Bibi cannot be around smokers at all. She gets physically ill in the presence of cigarette smoke, which means that whenever we hang out, we have to constantly be on the alert for smokers coming down the street. (Her husband has perfected the act down to a science over the years they've been together.) I don't smoke, and I'm certainly no fan of the smell of cigarettes, but at least I don't have to be around it as much anymore, thanks to the tightening of smoking restrictions here in New York. In Europe it's different. I'll never forget the time I went to a concert in Barcelona and came out of the hall reeking of sweat and cigarette smoke. The smell wouldn't come out of my shirt for weeks!

The one time I tried smoking, I knew it wasn't for me. I was at Jenny's place, back when she still lived in the East Village. I've never known Jenny to be a regular smoker, though every now and then she'll indulge in it, and this night she did. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with "Just Say No" pummeled into my brain everywhere I went, but as I got older, I decided that I wanted to make my own mind up about smoking, so I waited for the right opportunity, and it came that night at Jenny's. I asked her for a hit and of course, I did it wrong. She tried to show me how to smoke, but it didn't take long before I decided that I could not do this. So that's my one and only smoking story. Honestly, I do not understand how people can do it...

... but I can see how it could be a hard habit to break. Turkey plays the weaknesses of the townspeople trying to quit up for big laughs, and DVD brings plenty of gusto to his role. He's surrounded by a good cast, too: Pippa Scott plays his wife (she was in a Dick Van Dyke Show episode which has to be one of, if not the first, depictions of a bar mitzvah on television); Bob Newhart plays the dude whom the tobacco companies use to try and prevent the town from winning the contest (even though he was the one who talked them into holding the contest to begin with), and he's simply awesome; Edward Everett Horton as another man of the cloth; plus others who would go on to become familiar TV stars, including Tom Poston, Jean Stapleton, and Paul Benedict.

Dick van Dyke has always been an eminently likable, down-to-earth actor, which makes his long career in (mostly) television easy to understand.


  1. I think Cold Turkey is one of the funniest films ever committed to celluloid -- it was certain a favorite of mine in my youth, probably because of the Dick Van Dyke factor, but also because I so strongly identify with the dying small town in the film. But the more I see it, the more I appreciate the other actors in it -- certainly Bob Newhart, who is pitch-perfect throughout as the weaselly P.R. man ("Big clocks are never wrong!") and his Newhart co-star Tom Poston as the town drunk who spends a month at his summer place so he doesn't have to take the no-smoking pledge (his confrontation with DVD makes me teary-eyed with laughter: "I don't believe you'd hit me...well, I believe it a little bit...") Cold Turkey is also the movie that introduced me to Randy Newman, who had one of his best scores ("He Gives Us All His Love") before he went Disney. Thanks for participating in the blogathon, Rich!

  2. I think I may have to rediscover Bob Newhart. I remember watching his 80s TV show, but I'm sure I was way too young to get most of the humor. He's got an edge in this film that I never noticed before.

  3. Bob Newhart, like Dick Van Dyke himself, is so much more than the quiet character he plays on TV. He has the best slow burn since Edgar Kennedy and plays the part of the Small Angry Man to perfection. This and the peter Ustinov film Hot Millions are easily his finest works, with the more recent film In and Out coming a surprising third.

    My review of Cold Turkey from The Wife's blog -

  4. Thanks. I'll have to find that movie 'Hot Millions' one day.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.