The Onion Field (1979)

R | 126 mins | Drama | 19 September 1979

Director:

Harold Becker

Writer:

Joseph Wambaugh

Producer:

Walter Coblenz

Cinematographer:

Charles Rosher

Editor:

Thomas Stanford

Production Designer:

Brian Eatwell

Production Company:

Black Marble Productions, Inc.
Full page view
HISTORY

The film begins with the statement: “This is a true story.” End credits include the following information: “Various scenes filmed at Boskovich Farms, Valencia, California.”
       On 14 May 1973, Publishers Weekly announced that Columbia Pictures paid $300,000 for the screen rights to The Onion Field, the 1973 first non-fiction book by best-selling novelist and former policeman, Joseph Wambaugh. According to a 13 Jun 1973 HR item, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff were signed as producers. The project, however, became stalled at Columbia, and Wambaugh wanted to reacquire the rights, as explained in articles from the 25 Apr 1979 Var and the 24 Sep 1979 NYT. When the studio refused, the author filed a $3.2 million lawsuit, which was later withdrawn after an agreement about the rights was reached in May 1978. Dissatisfied with the previous adaptations of his books, particularly The Choirboys (1977, see entry), Wambaugh was determined to supervise The Onion Field as an independent production outside of the influence of studios and maintain the story’s authenticity on screen.
       The picture marked Wambaugh’s first credited feature film script. Although he did write the adaptation for The Choirboys, the author requested that his screenplay credit be removed in protest over the heavily altered shooting script. As stated in a 12 Sep 1978 HR article, The Onion Field also represented Wambaugh’s first experience as a filmmaker. He launched the company Black Marble Productions, Inc., and, in collaboration with his wife Dee, raised the funds to cover the $2.6 million budget. ... More Less

The film begins with the statement: “This is a true story.” End credits include the following information: “Various scenes filmed at Boskovich Farms, Valencia, California.”
       On 14 May 1973, Publishers Weekly announced that Columbia Pictures paid $300,000 for the screen rights to The Onion Field, the 1973 first non-fiction book by best-selling novelist and former policeman, Joseph Wambaugh. According to a 13 Jun 1973 HR item, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff were signed as producers. The project, however, became stalled at Columbia, and Wambaugh wanted to reacquire the rights, as explained in articles from the 25 Apr 1979 Var and the 24 Sep 1979 NYT. When the studio refused, the author filed a $3.2 million lawsuit, which was later withdrawn after an agreement about the rights was reached in May 1978. Dissatisfied with the previous adaptations of his books, particularly The Choirboys (1977, see entry), Wambaugh was determined to supervise The Onion Field as an independent production outside of the influence of studios and maintain the story’s authenticity on screen.
       The picture marked Wambaugh’s first credited feature film script. Although he did write the adaptation for The Choirboys, the author requested that his screenplay credit be removed in protest over the heavily altered shooting script. As stated in a 12 Sep 1978 HR article, The Onion Field also represented Wambaugh’s first experience as a filmmaker. He launched the company Black Marble Productions, Inc., and, in collaboration with his wife Dee, raised the funds to cover the $2.6 million budget. Wambaugh received financing from about thirty investors, many of whom were friends, and contributed $750,000 of his own money, according to the 25 Apr 1979 Var article. Although the author assumed the responsibilities of a producer, closely supervising several aspects of the production and the budget, he was only interested in receiving a “screenplay by” credit.
       Actor James Woods stated in a 9 Oct 1979 NYT article that he was not Wambaugh’s first choice to play “Gregory Powell,” but his audition convinced director Harold Becker and Dee Wambaugh that he was right for the part. Franklyn Seales and Ted Danson made their feature film debuts in the roles of “Jimmy ‘Youngblood’ Smith” and “Ian Campbell,” respectively. In a 19 Apr 1979 LAT article, Wambaugh revealed that the production employed over 300 police officers to appear in the film at a salary of $11 an hour, and many of the inmates in the San Quentin death row scene were played by the writer’s former colleagues from the force.
       An 18 Dec 1978 Box brief reported that principal photography started 28 Nov 1978 in Los Angeles, CA. According to a 30 Dec 1978 LAT article, filming was scheduled for thirty-nine days. The production planned to use a rural setting near Saugus, CA, to shoot the onion field execution, while the scene of the policemen being kidnapped was filmed at the intersection of Carlos and Gower streets in Hollywood, CA, which is the actual location where the incident took place, now known as Ian Campbell Square in honor of the fallen officer. A 30 Apr 1979 Look magazine article mentioned that a jail in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights represented the death row cellblock. As noted in a 17 Jan 1979 HR item, soundstage work took place at Hollywood General Studios.
       A 15 Nov 1979 DV brief reported that the film’s domestic box-office had neared the $8 million mark since its 19 Sep 1979 opening in New York. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
18 Dec 1978.
---
Daily Variety
12 Dec 1978.
---
Daily Variety
15 Nov 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
13 Jun 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Sep 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Jan 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
2 Oct 1979
pp. 3-4.
Look
30 Apr 1979
pp. 29-31.
Los Angeles Times
30 Dec 1978
Section B, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times
19 Apr 1979
Section H, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times
28 Sep 1979
p. 1.
New York Times
19 Sep 1979
p. 25.
New York Times
24 Sep 1979
Section C, p. 14.
New York Times
9 Oct 1979
Section C, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly
14 May 1973.
---
Variety
25 Apr 1979.
---
Variety
23 May 1979
p. 23.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
And
As Sgt. Pierce Brooks
Special Appearance by
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
An Avco Embassy Film
An Avco Embassy Pictures Release
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Gaffer
Best boy
Key grip
Dolly grip
Still man
Elec
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set des
Leadman
Swing man
Prop master
Asst prop master
Const coord
Const foreman
COSTUMES
Costumer
Costumer
Cost des
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Cableman
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Titles and opticals by
Asst spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Asst to prod
Asst to dir
Scr supv
Transportation capt
Prod asst
Prod asst
Casting assoc
Casting assoc
Atmosphere provided by
Courtroom tech adv
Courtroom tech adv
Police tech adv
Prod supv
Driver
Driver
Craft service
Extra casting
Extra casting
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh (New York, 1973).
DETAILS
Release Date:
19 September 1979
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 19 September 1979
Los Angeles opening: 28 September 1979
Production Date:
began 28 November 1978 in Los Angeles, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Black Marble Productions, Inc.
Copyright Date:
6 March 1980
Copyright Number:
PA61239
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses/Prints
Lenses and Panaflex cameras by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
126
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

In 1963 Los Angeles, California, police officer Karl Hettinger transfers to the felony squad and finds his new partner, Ian Campbell, practicing the bagpipes in the precinct basement. While on patrol, the two officers get to know each other and discover a common background as college dropouts and Marines. Elsewhere in the city, Jimmy “Youngblood” Smith is paroled after five years in prison for burglary. An acquaintance named Billy introduces him to Gregory Powell, a brash and charismatic ex-convict who invites Smith to participate in his moneymaking schemes. Although leery of getting involved with the miscreant, who has a volatile temper, Smith needs money and agrees to be the driver for a holdup at a liquor store, where Powell steals $300. Afterwards, Powell shuns the alcoholic Billy in favor of Smith, a youthful and more reliable partner in crime. During a gambling trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, with Smith, Powell purchases a new car and guns. Staying at motel in Bakersfield, California, Powell suddenly decides that he and Smith must return to Los Angeles for another heist. Smith is reluctant, but feels too intimidated by Powell to defy him. Back in the city, Powell makes a U-turn on a side street. Officers Ian and Karl notice the suspicious-looking duo, who are dressed in matching black leather jackets and hats, and decide to pull them over on a probable cause of no brake lights. When Ian approaches the vehicle and tells Powell to step out of the car, Powell pulls a gun on the officer. Threatening to shoot Ian, Powell forces Karl to surrender his pistol, then ... +


In 1963 Los Angeles, California, police officer Karl Hettinger transfers to the felony squad and finds his new partner, Ian Campbell, practicing the bagpipes in the precinct basement. While on patrol, the two officers get to know each other and discover a common background as college dropouts and Marines. Elsewhere in the city, Jimmy “Youngblood” Smith is paroled after five years in prison for burglary. An acquaintance named Billy introduces him to Gregory Powell, a brash and charismatic ex-convict who invites Smith to participate in his moneymaking schemes. Although leery of getting involved with the miscreant, who has a volatile temper, Smith needs money and agrees to be the driver for a holdup at a liquor store, where Powell steals $300. Afterwards, Powell shuns the alcoholic Billy in favor of Smith, a youthful and more reliable partner in crime. During a gambling trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, with Smith, Powell purchases a new car and guns. Staying at motel in Bakersfield, California, Powell suddenly decides that he and Smith must return to Los Angeles for another heist. Smith is reluctant, but feels too intimidated by Powell to defy him. Back in the city, Powell makes a U-turn on a side street. Officers Ian and Karl notice the suspicious-looking duo, who are dressed in matching black leather jackets and hats, and decide to pull them over on a probable cause of no brake lights. When Ian approaches the vehicle and tells Powell to step out of the car, Powell pulls a gun on the officer. Threatening to shoot Ian, Powell forces Karl to surrender his pistol, then orders the two policemen to get into his car. At gunpoint, Ian is instructed to drive toward Bakersfield, California, as Karl lies in the back seat. Meanwhile, Smith becomes a willing accomplice in the kidnapping. Along the way, Powell indicates that he is going to drop the officers on a side road. Outside Bakersfield, Powell orders Ian to turn off the highway and stop the car along a deserted, dirt road that crosses an onion field. As Ian and Karl get out of the vehicle, Powell mentions a change of plans and asks the officers about the “Little Lindbergh Law,” then, without warning, shoots Ian in the face. While four more shots are fired into his fallen partner, Karl flees. Powell tries to gun Karl down, but the policeman escapes into the darkened field. Running several miles, Karl reaches a farmhouse and summons help. Later that evening, he leads police to the crime scene, where they find Ian’s dead body in a ditch. In the meantime, the two criminals have split up searching for Karl, and Smith uses the opportunity to break free from his manipulative partner and drive away, leaving Powell stranded in the field. Despite an attempt to evade capture by stealing another car, Powell is pulled over by police along the highway and apprehended. During the interrogation, Powell tells Sergeant Pierce Brooks, the lead Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) investigator, that Smith murdered the officer and provides clues about his accomplice’s whereabouts. When Smith is arrested in Bakersfield, he screams that he is a thief, not a killer. Meanwhile, Karl attends Ian’s funeral and watches his partner’s grieving mother and wife, during a bagpipe salute. Back at the precinct, Karl’s supervising officer asks him to speak at roll call and explain to colleagues what actions he wished he had done differently that might have saved Ian’s life. In the wake of the incident, the LAPD increases officer training in regards to approaching vehicles and suspects. During one session, a veteran of the force defends Karl’s judgment. The LAPD captain, however, overhears the comment and declares that any policeman who surrenders his gun to a criminal is “a coward.” Powell eventually confesses that he shot Ian in the face, but claims Smith fired the last four shots into the dying officer, which Smith denies. Since Karl was busy fleeing, he is unable to verify who was responsible. While questioning Powell, Brooks raises the issue of the “Little Lindbergh Law.” Powell believes the law stipulates that any kidnapping is a capital offense and, therefore, by killing the officers he had nothing to lose. Brooks, however, corrects him that the law applies to kidnapping with ransom. Until the shooting, Powell and Smith had not committed a capital offense. During the trial, Powell acts as his own attorney and is found guilty of shooting Ian first, while Smith is charged with firing the last four shots. The two criminals are sentenced to the death penalty and incarcerated at San Quentin Prison. Sometime later, Karl is transferred to the detective bureau and his wife, Helen, gives birth to their first child, but he is still tormented by the incident and has reccurring headaches. While tracking a thief at a department store, Karl steals a watch and continues to shoplift until he is caught one day and forced to resign from the police force. Meanwhile, the onion field case continues to drag on for several years, and Powell and Smith are eventually granted a retrial. Karl is asked to testify once again, but he appears muddled during questioning. In a sidebar conference, the prosecutor informs the judge that the former officer’s depression and kleptomania have been diagnosed as a manifestation of his overwhelming guilt about the incident. Powell and Smith’s sentences are eventually reduced to life imprisonment. After relying on his wife to support the family and struggling with suicidal thoughts, Karl starts his own landscaping business and is later offered a management job at a commercial nursery. Although the company is located near the onion field in Bakersfield, Karl tells his wife that the work is a promising opportunity. In the meantime, Powell and Smith await parole dates in 1982. After moving, Karl finally begins to find happiness again and tells Helen that he coincidently heard bagpipes on the radio the last time he passed by the onion field. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

TOP SEARCHES

CASABLANCA

During World War II, Casablanca, Morocco is a waiting point for throngs of desperate refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Exit visas, which are necessary to leave the country, are at ... >>

CITIZEN KANE

Seventy-year-old newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies in his palatial Florida home, Xanadu, after uttering the single word “Rosebud.” While watching a newsreel summarizing the years during which Kane ... >>

REAR WINDOW

Laid up with a broken leg during the height of summer, renowned New York magazine photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries enters his last week of home confinement, bored and ... >>

RAGING BULL

In 1941, at a boxing match in Cleveland, Ohio, pandemonium breaks out when Jake La Motta, an up-and-coming young boxer, loses a decision to Jimmy Reeves, suffering his first ... >>

CITY LIGHTS

At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into ... >>

The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.