‘The Onion Field’ film played role in keeping killer behind bars


Hollywood tackled the 1963 kidnap and killing of Los Angeles police officer Ian James Campbell in the 1979 film “The Onion Field.” But the film ended up playing a role in ensuring that one of the two convicted killers, Gregory Ulas Powell, stayed behind bars until his death Sunday at age 79.

In “The Onion Field,” Powell was portrayed by actor James Woods. In 1982, Powell and accomplice Jimmy Lee Smith were scheduled to be paroled, but only Smith got out. Powell’s parole was revoked after a public outcry spurred in part by a television broadcast of the movie.

The film was based on the 1973 book “The Onion Field,” by Joseph Wambaugh, a former L.A. police detective. The movie was directed by Harold Becker and received wide acclaim, and is worth a second look for the cast alone.


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A young Ted Danson was cast in his film debut as Campbell, a plainclothes L.A. detective who with his partner, Karl Hettinger (John Savage, fresh from his work in 1978’s “The Deer Hunter), stopped a car one night because of broken taillights.

Inside the car was Powell, a mentally troubled ex-con who with his partner, petty-thief Smith (Franklyn Seales, in a strong debut), panicked when they were stopped. They disarmed and kidnapped the cops and took them to a deserted field near Bakersfield. Hettinger managed to escape, but Campbell was slain.

Wambaugh didn’t want “The Onion Field” to go the way of the 1977 movie adaptation of his bestseller “The Choirboys,” in which he was extremely disappointed. So he wrote the script and found a strong collaborator in Becker, who also would direct the 1980 adaptation of Wambaugh’s “The Black Marble.” Wambaugh financed the movie with Becker and others to avoid studio interference.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Onion Field Killer

Wambaugh was a stickler for authenticity in the film, down to using the
actual cars from that fateful evening.

“The Onion Field” was a real breakthrough role for Woods as Powell. He had appeared in such movies as 1973’s “The Way We Were,” the ill-fated “The Choirboys” and the 1978 miniseries “Holocaust.”


Powell, though, was his meatiest role to date. Woods earned a Golden Globe nomination and came in third in the voting for supporting actor by the New York Film Critics Circle.

You can check out a clip via Turner Classic Movies.


Gregory Powell, one of the “Onion Field” killers, dies at 79

James Woods - Hollywood Star Walk - Los Angeles Times