North Dallas Forty

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North Dallas Forty
Theatrical release poster by Morgan Kane
Directed byTed Kotcheff
Screenplay byPeter Gent
Ted Kotcheff
Frank Yablans
Based onNorth Dallas Forty
by Peter Gent
Produced byFrank Yablans
StarringNick Nolte
Mac Davis
Charles Durning
Dayle Haddon
Bo Svenson
John Matuszak
Steve Forrest
G.D. Spradlin
Dabney Coleman
Savannah Smith Boucher
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited byJay Kamen
Music byJohn Scott
Regina Associates
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • August 1, 1979 (1979-08-01) (New York)
  • August 3, 1979 (1979-08-03) (Los Angeles)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$26.1 million[2]

North Dallas Forty is a 1979 American sports film starring Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, and G. D. Spradlin set in the decadent world of American professional football in the late 1970s. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff and based on the best-selling 1973 novel by Peter Gent. The screenplay was by Kotcheff, Gent, Frank Yablans, and Nancy Dowd (uncredited). This was the first film role for Davis, a popular country music recording artist.


In the late-1970s, Phil Elliott plays wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls professional football team, based in Dallas, Texas, which closely resembles the Dallas Cowboys.[3][4]

Although considered to possess "the best hands in the game", the aging Elliott has been benched and relies heavily on painkillers. Elliott and popular quarterback Seth Maxwell are outstanding players, but they characterize the drug-, sex-, and alcohol-fueled party atmosphere of that era. Elliott wants only to play the game, retire, and live on a horse farm with his girlfriend Charlotte, an aspiring writer who appears to be financially independent due to a trust fund from her wealthy family and who has no interest whatsoever in football.

The Bulls play for iconic Coach Strother, who turns a blind eye to anything that his players may be doing off the field or anything that his assistant coaches and trainers condone to keep those players in the game. The coach is focused on player "tendencies", a quantitative measurement of their performance, and seems less concerned about the human aspect of the game and the players. One player, Shaddock, finally erupts to assistant Coach Johnson: "Every time I call it a 'game', you call it a 'business'. And every time I call it a 'business', you call it a 'game'." The coaches manipulate Elliott to convince a younger, injured rookie on the team to start using painkillers.

Elliott's nonconformist attitude incurs the coach's wrath more than once, and at one point, the coach informs Elliott that his continuing attitude could affect his future career with the Bulls. In the final game of the season, Elliott catches a touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to get North Dallas to within one point of division rival Chicago, but the Bulls lose the game due to a mishandled snap on the extra point attempt. In a meeting with the team owners and Coach Strother, Elliott learns that a Dallas detective has been hired by the Bulls to follow him. They reveal proof of his marijuana use and a sexual relationship with a woman named Joanne, who intends to marry team executive Emmett Hunter, the brother of owner Conrad Hunter. It is loosely implied that Emmett might be gay, and it is why she went to Elliott for her sexual needs. Although the detective witnessed quarterback Seth Maxwell engaging in similar behavior, he pretends not to have recognized him. They tell Elliott that he is to be suspended without pay pending a league hearing, and Elliott, convinced that the entire investigation is merely a pretext to allow the team to save money on his contract, quits the team, telling the Hunter brothers that he does not need their money that bad.

As he is leaving the team's headquarters in downtown Dallas, Elliott runs into Maxwell, who seems to have been waiting for him. Elliott informs him that he quit, prompting Maxwell to ask if his name came up in the meeting. Elliott deduces that Maxwell knew about the investigation the entire time. As Elliott walks away, Maxwell briefly reminisces about their time together on and off the football field. Maxwell prompts Elliott to turn around and throws a football to him, but Elliott lets it hit him in the chest and fall incomplete as he shrugs and throws his arms out to his sides, signifying that he truly is done with the game.

Behind the scenes[edit]

Part drama, comedy, and satire, North Dallas Forty is widely considered a classic sports film, giving insights into the lives of professional athletes.[5]

Based on the semiautobiographical novel by Peter Gent, a Cowboys wide receiver in the late 1960s, the film's characters closely resemble team members of that era, with Seth Maxwell often compared to quarterback Don Meredith, B.A. Strother to Tom Landry, and Elliott to Gent. Of the story, Meredith said, "If I'd known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more."[6]



Critical reception[edit]

The film opened to good reviews, some critics calling it the best film Ted Kotcheff made behind Fun with Dick and Jane and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote "The central friendship in the movie, beautifully delineated, is the one between Mr. Nolte and Mac Davis, who expertly plays the team's quarterback, a man whose calculating nature and complacency make him all the more likable, somehow."[7] Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote "North Dallas Forty retains enough of the original novel's authenticity to deliver strong, if brutish, entertainment".[8] Newsweek magazine's David Ansen wrote "The writers – Kotcheff, Gent and producer Frank Yablans – are nonetheless to be congratulated for allowing their story to live through its characters, abjuring Rocky-like fantasy configurations for the harder realities of the game. North Dallas Forty isn't subtle or finely tuned, but like a crunching downfield tackle, it leaves its mark."[9]

However, in his review for The Globe and Mail, Rick Groen wrote "North Dallas Forty descends into farce and into the lone man versus the corrupt system mentality deprives it of real resonance. It's still not the honest portrait of professional athletics that sport buffs have been waiting for."[10] Sports Illustrated magazine's Frank Deford wrote "If North Dallas Forty is reasonably accurate, the pro game is a gruesome human abattoir, worse even than previously imagined. Much of the strength of this impression can be attributed to Nick Nolte...Unfortunately, Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, is often fuzzily drawn, which makes the actor's accomplishment all the more impressive."[11] In his review for The Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote "Charlotte, who seemed a creature of rhetorical fancy in the novel, still remains a trifle remote and unassimilated. Dayle Haddon may also be a little too prim and standoffish to achieve a satisfying romantic chemistry with Nolte: Somehow, the temperaments don't mesh."[12]

As of September 2023, North Dallas Forty holds a rating of 84% based on 25 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The site's critical consensus states: "Muddled overall, but perceptive and brutally realistic, North Dallas Forty also benefits from strong performances by Nick Nolte and Charles Durning. Football fans will likely find it fascinating."[13]

Box office[edit]

The film grossed $2,787,489 in its opening weekend.[14][1] The following weekend saw the weekend gross increase to $2,906,268.[14] After 32 days from 654 theatres, it had grossed $19,010,710[14] and went on to gross $26,079,312 in the United States and Canada.[2]

NFL Reaction[edit]

The NFL didn't take kindly to those who participated in the making of North Dallas Forty. Hall of Famer Tom Fears, who advised on the movie's football action, had scouting contracts with three NFL teams – all were canceled after the film opened, reported Jane Leavy and Tony Kornheiser in a September 6, 1979, Washington Post article. And the Raiders severed ties with Fred Biletnikoff, who coached Nolte. "Freddy was not even asked back to camp," writes Gent. Tommy Reamon, who played Delma, was cut by the 49ers after the film came out, and said he had been "blackballed".[15]

Differences from the novel[edit]

The novel highlights the relationship between the violent world of professional football with the violence inherent in the social structures and cultural mores of late 1960s American life, using a simulacrum of America's Team and the most popular sport in the United States as the metaphorical central focus. Recurring scenes of television and radio news reporting violent crimes, war and environmental destruction are scattered throughout various scenes, but left out in the same scenes recreated in the movie. Throughout the novel there is more graphic sex and violence, as well as drug and alcohol abuse without the comic overtones of the film; for instance, the harassment of an unwilling girl at a party that is played for laughs in the movie is a brutal near-rape at an orgy in the novel.

At the end of the novel, there is a shocking twist ending in which Phil returns to Charlotte to tell her he has left football and to presumably continue his relationship with her on her ranch, but finds that she and a black friend (David Clarke, who is not in the movie) have been regular lovers, unknown to Phil, and that they have been violently murdered. The murderer is Charlotte's ex-boyfriend and football groupie Bob Boudreau (who is also not in the movie); Boudreau has been stalking her throughout the novel. In the novel, Charlotte was a widow whose husband was an Army officer who had been killed in Vietnam; Charlotte had told Phil that her husband had decided to resign his commission, but had been killed in action while the request was being processed.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b North Dallas Forty at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b "North Dallas Forty, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 10, 2020.
  3. ^ "Television & Film Helmets". Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  4. ^ "Movie/TV helmets". Archived from the original on 14 July 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  5. ^ "- Trailer - Showtimes - Cast - Movies - New York Times". Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  6. ^ D Magazine (Dallas Magazine), "The 35 Biggest Pop Culture Moments in Modern Dallas History," January, 2010.
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet (August 1, 1979). "Dallas Forty: Cynicism and Comedy". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-02-23.
  8. ^ Schickel, Richard (September 3, 1979). "Strong Medicine". Time. Archived from the original on September 1, 2010. Retrieved 2011-02-23.
  9. ^ Ansen, David (August 6, 1979). "A Locker Room with Soul". Newsweek.
  10. ^ Groen, Rick (August 4, 1979). "Dallas fumbles cost film points". The Globe and Mail.
  11. ^ Deford, Frank (August 27, 1979). "Good Flick On Bad Doings In The Pros". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2011-02-23.
  12. ^ Arnold, Gary (August 3, 1979). "A Battered Loner's Life in the Wars". The Washington Post.
  13. ^ "North Dallas Forty". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved September 5, 2023.
  14. ^ a b c "'No. Dallas 40' Hits $19-Mil. in 32 Days". Variety. September 12, 1979. p. 5.
  15. ^ Merron, Jeff (November 1, 2002). "Reel Life: 'North Dallas Forty'". Retrieved September 5, 2023.
  16. ^ Oriard, Michael (October 10, 2011). "The Impact And The Darkness: The Lasting Effect Of Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty". Deadspin. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
  17. ^ "North Dallas Forty (1979)". Retrieved 29 December 2017 – via

External links[edit]