Why do tough guys chew toothpicks?

There’s a great moment in Hot Fuzz where Angel returns to town ready to kick butt. The ultimate signal of his Bad Boys-shit-just-got-real attitude is that he now has a toothpick sticking out of his mouth.

TV Tropes provides some examples of tough or cool guys chewing on toothpicks in movies and TV, both serious and comedic. Their list, however, misses one of the most obvious examples – Stallone gnaws on a toothpick in Cobra, a character trait featured prominently in the posters.

I thought maybe the toothpick thing came about when movie studios started to shy away from showing their characters smoking. But, a cursory googling suggests the device was used in 50’s era noir films, when there wasn’t much objection to showing people puffing away.

So, for discussion: when and why did choming on a toothpick come to be associated with either tough guys (like Chow-Yun Fat’s characters in some John Woo movies [according to TV Tropes – I haven’t seen them]) or with cool guys (like Fonzie)?

The toothpicks used to be tree stumps. These guys are soooo tough they’ve chewed them down to the size of a toothpick.

Back in the 50’s people smoked to Calm Their Nerves, and chewing on a toothpick is the opposite of that, together with the implication of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Makes for the representation of a *mean *badass.

Add it! TV Tropes is a Wiki, after all. :slight_smile:

Because they are trying to break the lollipop habit.

Because they’re all out of bubblegum?

I kind of like that explanation. He’s so cool and tough he doesn’t need no damned cigarette to calm his nerves. He likes being on edge. Maybe so.

Anybody have any insight on the earliest arrival of the toothpick muncher in our cultural consciousness? Or other ideas about why he showed up?

Toothpick Charlie was a spoof’d character in the move *Some Like it Hot *(1959), so I think we’ll need to look earlier than that.
I wsh **Eve **was still posting. Maybe **Stranger on a Train **has the answer.

Here’s a clip of toothpick-chomping Boris Karloff playing Gruesome in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)

Toothpick chewing was popular in Westerns; I seem to remember John Wayne picking his teeth through The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance, and I doubt he was the first. In many noir films, it was a matchstick instead of a toothpick (see Double Indemnity). I can’t say where the meme started, but it definitely predates any kind of anti-smoking campaign in cinema.


Plenty of guys chew toothpicks in real life. Why wouldn’t they do it in the movies too?

What’s it to you, bub?

Ain’t nothing scarier than Lee Marvin on your ass, gnawing a toothpick…

Teats and Cleats.

Only *straight *guys chew on toothpicks. Obviously a sublimation.

I know I do it to satisfy my oral fixation. In fact, anything around me is liable to be chewed on. You have been warned.

Oh, and Cobra chewed on an unlit match, not a toothpick.

Because, like Lucky Luke, they’re not allowed to smoke in public any more. In the case of pre-anti-smoking-laws badasses, it’s because their tiny little Italian wife has decreed that Thou Shalt Not Smoke That Filth In MY House.

Sure. I chew them all the time. But I’m a weenie. In the movies, weenies don’t chew them, only badasses.

Did Neff chew on a matchstick? I don’t remember that. I remember him always lighting Keyes’ smokes, but I didn’t remember him chewing anything.

Yeah, I thought maybe it was a match in that one, but I couldn’t remember, and I couldn’t tell from the pictures I saw.

Here is an interesting article in Slate giving a brief history of the toothpick. The article claims that the inventor of the mass-produced toothpick got restaurants to provide them to their customers, beginning in the 1870’s.

So, I can see the assocition with contentment and money being an easy fit with movie mobsters having no visible means of support, and then filtering down to tough guys in general. Maybe by the movie era, chewing on a toothpick had become sort of gauche, something which the well-to-do and classy folks no longer did, but which the tacky gangsters and their admirers still indulged in. I’m just talking out of my ass, of course. I think The Devil’s Grandmother has the earliest spotting so far, at 1947. Maybe something from the silent or early talkie era will turn up.

My Dad is an old badass from way back and he almost always has a toothpick in his mouth. I am pretty certain it’s just to help keep his teeth clean, but it might also be a cigaratte place holder. He has this trick he does if he’s going to give a smooch to one of his grandsons where he turns the toothpick backwards in his mouth. It looks painful and kind of gross, actually.

In books or movies, there’s nothing that can quite convey the exact emotion of taking something out of your mouth that you WERE concentrating on in order to more effectively kick someones butt. Whether it’s a cigarette you were smoking, a toothpick you were chewing or a girl you were kissing.

As a prop, a tootpick can be very good, because it is small enough not to block the actor’s face but does give him a chance to slowly build a negative reaction (a good touch for a tough guy) or for that matter just give him something to react silently with. Smokes can do this, but theaters are not friends of burning things.