34-year-old firefighter Terry Lynch (Robert Urich) lives with his 20-year old brother Jimmy (Timothy Hutton) in New York City. They’ve spent most of their lives taking care of each other as both of their parents are deceased. Terry, while off duty, rushes from a neighborhood bar into an apartment fire to rescue a young girl, when firefighters inadvertently aim the fire hose at him. The force of the stream pushes Terry, with the child in his arms, through a window and some 40 feet down, landing flat on his back on the roof of a parked car. The girl is uninjured, but Terry is seriously hurt.
Six months later, and after countless rejections from welfare, workers’ compensation and many others, Jimmy decides to go to City Hall with the letters to show to Mayor Tyler (Robert Culp). But when the mayor himself rebukes him, calling Terry a drunk, Jimmy promptly sneaks into the mayor’s office and pastes the letters all over the walls of the mayor’s office while security is diverted by a fire set in a nearby office bathroom.
Believing Terry was behind the vandalism (Terry’s name was on all the letters), the police, led by Lieutenant Ryan (Peter Boyle), a badge-heavy bully and Tyler’s chief security officer, come to Hooly’s, the brothers’ hangout, to arrest Terry. When Terry, drunk and high on prescription pills, takes a swing at Ryan, he roughs Terry up while Jimmy is clubbed by another officer when he tries to help. After posting Terry’s bail at the police station, Jimmy learns that Terry is in Blake Memorial Hospital in a body cast after a suicide attempt. While at the police station, Jimmy meets Danielle “Danny” Boudreau (Kim Cattrall), a social worker assigned to Terry’s case.
Jimmy decides to again visit the mayor, so he goes to Battery Park where the mayor is giving an anti-graffiti speech. He tries to accost the mayor again, but is pushed away by police. After seeing the mayor unveil a giant apple, which slowly revolves to show handiwork by vandals saying “Zimmerman Flew, Tyler Knew”, all to the delight of protesters at the speech, Jimmy is inspired to start a campaign of his own.
Tom Zimmerman, former public works commissioner, had fled the country to avoid trial for an unspecified crime. The Daily News ran a story implying that Mayor Tyler not only knew of Zimmerman’s fleeing, but masterminded it, referring to Tyler’s ordering Zimmerman’s trial to be rescheduled for after the election; Tyler denies all knowledge and responsibility. Armed with this knowledge, Jimmy begins his war of wits and words by, among other things:
- Leaving his mark on a supposedly graffiti-proof subway car to be used by Mayor Tyler in an anti-vandalism campaign.
- Surreptitiously exchanging an airplane banner ad for one that says “Tyler Knew! Turk 182!”
- Hacking into a scoreboard computer (with the help of a friend) at Giants Stadium during halftime of a football game at which Mayor Tyler (and New York’s governor) make an appearance.
Jimmy’s resolve to embarrass Mayor Tyler broadens to the point where he begins leaving his mark in numerous places, all the while capturing the imagination of the entire city’s population, most of whom revere Turk as a hero. But Jimmy soon develops an ulterior motive for his actions: impressing Danny. When Jimmy and Danny return to his apartment from the Giants game, Jimmy decides to go back out for pizza. In the meantime, Danny does some exploring in Jimmy and Terry’s apartment, looking through photo albums in the brothers’ keepsake trunk. She comes across an award for Terry with a nameplate engraved with Terry’s nickname, “Turk”. When Danny finds Terry’s fireman’s cap with badge number 182 on it, she quickly makes the connection, and her friendship with Jimmy soon becomes much, much closer.
Police Detective Kowalski (Darren McGavin) opens up a case file on “Turk 182”, and Jimmy, with help from Danny, pleads guilty to papering the Mayor’s office and gets off with just a nominal fine. Jimmy and Danny then go visit Terry in the hospital, who subliminally tells Jimmy that he’s going to attempt to kill himself again once he is cut out of his body cast.
After spotting Kowalski and Ryan waiting outside his apartment, Jimmy decides to go to the Daily News and reveal his identity of Turk. When he and Danny arrive at the Daily News offices they find themselves waiting in line behind several other colorful characters all claiming to be Turk. Just as Jimmy is about to leave in exasperation he is intercepted by a TV reporter who suggests that Jimmy, if he really is Turk, allow himself to be interviewed on camera. The TV station later broadcasts that Terry is Turk 182, describing him as a disgruntled civil servant seeking a pension. Angered that his taped interview was not aired, and that he’s being made out to be a nut case, Jimmy decides to put Turk to rest once and for all, but he tells no one, not even Danny, what his final act will be.
Jimmy decides to go all out, making his final appearance as Turk when Mayor Tyler appears at a dedication for the 75th anniversary of the Queensboro Bridge. Lieutenant Ryan, his job now on the line after the football stadium debacle, clamps down security on and around the bridge in preparation of the ceremony. With all local media on hand, the mayor throws the switch lighting up the bridge sign. The lettering, which is supposed to say “Queensboro 1909 1984”, instead reads gibberish; Jimmy, disguised in an electrical worker’s uniform with safety harness, is up on the sign changing the words.
All hell breaks loose when spotlights catch Jimmy on the bridge sign, and the crowd begins to get excited at Turk’s presence, chanting “Turk! Turk! Turk!” much to Mayor Tyler’s mortification. All TV stations interrupt regular programming to cover the incident live. Despite a SWAT team on its way, Ryan dispatches all police to climb up in the rigging to catch and arrest Jimmy, but they cannot reach him; Jimmy greased all the lower girders on the bridge.
At the hospital, Danny and Detective Kowalski are with Terry when a group of patients come clamoring in with a television tuned to a station showing Jimmy on the bridge. The station then shows Jimmy’s interview at the Daily News. Now focusing on his brother’s safety rather than his own troubles, Terry gets up on his crutches and, with Danny and Kowalski in tow, goes to the Queensboro Bridge to get Jimmy down. Mayor Tyler catches a part of Jimmy’s interview as well. Seeing that it was “that kid”, Tyler can only turn away from the TV set in total defeat.
Still frustrated in efforts to stop Jimmy, an undaunted Lieutenant Ryan goes to the bridge power source and orders the sign turned off. But when the bridge foreman, citing union and safety issues, refuses to comply, Ryan draws his gun and opens fire on the controls, knocking the power off. After Ryan leaves, the foreman turns on the auxiliary power. Determined to get Jimmy one way or another, Ryan climbs aboard a high-rise forklift and, when in range, starts shooting at Jimmy himself. Kowalski, having arrived with Danny and Terry moments earlier, goes up to the forklift and disables the hydraulics, knocking Ryan unconscious. Jimmy, now unhindered, completes his task, and connects the power cable to the 25-foot-high letters which now read “TURK 182”, all to the wild cheering of the crowd and the TV audiences.
Amid the cheering, Mayor Tyler says to Deputy Mayor Hanley, “As soon as he (Jimmy) gets down we’re gonna find him and tell him we’ve been rooting for him the whole time!”