It seems like the making of Cool Hand Luke was just as fascinating as the actual movie. Join us as we explore some of the most intriguing details about this Paul Newman classic.
Written By An Ex-Con
The novel that Cool Hand Luke was adapted from was actually written by an ex-con! Former Merchant Marine Donn Pearce was put in prison for counterfeiting money. He ended up escaping and fleeing to the U.S. He heard a story about a man called Luke Jackson, who played the banjo and once ate 50 eggs as a bet.
No Women Allowed?
One creative decision that the cast couldn’t get their heads around a first was the following: their wives were not allowed on set! Director Stuart Rosenberg decided to do this in order to make Paul Newman and company feel like they were an actual chain gang. Even Joy Harmon, who played Lucille, the young lady in that classic car wash scene, was not allowed to spend time with the cast. Rosenberg kept her in a hotel before he finally decided to shoot her scene alone.
Joanne Woodward Wasn’t Involved
The fact that Paul Newman’s wife wasn’t allowed on set wasn’t even the most shocking part. Many were simply astounded that the producers didn’t cast her in any role whatsoever. Joanne Woodward was right up there with the very best actresses in Hollywood, making her and Newman one of the greatest power couples in the history of Hollywood. Not only did she star in 10 movies alongside her husband, but Newman also directed five movies with her as the lead.
Newman Swallowed Zero Eggs
There is no doubt that Paul Newman’s egg-eating scene is one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, let alone Cool Hand Luke. Luke may have eaten 50 eggs, but Newman certainly didn’t. “I never swallowed an egg,” the actor said. Co-star George Kennedy shed some more light on the scene in his memoir, writing that Newman actually “consumed” more than half a dozen eggs. He would simply throw up the eggs as soon as the director shouted “cut.”
Bette Davis Was Nearly Luke’s Mom
Despite being just 11 years older than Paul Newman, it was Academy Award winner Jo Van Fleet from East of Eden who ultimately won the role of Luke’s mother, Arletta. However, it is reported that someone even more famous was lined up for the one-scene role – Bette Davis. Logistically speaking, it probably would have made more sense had the experienced actress played the mother of Newman’s character. This is because she was 17 years older than him.
They Didn’t Replace The Meters!
Everyone who has watched Cool Hand Luke knows that the reason he ends up behind bars in the first place is that he vandalized a bunch of parking meters. However, what many don’t realize is that Paul Newman was actually filmed knocking the heads off real meters in a real-life location – Lodi, California, to be precise. Furthermore, the city council didn’t do anything about it. The metal poles stood without meter heads for many years.
Three-Day Boxing Match
One thing was for sure; Cool Hand Luke was full of classic scenes. One of them saw Luke and his nemesis Dragline come face to face in an epic boxing match. Despite the end result looking great on screen, it took the actors and crew three long grueling days to shoot the fight perfectly. A combination of the hard-hitting sun, flying punches and both actors falling to the ground was enough to make them completely exhausted by the end of it.
Donn Pearce Hated The Movie
Despite having a huge hand in the screenplay for Cool Hand Luke, author Donn Pearce hated the final cut of the movie. “I seem to be the only guy in the United States who doesn’t like the movie,” he said. “Everyone had a whack at it. They screwed it up ninety-nine different ways.” Even though Paul Newman received much acclaim (including a nomination for Best Actor) for his role, Pearce didn’t like his performance. “[He] was so cute looking…too scrawny,” he said.
Just One Take
Any educated movie fan knows that every second counts when it comes to filming schedules. So when Paul Newman finally had to shoot a scene with his on-screen mother, played by Jo Van Fleet, they were in a race against the clock to get their scene done. In fact, they only had one day to do it, and had eight pages of dialogue to get through! Nevertheless, the two seasoned actors completed the scene, and with time to spare.
Jack Lemmon Was Nearly Luke
There were a string of talented actors who were also shortlisted for the role of Luke before Paul Newman landed it. One of the most notable people was Jack Lemmon. Seeing that his production company, Jalem Productions, was slated to produce the movie, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that The Apartment star would take the role. Another actor who nearly got the part was Terry Savalas. However, he was in Europe at the time and was scared of flying.
Start Of A Beautiful Friendship
Although Stuart Rosenberg made his directorial debut with Cool Hand Luke, it would prove to be the start of a beautiful friendship between him and actor Paul Newman. The duo would go on to partner up for four other movies during Rosenberg’s career. These included classics such as 1970’s WUSA, 1972’s Pocket Money and 1975’s The Drowning Pool. While all of those movies were well received, they simply aren’t in the same league as Cool Hand Luke.
Real Manual Labor
It seems like everyone who was involved in the making of Cool Hand Luke was happy to get their teeth sunk into the nitty gritties of prison life. The director wanted the cast to do actual hard manual labor to make the experience feel as real as possible. While they easily could have got doubles to perform the hard work, it ended up being Paul Newman and co who actually resurfaced a mile-long road with asphalt themselves.
Donn Needed Help With The Script
Donn Pearce was obviously a talented writer, having penned the original novel Cool Hand Luke. However, when it came to making the transition into screenwriting for the film adaptation, he had his fair share of struggles. As a result, the producers brought in a handful of established screenwriters to give Donn an easier ride. One of the most notable writers they brought in was Frank Pierson, who looked at Donn’s original draft of the script and gave it a rewrite.
One of the underlying themes throughout Cool Hand Luke was Judeo-Christian imagery. For a start, Paul Newman’s character is very much a Christ-like figure who develops a following in prison and is ultimately “sacrificed.” Another example sees Luke eating 50 eggs (also a Christian symbol). Afterward, he lies on the table in exhaustion in a way that resembles a crucifixion. Other religious references see Luke singing the song “Plastic Jesus,” as well as praying to God on numerous occasions.
Why So Serious?
In order to make Morgan Woodward’s character as ominous as possible, Stuart Rosenberg stripped away the majority of his dialogue. Woodward kept in character for the entire shoot, so that the “man with no eyes,” Boss Godfrey, remained an intimidating figure both on and off screen. He always kept his sunglasses on and would never say a word. Woodward was very much prepared for the role after playing “Punk” Anderson in Dallas, as well as appearing on numerous episodes of Gunsmoke.
Blue Eyed Luke
There are many actors who are blessed with blue eyes. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, Bradley Cooper are just a few examples. However, it was Paul Newman who was the original custodian of a pair of beautiful blue eyes. Therefore, the producers were hellbent on making the most of this on the set of Cool Hand Luke. In fact, they criticised cinematographer Conrad Hall for failing to capture them clearly enough. He had to shoot one particular scene four times before the studio was satisfied.
Cool Hand Luke had a star-studded cast, with the likes of Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Jo Van Fleet and Harry Dean Stanton involved. However, there was one well-established performer who appeared in the movie but didn’t even make the credits. Rance Howard had already made a name for himself as a popular TV actor in the 40s before making an appearance alongside Paul Newman as “the Sheriff.” Of course, Rance Howard is the father of actors Ron Howard and Clint Howard and the grandfather of Bryce Dallas Howard.
Another subtle allusion to Christianity can be found in Paul Newman’s character’s prison number – 37. Seeing that his name is Luke, this is reminiscent of Luke 1:37, which is one of the most significant passages in the New Testament. “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” the passage reads, which is what the movie is all about. In fact, Luke 11:37 is also alluded to, in the egg scene: “a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table.”
Paul Newman Couldn’t Play The Banjo
There is no doubt that Paul Newman played the banjo very nicely in the Cool Hand Luke. However, the actor didn’t actually know how to play the instrument before completing his classic “Plastic Jesus” scene. The director decided to postpone filming for a couple of weeks so that Newman could get to grips with the banjo. At this point, Rosenberg still wasn’t convinced, and only filmed the scene a day before the movie was a wrap. Moreover, Harry Dean Stanton taught Newman how to play the song.
“Failure To Communicate”
There are some truly great lines in cinema. “I am your father,” “It’s alive,” and “E.T. phone home” are some that come to mind. However, Cool Hand Luke had a line that is considered to be right up there with the very best: “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” In fact, the line got writer Frank R. Pierson wondering about the entire backstory of the character who said it; Captain, played by Strother Martin. He gave him a background in education.
Although it was possibly one of the most challenging movies that Paul Newman ever worked on, it was also one of his most enjoyable. It is believed that, for the most part, he had a great rapport with cast and crew alike. “I had a great time with that part,” he said. “I liked that man.” That wasn’t all though. Newman loved traveling around the Stockton area during his time off-set, preferably in a convertible or a motorbike.
Signs Of The Times
The producers found a neat, meta way to foreshadow certain things in Cool Hand Luke, primarily by using traffic signs. A great example can be found in the opening scene when Luke is knocking heads off parking meters. Not only does the word “violation” appear on the meters, but you can also faintly see “stop” signs in the background. Also, when Luke finally gets arrested for his crimes, the traffic light goes from green to red.
Dragline Worked Hard For His Oscar
George Kennedy knew that he gave an impressive performance as Dragline. However, he was determined to give himself the best chance when Oscar season came around. In fact, he used $5000 to set up a campaign for an Academy Award nomination, called “George Kennedy-Supporting.” The ad had a photo from Cool Hand Luke of his character carrying Paul Newman. Despite the campaign, Kennedy still got the surprise of his life when he took home Best Supporting Actor.
Prison Set Was So Real
Amazingly, the majority of the movie was shot in Stockton, California, despite the story being set in Florida. The producers realized that it would be a challenge to make a prison complex set that was realistic enough. One way they tried to bring the “prison” to life was by bringing hoards of Spanish Moss from Louisiana, hanging it around the courtyard. They also built dog kennels and warden houses to make it as realistic as possible.
Music Was Used For The News
Not only has Cool Hand Luke had a huge impact on pop culture in general. Its musical score, which was composed by Lalo Schifrin is one of the most iconic in cinematic history. ABC used “Tar Sequence,” the music playing during the manual labor scene, in a lot of their news programs. The sound became synonymous with news TV, despite being originally written for the movie. It’s all about the song’s staccato melody, which resembles that of a telegraph.
Box Office Smash
Although box office numbers are obviously much bigger nowadays, Cool Hand Luke was the blockbuster of its time. With a pretty big budget of $3.2 million, the movie eventually raked in $16.2 million at the box office – a hefty turnover at the time! The rave reviews that the movie received certainly would have peaked moviegoers’ interests. Not only was Paul Newman and George Kennedy heavily praised for their respective roles, but Roger Ebert also gave the flick four out of four stars.
You could rest assured that Paul Newman would always give 110% in every role he was given. In order to make the character of Luke as realistic as possible, Newman knew that he’d need a Virginian accent for the role. Therefore, he got someone to drive him around the state so that he could interact with a variety of locals. Apparently, everyone, except for one nun, knew who Newman was. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Newman, what do you do for a living?” she reportedly said.
Stuart Rosenberg’s Directorial Debut
It’s amazing to think that Stuart Rosenberg had not directed anything before Cool Hand Luke. With zero movie directing experience, people in the movie industry were skeptical. Also, with just a couple of episodes from TV shows such as The Twilight Zone under his belt, it was certainly a risk. However, it turned out to be one of the greatest movies of all time, and Rosenberg went on to direct other classics such as Voyage of the Damned and The Pope of Greenwich Village.
Newman Liked The Smell Of The Movie
There are many reasons why an actor might choose a certain role. Some do it for the money, while others just feel like the role is perfect for them. For Paul Newman, the main selling point of Cool Hand Luke was apparently the smell on set. In other words, he just had a good feeling about it. “There’s a good smell about this,” Newman said while on set. “We’re gonna have a good picture.”
That Car Wash
Amazingly, Joy Harmon has no idea that her infamous car wash scene would come across as so suggestive. “I’ve always been naive and innocent,” she said. “I was acting and not trying to be sexy. Maybe that’s why the scene played so well. After seeing it at the premiere, I was a bit embarrassed.”