Behind The Scenes Facts From The Iconic Film ‘Cool Hand Luke’

Having fame that could equate to John Wayne’s but living a remarkably private and honorable life, Paul Newman is truly a man like no other. Newman, the distinguished actor, award-winning director, entrepreneur, dedicated philanthropist and political activist, made himself a superstar in the 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke, playing a lead role as iconic as Clyde Barrow, Benjamin Braddock, or Virgil Tibbs.

 

With Newman’s elaborate portrayal of Lucas Jackson, a rebel and nonconformist that is lead to the anguish of imprisonment after a drunken night of mischief, Luke ends up being sentenced to two years of hard labor in a Floria chain gang. In this period, he is subjected to mental and physical anguish but eventually finds the courage to follow through with the ups and downs alike, seeking a place among the gang. In this classic film, the 42-year old actor redefined himself as the icon of individualism, rebellion, alienation, and protest for the college-age audience. With such an excellent production, you would definitely be interested in getting to know some behind-the-scenes information! Read on to get to familiarize yourself more with what went on off-camera!

A Novel by An Ex-Con

The film, “Cool Hand Luke”, was based on a novel written by American author, Donn Pearce. In the novel, Pearce writes about his experiences loosely based on what he went through during his own time spent with a Florida Department of Corrections chain gang. He also heard stories about a man named Luke Jackson, which later on became the main character of the film. Although, in the novel, the day-to-day harsh life of prisoners was more prominently mentioned than the experiences of the lead character, Luke Jackson. Ultimately, Pearce made Cool Hand Luke become part of his fellow convicts’ mythology of survival.

 

Pearce wrote about his arrest for burglary when he was 20 years old in 1949. He started out in the forgery business, forging documents that allowed him to travel to Europe and even Canada while the US Army was out to find him for being AWOL. All this occurred before he found more financial opportunities in burglary.

Hunting For a Make Lead

Though the role of Luke Jackson was finally given to Paul Newman, the casting process was indeed pretty lengthy and meticulous. The producers initially approached eight-time Academy Award nominee Jack Lemmon but Jack felt he would fall short in emulating the character. After which, Telly Savalas was approached but refused to fly out for the production. The production company didn’t have the time to spare if he were to arrive back to the US via boat. Instead, they searched for other alternative actors.

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Since producers didn’t pull through with casting Savalas, they ended up casting Paul Newman, who along the way in his career won and was nominated for numerous awards, including an Academy Award for his performance in the 1986 film, The Color of Money.

Newman Didn’t Like Eggs

The egg-eating scene was probably the most famous bet in the film. For those who don’t quite remember, the bet occurs when Luke boasts to his fellow inmates that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in under just one hour. This scene is when we’re met with one of the most famous lines in the movie: “Nobody can eat 50 eggs.”

 

In reality, though, Newman wasn’t so fond of eating eggs and didn’t actually swallow any of it. Luckily for him, a bit of some film tricks and a hidden trash can made the actor really seem like he could devour those 50 eggs!

A Christ-Figure Film

Though you may need to re-watch the film to really comprehend it, “Cool Hand Luke” actually was a particularly relevant and classic example of a “Christ-figure film”. This kind of messianic imagery was fairly common in films like Braveheart, ET, or the Gladiator. This film, though, had far more Christological richness than any of the other modern films.

 

The film encourages us to examine the parallels between two particular shots which was surely designed to draw some comparison to the life of Jesus. The first shot of Cool Hand Luke lying down exhausted on the table after eating 50 eggs is probably the most obvious shot in relation to the crucifixion of Christ. Additionally, Luke is seen speaking to God several times throughout the film, even singing praises.

Delayed by a Banjo

After finding out about his mother’s death, the film shows Luke playing the popular song, “Plastic Jesus”, Paul heavily suggested that he’d play the banjo while singing. Seemingly convinced that he could play well, producers took on that idea.

 

Well, in reality, Newman didn’t actually know how to play the banjo. Consequently, his idea delayed the film schedule as he needed to be taught to play the instrument by Harry Dean Stanton who also acted in the film.

The Author’s Cameo

Donn Pearce, though famous for his works, isn’t necessarily the most recognized face. This is probably why you might not have noticed that he was actually included in the film! Pearce makes his own cameo appearance as a character named Sailor, one of the convicts as well.

 

Pearce could definitely have had more screen time but the man apparently had some anger issues. After punching someone during the final day of filming, he was banned from the set and even from the movie premiere! This must have some stirred up some real controversy.

The Set Wasn’t Actually in Florida

You know just how legitimate a film production is when they can make a set look like a different state! In reality, “Cool Hand Luke”, was actually filmed in Sunshine State, though it was set in Florida in the film. This successful production can be attributed to the meticulous work done by the film crew who were actually sent to Tavares Road Prison to take measurements and pictures.

 

The crew had to accurately re-model the set into the Tavares Road Prison, which included them reconstructing dozens of buildings in Stockton, California. Such attention to detail really made the set seem absolutely seamless! You probably wouldn’t even notice that the barracks, guard houses, and the mess hall were all duplicates!

Most Famous Line

True fans of Paul Newman and the film will surely recognize his character’s most famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” This very line became one of the most popular movie quotes of all time, marking it as No. 11 on the list of most memorable lines by the American Film Institute.

 

This line was spoken in the movie first by Strother Martin, playing the Captain, and was later paraphrased by Newman. Martin probably picked it up during the time he spent studying penology and criminology. The line became so well-known that the hard rock band, Guns N’ Roses, even used it in some of their songs!

More Religious Imagery

More messianic and religious imagery was used in the film including Luke’s prison number, 37. The very clever film decision of naming the character Luke with his prison number as 37 makes the relation to Luke 1:37, a bible scripture that reads, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

 

Such small details really make the story and meaning so seamless as even the bible verse is tied perfectly to the overall message of the film. With his Christ-like behavior, Cool Hand Luke truly lives out the scripture.

Film Success

The film really made some box office mojo as it grossed in $16.2 million in the domestic box office. Such success definitely paid off as the producers allotted an insane amount of $3.2 million for the film’s budget!

 

The success was so tremendous that it even spelled out in the film’s reviews. Aside from the famous Rotten Tomatoes scoring it a perfect 100%, film critic Roger Ebert gave the film the highest rating possible! Critics also dubbed Paul Newman’s performance as “unforgettable.”

Signs You May Haven’t Noticed

You probably might not have noticed but there were lots of small details that were used as the film’s imagery and symbols. One of these small details was the traffic signs that complemented what the characters were going through.

 

In the opening scene, the word “violation” appears while Luke is seen vandalizing the parking meters. The stop lights turning from green to red also indicated some foreshadowing when Luke was finally arrested for vandalism. This was also used at the end of the movie when Luke fatally injured.

The Single Non-Fan

Paul Newman already had all the recognition and fame before the film came out as he starred in many other award-winning films prior to Cool Hand Luke. As such, he was no stranger when he visited West Virginia, with dozens of fans taking notice of his familiar charming face.

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Though practically everyone knew who Paul Newman was, there was a particular lady who seemed to be completely oblivious of his fame. While he was with businessman Andy Houvouras, he accompanied Andy to pick up his daughter in school. Introduced to a nun in St. Joe High School, Newman was actually asked what his profession was. Nothing special, Sister!

A Unique Criminal Offense

As you already know, Cool Hand Luke gets himself put on a pedestal when he claims that he was imprisoned for cutting off the head of parking meters. Though extremely odd and extraordinary, this mischievous act actually helped him gain a unique bond towards his inmates. According to Luke, it was done for the purpose of “setting an old score.”

 

His chain gang mates were so impressed with how unique Luke’s crime was that they actually considered him to be an interesting addition to the gang. Because of how much the audience could relate to Luke and his hatred for parking meters, the film creates this personal connection with their viewers.

Donn Pearce Didn’t Favor Paul Newman

Apparently, Paul Newman wasn’t Donn Pearce’s actual pick to fit the character of Luke Jackson. Most casting crews would instantly pick the most good-looking actors but ironically, Pearce found that his looks opposed who Cool Hand Luke really was.

 

According to Pearce, the lead role should have been given to a more rugged and brawny man, instead of someone as charming as Newman. Pearce probably thought Newman’s good looks were diverging too far from the actual character and his story. It was even reported that Pearce said Newman “wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.” Pretty harsh!

First Time Feature Film Director

You’d probably be surprised to find out that Stuart Rosenberg, the film’s director, actually had ZERO experience prior to working on this film! Rosenberg, though eventually awarded with numerous nominations, was completely inexperienced to direct such a huge film, but producers trusted the man anyway.

 

Rosenberg apparently only had experience filming a number of episodes for various television series, such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Untouchables.” Luckily, the first timer didn’t make a mess out of the film and actually brought it to the top charts. This success, of course, brought him all that recognition and even blessed him with more opportunities to direct more feature films like “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and “Voyage of the Damned.”

Newman’s Own Foundation

As we mentioned earlier, Paul Newman was truly an honorable man. He was so remarkable even beyond his career, as he gave time to put up his own foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation. He started it in 1982 with a single salad dressing and chose to donate all of the profits to charity. Now, the foundation produces everything from tomato sauces to salad dressings and even frozen pizzas! All the after-tax money from their sales goes straight to the foundation which is then circulated to charities around the world.

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He truly had a heart for the less fortunate and that legacy still lives on today. The foundation even recently reached their own milestone of $530 million in donations! The man surely succeeded in his vision of helping thousands of charities and millions of people around the world.

Another Hollywood Starlet

Hollywood superstar, Jo Van Fleet, was the theatre, film, and television actress chosen to play the role of Luke’s dying mother. Though she had all the talent, the producers apparently did not have her as their initial choice.

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Apparently, Bette Davis rejected the offer because it was too minor of an acting role. Because the Hollywood diva had better things to do, Jo Van Fleet ended up taking on the film. Fleet was mostly known for playing roles of much older women with a career that spanned over three decades.

An All-Male Set

Though it might seem a bit sexist, the director had all the good intentions of banning women on the set to truly encapsulate the environment of the prison set. He even went as far as not allowing any wives to come during filming. All of this, he believed, would contribute to the film’s authenticity.

 

The director was so stern on this regulation that he even made Joy Harmon, the actress who played “The Girl” in the very notable car wash scene, stay in a different location while she wasn’t needed for the production yet. Pretty intense!

The Unforgettable Car Wash Scene

Joy Harmon, playing “The Girl”, truly became an unforgettable face due to her cameo in the Car Wash Scene. It was indeed a display of cinematography and directing excellence as the scene came off seeming perfectly rehearsed. Although in the actual production, the footage of Joy Harmon naively washing the car and the prisoners’ reactions were filmed separately. Apparently, Rosenberg gave Harmon specific instructions on her movements and expressions that she should make while filming.

 

Can you believe this iconic scene, though only having a short coverage in the film, actually took the crew three whole days to film? The hard work of the director and the crew truly spelled out anyway as the scene was made to perfection.

We Expected Joanne Woodward

Academy Award and Globe Award Winner, Joanne Woodward, was supposedly expected to land a role in the film, especially being Paul Newman’s wife. The two were starred in 10 feature films together, as well as 5 films directed by Newman himself, so it definitely came as a surprise that she didn’t participate at all.

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She probably couldn’t land a role in the film as there was a tight limit as to how many female roles were available. Since the film had a very androcentric focus, there wasn’t much room left for other women to take part in.

He Saw It Coming

Paul Newman knew his performance and the overall film would find success. He knew just what was coming, and what was coming would be greatness. Newman definitely knew that this film was headed for great things.

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Apparently, Paul Newman was so sure of himself that he even made conversation with a visitor on set and said: “There’s a good smell about this, we’re gonna have a good picture.” You can bet it was definitely that and more, Paul!

Boxing Scene

In one short scene with minimal dialogue, viewers actually got to learn exactly the type of character Luke was. This part in the film was the iconic boxing scene that took a total of three days for Paul Newman and George Kennedy to nail. It was definitely much harder to film than it was to watch!

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You would think that acting wouldn’t entail actual punches and hits but these dedicated actors were willing to do just about anything to achieve a phenomenal take. As such, the two exceeded expectations in their efforts to perfect such a scene.

Race Car Driving

Paul Newman was truly a phenomenal man full of talent as he wasn’t just skilled in acting, but in so many other areas as well. One of his greatest skills was in race car driving, a hobby that Paul first ever found any grace in.

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Newman was actually able to win himself a number of national championships as a race car driver in Sports Car Club of America. His racing name was P.L. Newman and apparently, he said he would only the sport when he started to embarrass himself. Additionally, Newman used the television coverage he got from racing as a platform to help raise awareness for his foundation and charity racing events in his life.

The Eyes Have It All

More than his phenomenal acting and good looks, there was one particular detail about Paul Newman that made the film what it is today – those sparkling blue eyes. Newman’s eyes were so distinct that it really lit up the films he starred in.

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Those eyes were so important that the producers even pushed to re-shoot a number of scenes to focus more on Newman’s baby blue eyes. For them to spend more on re-shooting must have meant that those eyes were a VITAL part of the overall film. They believed that more coverage of his eyes would mean more profit for the film. I guess they made the right decision!

Washing Cars

Joy Harmon, the actress who made the car washing scene so iconic, was pretty oblivious to just how popular the scene would become. Actress Joy Harmon had no idea just how famous her car washing scene would become, especially being one of the few women who took part in the film. She was obviously unaware that this would be one of the film’s most notable scenes. She even mentioned, “I just figured it was washing the car.”

 

In addition to some fun facts of the scene, the convicts in the scene weren’t entirely acting since they were actually shivering in the freezing cold! It must have been a difficult three days to film that!

Real Physical Labor

If you create a film based on a chain gang, you should expect that the cast is physically on point! It wasn’t much of a surprise then that the cast in the film actually performed some of those grueling scenes, and not any stunt doubles.

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The scene of the gang members covering a road with asphalt was actually performed in real life as they got the job done about a mile of a California highway. Great work, boys!

Serious Role

American actor Morgan Woodward truly made a name for himself playing the role of Boss Godfrey, a very unique and mysterious man notably known as the “man with no eyes”. Morgan Woodward, just like Paul Newman, took his role very seriously and went the lengths to perfect such a character.

 

Woodward was so serious and willing to give his best for the role that he even kept silent offset and made sure to keep wearing those sunglasses. That’s some dedication right there!

Well-Deserved Award

Playing the extremely challenging role of the prisoners’ leader named Dragline, George Kennedy truly exceeded everyone’s expectations with his phenomenal performance. He was Luke’s nemesis for most of the film but eventually, turned into his best bud. Apparently, Kennedy shelled out $5,000 in trade advertising to promote himself as an actor. Well, he got more than his money’s worth in return!

 

Kennedy’s acting was so excellent that it landed him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a nomination for the corresponding Golden Globe. He was the only actor to win an award for his role in the film and he truly deserved every bit of recognition he got from it! We’re pretty sure that nobody could have nailed it better than he did!

Real Broken Meters

The film crew really went the lengths in making the scenes as authentic as possible that even in the beginning scene of the movie, those parking meters were actually cut down! The mischief was done in Lodi, California, contributing to one of the most notable scenes of the film.

 

The mischief went on even beyond the film as the meters weren’t even replaced, displaying a row of metal poles that remained years after the film was produced!

A Meticulously Made Set Design

The film’s set was so meticulously done that it truly reached a level of realism for its viewers. Remodeling a large area in Stockton, California into a prison complex was indeed no joke! It is no surprise that the set designers had to pay a painstaking amount of attention to the details.

 

They were so meticulous with their work that they even decided to bring trucks full of Spanish moss to achieve the realistic look on the trees around the set. They also added seemingly small but effective details such as dog kennels and warden housing.

Condemned

The set was so alarmingly realistic that it even was brought to the attention of an actual San Joaquin County building inspector! Just going on with his duties, he decided to scan and investigate the area he thought was an actual facility for migrant workers.

 

From his inspections and well, unawareness, he ended up posting a number of notices on the buildings that had “condemned” written all over. Later on, of course, they were notified that the area was just a temporary movie set.

Strict Schedule

If you’ve never had any experience shooting a film or anything, one might think that a single scene wouldn’t really take much effort and time to finish. But when you’re working with eight pages worth of dialogue, wrapping up a shoot in one day might seem a bit impossible. This was the case, at least, for the scene where Luke’s mother makes a visit to the prison.

 

With the tight schedule, Jo Van Fleet and Paul Newman had a lot of pressure to deal with. Not surprisingly, the talented pair pulled it off all within just the single day of filming. That’s what you get when you cast phenomenal actors!

An Ongoing Collaboration

Rosenberg’s directorial success for the film truly marked his place in the film industry and brought him countless amounts of opportunities along the way. With such a launch in career, he attributed much of his recognition to the actor who made a name for the film, Paul Newman.

 

The two were so fond of working and collaborating with each other that Rosenberg trusted him with four very diverse roles, casting him as the lead role for those feature films. These works included “Pocket Money”, “WUSA”, and “The Drowning Pool.” They’ve truly made some masterpieces together and it all started with Cool Hand Luke.

The One Scene In Florida

Though most scenes were filmed in California, one particular scene was actually filmed on location at the Callahan Road Prison located in Jacksonville, Florida. This simple scene showed Luke being chased by a gang of dogs. Though you may not have noticed, it wasn’t actually Paul Newman playing Luke in that take!

 

It can surely be dangerous to work with dogs, especially for a scene meant to show their aggression. As such, the job was given to a Newman look-a-like stuntman in getting chased by real bloodhounds.

Family Appearance

Father of director Ron Howard, Rance Howard was actually one of the great but uncredited actors that were featured in the film. Though he did not get as much recognition, Howard still played an excellent role as “the Sheriff.”

 

Rance Howard, both an actor and director, made appearances in hundreds of films and television shows, making him an expert in the field. He also made his film debut together with Ron in the 1956 film, “Frontier Woman.” He truly made most of his career before he passed away in 2017.

Not a Fan At All

It seems that much of the drama that occurred in the production of the film had to do with the author, Donn Pearce. Yet again, Pearce voiced his discontent with the overall film even with all the success that was coming.

 

Pearce fearlessly mentioned in a 1989 interview that he seemed to be the only man in the country that didn’t like the movie. He even added that the producers “screwed it up ninety-nine different ways.”

Too Much Prison For Them

Though the film was produced by Warner Bros., we’re pretty sure such a movie pitch was being eyed on by many other productions. One of the possible producers was actually Columbia Pictures, the production company, film distributor, and member of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group.

 

Unfortunately, the production house had already made the film, “King Rat”, which had a premise that related to Cool Hand Luke and the whole prison-based story. Therefore, they decided to pass up the promising film to save their budget for a more diverse production.

Time Travelling?

Though the film nailed many small details that contributed to the film’s overall successful performance, there were still some pieces of information that the producers did not oversee. It seems that they forgot that the film was set in the 1940s as they cast Luke Jackson as a Korean War veteran. Newsflash, the Korean War didn’t even commence during that period!

 

They also didn’t realize that the song Plastic Jesus, one of the details that gave an identity to the film, was actually written in 1957. So close but not enough!

The Legacy That Lives On

The success and greatness of the film have truly been engraved in film history, making it a touchstone of the era! In fact, AFI’s 100 Years 100 Heroes & Villains ranked Luke as the 30th greatest hero in American Cinema, solidifying Newman’s status as a box-office star. Additionally, the United States Library of Congress dubbed “Cool Hand Luke” as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and was eventually selected as an inductee of the 2005 National Film Registry.

 

Apart from inspiring other television series, there is even a Christian alternative rock band going by the film’s name. Furthermore, the book was even adapted into a West End play by Emma Reeves. Unfortunately, it didn’t see the success that the film saw and ended up closing after two months. Nevertheless, the legacy of the film lives on and will continue to live on for the years to come.