Behind-The-Scenes Facts From The Hit Movie Cool Hand Luke
Over 50 years ago, actor and philanthropist Paul Newman introduced the world to one of the greatest characters in American cinema, Lucas “Luke” Jackson, in the now-classic movie Cool Hand Luke. After a night of drunken rampaging, Luke is sentenced to two years hard labor in a Florida chain gang. He undergoes physical and mental anguish during his time in prison but somehow finds the courage to persevere through the good and the bad alike, finding his place among the gang. Read on to find out some interesting behind the scenes facts about the hit-movie Cool Hand Luke.
1. An Ex-Con’s Novel
The film “Cool Hand Luke” is based on a novel by the same name, written by author Donn Pearce. The novel is loosely based on experiences that Pearce went through during his own time in a Florida Department of Corrections chain gang and stories that he heard about a man named Luke Jackson.
Pearce was arrested in 1949 at the young age of 20 for burglary. Before making a living out of burglary, he was in the forgery business. In fact, he was so good at it that he managed to forge documents to allow him to travel around Europe and eventually to Canada while he was on the run from the US Army for being AWOL.
2. The Hunt For a Lead Actor
Numerous people were approached to play the lead role of Luke Jackson for the movie “Cool Hand Luke”. Jack Lemmon was originally asked to play the lead role, but he didn’t think that he himself was quite right for the part.
Telly Savalas was then approached and originally cast as Luke but he was in Europe at the time filming “The Dirty Dozen”. Savalas refused to fly and the production company couldn’t wait for him to return to the US via boat, so they had to look into other actors. In the end Paul Newman was cast as the lead.
3. Newman On Eating Eggs
Paul Newman’s character, Lucas “Luke” Jackson, became instantly famous for the scene where he supposedly wins a bet that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. But can you guess how many eggs Cool Hand Luke actually ate during the filming of the scene?
According to Newman, he “never swallowed an egg.” When filming the scene producers kept a trash can right beside the actor so that he could spit out the eggs at every chance possible. Apparently he wasn’t such a big egg lover!
4. Heavy Christian Imagery
“Cool Hand Luke” utilized heavy Christian imagery throughout the film. The main character is made out to be a Jesus-like figure who becomes somewhat of a saintly figure, winning over the crowds and masses, but is eventually sacrificed.
After the egg-eating scene, Cool Hand Luke lies exhausted on a table, in the same position as Jesus during his crucifixion. Christian imagery is used so many times in the movie, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Luke speaks to God many times throughout the film and even sings his praises, such as when he sings “Plastic Jesus.”
5. The Banjo That Delayed It All
After learning of his mother’s death, there is a scene where Luke plays the banjo and sings the iconic song “Plastic Jesus.” Paul Newman actually insisted on playing the banjo in the scene. But there was one catch… he didn’t know how to play the banjo.
That particular scene delayed filming for several weeks while Paul Newman learned how to play the song on the banjo. Harry Dean Stanton, who had a rather small role in Cool Hand Luke, taught Newman how to play.
6. The Author’s Cameo
You may not have noticed, partially because his face isn’t recognizably famous, but the writer of the novel Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce, actually makes a cameo appearance in the film “Cool Hand Luke”. Pearce makes an appearance as a convict named Sailor.
Donn Pearce punched someone during the final day of filming and from then on wasn’t allowed back on set, nor was he invited to the movie premiere. Must have been quite the argument for the author not to get an invite to his own party.
7. It’s All In The Accent
Paul Newman took his role as Cool Hand Luke very seriously. As part of the research for his character, he traveled to West Virginia, where his character hailed from. While there, Newman took careful note of the local customs and accents.
Newman spent his time in West Virginia perfecting his accent for the film and even recorded locals speaking for future reference. In addition, he studied people’s behavior and mannerisms, wanting his character to come off as authentic as possible.
8. Florida Wasn’t Exactly Florida
The movie “Cool Hand Luke” was set in Florida, but what looked like Florida to audiences was all the work of Hollywood magic. None of the scenes were actually filmed in the Sunshine State. Crews were sent to Tavares Road Prison to take pictures and measurements.
From that, dozens of buildings were reconstructed to scale in Stockton, California and made to look exactly like the real prison. The barracks, mess hall and guard houses were all duplicates. But even if you had seen the originals, it would be hard to spot the duplicates.
9. Most Memorable Movie Line
Apart from being a hit film, “Cool Hand Luke” also gave birth to one of the most memorable sayings of all time. The line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” ranked at No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of most memorable lines.
The line was said by the prison warden known as “the Captain”, who, according to the character’s backstory, most likely picked it up during his time spent studying criminology and penology. If fact, the saying became so popular that samples of the line have been used in a number of songs, including Guns N’ Roses songs “Madagascar” and “Civil War”.
10. More Religion
Another religious message you might have missed is Cool Hand Luke’s prison number, 37. Put together with his name, Luke, you get Luke 1:37 which is a piece of scripture from the Gospel of Luke. Its meaning ties in perfectly with the message of the movie.
The scripture reads “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” Cool Hand Luke, throughout the movie, embodies the scripture through his Christ-like sacrifices. Read on to find out more cool facts about “Cool Hand Luke”.
11. Box Office Success
The budget for the production of “Cool Hand Luke” was $3.2 million, a significantly large amount for a film at the time. And after all was said and done, the film brought in over $16.2 million at the box office. Wow!
Nothing says success more than making tremendous earnings at the box office. Reviews of the movie were also high as a kite. In his 2010 book, film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, the highest rating possible. Critics also described Paul Newman’s performance as “unforgettable.”
12. Signs You Probably Missed
Traffic signs were used throughout the film to emphasize and complement the actions of the characters. In the opening scenes, when Luke is vandalizing the parking meters, the word “violation” appears. There are also stop signs seen in the distance.
Stop lights were also used to the same effect. The lights turned from green to red when Luke is finally arrested for his vandalism. Then yet again at the end of the movie when Luke is fatally wounded, the lights turn from green to red.
13. The One Non-Fan
Paul Newman was already a household name prior to his role as the main character in “Cool Hand Luke”, so he was well recognized during his time in West Virginia while studying the behavior of the local population and their accents.
Newman was in West Virginia with businessman Andy Houvouras and almost everyone instantly recognized him, with exception of one person. While picking Andy’s sister up from school at St. Joe High School, he was introduced to a nun who asked him what he did for a living.
14. A Unique Criminal Offense
The main character of the film, who comes to be known as Cool Hand Luke, ends up in the chain gang after getting drunk one evening and cutting the heads off of parking meters. Luke claims that this was done for the purpose of “settling an old score.”
Luke impresses his chain gang mates with his odd crime. According to them, they had never had anyone who did something so out of the ordinary. The crime itself creates a bond with the audience, seeing as no one likes parking meters to begin with, automatically making the lead character likable to the viewers. It also set the anti-establishment theme weaved throughout the film.
15. Donn Pearce and Paul Newman
It’s hard to imagine the movie “Cool Hand Luke” without Paul Newman, but the writer Donn Pearce, whose book the movie is based on, was not a fan of the actor himself. According to Pearce, the actor was too “cute-looking.”
For a movie based on a prisoner doing hard time in a Florida chain gang, Pearce thought the lead role should have gone to a tougher-looking rough guy. Pearce reportedly commented that Newman “wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.”
16. A First Time For Everything
It might surprise you to hear that the director of “Cool Hand Luke” didn’t have much experience in movie making prior to directing the film. And when we say not much experience, we mean that he actually had no experience whatsoever.
Director Stuart Rosenberg had only directed a few episodes of various TV series, such as “The Untouchables” and “The Twilight Zone”. After the success of “Cool Hand Luke”, Rosenberg went on to direct over a dozen feature films, like “Voyage of the Damned” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village”, to name a few.
17. Newman’s Own Foundation
Paul Newman was not only a mega-popular actor, he also had a huge heart and cared for those less fortunate. Through his line of food products called Newman’s Own, much money for charity was raised.
The company makes everything from salad dressings to tomato sauces and even frozen pizzas. Every single after-tax cent that the company makes goes to the Newman’s Own Foundation which is then dispersed to charities worldwide. Since the company’s founding in 1982, over $500 million has been raised for charity.
18. A Different Hollywood Starlet
The actress who plays Luke’s dying mother was played by Hollywood Starlet Jo Van Fleet, who was well known for playing roles of women older than herself. But Van Fleet wasn’t the first choice for the role. It was given to her after being rejected by a huge star.
The first choice for the role was originally Hollywood Starlet and iconic actress Bette Davis. Davis reportedly refused the role because it was just a bit part, meaning a very small acting role. The Hollywood diva Bette Davis had bigger fish to fry.
19. No Women On The Set
The director of the film wanted to keep things as authentic as possible on set. So in order to create more pent-up pressure from the cast members of the chain gang, he banned their wives from the set during filming.
The director went as far as to even ban Joy Harmon, who played the role only known as “The Girl.” She stayed in a hotel room on location for two full days before she shot her scene with the main cast.
20. How the Car Wash Scene Was Made
The unforgettable Car Wash Scene seems like it was filmed all at once in a perfectly-coordinated symphony of actions of reactions. In reality, the footage of actress Joy Harmon innocently washing a car and the reactions of the prisoners were filmed separately.
Director Stuart Rosenberg gave Harmon exact instructions on which expressions and movements she should make while filming the scene. In the end, it took three days to create what amounted to one minute and 20 seconds of footage in the film itself. That’s not all, though–for more about this iconic scene, read on!
21. Where’s Joanne Woodward?
Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, who was a Hollywood starlet in her own right, appeared in at least 10 feature films along with Newman. She also starred in five feature films that Paul Newman directed himself.
Joanne Woodward didn’t, however, land a role in “Cool Hand Luke”, perhaps due to the fact that there were so few female roles available in the film. Being that the film was set in a men’s prison and chain gang, it didn’t leave much room for female roles, at least not ones that stood out.
22. The Smell of Success
By the time he starred in “Cool Hand Luke”, Paul Newman was already a seasoned actor and knew exactly what he was doing, so much so that he could tell that the movie was going to be a hit even before it was released.
Paul Newman reportedly told a visitor on set during filming that “there’s a good smell about this,” he added that “we’re gonna have a good picture.” He was certainly right about that! “Cool Hand Luke” went on to be a smash success.
23. Boxing Day
The iconic boxing scene in the movie is one the most memorable scenes from “Cool Hand Luke”. As difficult as it was to watch, it was much harder to film. The scene actually took George Kennedy and Paul Newman three days to perfect.
By the end, both were exhausted from punching and falling down on the hard ground. But as serious actors, they were willing to do whatever it takes to get the perfect scene. It seems to have been well worth the effort here.
24. Race Car Driver
Actor Paul Newman was something of a ‘jack of all trades.’ He could do anything he put his mind to and as a long time race car enthusiast, he took up racing himself! According to the actor, it was “the first thing he ever found any grace in.”
He recorded a TV special about motor racing and held many charity racing events during his life. He went by the racing name P.L Newman and said that he would only quite racing when he started to embarrass himself.
25. Those Baby Blues
The studio producers originally weren’t happy with a number of the scenes, which resulted in scenes needing to be reshot. The reason why might just shock you, though, because it had nothing to do with the acting.
The producers wanted scenes re-filmed in order to see more of Paul Newman’s baby blue eyes. Newman was famous for his striking good looks and his piercing blue eyes. Apparently, the producers thought that the movie would do better in the box office if the movie contained more of that.
26. The Car Wash
Actress Joy Harmon had no idea just how famous her car washing scene would become. And the convicts in that scene weren’t just shivering for the acting, they were actually freezing in the cold weather.
“I just figured it was washing the car,” the actress said. Even though she was one of the few women in the movie, Joy Harmon’s scene ended up becoming one of the films most memorable moments.
27. Back-Breaking Work
For a movie about a chain gang, it’s only reasonable that the actors had to act like they were doing some backbreaking manual labor. But what you might not know, is that the actors were really doing the work!
In the movie “Cool Hand Luke”, the chain gang members are shown resurfacing a road with asphalt. In real life, Paul Newman and the gang actually resurfaced about a mile of California highway. That’s impressive! Hopefully, they at least got a sign in homage to their work.
28. Serious As Stone
Actor Morgan Woodward played the role of the silent, sunglass-wearing “man with no eyes” Boss Godfrey and he took his role as serious as possible — so serious, in fact, that he kept in character while offset and would keep his sunglasses on and not speak.
The actor behind the stone-cold character, Morgan Woodward, is best-known for his reoccurring role as Marvin “Punk” Anderson on the soap opera “Dallas”. Woodward also made a number of guest appearances on “Gunsmoke”.
29. Working For That Award
George Kennedy was the only actor to win an Oscar for his performance in the movie “Cool Hand Luke”, and it didn’t come easily. He played the role of Dragline in the movie and he was Luke’s nemesis for most of the film until he turned into his best bud.
In real life, Kennedy actually spent around $5,000 to promote himself through trade advertising. The money ended up being well worth it as it earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It turns out after all, that money can buy almost anything.
30. Extra Help
Donn Pearce, the ex-con author of the book on which the film was based, didn’t have any experience in scriptwriting so the producers were forced to bring in some extra hands to make sure everything worked out smoothly. They ended up bringing in screenwriter and director Frank Pierson to rework the draft of the script.
The extra work they ended up putting in certainly paid off for them in the long run. The filming went on fairly smoothly and the film ended up making bank and going down in history as one of the best movies of all time.
31. Expired Meters
The Parking Meter scene at the beginning of the movie is definitely one of the more memborable scenes. One would imagine that it was filmed on a set and that no real parking meters were harmed in the filming process, right? Wrong!
It turns out that the parking meters that Luke cut down were real ones in the city of Lodi, Calif. After filming, the city didn’t bother to replace the meters and a row of metal poles sans meters remained for many years afterward.
32. A Realistic Set
It was quite a challenge to transform an area in Stockton, Calif. to look like a prison complex located in Florida. To make sure everything looked as accurate as possible, the set designers paid painstaking attention to detail.
For example, they brought in Spanish Moss by the truckloads from Louisiana and hung it from trees around the prison set. Furthermore, they made sure the set had real features of a prison complex, such as warden housing and dog kennels.
The set of “Cool Hand Luke” apparently looked so realistic that a building inspector for San Joaquin County, Calif. thought that it was real! From the looks of it, he thought the set was actually a facility for migrant workers.
After a quick look around, he saw that the “complex” was not up to building code and posted several notices on the buildings that said “condemned”. Fortunately this was just a temporary movie set but at least someone was doing their job properly!
34. One Day to Film
Filming for a movie has to follow a tight schedule usually and because of this, the scene where Luke’s mother visits him in prison was only allotted a single day. However, that was not as easy as it seems.
The scene consisted of eight pages worth of dialogue, which would be a huge challenge to do in a single day in most cases. However, actors Jo Van Fleet and Paul Newman managed to pull it off perfectly and all within one day of filming.
35. Continuous Collaboration
“Cool Hand Luke” was director Stuart Rosenberg’s very first feature-length film but the movie’s success ended up launching his career and creating a continuous work relationship with actor Paul Newman.
After “Cool Hand Luke”, Newman starred in four more of Rosenberg’s movies including 1970’s “WUSA”, “Pocket Money” in 1972, and lastly “The Drowning Pool” in 1975. Have a movie night and see how the rest of the Newman-Rosenberg films compare.
36. The One Scene In Florida
Almost all filming took place in California, except one: the scene in which Luke is being chased by dogs. That was actually filmed on location at Callahan Road Prisonin in Jacksonville, Florida. Paul Newman wasn’t present, however.
A stuntman that looked like Newman was used in his stead as real bloodhounds from the Florida Department of Corrections chased the stuntman for the scene. Some of the exterior shots for the movie were also filmed at the facility.
37. Famous Family Appearance
“Cool Hand Luke” features tons of stars and great actors, but one uncredited actor was a significant actor himself. Yes, if you know of director Ron Howard, then you should know that his father Rance Howard played the role of “the Sherriff”.
Rance Howard acted in more than 100 movies and plenty of TV shows over the course of his career. His acting career started in the late ’40s and continued up until 2017, when he sadly passed away at the age of 89. He made his film debut together with son Ron in the 1956 movie “Frontier Woman”.
38. Not a Fan
Donn Pearce, author of the novel Cool Hand Luke on which the film was based, reportedly was not a fan of the film and he was not shy to tell people about it. One interview from 1989 revealed his true, scathing opinion of it.
“I seem to be the only guy in the United States who doesn’t like the movie,” Pearce said in the interview to The Miami Herald. “Everyone had a whack at it. They screwed it up ninety-nine different ways.”
39. Too Much Prison
Columbia Pictures could have been the studio to produce “Cool Hand Luke” but decided not to pursue it any further. How could they pass up such a good story that went on to be a huge success?
The studio and distributor passed on “Cool Hand Luke” because they had already spent a lot of money on a different prison film a few years before, 1965’s “King Rat”. They weren’t keen yet on shelling out so much do on a similar subject once again.
40. Time Travelling?
The movie is set in the late 1940s, approximately 1949, but several things in the film were inaccurate for that time period. One example is with the film’s famous song Plastic Jesus, which was written in 1957.
Another is with the fact that Luke Jackson is supposed to be a Korean War veteran, yet the Korean war hadn’t even started yet. It began in 1950 and ended in 1953. Someone should have realized all this sooner!
41. The Legacy That Lives On
“Cool Hand Luke” was so popular that the name will forever live on in different ways. First, Donn Pearce’s book was turned into a play in London’s West End by Emma Reeves. The play, however, didn’t end up being as successful as the film and closed down after poor reviews.
The United States Library of Congress thought that “Cool Hand Luke” was so big that they actually called the film “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and selected it to be added to the National Film Registry. Apart from that, “Cool Hand Luke” has also inspired many other TV series and there is a Christian alternative rock band by the same name.
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