Fifty years ago today, Paul Newman introduced moviegoers to Lucas Jackson, a rebellious man who becomes a hero to his fellow prison camp members for his apparent fearlessness in Cool Hand Luke. Over time, he gets beaten down physically and emotionally when his numerous attempts to escape are thwarted, and he eats an insane amount of eggs.
George Kennedy—who won an Oscar for his performance—played Dragline, the chain gang leader who grows to respect Luke and eventually becomes his best friend. The film also boasted great performances from Strother Martin (Captain), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Harry Dean Stanton (Tramp), and others. Here are some facts about the anti-establishment classic, on the 50th anniversary of its original release.
1. IT WAS WRITTEN BY AN EX-CON.
While in the Merchant Marine, Donn Pearce was caught counterfeiting money and thrown in a French prison. He escaped, returned to the U.S., and became a safe-cracker. A waitress ratted him out and he spent two years on a prison road gang where he heard about a Luke Jackson—someone who was an excellent poker player, a banjo expert, and who had once eaten 50 boiled eggs for a bet. He wrote about him in his book Cool Hand Luke, which was published in 1965. Pearce sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. for $80,000, and got an additional $15,000 to write the screenplay.
But it was his first time trying to write a screenplay, and Frank Pierson was later hired to rework the draft. Pearce appeared in the movie as the convict Sailor and was the production's technical adviser. He punched someone out on the final day on set and was not invited to the film premiere.
2. JACK LEMMON OR TELLY SAVALAS COULD HAVE PLAYED LUKE.
Jack Lemmon's production company, Jalem Productions, produced the movie, so Lemmon had first dibs on playing the lead, but he recognized that he wasn't right for the part. Telly Savalas was then cast as Luke, but he was in Europe filming The Dirty Dozen, and since he refused to fly, the production had to look elsewhere for the starring role to get started on time.
3. PAUL NEWMAN STUDIED WEST VIRGINIANS TO GET THE ACCENT DOWN.
Newman heard about the project and asked for the part before he had even read the script. Newman, a Cleveland native, spent a weekend in Huntington, West Virginia, with businessman Andy Houvouras, on the recommendation of a mutual friend who was the director of the U.S. Office for Economic Opportunity. Houvouras drove Newman to various counties, where Newman talked to residents and recorded them. Everybody apparently knew who he was with one exception:
"He went to St. Joe High School to go pick up my sister Anne, and this nun walked up to see what the commotion was," Houvouras's son recalled decades later. "Dad said, ‘I would like you to meet Paul Newman,’ and the nun said, ‘Nice to meet you, Mr. Newman, what do you do for a living?’ She had no idea who he was.”
4. IT WAS SET IN FLORIDA, BUT FILMED IN STOCKTON, CALIFORNIA.
A crew went to Tavares Road Prison in Tavares, Florida, to take photographs and measurements so it could be rebuilt in Stockton. A dozen buildings were constructed, including barracks, a mess hall, and guard houses. Spanish moss imported from Louisiana hung from the trees. The actors stayed at the local Holiday Inn. Their mode of transportation to the set and back to their rooms was the trucks used in the movie. They rode on the backs of them.
5. NEWMAN JUDGED THE SHOOT WITH HIS NOSE.
Apparently, Newman had a good feeling about the film. “There's a good smell about this,” Newman told a visitor on the set one day. “We're gonna have a good picture.”
6. THE BOXING MATCH TOOK THREE DAYS TO SHOOT.
George Kennedy said he and Newman were both completely worn out from their boxing match—Kennedy from the fighting, Newman from the fighting and falling onto hard ground for three days in a row.
7. BETTE DAVIS WAS THE ORIGINAL CHOICE TO PLAY LUKE'S MOTHER.
Bette Davis turned down the chance to play Luke's mother, Arletta, which was a one-scene role. It went to Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden) instead, even though she was only 11 years older than Newman. For her single day of shooting, Van Fleet sat on a tree stump, 200 yards from everyone else, looking over her lines. Harry Dean Stanton recalled that Van Fleet asked him to sing to her before her take, and it made her cry.
8. THE DIRECTOR WOULDN'T ALLOW THE ACTORS' WIVES ON SET.
To get the men to feel like they were truly members of a chain gang, director Stuart Rosenberg banned women from the set. Even Joy Harmon ("Lucille") was kept away from the cast. She stayed in a hotel all alone for two days and shot her scene with just Rosenberg.
9. THE CONVICTS WERE REALLY COLD DURING THE CAR WASH SCENE.
Harmon didn't realize how suggestive the scene in which the men watch her wash her car was until she saw it in the theater.
"I just figured it was washing the car. 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."
When Rosenberg shot the convicts in the ditch watching Lucille, he used a stand-in: an overcoat-wearing 15-year-old girl. Despite the coat, Kennedy remembered her teeth were chattering from the cold weather. He also wrote, "Those guys shivering in a ditch did some great acting."
10. NEWMAN HAD TROUBLE LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO.
Originally, the scene where Newman plays "Plastic Jesus" as an ode to his mother was scheduled for the beginning of the shoot, but after Newman insisted on learning the instrument, Rosenberg delayed it a few weeks. When they tried it and the playing was unsatisfactory, it was bumped until the next to last day of production. Newman and Rosenberg had a shouting match after Newman still couldn't get it down. In what Kennedy remembered as a "tense, electrically charged, quiet" place, Newman tried again. When he finished, Rosenberg called "Print." Newman insisted he could do better. "Nobody could do it better," Rosenberg replied.
It was Stanton who taught Newman how to play "Plastic Jesus."
11. THE STUDIO DEMANDED TO SEE NEWMAN'S BLUE EYES.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall said the studio drove him "insane," and that his filming techniques were repeatedly questioned. Eventually, they explained that he wasn't showcasing Newman's famous eyeballs enough. He had to shoot a scene four times before shooting Newman "correctly."
12. FRANK PIERSON WROTE A WHOLE BACKSTORY FOR THE CAPTAIN TO EXPLAIN ONE FAMOUS LINE.
“The phrase just sort of appeared on the page," Pierson said of the film's famous "What we've got here is ... failure to communicate" line. "I looked at it and thought, ‘Now that’s interesting,' Then I thought, these words are going to be spoken by an actor (Strother Martin) who is playing a real redneck character who probably never went beyond high school, and it has a faintly academic feel to it, that line. I thought, people are going to question it.” So he wrote a backstory for the character.
According to Pierson's biography of the Captain, Strother Martin's character advanced in the prison guard ranks by taking courses in criminology, where he was "exposed to an academic atmosphere." Donn Pearce still thought it was too intelligent of a statement to be made by the Captain, but Pierson won out.
13. NO, NEWMAN DID NOT EAT 50 EGGS.
About that now-iconic hardboiled egg scene? "I never swallowed an egg," Newman admitted to a reporter.
George Kennedy got into the specifics in his book Trust Me: A Memoir. He wrote that Newman "consumed" as many as eight eggs. As soon as Rosenberg would yell "cut," Newman vomited into nearby garbage cans.
14. GEORGE KENNEDY PAID FOR HIS OWN ADVERTISING TO HELP HIM WIN THE OSCAR.
Kennedy took out $5000 in trade paper advertising to campaign for an Oscar. The ad read "George Kennedy—Supporting" over a still from the movie of Dragline carrying Luke. Even so, Kennedy was still surprised when he did take home the statue for Best Supporting Actor—so much so that he hadn't even prepared a speech.
15. DONN PEARCE DIDN'T THINK PAUL NEWMAN WAS RIGHT FOR THE PART.
Though Newman received a lot of acclaim, and a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for playing the part of Luke, Pearce wasn't impressed. “They did a lousy job and I disliked it intensely,” he said in 2011. Pearce thought Newman "was so cute looking. He was too scrawny. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road."