The movie was based on Donn Pearce’s novel by the same name. Donn Pearce was sentenced by the Florida Department of Corrections for burglary when he was 20. He was told at that time about a man, Luke Jackson. In the story, Luke Jackson was an outstanding poker and banjo player and apparently ate 50 eggs one day, for a bet. The movie rights of the novel were sold for $80,000 by Pearce and the rest is history.
Many people were asked to play the lead role of Luke Jackson in the movie. Jack Lemmon was initially invited to play, as it was his company that produced the movie. But he refused as he didn’t think himself a suitable candidate. Telly Savalas was also invited but he also refused as he was shooting The Dirty Dozen in Europe and he refused to fly. Finally, Paul Newman was chosen as the lead actor.
The movie was based on stories of a Florida prison. As is often the case in Hollywood movies, the film was actually shot in California. Before shooting the film, a crew went to Tavares Road Prison in Florida and took pictures. After that, several duplicate buildings were built in Stockton, California where the film was actually shot.
One of the famous scenes in the movie was where Luke Jackson won the bet that he could eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour. However, Paul Newman never ate a single egg. In one interview, Newman admitted that the producers had put a trash can next to him and he spat out all the eggs.
There are a lot of people who will never forget this iconic scene. However, although it seemed to have been captured in a single shot, Joy Harmon’s car washing and the reactions of the prisoners were actually filmed separately.
In order to be more like the real Luke Jackman, Paul Newman flew to West Virginia where Luke was originally from to learn the local customs and accents. He even recorded several locals talking, so that he could be reminded during filming.
Donn Pearce, the author of the Cool Hand Luke novel, makes an appearance in the film, as a convict named Sailor. However, due to an argument on the final day of filming, he was not invited to the movie premiere.
One of the most famous lines in Cool Hand Luke was “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” It is currently ranked No. 11 on the list of most memorable lines by The American Film Institute. Said by “the Captain”, the line was so famous that it ended up being used in many songs, including the Guns N’ Roses songs “Madagascar” and “Civil War”.
At the time, the budget of Cool Hand Luke was quite large at $3.2 million. However, the film generated over $16.2 million at the box office. The film not only achieved huge success in box office terms, but also in reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert even it rated four out of four in his 2010 book.
One of the little tiny things that you might have missed was the traffic signs. It is true that the producers were also using traffic signs to express Luke’s feelings. For example, in the scene Luke was arrested for his vandalism, the lights turned from green to red. At the end of the movie, when Luke received his fatal injury, the light turned from green to red again.
The offense Luke committed that led to his sentencing was quite odd. He got drunk one evening and cut the heads off some parking meters. However, the odd crime he committed did impress his fellow chain gang members as they had never heard of anyone else doing such a thing. He even won the sympathy of the viewers as no-one likes parking meters, do they?
In order to make the actors more feel like they were members of a prison chain gang, director Stuart Rosenberg didn’t allow any woman on set, including the actors’ wives. In fact, even Joy Harmon was kept away during filming and stayed in a hotel all alone for two days and shot her scene with just the director for company.
In the film, Luke played the banjo and sang the song “Plastic Jesus”. It was Paul Newman who insisted that he should play the banjo. But there was only one problem – Paul didn’t know how to play the banjo. So he was taught how to play the song on the Banjo by Harry Dean Stanton, another actor who played a relatively small role in the film.
In the movie, Luke was supposed to be a Jesus-like hero, who won over crowds and was welcomed by everyone, but eventually sacrificed. If you look closely you’ll find the movie is rich with Christian imagery.
Due to his excellent performance, George Kennedy won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Award in 1968. He played the Dragline in the movie. In his Oscar Campaign, George took out a $5,000 ad in the newspaper, which said “George Kennedy – Supporting”. However, he never really thought that he could win and didn’t even prepared a speech!