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Novelist Donn Peace based Cool Hand Luke on his own experiences on a chain gang in Florida. In fact, Paul Newman’s character was a combination of himself, the real Luke, and a bit of fiction.
Peace was brought on as the film’s technical advisor and even got to play a prisoner. Go further behind-the-scenes of the memorable flick below!
1. The actors had fun.
The all-star cast included Newman, George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, and more. Many were from the Actors Studio in New York, whose notable members included Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Julie Harris, and James Dean. While on set, the actors would play cards and joke around, which sometimes got in the way of filming. However, Director Stuart Rosenberg didn’t reprimand them because he wanted to keep that rebel energy alive to capture it on film.
2. The novel had a different crime.
In the novel, Cool Hand Luke purposefully crashed his car into a diner to steal money. Director Stuart Rosenberg said, “I thought an awful lot of businessmen wouldn’t find that very heroic.” So the crime was changed to attacking parking meters, which was considered (rightly so) very relatable for the general public.
3. It’s California, not Florida.
Since the real prison camp was in Florida, the team wanted to film there. However, the budget didn’t allow for it, and they instead shot in the very hot Stockton, California. George Kennedy remembered that much detail went into making the set look as close to the real camp as possible including making the furnishings old and warped. They even hung moss in the trees.
4. The famous catchphrase almost got cut.
Talk about failure to communicate. Screenwriter Frank Pierson knew the line was good the minute he wrote it, but the director thought it would be odd for the weakling warden to use. But the game shows of the time brought inspiration, and the director imagined the warden like a host who latched onto one word and kept repeating it. Strother Martin’s delivery, of course, helped seal the deal on the memorable catchphrase.
5. Newman actually ate the eggs.
But not all of them. Garbage cans were kept close by so he could get rid of them once the take ended. George Kennedy estimated that he only actually ate eight to twelve eggs. Thankfully, his co-stars also ate the eggs. On the first day, the other actors ate approximately 200 eggs that the prop department made. However, by the third day, the egg-mania spoiled, and the actors couldn’t wait to get out of the egg-smelling room.
6. Aldo Ray was considered for Kennedy’s part.
Kennedy himself didn’t think he’d get it. He couldn’t imagine starring next to the big star, Paul Newman. Kennedy tested for the role and immediately after said aloud that he wished he had more time to prepare. That’s when the director told him he’d have plenty of time – he got the role. Director Stuart Rosenberg said, “What I was looking for was a big lovable bear because he had to be big enough to boss the likes of Newman.” For his performance, Kennedy won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
7. Newman learned to play the banjo.
The director felt that Cool Hand Luke’s character would benefit from playing a somber song. But Newman was hesitant because he didn’t sing and didn’t play the banjo. The director decided to film the scene last, so Newman would have time to learn the chords. There was tension as Newman tried to get it right, but eventually, the frustration played into the emotion. “Paul was just marvelous,” said Rosenberg.