The classic anti-establishment movie “Cool Hand Luke,” was based on a novel written by the American author, Donn Pearce. In the novel, Pearce writes about the personal experiences he went through during his own time spent on a Florida Department of Corrections chain gang, and those of stories of legendary prisoners retold over and over. Pearce was particularly raptured when he heard stories of one prisoner whose legend eclipsed all others, named Luke (Lucas) Jackson, which later became the main character of the film.
In Pearce’s original novel, his focus was actually more on the harsh day-to-day life of the group of prisoners, more so than the solitary experiences of the lead character, Luke Jackson in the film. Ultimately, Pearce made the “Cool Hand Luke” character become part of his fellow convicts’ mythology and a symbol of hope and survival.
According to Donn Pearce, the lead role should have been given to a more rugged and macho actor, instead of someone as charming as Newman’s portrayal. Pearce was suspect of Paul Newman’s good nature and movie star looks came off as soft. It was even reported that Pearce said Newman, “Wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.” One of Paul Newman’s instructions to writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson was that they did not tailor the script for him. He wanted a part that would really stretch him, and not just play to his strengths.
Donn Pearce himself made a cameo appearance as a character named Sailor, one of the chain gang convicts. Pearce could have had more screen time but he had some anger issues, and a violent streak. After punching someone during the final day of filming, he was banned from the “Cool Hand Luke” set, and also from the movie premiere. This must have some stirred-up a good amount of awkwardness and hard feelings for Donn Pearce.
Originally, the memorable and touching scene where Luke plays the song “Plastic Jesus” as an ode to his passed mother, Arletta (played by Jo Van Fleet) was scheduled for the beginning of the shoot, but after Paul Newman stubbornly insisted on playing the banjo himself, director Stuart Rosenberg delayed shooting the scene a few weeks. The one and only Harry Dean Stanton (credited “Dean Stanton” in “Cool Hand Luke”) jumped-in and personally took Newman under-wing, and taught him how to play “Plastic Jesus” on the banjo.
The legendary actress Jo Van Fleet (who portrayed Arletta, Luke’s dying mother), seen photographed laying innocently in bed with the actor Paul Newman during a break from shooting, “Cool Hand Luke.” Although she played his mother in the film, Jo Van Fleet was only eleven years older than Paul Newman. The scene where Luke is visited by his mother needed to be filmed in one day. Given that the scene was eight dialogue filled pages long, that was quite a tall order. However, because the cast members involved, Paul Newman and Jo Van Fleet, were stage-trained professionals, it went off without a hitch. For her single day of shooting, Jo Van Fleet sat on a tree stump, two hundred yards from everyone else, looking over her lines. Harry Dean Stanton recalled that she asked him to sing to her before her epic take, and it made her cry.
When they finally shot the “Plastic Jesus” scene, Newman’s playing was deemed unsatisfactory, and it was bumped until the next-to-last day of production. Paul Newman and Stuart Rosenberg clashed and had a shouting match after Newman still couldn’t quite get it down. In what George Kennedy (Dragline) remembered as a “tense, electrically-charged, quiet place,” Newman tried it again. When he finished, Rosenberg barked, “Print.” Paul Newman again insisted he could do better. “Nobody could do it better,” Rosenberg briskly replied. And that was that.
The famous lines that are without question the most memorable and quoted, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it, well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men,” can be heard in the introduction of the song “Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses. The band would later use audio of the first line from the movie again, this time for the song “Madagascar” on the album “Chinese Democracy.”
Though the role of Luke Jackson was ultimately given to Paul Newman, the casting process was tedious and troublesome. The producers initially approached eight-time Academy Award nominee Jack Lemmon but Jack felt he would not do the character justice. According to Jack Lemmon’s son Chris Lemmon in an Icons Radio Interview, Jack was originally selected to play the part of Luke, but after reading the script, saw that Paul Newman would be better. So he decided to produce it instead. Reportedly, Telly Savalas was originally considered for the role of either Luke or Dragline. However, he was in Europe filming “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and was not willing to fly back to audition. Paul Newman, who was already a very popular and proven leading man, was finally chosen for the role of Lucas “Luke” Jackson.
The famous Cool Hand Luke line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” was voted the #11 movie quote by the American Film Institute. When Frank Pierson wrote that dialogue to be delivered by an uneducated, redneck prison guard, he worried that people wouldn’t find it authentic. So he wrote a biography of the guard, explaining that in order to advance to a higher grade in the system, (eventually achieving the position of Captain, played by Strother Martin), he had been required to take criminology courses, thus exposing him to the kind of academic vocabulary that would justify him using the “communicate” phrase. But as it turned out, no one questioned the line, nor needed to read the fictional account.