skip navigation
Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke(1967)

Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (2)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Cool Hand Luke A free-spirited convict... MORE > $15.79 Regularly $19.98 Buy Now blu-ray


powered by AFI

teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)


Lucas Jackson is arrested for destroying several parking meters late one night while drunk in a small Southern town and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. A rebel with little respect for authority--and more guts than good sense--he gains the respect of his initially hostile fellow inmates by his frequent escape attempts and refusal to knuckle under to harsh treatment. They also enjoy his fearless behavior in the face of a bet or dare, which earns him the moniker "Cool Hand Luke." But even Luke has his limits, and after enduring relentless punishment, he begins to realize how badly the deck is stacked against him and questions if he can take much more.

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Screenplay: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Paul Newman (Luke), George Kennedy (Dragline), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Strother Martin (Captain), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Clifton James (Carr), Lou Antonio (Koko), Luke Askew (Boss Paul Hunnicut), Morgan Woodward (Boss Godfrey), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Harry Dean Stanton (Edgar 'Tramp' Potter).
C-127m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

Why COOL HAND LUKE is Essential

Back in the 1960s, you couldn't go wrong producing music, literature, and drama about individuals at odds with society, or free spirits bucking unjust and unreasonable authority. It was also a pretty safe bet playing to everyone's worst notions of what the South was really like, with all its supposed ignorance, poverty, brutality, and perversion. It also didn't hurt to give your story a strong whiff of allegory, adding notes of spiritual grace and heroism. In all these respects, Cool Hand Luke is a quintessential film of its time, a progenitor of such characteristic works as Easy Rider (1969) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (released in 1975 but based on a 1962 novel by 60s icon Ken Kesey).

The film's protagonist is not a recognizable figure of the era's counter-culture; he's no free-love hippie or dedicated anti-war activist, yet younger audiences were drawn to his rebellious nature. In fact, the script's most famous line, "What we have here is failure to communicate," seemed to speak to the growing divide between generations, races, and political philosophies of the decade. Luke is not a hero in any conventional sense; he isn't fighting for a cause, and he's no seeker of truth or justice. Although his punishment is disproportionate to his crime, he has, in fact, been sentenced as anyone would be for breaking the law, not out of hunger or other form of either desperation or conviction but merely for a capricious, adolescent act of vandalism. Cool Hand Luke is no social-reform expos like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

Luke has no particular agenda or set of beliefs that put him at odds with the rest of the world beyond his status, which remains unexplained other than he's simply one who doesn't "fit in." We're meant to accept him from the beginning as an iconic outsider and loner, and if that's not enough to root for him, the filmmakers stack the deck in his favor by portraying his jailers as almost unanimously sadistic and unsympathetic while portraying him in the most positive light and his fellow convicts as by and large a rather likable bunch. The glow in which Luke is bathed quickly becomes a virtual halo as director Stuart Rosenberg (whose only previous feature, Question 7 (1961), was an obscure drama about Christian persecution under Soviet rule) peppers the film with obvious Christ symbolism that irked many reviewers.

So what made Cool Hand Luke succeed and what brings viewers back to it decades later? The script certainly goes a long way toward explaining the appeal. Frank Pierson took Donn Pearce's true-life novel (and subsequent first-draft screenplay) about his own experiences of harsh life on a chain gang and broadened it, lightening it up without losing any of the brutality. There is comedy (the famous egg-eating sequence), pathos (Luke's last meeting with his dying mother, beautifully rendered by Jo Van Fleet), even a brief moment of sex (the now-clichd car wash scene). More notable, however, are the writers' colorful verbiage--the falsely sensitive pontificating of the prison camp's captain (Strother Martin, in a role that made him famous after nearly 20 years of character parts) or the affectionate, even homoerotic, descriptions of Luke from the mouth of alpha convict Dragline (George Kennedy, the film's other breakout performance and an Oscar® winner). Some of the dialogue has a kind of rough poetry, such as the laying down of rules by the barracks boss Carr, a monologue that wouldn't be entirely out of place in a David Mamet work.

There are also aspects of the picture that come from earlier cinematic times, predating the anti-authoritarian bent of the 1960s, accounting for its popularity among more than just youth audiences. In the way it mixes types, rather than fully fleshed characters, among the incarcerated men, in an odd camaraderie that transcends any of their hostility and differences, and in the isolation punishment of "The Box," Cool Hand Luke strongly recalls the war films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). The comparison to the latter film is even more striking in the sense of fun and adventure that imbues Luke's repeated escapes and recaptures and the hero worship they engender among the convicts. It's a winning formula from an earlier more "heroic" genre brought into an essentially pessimistic story of aimless defiance.

Ultimately, however, what makes Cool Hand Luke work is its star. Odd to consider that Jack Lemmon, whose company produced the picture, might have taken the role so indelibly identified today with Paul Newman. Coming off a string of hits that made him one of the top anti-hero figures of the decade--all of them, curiously, beginning with the letter H (The Hustler, 1961; Hud, 1963; Harper (1966); and Hombre, 1967)--Newman slid effortlessly into Luke's skin, a role that seemed tailor-made for him. Rosenberg called the character "The perfect existential hero," and Newman described him as "the ultimate non-conformist and rebel...a free agent." Today, Luke seems more a victim of his own self-ostracism, even something of a masochist. But in Newman's hands, he becomes an immensely appealing figure. Partly, that's a function of the actor's physical attributes: the legendary blue eyes, the devilish smile, the lean, athletic physique, all of which made him exactly the wrong choice for the role in author Pearce's eyes. Then, there is the combination of toughness, charm, and world-weariness he brought to the character. It would become arguably the signature role of Newman's career, and the obvious delight he took in playing Luke breaks through even the most dated and overdone aspects of the film to make Cool Hand Luke, in the minds of its many admirers, both fondly remembered and worth revisiting.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

People continue to use the most famous line in Cool Hand Luke to this day, even if they don't always remember where it came from. "What we have here is failure to communicate," uttered by the evil Captain (Strother Martin) was credited for a time to Donn Pearce, author of the book on which the film is based. But Pearce never wrote the line in his novel; it was added by screenwriter Frank Pierson. Recently, citations have been corrected giving Pierson credit for the line. There are actually two versions of the quote, one with the article "a" before failure (uttered by Luke toward the end of the film) and the one without, spoken by the Captain. When people quote it today, it is usually with the article. The phrase is #11 on the American Film Institute's list of great movie quotes.

"What we have here is (a) failure to communicate" has also been used in the movies Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Waterworld (1995, spoken by Dennis Hopper, who has a bit role in Cool Hand Luke), Major Payne (1995), Halloween (2007), and on the TV show Californication.

The rock band Guns N' Roses used the line in two songs, 1990's "Civil War" and in 2008 in "Madagascar."

The famous quote has often been attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, and used against him in 60s counter-culture, particularly by the anti-war movement, but Frank Pierson, the screenplay's co-writer, says the line just came to him. Donn Pearce, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the script, objected to it as being too intellectual coming from the Captain's mouth. There was some debate about it, but the film's creators finally decided to keep it in.

An edited version of one of the musical cues from the film, heard in the sequence when the prisoners are tarring the dirt road, turned up later as a music theme on the news programs of many television stations. It was first used on New York's WABC-TV "Eyewitness News" broadcast, then picked up by other ABC programs. Other uses, some of them continuing to the present, include several news programs in Australia.

Cool Hand Luke's is the name of a chain of steakhouses in California and Idaho with a Western theme ("hungry buckaroo") that has nothing to do with the movie.

A gun shop in Buckport, Maine, is called Cool Hand Luke's Firearms.

The title has been applied in various circumstances to noteworthy people named Luke, particularly sports stars, such as English footballer Luke Daniels.

Cool Hand Luke has had some influence on other movies in the prison genre, such as Papillon (1973) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The influence can be seen most significantly in the Eddie Murphy film Life (1999), which contains a direct homage to the fight scene between Paul Newman and George Kennedy.

Life on a chain gang has been the setting for several notable films, whether used for humorous effect, as in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run(1969) and the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), or as social commentary in the Depression drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and the 1940s comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941).

At Dennis Hopper's invitation, avant garde filmmaker Bruce Conner shot some footage of the cast clearing brush from the roadside under a blisteringly hot sun. The resulting film, Luke (1967), captured on 8mm and edited entirely in camera, is a haunting slow-motion study of how a film is made, with an electronic score by Patrick Gleeson.

The seductive car wash scene, with the voluptuous, scantily clad girl rubbing her body all over the wet vehicle, has been copied dozens of times over, most recently by Jessica Simpson in the video for the song "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" from the film The Dukes of Hazard (2005).

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

"There's a good smell about this. We're gonna have a good picture." - Paul Newman to a visitor to the film's set

Cool Hand Luke opened in November 1967. It was a tremendous box office success.

In the shot in Cool Hand Luke where they're taking the mortally wounded Luke away, the lights on the traffic signal are reversed--green at top, red on the bottom.

Although the novel based on his life on a chain gang was relatively obscure, Donn Pearce had some hope that the critical and commercial success of the movie would bring a turn in his fortunes. But lasting success has eluded the Pennsylvania native born in 1928. Although he wrote the first draft of the screenplay and got co-credit for the adaptation (with Frank Pierson), appeared in a small role as the convict Sailor, and acted as the production's technical adviser, Pearce says he wasn't invited to the premiere. He did attend the Academy Award ceremony, where he and Pierson were nominated for their writing, but they lost to Stirling Silliphant for In the Heat of the Night (1967). Pearce continued to try to make a career as a writer, but his follow-up books were not well received until the 2004 publication of his novel Nobody Comes Back. Over the years, he has also supported himself as a process server, bail bondsman, and private investigator.

"I seem to be the only guy in the United States who doesn't like the movie. Everyone had a whack at it. They screwed it up 99 different ways." - Donn Pearce, author of the book and co-screenwriter, to the Miami Herald, 1989. For one thing, Pearce thought Paul Newman was "too scrawny" and completely wrong for the part.

Co-writer Frank Pierson won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), for which he also received an award from the Writers Guild of America. He served as that organization's president from 1981 to 1983. Pierson has also directed for television and film; his two theatrical features are A Star Is Born (1976) and King of the Gypsies (1978).

For the first nine years of his career, director Stuart Rosenberg worked almost exclusively on television; his credits there include The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His only feature film before Cool Hand Luke was Question 7 (1961), a suspense drama about Christians trapped in Communist East Germany, financed in part by a Lutheran organization. After Cool Hand Luke, he worked with Paul Newman three more times, on WUSA (1970), Pocket Money (1972), and The Drowning Pool (1975). He also directed the original The Amityville Horror (1979) and the prison drama Brubaker (1980), starring Robert Redford. He died in 2007 at the age of 79.

Rosenberg taught filmmaking at the American Film Institute in 1993. Among his students was Darren Aronofsky, who made Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010).

Cinematographer Conrad Hall (1926-2003) was one of the most respected film craftsmen in the business, a three-time Oscar® winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), American Beauty (1999), and Road to Perdition (2002), awarded posthumously. His other outstanding works include In Cold Blood (1967), Fat City (1972), and Smile (1975).

Cool Hand Luke was the first Academy Award nomination for Argentine-born composer Lalo Schifrin. His most famous composition is the theme song from the television series Mission: Impossible.

While Paul Newman was considered a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination as Luke, George Kennedy was taking no chances. "With Warners pushing Camelot and Bonnie and Clyde, I'm afraid that not enough people will see Cool Hand Luke," he said. Kennedy spent $5,000 on trade-paper ads to urge Academy voters to check out his performance. His ads showed a shot of him in the film carrying a wounded Newman with the words: "George Kennedy--Supporting." Even after getting nominated, Kennedy was so sure he wouldn't win that when the award was given to him, he had no prepared speech.

Despite his auspicious beginnings in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), Dennis Hopper's career fortunes in the late 1950s and early 1960s were not high, thanks in large part to being so at odds with the mainstream Hollywood community, and he was usually relegated to minor roles on television and the occasional feature, as he is here in a role that has almost no dialogue. It wasn't until Easy Rider (1969), that Hopper began to achieve the status he retains to this day. He died in May 2010 with more than 100 films to his credit.

Jo Van Fleet (Arletta, Luke's mother) and Richard Davalos (convict Blind Dick) made their feature film debuts in East of Eden (1955). Davalos beat out Paul Newman for the role as James Dean's brother in East of Eden.

Although she played his mother in Cool Hand Luke, Jo Van Fleet was actually only 11 years older than Paul Newman. This wasn't the first--or worst--such casting for Van Fleet. She was only 11 years older than Peter Sellers when she played his mother in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968) and less than three years older than screen "daughter" Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955).

Strother Martin, who utters the film's most famous line, labored for many years as an often-seen but little-noted character actor in such films as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) until his performance as Captain in Cool Hand Luke made him something of a celebrity. Since then, he was much sought after for roles in many films and TV shows, including The Wild Bunch (1969) and two more pictures with Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slap Shot (1977). Martin died in 1980 at the age of 61.

The cast contains a number of character actors who have since become better known for other work. Wayne Rogers (Gambler) was a regular on the TV series M.A.S.H. for many years. Ralph Waite (Alibi) later played the father on the series The Waltons. Harry Dean Stanton (Tramp) has had a long career ranging from villains to victims to just regular guys in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Kelly's Heroes (1970), Wise Blood (1979), and the lead in Paris, Texas (1984). Recently he has been seen as the patriarch of a splinter religious group in the HBO series Big Love. After several television appearances, Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy) made his film debut with this picture. Among his other notable roles were Papillon (1973), The Turning Point (1977), Licence to Kill (1989), and the last two films in The Matrix trilogy (2003). Joe Don Baker appears in an uncredited role as Fixer. His breakthrough role came as the indomitable Sheriff Buford Pusser in Walking Tall (1973).

The uncredited role of the Sheriff is played by Rance Howard, father of actor-director Ron Howard and actor Clint Howard.

In addition to the very obvious crucifixion symbolism in the picture, some have read biblical significance into Luke's prison number, 37, as a reference to Luke 1:37, which reads "For with God, nothing shall be impossible."

Memorable Quotes from COOL HAND LUKE

CAPTAIN (Strother Martin): It's all up to you. Now I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean sum-bitch.

CARR (Clifton James): Them clothes got laundry numbers on them. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends a night in the box. These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There's no playing grab-ass or fighting in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playing grab-ass or fighting in the building spends a night in the box. First bell is at five minutes of eight when you will get in your bunk. Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends the night in the box. There is no smoking in the prone position in bed. To smoke you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smoking in the prone position in bed spends a night in the box. You get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top, the top sheet on the bottom, and the bottom sheet you turn in to the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one'll sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sitting on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don't bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud talking spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me. I'm Carr, the floor walker. I'm responsible for order in here. Any man don't keep order spends a night in...
LUKE (Paul Newman): ...the box.
CARR: I hope you ain't going to be a hard case.

LUKE: (on why he was cutting the heads off parking meters) You know how it is, small town, not much to do in the evenin'. Mostly was just settling old scores.

DRAGLINE (George Kennedy): He ain't in the box because of the joke played on him. He back-sassed a free man. They got their rules. We ain't got nothin' to do with that. Would probably have happened to him sooner or later anyway, a complainer like him. He gotta learn the rules the same as anybody else.
LUKE: Yeah, them poor old bosses need all the help they can get.

DRAGLINE: Anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named Lucille.

LUKE: Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.

ARLETTA (Jo Van Fleet): Ya know, sometimes I wished people was like dogs, Luke. Comes a time, a day like, when the bitch just don't recognize the pups no more so she don't have no hopes nor love to give her pain. She just don't give a damn.

DRAGLINE: Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'.

LUKE: I can eat fifty eggs.
DRAGLINE: Nobody can eat fifty eggs.
SOCIETY RED (J.D. Cannon): You just said he could eat anything.
DRAGLINE: Did you ever eat fifty eggs?
LUKE: Nobody ever eat fifty eggs.
GAMBLER (Wayne Rogers): Hey, Babalugats. We got a bet here.
DRAGLINE: My boy says he can eat fifty eggs, he can eat fifty eggs.
LOUDMOUTH STEVE (Robert Drivas): Yeah, but in how long?
LUKE: A hour.
SOCIETY RED: Well, I believe I'll take part of that wager.

DRAGLINE: You gone too far when you mess with the man with no eyes.

DRAGLINE: That's my darlin' Luke. He grin like a baby but he bite like a gator.

CAPTAIN: You gonna get used to wearin' them chains after a while, Luke. Don't you never stop listenin' to them clinking. 'Cause they gonna remind you of what I been saying. For your own good.
LUKE: Wish you'd stop being so good to me, Captain.
CAPTAIN: Don't you ever talk to me that way. Never! Never!!

CAPTAIN: 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.

DOG BOY (Anthony Zerbe): You gettin' so you smell so bad I can track you myself.
LUKE: Yeah, well, that oughta be easy for a genuine son of a bitch.

CAPTAIN: You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice, you got yourself two sets. You ain't gonna need no third set, cause you gonna get your mind right. And I mean right.

LUKE: Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin' it? Come on. You're welcome to it, ol' timer. Let me know you're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it. (looks around) I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself.

LUKE: (talking to God in empty church) Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can you spare a minute. It's about time we had a little talk. I know I'm a pretty evil fellow--killed people in the war and got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much, but even so, you've got to admit you ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of them...rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Old Man, I gotta tell you. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do you got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right. (kneels to pray) On my knees, asking. Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess I'm pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way. (cops cars pull up) Is that your answer, Old Man? I guess you're a hard case, too.

DRAGLINE: He was smiling. That's right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Ol', Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Donn Pearce had a life that clearly influenced his novel Cool Hand Luke. A dropout at 15, he joined the army a year later (1944) by lying about his age, but chafing under authority, he soon went AWOL. He was court-martialed and sentenced to 30 days in the stockade, but his time was commuted in favor of sending him into combat. He sent a desperate letter to his mother, who informed the Army he was underage, and he was discharged. At 17, he joined the Merchant Marine and landed in Paris, where he got involved in the black market. Busted by military police, he was sent to a French prison but escaped, first through Italy then to Canada and eventually back into the States. He partnered with an older man in safecracking and burglary and was arrested in Tampa, Florida, in 1949. At only 20, he was sentenced to five years hard labor on a chain gang he described as "a chamber of horrors." While incarcerated, he met another inmate who had graduated from college; the man became his mentor and encouraged Pearce to write. After two years, he was released, returned to the Merchant Marine, and began writing on long voyages. Recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1959, he wrote a book about his experiences on the chain gang. Finally published in 1965, the novel received good reviews but didn't sell well. The New York Time called Cool Hand Luke "an impressive novel" and Publisher's Weekly praised Pearce's "extraordinary gift for rhythmic prose, tragic drama, and realism made larger than life."

Pearce's main character was an amalgam of his own experiences and those of a safecracker he knew, Donald Graham Garrison. In the course of his career, Garrison stole between $4 and $5 million dollars.

Stuart Rosenberg had been working successfully in television since 1968, except for his one rather obscure theatrical feature, a Christian-themed drama called Question 7 (1961). Rosenberg discovered Pearce's book and took it to Jalem, Jack Lemmon's production company, hoping to make a feature film of it. Jalem bought the film rights and hired Pearce to take a first pass at a screenplay draft, with the notion of possibly starring Lemmon himself.

According to Lemmon's son Chris in a recent radio interview, Lemmon read the script and decided he'd be wrong for the part. Producer Gordon Carroll wanted character actor Telly Savalas, but he was in Europe making The Dirty Dozen (1967) and unavailable.

Pearce's inexperience with screenwriting was soon apparent, so Jalem hired Frank Pierson, whose recent successes included scripts for Cat Ballou (1965), to complete the script.

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen had just passed on playing the two killers in the film version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1967). Around that time, Newman became aware that the Cool Hand Luke project was in the works and asked to be cast even before reading the screenplay. "It's one of the few roles I've committed myself to on the basis of the original book, without seeing a script. It would have worked no matter how many mistakes were made."

As soon as he was hired, Newman plunged into research, spending time in West Virginia talking to locals, recording their accents, asking their opinions on a range of subjects. His presence in the town of Huntington caused quite a stir. Only a nun teaching at a local high school was unimpressed, telling him upon their introduction, "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Newman. What do you do for a living?"

Bette Davis was offered the one-scene role of Arletta, Luke's dying mother, but turned it down. It went instead to veteran stage and screen actress and Academy Award-winner Jo Van Fleet.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Newman's brother Arthur was hired as unit production manager on Cool Hand Luke. Paul often teased his brother about the hats he always wore to hide his baldness but genuinely enjoyed having him on set. Arthur was one of the few people he trusted in money matters.

Location shooting around Stockton and the San Joaquin River delta in California substituted for the South. Spanish moss was imported from Louisiana to hang from the trees around the prison for a more authentic Southern feel.

A dozen buildings were constructed for the prison set, including a barracks, mess hall, warden's quarters, guard shack, and dog kennels. While passing by the prison set, a San Joaquin County building inspector thought it was a recently constructed migrant worker's complex and posted condemned notices on the buildings for not being up to code.

The opening scene of Luke cutting the tops off parking meters was filmed in Lodi, California. The city did not immediately replace the meters, and for a few years after filming, you could see a block-long row of meterless metal posts.

According to one source, the actors actually blacktopped a mile-long stretch of highway for the county in the road-tarring sequence.

Newman enjoyed making Cool Hand Luke, and when he wasn't needed on set, often tooled around the Stockton area either in a blue Mercury convertible or on a motorcycle. "I had great fun with that part," he said. "I liked that man."

Newman learned the basics of playing the banjo for the scene in which he sings "Plastic Jesus" after his mother's death. The instrument is not an easy one to learn, and he became more frustrated and angry with every mistake he made, which he did not show on camera except for the increasing acceleration of his playing. When the song was finished, director Stuart Rosenberg called "Print," but Newman insisted he could do it better. "Nobody could do it better," Rosenberg replied.

In an interview for Turner Classic Movies, George Kennedy talked about the shooting of the car wash scene. Voluptuous actress Joy Harmon was hired for a half day's work to get shots of her character "Lucille" scrubbing the old vehicle seductively with one eye on the road gang. The actors playing the convicts, however, were not present. Kennedy said it took three days, not half a day, to get the shots. "Somewhere in this world, there is about 86,000 feet of that girl washing that car," he joked. Kennedy also noted that when the time came for the actors to play the reverse shots of the convicts working in a ditch and being driven crazy by the sight of the sexy car wash, director Stuart Rosenberg didn't use Harmon. Instead, he substituted a teenage cheerleader fully dressed in an overcoat. "It took a lot of imagination," Kennedy wryly commented.

The fight scene between Dragline (George Kennedy) and Luke (Paul Newman) took three days to shoot. Kennedy said they were both completely worn out from fighting and, in Newman's case, from falling onto hard ground for three full days.

Cinematographer Conrad Hall later recalled shooting one scene five times because executives at Warner Brothers, which was distributing Cool Hand Luke, complained that Newman's famous blue eyes weren't coming through prominently enough in the dailies.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

During his reign as a top box office star in the sixties, Paul Newman made his mark in films featuring rebellious, anti-establishment characters. Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a perfect example and one of his most audience-pleasing movies. Unlike the characters he played in The Hustler or Hud, Luke is actually based on a real-life character, Donald Graham Garrison, who was a convicted safecracker. In the course of his career, Garrison stole between $4 and $5 million dollars. Garrison's exploits inspired a novel by Donn Pearce, another ex-convict, who combined details from his own incarceration with Garrison's story to create a compelling anti-hero. Pearce even makes a brief cameo in the film as an ex-con named Sailor.

Cool Hand Luke was set in the Deep South but actually filmed on location in Stockton, California. While the movie painted an authentic visual portrait of life on a chain gang, it was individual scenes that earned Cool Hand Luke a cult reputation: Strother Martin as the head jailer uttering the famous line, "What we got here is a failure to communicate," Newman's egg-eating contest, and the brutal boxing match between Newman and his fellow in-mate George Kennedy. The movie makes for particularly interesting viewing today due to its eclectic and fascinating supporting cast - Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers (from the TV series M.A.S.H.), Ralph Waite (from the TV series The Waltons), Joe Don Baker, Anthony Zerbe, and Richard Davalos, who appeared with James Dean in East of Eden.

The biggest surprise in Cool Hand Luke, however, is George Kennedy's breakout performance as Dragline, the hulking chain gang leader who at first despises Luke and then comes to admire him. Kennedy, who had previously been typecast mostly as heavies, walked off with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the film. The other Academy Award nominations were for Best Actor (Newman lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score.

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Screenplay: Donn Pierce, Frank Pierson
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Paul Newman (Luke), George Kennedy (Dragline), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Strother Martin (Captain), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Clifton James (Carr), Lou Antonio (Koko), Luke Askew (Boss Paul Hunnicut), Morgan Woodward (Boss Godfrey), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), John McLiam (Boss Kean), Harry Dean Stanton (Edgar 'Tramp' Potter).
C-127m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

back to top
teaser Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Awards & Honors

Cool Hand Luke was voted one of the year's Ten Best Films by the New York Times film critics

Oscar® honors for the film included the Academy Award to George Kennedy for Best Supporting Actor; nominations to Paul Newman (Best Actor), Lalo Schifrin (Original Music Score), Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson (Best Writing)

Directors Guild of America nomination for Stuart Rosenberg

Golden Globe nominations for Paul Newman and George Kennedy

Laurel Award (exhibitors) to George Kennedy for Male Supporting Performance; 3rd place to Paul Newman for Male Dramatic Performance

Cool Hand Luke was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board in 2005 to be one of the films preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress

Critic Reviews: COOL HAND LUKE

"Maybe the best American film of 1967" - critic John Simon, 1967

"That traditional object of sorrow and compassion in American folk song and lore, the chain-gang prisoner, is given as strong a presentation as ever he has had on the screen in Cool Hand Luke.... What elevates this brutal picture above the ruck of prison films and into the range of intelligent contemplation of the ironies of life is a sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, ruthlessly realistic and plausible staging and directing by a new man, Stuart Rosenberg, and splendid acting by Paul Newman and a totally unfaultable cast. Mr. Newman is excellent, at the top of his sometimes erratic form, in the role of this warped and alienated loner whose destiny it is to lose. George Kennedy is powerfully obsessive as the top-dog who handles things his way as effectively and finally as destructively as does the warden or the guards. Strother Martin, Luke Askew, Morgan Woodward, and several others are blood-chilling as these red-necked brutes, and any number of others are fine as prisoners. A special word of commendation must be said for Jo Van Fleet as Mr. Newman's mother, who, in one scene, in which she comes to visit him propped up in the back of a truck, does as much to make us comprehend the background and the emotional hang-up of the loner as might have been done in the entire length of a good film." - Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 2, 1967

"TV Director Stuart Rosenberg (The Defenders) distinguishes his first full-fledged feature [sic] by fragmenting his mob of a cast into many highly individual sufferers. His occasional failures are those of ambition, not laxness. The heavy-handed Christian symbolism--Luke is several times shown in crucified positions and has some unconvincing monologues with the God he doesn't believe in--is not only labored but out of style with the rest of the film. Rosenberg's treatment of evil, personified by the brutal prison guards, descends too often from portrayal to caricature. Still, there is enough left in the old theme to make Luke a prisoner of grace, and a picture of chilling dramatic power." - Time, November 10, 1967

"Mr. Newman's Luke is a genuine creation, funny and touching; George Kennedy is superb as his illiterate buddy whose devotion speeds him to his doom; and Jo Van Fleet has a single marvelous scene as Luke's dying mother...." - Penelope Gilliatt, The New Yorker, 1967

"The camerawork is efficient and copes well with those few difficult occasions when it has to deal with confined spaces. Every light source becomes a glaring irritation. The sun, light-bulbs, headlamps: all illuminate every moment of the prisoners' agony, for they are not allowed the privacy of darkness." - David Austen, Films and Filming, 1967

"If there is such a thing as tasteful violence, this film has it. We are made to understand what is going on, why it is going on, and what is right or wrong about it. Cool Hand Luke may not be humane but it is certainly human." - Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review, 1967

"A gutsy and powerful and well-made drama in its own right. But with Paul Newman heading its cast, it approaches grade-A artistry." - Lawrence Quirk, Screen Slants

"Rarely has an important star suffered more, in a film wall-to-wall with physical punishment, psychological cruelty, hopelessness and equal parts of sadism and masochism. It is a great film. On that most of us can agree. ... Much was made by many critics, myself included, of Newman's 'anti-hero' stature in Luke and other films he made around the same time. ... I'm no longer sure he's an anti-hero in Cool Hand Luke. I think he's more of a willing martyr, a man so obsessed with the wrongness of the world that he invites death to prove himself correct. ... In my review from 1967, I wrote that Luke was 'always smiling, always ready for a little fun. He eats 50 hard-boiled eggs on a bet and collects all the money in the camp. That's Luke, he's a cool hand.' What was I thinking? Today, the egg-eating scene strikes me as all but unwatchable. The physical suffering and danger are sickening.... Having seen this powerful, punishing movie again freshly, I reflect that in 1967 I didn't approach it with the proper amount of pessimism." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, July 10, 2008

"A caustically witty look at the American South and its still-surviving chain gangs, with Newman in fine sardonic form as the boss-baiter who refuses to submit and becomes a hero to his fellow-prisoners. Underlying the hard-bitten surface is a slightly uncomfortable allegory which identifies Newman as a Christ figure (and reminds one that Rosenberg once directed the awful, Moral Rearmament-ish Question 7). But this scarcely detracts from the brilliantly idiosyncratic script (by Donn Pearce from his own novel) or from Conrad Hall's glittering camerawork (which survives Rosenberg's penchant for the zoom lens and shots reflected in sun-glasses)." - Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide

by Rob Nixon

back to top