The Big Idea Behind COOL HAND LUKE
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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