The Big Idea Behind COOL HAND LUKE
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