MRR's Movie of the Week: Five Facts You May Not Know About "Cool Hand Luke"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
January 15th, 2013

MRR's Movie of the Week: Five Facts You May Not Know About "Cool Hand Luke"

Released in 1967, "Cool Hand Luke" is an American prison drama that was adapted from a novel by Donn Pearce. The novel was based on Pearce's experiences while serving a two-year chain-gang sentence at Tavares Road Prison for safe breaking. Pearce actually makes an appearance in the film as a convict named Sailor. Although it has been more than forty years since the film's first release, many still consider it one of the most important films in history. So much so, that the United States Library of Congress chose it to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2005. Even today, the characters and lines from the film remain ingrained in the memories of fans.

A young Paul Newman fills the title role as Luke Jackson, who is arrested for cutting off the heads of the parking meters in a small town during a drunken rampage in the early 1960s. He is sentenced to two years at a Florida prison camp. A decorated Korean War veteran, Luke refuses to submit to the system and the rules of the camp, which is operated by a cold and heartless captain. "Cool Hand Luke" garnered an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for George Kennedy. It was also nominated for several other awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Fans of the film that have not had the opportunity to see it for some time or those new to the film may be surprised to find there is quite a bit of surprising trivia associated with "Cool Hand Luke." Read on to discover five fascinating facts about this film.

1. Originally, an offer of the role of Luke's mother was made to screen legend Bette Davis. The role was only a bit part; however, and she refused it. Jo Van Fleet ultimately won the role and played the part of Luke's mother even though the actress was actually only eleven years older than Paul Newman.

2. The most famous line of the film, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," was deemed one of the most popular movie quotes of all time by the American Film Institute. The line was originally written by screenwriter Frank Pierson, who was concerned that audiences would not find the piece of dialogue to be authentic because it was to be delivered by an uneducated prison guard. To justify the line, Pierson went on to write the guard's biography, explaining that the guard had been required to take courses in criminology in order to progress in the system. The quote can also be heard in the introduction to the Guns N' Roses song "Civil War."

3. Along with its cultural significance, "Cool Hand Luke" has also proven to be important to the history of cinematography because it was the film debut of several actors. Anthony Zerbe appears in the film as Dog Boy. Zerbe went on to become an Emmy-winning television actor and has appeared in a number of notable films, including "The Omega Man," "Licence to Kill," and two "Matrix" films. Although he was not credited in the film, James Gammon also made his debut in the film, appearing as Sleepy. Gammon later appeared in "Urban Cowboy," but he is most famous for his role as Lou Brown, manager of the Cleveland Indians, in "Major League." Also making his film debut in "Cool Hand Luke" is an actor named Ralph Waite, who plays Alibi. Waite later became known for his role as John Walton, Sr. on the television series "The Waltons." He has also had numerous guest roles on many other television series.

4. Although "Cool Hand Luke" takes place in a Florida prison camp, the set for the film was actually constructed just outside of Stockton, California. Approximately twelve buildings were built to look like a southern prison camp, including a mess hall, barracks, guard shack, dog kennels, and the warden's quarters. Multiple truckloads of Spanish moss were shipped to the California set from Louisiana to create a more realistic appearance. The efforts certainly seem to have been effective. While driving by the set, a building inspector from San Joaquin County thought the set was a recently constructed migrant worker's complex and posted condemnation notices on the buildings because they were not up to code.

5. Perhaps one of the most memorable characters in the film is Boss Godfrey, also known as The Man With No Eyes. The nickname stems from the fact that he doesn't remove his mirrored shades until the very end of the film when the shades are knocked off and seen lying in the mud before they are run over by a car. Morgan Woodward, the actor who played the iconic role, remained fully in character throughout filming, even during his breaks between scenes when he would sit still wearing the mirrored glasses.