This Day in Cinema
This Day in 1967: Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke premieres

David Parkinson 1st November 2013

Paul Newman may be inextricably linked to the lead role in 1967's Cool Hand Luke, but he wasn't always the production team's top choice, writes David Parkinson.

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American audiences saw Paul Newman in one of his most iconic roles for the first time today in 1967. However, the eponymous lead in Cool Hand Luke very nearly went to Jack Lemmon after director Stuart Rosenberg brought Donn Pearce's semi-autobiographical novel to the actor's Jalem production company.

Rosenberg was keen to get back into features after subsisting on such TV franchises as The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables and Alfred Hitchcock Presents after the failure of his big-screen debut, Question 7 (1961), a drama about Christians trapped behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany that had been partly funded by a Lutheran organisation.

Producer Gordon Carroll recognised the merits of Pearce's story, but hired Frank Pierson to redraft his screenplay. Having convinced Lemmon that he was wrong for the part of Lucas Jackson and discovered that Telly Savalas was unavailable because he was shooting The Dirty Dozen for Robert Aldrich, he approached Newman, who had just declined the opportunity to co-star with Steve McQueen in Richard Brooks's adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Carroll had also wanted Bette Davis to play Newman's dying mother in the touching farewell scene. But he had to settle for Jo Van Fleet, who was only 11 years Newman's senior and would have been his co-star in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) - for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress - had he not been pipped to the role of Aron Trask by Richard Davalos, who was cast here as chain gang boss Blind Dick.

Pearce based Luke on Donald Graham Garrison, a safecracker who had stolen between $4-5 million before finally being caught. However, Pearce had also been sentenced to hard labour in 1949 after being arrested as the accomplice of a veteran thief in Tampa, Florida.

Having only been spared a combat posting as punishment for going AWOL during the Second World War because his mother had proved he was underage, the 25 year-old Pearce had sought to rebuild his life following his five-year stretch by joining the Merchant Marine, where he was encouraged to write by a shipmate. He completed Cool Hand Luke while recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1959 and can be seen in the film as an ex-con named Sailor.

Despite its Louisiana setting, the picture was filmed on a specially built set near Stockton on the San Joaquin delta in California, which proved so convincing that a local building inspector slapped a demolition order on it in the belief it was a migrants' shanty.

While Newman had a ball making the movie ('I liked that man', he later admitted, 'the ultimate non-conformist and rebel...a free agent') and breezed through tricky moments like the egg-eating contest, he found a couple of sequences deeply frustrating.

Firstly, he struggled to master the banjo for the scene in which he sings 'Plastic Jesus' and then he had to endure three days of being thrown around by George Kennedy (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) for the fight scene.

Newman didn't even have the consolation of watching Joy Harmon perform her famous car-washing chores, as the reaction shots were filmed separately, with the prisoners being asked to ogle a teenage cheerleader, who was wrapped up in an overcoat against the cold.

Rosenberg kept Harmon covered in suds for three and a half days until he got the shots he wanted and, according to Kennedy, 'somewhere in this world, there is about 86,000 feet of that girl washing that car'.

What's more, Newman didn't even get the picture's best line. This was delivered by Strother Martin as the sadistic captain and, in 2005, 'What we have here is failure to communicate' was placed at No.11 in the American Film Institute's 100 Movie Quotes list.

Cool Hand Luke trailer

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