Arts & Culture

Recalling the Heat of a Cool Classic Movie

Even fifty-five years later, nobody holds a candle to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

You’re clearing brush and tarring roads in Central Florida. The air is humid, sticky. Sweat gets in your eyes. Mosquitoes and ants are biting. It’s so hot you get knocked out from heatstroke—“bear-caught,” as your fellow prisoners call it. Welcome to life on a chain gang. There’s one man who won’t give in to the sadistic authority, and he becomes a folk hero: Cool Hand Luke. When a television director, Stuart Rosenberg, read these scenes in Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel, he dreamed of bringing them to life in a feature film.

Cool Hand Luke premiered in 1967, with Paul Newman’s performance as the smooth convict who scoffs at authority the ice-cold center. Luke earns the respect of even the toughest criminals, such as Dragline, played by George Kennedy, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The movie also delivered that searing line: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Almost all the cast and crew are deceased, but Rosenberg’s son, Benjamin, now an assistant director himself in Hollywood, remembers the set. “My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, but he directed episodes of a series called The Big Story in Mississippi and Georgia, so he had a feel for the South,” Benjamin says. “His PhD in Irish literature also gave him a special appreciation for Luke’s refusal to give in.”

Rosenberg shot interiors on the Warner Brothers Studios lot in Burbank, California. The crew built the exteriors, modeled on photos from a Tavares, Florida, prison camp, in Stockton. “That was cheaper than going to Florida,” Benjamin recalls. “It was also the asparagus capital of the world, and there was great fertile farmland.” Set decorators hung Spanish moss in trees to make the Central Valley look like Central Florida. When the prisoners seem to be clearing brush, the actors were actually digging hay, recycled for each shot.

But the heat and the tar were real. Between Burbank, one of the hottest places in Los Angeles County, and Stockton’s faux-Southern sets, everyone sweated. Rosenberg had the cast practice with machetes and shovels in the studio backyard. The fight scene in the blinding sun between Newman and Kennedy took three days to film.

Beer helped them cool off. Newman even wore a can opener around his neck. Actor Ralph Waite, who played Alibi, said in a 2008 interview that Newman would open the trunk of his sedan and hand out cold ones. (Newman also perfected a salad: “chopped-up hearts of celery, a little olive oil, a little cold water, some wine vinegar and a lot of salt and pepper,” he told Playboy in 1968. “It’s justifiably famous.”)

No matter how hot it got, the cast and crew played poker and drank until late. Lou Antonio, who played Koko, recalls when Waite decided to cool off in earnest. “‘Lou!’ Ralph yelled as he was taking off his shirt. By the time he was two feet away from me, Ralph was stark naked with this big grin,” Antonio says, laughing. “That’s the way we were with each other, and it got immersed in our characters.”