Paul Newman Was Sold On Cool Hand Luke Before Seeing A Single Page Of The Script

It's difficult to imagine a time when Paul Newman wasn't considered a cinematic icon. The legendary actor and philanthropist has always seemed like a quintessential part of the Hollywood mythos. Although he had already been nominated for three Academy Awards by the late sixties, one of his most enduring roles continues to be the titular prisoner in 1967's "Cool Hand Luke."

Newman must have had a sixth sense about the role of Luke Jackson, seeing the incredible potential in director Stuart Rosenberg and the chance to play an inspirational antihero with a heart of gold. With the right execution and supporting cast, this could be one of Newman's greatest roles, catapulting him to even greater stardom. In a rare move, Newman recognized the potential of "Cool Hand Luke" and boldly signed on based on the strength of Donn Pearce's original book alone.

The book versus the movie

In Shawn Levy's telling biography "Paul Newman: A Life," the Oscar-winning actor opened up about the making of "Cool Hand Luke" and the calculated risk he took by signing on to the picture prematurely:

"It's one of the few roles I 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."

The novel "Cool Hand Luke" was based on Donn Pearce's harrowing experiences within a Florida of Corrections chain gang. In some sections, it explicitly chronicled the inhuman treatment he received. While in prison, Pearce heard stories about a mysterious man named Luke Jackson who slowly became a larger-than-life character among the inmates. According to Levy's biography, the chance to play such a charismatic criminal appealed to Newman — but the actor was also becoming more of an activist and wanted to tackle stories that had a message tucked inside of a digestible piece of pop culture. Newman recognized that the book had the elements needed to construct a great film and, at the same time, saw its potential to indict the injustices found within the penal system.

Pearce's novel became the ideal blueprint for Newman and director Stuart Rosenberg to craft a compelling, surprisingly heartwarming story about friendship and overcoming the mistakes we make in life. Newman had a gut feeling that "Cool Hand Luke" would work, and he was right. 

The last movie star

Now that "Cool Hand Luke" has become a bonafide American classic, it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part. "Paul Newman: A Life" reveals that Telly Savalas was almost offered the starring role of Lucas Jackson. (Luckily, Savalas was busy making "The Dirty Dozen" in England at the time.) The character of Luke was a roguish nonconformist who railed against a broken system. As a politically conscious mega-celebrity who had seen the Hollywood system from the inside, Newman could probably relate to that. He turned out to be the perfect choice. 

The six-part docuseries "The Last Movie Stars" directed by Ethan Hawke dives deeper into the making of "Cool Hand Luke" and the new level of fame the actor received after its release. It's a perfect companion to Shawn Levy's telling biography. When "Cool Hand Luke" was released in November of 1967, Newman was certainly already used to a high level of fame — but the character of Luke Jackson is arguably his most memorable role, largely due to one legendary sequence. Whether you've seen that original scene or just Ethan Hawke's reference in "Reality Bites," one truth remains: Only Paul Newman can eat 50 eggs.