‘Cool Hand Luke’: Author Donn Pearce Punched Someone On Set, Called 1 Line From the Movie a ‘Stupid F****** Line’

Cool Hand Luke is one of the most iconic movies in history. Paul Newman’s performance was unforgettable, and perhaps the best of his career. Audiences will never forget memorable scenes like the hard-boiled egg bet or the instantly recognizable line, “What we have here is–a failure to communicate.” The classic film was based on a book, which was based on real events from the author’s life. 

The film was actually based on a book by Donn Pearce

The film was gritty and powerful, and Newman’s ability to embrace the pain and suffering of his character was unmatched. Although the film had a crushing atmosphere of despair, it also had a few moments that made us chuckle. Newman’s smile absolutely lit up the screen, and that smile was infectious among his character’s fellow inmates. 

George Kennedy leaning into Paul Newman in a scene from the film 'Cool Hand Luke'
George Kennedy and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke | Warner Brothers-Seven Arts/Getty Images

Cool Hand Luke was based on the book of the same name, written in 1965 by Donn Pearce. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Donn Pearce wrote the book based on his own firsthand experience as a part of a chain gang. The author was in the Merchant Marine when he became involved in a counterfeiting operation. He was arrested and jailed in France, then he escaped and returned to the United States. 

Once he returned to the U.S., Pearce became a safecracker and was arrested again. That time he spent in prison provided the material for Cool Hand Luke. Not only did Pearce work on a chain gang, but he also spent time in “the box,” an outhouse used for solitary confinement. He was released in 1951 when he returned to the Merchant Marine and also began writing books. He wrote five novels that were unpublished before completing Cool Hand Luke

There were problems on the set when they wanted to rewrite Pearce’s work…

The critics loved Pearce’s novel, but it didn’t sell well. Despite this, Jack Lemmon’s production company approached Pearce about making a movie. The company purchased the rights for the film and asked Pearce to write the script. He also worked as a technical adviser during filming and had a small role as a prison inmate. 

Life on the set became tense when an experienced screenwriter was hired to rewrite the script. Pearce felt like he wasn’t being treated fairly, and he even ended up punching an actor on the last day of filming. Pearce was unhappy with the changes made to the script, but one line in particular really bothered him…

The most memorable line in the movie, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” was never a part of the book. In fact, Pearce hated it so much that he called it a “stupid f***ing line.” What was his reason behind such a strong feeling? According to BuzzFeed, Pearce said the prison guards never would have been smart enough to come up with such a sophisticated line. 

‘Cool Hand Luke’: One of Paul Newman’s most memorable performances

Cool Hand Luke was released in 1967. Paul Newman portrayed the lead role of Luke and delivered the performance of a lifetime. Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert says that Newman’s powerful charisma made the film what it is, and he doubts another actor could have played the part as well.

“The physical presence of Paul Newman is the reason this movie works: The smile, the innocent blue eyes, the lack of strutting.”

The movie follows Luke Jackson’s time in prison, working on a chain gang. The war veteran was arrested for destroying parking meters, and sentenced to two years. During his two years in prison, Luke constantly defied the men in charge, including the warden (Captain) and the Walking Boss (Godfrey–also referred to as “the man with no eyes” because of his mirrored sunglasses). 

Luke’s rebellious behavior soon earns him the respect of most of the other inmates. After a couple of attempts to escape, Luke ends up in leg irons and is warned that one more attempt will cost him his life. Despite the warnings, Luke ends up stealing a truck and driving to a nearby church, where the police catch up with him. He is shot and killed by Godfrey, but his legacy lives on with his fellow inmates. 

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