Who’s seen Cool Hand Luke? If you haven’t, the pop culture gods have “failed to communicate” to you the importance of this film in the Paul Newman catalog. In Luke, Newman plays a man who’s convicted of cutting off the heads of parking meters after having a few too many. Luke ultimately ends up in prison, where the mischief-maker is sometimes too smart for his own good, and other times, too smart for the bosses running the joint. As we put together a tribute to Newman for the magazine this week, we thought it important to get in touch with George Kennedy, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role opposite Newman, playing an ogre of a prison mate named Dragline.
In the movie, Dragline calls Luke a “natural born world-shaker.” After tracking down Kennedy, who now lives a quieter existence (read: no reps, and no listed phone number) on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho, the 83-year-old says the same could have been said of Newman-the-actor, despite Newman’s pretty-boy blue eyes. When Kennedy first met Newman on the set of Cool Hand Luke, the former had already worked with just about every A-list actor in the business and was “always deferential to them,” but “very seldom ran into one who was so much a master of what he did than Paul. He was everything you could ask for and more.”
Kennedy recalled shooting a scene with Newman in which Luke has just received word that his mother has died. In the scene, it’s raining outside; Newman hops on his bunk to play the banjo, and starts singing, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes / as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus….” “Paul knew as much about playing a banjo as I know about making cakes, which means very, very little,” Kennedy explained in his throaty, southern drawl. “But he wanted to play his own accompaniment, and director Stuart Rosenberg and everybody else said, ‘You don’t learn to play banjo that easily.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m going to try.’ And [in] the scene you see, Paul makes an error. He wasn’t doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder…although you can only [tell] by the increase of the pace of his picking the banjo. When it was over, it was magnificent. Rosenberg said, ‘Print.’ Paul said, ‘I could do it better.’ Rosenberg said, ‘Nobody can do it better.’ And that’s the way that came off. True story.”
Though Kennedy’s story is one I hadn’t heard before, the banjo scene is one that I have always loved. And now I love it a little bit more. Does this change anything for you? What’s your favorite Cool Hand Luke scene? Or for that matter, favorite Paul Newman movie scene of all time?
More on the life and career of Paul Newman:
Paul Newman: 30 Unforgettable Roles
EW review of The Paul Newman Collection DVD box set
EW review of Paul Newman: A Biography
Cool Hand Luke DVD: EW review
Sidney Lumet on His Oscar-Nominated Films: Paul Newman in The Verdict
Need a Paul Newman fix? Try Sweet Bird of Youth
Nobody’s Fool is a past gem from Oscar nominee Paul Newman
Forget Kevin Costner — Paul Newman is the sexiest man in Message in a Bottle