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Entertainment Weekly

Untold Stories tag header

Catching up with the woman behind the famous Cool Hand Luke car wash scene

Warner Bros.

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She was credited simply as The Girl, but anyone who ever saw Cool Hand Luke knows her as Lucille.

Joy Harmon was the 27-year-old actress who tantalized a chain-gang of sweaty convicts in the Paul Newman classic, which opened in theaters 50 years ago, on Nov. 1, 1967. Though her scene is only three minutes and 15 seconds long and she doesn’t deliver a single line of dialogue, Harmon and her costar — a 1941 DeSoto — made a major impression on the characters and movie audiences. Not that Harmon was totally aware of her impact.

“I was just washing a car to my best ability and having fun with it, with the sponge and everything,” says Harmon, now a grandmother of six. “My concept of the [scene] was not like what came out. I was not aware that there were two meanings to things that I was doing, and I’m still not really that much aware of what they all were.”

Harmon — who had debuted on Broadway in 1958’s Make a Million and then partnered with Groucho Marx on his early 1960s TV show — said she scored the role after Newman marveled at the blueness of her eyes during the audition process. But once she arrived in Stockton, California, to film the scene, Harmon began to have second thoughts. The producers suggested the shoot would be better if Harmon smoked marijuana beforehand in order to act more uninhibited for the camera. “I don’t do that; I never have done that,” Harmon says. “I was so upset, and I called my dad and he said, ‘You just come on home. Don’t do the movie.’ I told Mr. Rosenberg I was going home and then they came to the room, and he brought me flowers and chocolate. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re not doing marijuana; you don’t need it.’ And it worked out fine.”

Most of the credit for the sequence goes to Harmon, who displays the perfect combination of sexual power and mischievousness. But director Stuart Rosenberg clearly was trying to milk the scene for titillating effect — so much so that he had kept wives and girlfriend away from the set for weeks and then surprised the men with Harmon’s appearance so as to capture their genuine reactions. When she emerges from the dilapidated country house, turns on the portable radio and the hose, and goes to work washing the car, Rosenberg pointed the cameras at the men, watching her from a distance. They didn’t require instruction on how to act. “The only one that I talked to was Stuart Rosenberg and the photographer,” Harmon says. “He just worked it like — ‘Now, get the sponge, and squeeze it, and wash the car’ and so forth. I just followed [his instruction]. The shots were all like kind of broken up, you know, how he wanted me to do it. It was easy. It was so easy.”

Harmon realized that she’d made an impression after the film came out. In 1968, she married film editor Jeff Gourson (TRON), and their Las Vegas honeymoon was comped and their hotel introduced her at shows as “The Girl From Cool Hand Luke.” But she didn’t chase fame, and she eventually left acting to raise her three children. “I was never one who said, “Oh, I’ve got to be a big star,'” Harmon says. “I just took whatever came to me. It got to be the point where I would just get calls — I didn’t have to go in and read for it — go in for wardrobe and do scenes in all those TV shows that were out at that time. It was simple and easy and fun.”

Today, she runs a family business, Aunt Joy’s Cakes, a Burbank, California, wholesale bakery that provides homemade desserts to the studios’ craft services. (A 2013 short film, From Cheesecake to Cheesecake, documented her multi-faceted career.) “Whenever I worked [in entertainment], the night before I would always bake something for the crew and bring it in,” Harmon says. “I loved doing that, and when I worked with Groucho Marx, I would bring him food too and he loved it. That’s how I got the deal with the craft services people, and my kids helped me a lot to get it started.”

Her grandkids have essentially grown up in the bakery, including her youngest, a 1-year-old named… Luke. (For singer Luke Bryan, not Lucas Jackson, she explains.) But she still receives frequent reminders of her movie career. “I get fan mail at the house and at the bakery every week, and still send back pictures to people,” she says.

For fans, she’ll forever be the one and only Lucille.

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