The opening scene, where Luke is cutting off the heads of parking meters, was filmed in Lodi, California. After the filming, the city did not replace the meters, and for many years afterward, you could go there and see a block long row of metal posts, sans meters.
200 hard boiled eggs were provided for the one of the film's most famous sequences. Due to clever editing, Paul Newman only ate about 8 in total. The rest of the eggs were all consumed by the rest of the cast and crew which led to extreme cases of flatulence the next day.
Morgan Woodward, who played Boss Godfrey, a.k.a. "The Man With No Eyes," remained in character during breaks between scenes. He would sit in his chair, still wearing his mirrored sunglasses, and not speak to anyone.
According to Jack Lemmon's son Chris Lemmon in an Icons Radio Interview, Jack Lemmon was originally selected to play the part of Luke, but Lemmon, reading the script, saw that Paul Newman would be better. So Lemmon decided to produce it.
While passing by the prison camp set, a San Joaquin County building inspector thought it was a recently constructed migrant worker's complex, and posted "condemned" notices on the buildings for not being up to code.
The movie's line "What we've got here is failure to communicate." was voted as the #11 movie quote by the American Film Institute. When Frank Pierson wrote that dialog to be delivered by a an uneducated, redneck prison guard, he worried that people wouldn't find it authentic. So he wrote a biography of the guard, explaining that in order to advance to a higher grade in the system, he had been required to take criminology courses, thus exposing him to the kind of academic vocabulary that would justify him using the 'communicate' phrase. But as it turned out, no one questioned the line or needed to read the fictional account.
A Southern prison camp was built for this movie just north of Stockton, California. A dozen buildings were constructed, including a barracks, mess hall, warden's quarters, guard shack, and dog kennels.
A version of the song Plastic Jesus sung by Luke after learning that his mother died, was used by radio personality Don Imus as the theme song to his Dr. Billy Soul Harkus character while broadcasting from New York City in the 1970s.
One of Paul Newman's instructions to the writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson was that they did not write the piece for him. He wanted a part that would really stretch him and not just play to his strengths.
The lines "What we've got here is... failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men." can be heard in the intro of the song "Civil War" by Guns N' Roses. They would use audio of the first line again during the song "Madagascar" on the 2008 album "Chinese Democracy."
The scene where Luke is visited by his mother had to be filmed in one day. For a scene that involves 8 pages of dialogue, that was quite a tall order but because the actors involved - Paul Newman and Jo Van Fleet - were so talented and professional, this was easily accomplished.
Although he loved the look of Morgan Woodward as the intimidating Boss Godfrey, director Stuart Rosenberg felt that his voice didn't match up with his appearance. So Woodward had all his dialogue stripped out, helping to establish his character as one of the more memorable ones to appear in the film.
In later years, composer Lalo Schifrin would often be asked why he used the theme for Eyewitness News (1968) in the film. Schifrin would then rather bemusedly explain that he composed the music for the film and Eyewitness News (1968) adopted it.
No less than three cast members would later appear in James Bond films: Joe Don Baker (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Living Daylights), Anthony Zerbe (Licence to Kill), and Clifton James (Live and Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun).
Stuart Rosenberg was able to set up the film with the assistance of Felicia Farr and her husband, Jack Lemmon. Lemmon had a deal with Columbia and was anxious to produce a film that he did not star in.
Joy Harmon has said that she almost turned down her now much-celebrated role in the car wash scene, not because of any discomfort over the sexual nature of the scene but because the filmmakers wanted her to smoke marijuana before the shoot began, apparently thinking it would put her in the proper mindset; when she voiced her objections they dropped the request and she did the scene in an "un-stoned" state of mind.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Just before Luke is brought back from one of his escape attempts, Dragline lets one of the inmates (Koko) look at the picture of Luke that he hides in the magazine. As Koko opens the magazine, clearly visible on the opposite page is an article titled "The Illusion That Kills" with an image of a hunter firing a rifle, which is pointed directly at Luke's chest. This is obviously a reference to "The Man With No Eyes".
Boss Godfrey, a.k.a. "The Man With No Eyes" never removes his mirrored shades until the end of the movie when Dragline attacks him and knocks them off. Even then, his face and eyes are obscured. The glasses are later seen in the mud as the car runs them over.
When the famous line "What we've got here is a failure to communicate" is originally spoken by the Captain (Strother Martin) he omits the "a"; but when Luke (Paul Newman) repeats the line at the end while in the church, he says "a failure to communicate." Thus, the line can be quoted correctly both with and without the "a".
Columbia passed on making the film, having just lost a lot of money on a prison picture called King Rat (1965) that no one went to see. They were also not keen on the fact that the lead character dies at the end.