Two hundred hard-boiled eggs were provided for one of the film's most famous sequences. Due to clever editing, Paul Newman only ate about eight altogether. The rest were consumed by the cast and crew, which led to extreme cases of flatulence the next day.
The opening scene, in which Luke (Paul Newman) 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.
While passing by the prison camp set, a San Joaquin County building inspector thought it was a recently constructed migrant workers' complex, and posted "condemned" notices on the buildings for not being up to code.
Originally, the scene where Luke plays "Plastic Jesus" as an ode to his mother was scheduled for the beginning of the shoot, but after Paul Newman insisted on learning the instrument, Director Stuart Rosenberg delayed it a few weeks. When they tried it, and the playing was unsatisfactory, it was bumped until the next-to-last day of production. Newman and Rosenberg had a shouting match after Newman still couldn't get it down. In what George Kennedy remembered as a "tense, electrically charged, quiet" place, Newman tried again. When he finished, Rosenberg called "Print". Newman insisted he could do better. "Nobody could do it better", Rosenberg replied.
According to Jack Lemmon's son Chris Lemmon in an Icons Radio Interview, Jack was originally selected to play the part of Luke, but after reading the script, saw that Paul Newman would be better. So he decided to produce it instead.
Joy Harmon (The Girl) 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 "unstoned".
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 almost all of his dialogue stripped out, helping to establish his character as one of the more memorable ones that appeared in the film. His only line was " Luke, fetch the rifle." just before shooting the turtle.
One of Paul Newman's instructions to writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson was that they did not tailor the script for him. He wanted a part that would really stretch him, and not just play to his strengths.
The line "What we've got here is failure to communicate" was voted as the number eleven movie quote by the American Film Institute. When Frank Pierson wrote that dialogue to be delivered by 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, nor needed to read the fictional account.
The scene in which Luke was chased by bloodhounds, and other exteriors, were shot in Jacksonville, Florida, at Callahan Road Prison. Luke was played by a stuntman, using dogs from the Florida Department of Corrections.
The scene where Luke is visited by his mother needed to be filmed in one day. Given that the scene was eight dialogue filled pages long, that was quite a tall order. However, because the cast members involved, Paul Newman and Jo Van Fleet, were stage-trained professionals, it went off without a hitch.
The fight scene between Dragline and Luke took three days to shoot. George Kennedy said they were both completely worn out from fighting and, in Paul Newman's case, from falling onto hard ground for three full days.
In later years, Composer Lalo Schifrin would often be asked why he used the theme for Eyewitness News (1983) in the film. Schifrin would then rather bemusedly explain that he composed the music for the film, and Eyewitness News (1983) adopted it.
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.
During the Oscar nomination process, George Kennedy was worried about the box-office success of Camelot (1967) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), so he invested five thousand dollars in trade advertising to promote himself. Kennedy later stated that thanks to the award his salary was, "multiplied by ten the minute I won", also adding, "the happiest part was that I didn't have to play only villains anymore."
Paul Newman asked to play the leading role after hearing about the project. In order to develop his character, he travelled to West Virginia, where he recorded local accents and surveyed people's behavior.
At Dennis Hopper's invitation, avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner shot some footage of the cast clearing brush from the roadside under a blistering, hot sun. The resulting film, Luke (1967), captured on 8mm and edited entirely in camera, is a haunting slow-motion study of how a film is made, with an electronic score by Patrick Gleeson.
When Joy Harmon filmed the scene in which the men watch her wash her car, she had no idea how suggestive it was. It never occurred to her until she saw it in the theater. "I just figured it was washing the car. I've always been naive and innocent", she said. "I was acting and not trying to be sexy. Maybe that's why the scene played so well. After seeing it at the premiere, I was a bit embarrassed."
Paul Newman enjoyed making the film, and when he wasn't needed on-set, often tooled around the Stockton area either in a blue Mercury convertible or on a motorcycle. "I had great fun with that part", he said. "I liked that man."
For her single day of shooting, Jo Van Fleet sat on a tree stump, two hundred yards from everyone else, looking over her lines. Harry Dean Stanton recalled that she asked him to sing to her before her take, and it made her cry.
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 with or without the "a".
Blonde Joy Harmon was cast for the scene where she teases the prisoners in washing her car after her manager contacted the producers. She auditioned in front of Stuart Rosenberg and Paul Newman wearing a bikini, without speaking.
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 Pictures, and was anxious to produce a film, in which he did not star.
In an interview aired on TCM, George Kennedy discussed how Joy Harmon's iconic car washing scene was originally scheduled for half a day, and how that shoot ended up taking 3 days. Kennedy laughed and said "Somewhere...there's 80,000 feet of film with Joy Harmon washing that car!"
After Joy Harmon arrived on-location, she remained for two days in her hotel room and wasn't seen by the rest of the cast until shooting commenced. Despite Stuart Rosenberg's intentions, the scene was ultimately filmed separately. He instructed an unaware Harmon of the different movements and expressions he wanted. Originally planned to be shot in half a day, her scene took three. To film the other angle of the scene, featuring the chain gang, Rosenberg substituted a teenage cheerleader, who wore an overcoat.
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 Hargis character while broadcasting from New York City in the 1970s.
According to George Kennedy, the footage of actress Joy Harmon (the voluptuous blonde who teases the chain gang prisoners by washing her car) was filmed separately. Instead, director Stuart Rosenberg had an unpaid 15-year-old school girl wearing a large overcoat mime the scene, forcing the actors to use their imaginations as they "ogled her" on camera.
Director of Photography Conrad L. Hall said the studio drove him "insane", and that his filming techniques were repeatedly questioned. Eventually, it was explained to him that he wasn't showcasing Paul Newman's famous blue eyes enough. He had to shoot a scene four times before he was judged to have shot Newman "correctly".
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 introduction 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".
In a 1989 interview with the "Miami Herald", Author Donn Pearce said, "I seem to be the only guy in the United States who doesn't like the movie. Everyone had a whack at it. They screwed it up ninety-nine different ways." For one thing, Pearce thought Paul Newman was "too scrawny" and completely wrong for the part.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Stuart Rosenberg shot the convicts in the ditch watching Lucille, he used a stand-in for Joy Harmon: an overcoat-wearing fifteen-year-old girl. Despite the coat, George Kennedy remembered her teeth were chattering from the cold weather. He also wrote, "Those guys shivering in a ditch did some great acting."
Just before Luke (Paul Newman) is brought back from one of his escape attempts, Dragline (George Kennedy) lets Koko (Lou Antonio) 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 a reference to "The Man With No Eyes".
Columbia Pictures passed on making the film, having just lost a lot of money on the prison movie, King Rat (1965), that few people went to see. They were also not keen on the fact that the lead character dies at the end.