George Kennedy (a.k.a Dragline) dishes on Paul Newman in 'Cool Hand Luke'

Georgekennedynewman_lWho’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?

addCredit(“Everett Collection”)

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

Comments (69 total) Add your comment
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  • Cara

    I just watched that movie on Monday, in commemoration of Newman. He was fabulous as ever, and yes. The banjo scene was great.

  • Jenny

    Newman was amazing in just about everything but I love him in The Sting. It’s only a supporting role but the poker scene with Robert Shaw on the train is just brilliant. He plays a man playing an annoying drunk just right.

  • Andrew L. – Des Moines

    Yes, Cool Hand Luke is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s a cult classic for me. Quintessential Newman. Big hole in the universe with Paul Newman now gone. I think his philanthropy touched us as much as his movies. He and Robert Redford both.

  • Heather Downard

    Paul was born to play the oh so Cool Hand Luke and the whole film is my favourite bit. He was a truly beautiful man both externally and internally and personified the word cool!

  • Melissa

    I loved Nobody’s Fool. It was just a quiet little movie about people, about this down-on-his-luck man just trying to get through life. It didn’t have car explosions or gimmicks. Just Paul Newman, doing what he did best. He should have won an Oscar for that, if only for the subtle accents he graced the screen with. A brilliant, quiet performance.

  • Steve

    Cool Hand Luke is a classic film, probably Newman’s best movie. Alothough another favorite Newman film of mine is The Color of Money. He is great as Fast Eddie Felson and the end scene is outstanding. “I’m Back”

  • debbie

    I have always loved “Cool Hand Luke”. My children often look at me funny when I give them my favorite line from the movie – “What we have here is a failure to communicate”…….Best Newman Movie EVER!

  • Anonymous

    The opening scene is unparalleled.

  • joe

    Cool Hand Luke was an amazing movie, I have seen it many many times since the late 60’s and if I am channel surfing I will still always stop at it and watch it to the end. My second fav Paul Newman movie is Slap Shot….there are a few slow spots in that movie, but the great parts are so great and as always, you forget that Paul is an actor playing a role, he really always made you believe he WAS the character.

  • Rick

    “Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

  • Val

    Paul’s ability to down those 50 hard-boiled eggs was a turning point in the film, winning over Dragline and others and revealing his character unequivocally. A brilliant film, a brilliant actor.

  • Phil

    Cool Hand Luke belongs in everyones Top Ten list of movies, let alone Newman films. The banjo scene is poignant, shows his vulnerability beneath the rebelious exterior.

  • Rob

    He was one of the greats that could act and tell a story without showing our ures bad behavior as a positive.

  • Nick Soapes

    My favorite scene in the movie is when Luke ate 50 eggs. Occasionally I’ll be doing something or going somewhere, and I’ll think “Ain’t no man can eat 50 eggs…My boy Luke can eat 50 eggs!”

  • raul

    Yes, Cool Hand is one of my favs!! Great comments from Mr Kennedy but my fav part of the film is the “hard boiled egg wager”. God Bless You Paul Newman.

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