He was classic Hollywood for the counterculture generation, a throwback to the days of good looks and gifted talent transformed into idealism, allure, and myth, He legitimized the word ‘legend’ proving that a mere mortal could carry the tag with dignity and distinction. He had the face of an angel, the ethic of a saint, and the passions of a sinner. Together with his deliberate career choices and professional admonitions, he forged a cinematic canon unmatched by his fellow fame seekers. Even outside the industry for many years, the rumors of Paul Newman’s life threatening cancer gave everybody in his business and his formidable fanbase pause. The 83 year old seemed so ageless, so timeless, that to think that something simple as disease could destroy him appeared impossible. Sadly, he succumbed to mere mortality on 26 September. It was more than just the end of an era. It was the end of an entire motion picture principle.
Of course, such greatness had to start from humble beginnings. As a youth, Paul Leonard Newman, showed a keen interest in acting. His father ran a small sporting goods store. His mother, a Christian Scientist, fostered his love of theater. By the time he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in his hometown, he was set to pursue a degree at Ohio University at Athens. He was later kicked out for bad behavior. With little options available, Newman entered the military and spent three years as a naval radioman during the Pacific campaigns in World War II. After the service, he completed his studies at Kenyon College, went on to Yale to work on his dramatic skills, and was accepted to Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio.
Getting his start onstage, where he cut his teeth on such Great White Way smashes as Picnic, The Desperate Hours, and later Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman would also find roles in the fledgling format of live TV drama. It was a wonderful proving ground for the still green thespian. After seeing his theatrical turns, Warners offered him a contract, and a part in the Roman costume epic The Silver Chalice introduced the actor to movie audiences. Sadly, the film was so awful that it nearly ended Newman’s fledgling career. But with Somebody Up There Likes Me, he found a perfect fit. As real life boxer Rocky Graziano, Newman established an onscreen persona that would carry him through the next several decades – the well intentioned outsider who battles the system to salvage his own humanity.
After starring in a pair of Tennessee Williams potboilers – The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Newman ushered in the ’60s with a film that would end up looming large in his legend. As “Fast” Eddie Felson, he costarred alongside Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott in the definitive pool hall parable The Hustler. The film showed that, even with his natural good looks, Newman could portray a morally complex (and occasionally, bankrupt) character. It was something he would carry on through signature turns in such now classics as Hud, Harper, and the messianic message picture Cool Hand Luke. By the end of the era, Newman was the biggest box office draw in Tinsel Town. In 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid continued his counterculture significance and mainstream value.
It also established one of his great lifetime friend and partnerships. At the time he was hired to play the brooding gunslinger with a luminous name, Robert Redford was an up and coming star. Newman championed the younger man, and together they formed a creative combination that would carry over for the next few years. By celebrating the anti-hero and deflating the influence and power of the “Establishment” Butch Cassidy clicked with late ’60s audiences, and it wasn’t long before the duo were the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Their fantastic follow-up together, The Sting, would become an instant classic and winner of Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards. Newman took his new clout to the bank, making disaster films for Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, When Time Ran Out) and branching out into all manner of movies, from sports comedies (Slap Shot) to experimental fare with famed director Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet).
By the ’80s, a middle aged Newman was ready to play elder superstar statesmen. The parts he chose continued to challenge his abilities (a down and drunken lawyer in The Verdict) and expand his range (the cartoonish Louisiana Governor Earl Long in Blaze). But one thing continued to elude the actor. Even after being nominated seven previous times, Newman had yet to win the Oscar. It would take Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and some character karma in the form of a return to “Fast” Eddie to gain his little gold man. Color of Money showed that, while his façade may have aged, there was nothing ‘old’ about this longtime leading man. Today, his intense and insular performance makes the work of his younger costar seem overly simplistic by comparison.
With said persistent professional obstacle removed, Newman entered into a phase of semi-retirement. He only made five movies in the ’90s, and of those, only Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (from Merchant/Ivory) and the Coen Brothers corporate screwball classic The Hudsucker Proxy stood out. He became even more reclusive in the new millennium, working with Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, and voicing the amiable Doc Hudson for Pixar’s animated effort Cars. During his now abundant downtime, he continued several important passions from his far more famous days. Newman loved racing, and he indulged in the sport from the moment he completed work on 1969’s Winning. Charity was also important to the man. Having lost his only son to drug addiction in 1978, he was a supporter for rehabilitation. He also sponsored camps for children with cancer, and used his love of food to begin Newman’s Own, a culinary label that, to date, has contributed hundreds of millions to various non-profit causes.
For such a handsome, hunky lead, Newman was only married twice. His first marriage to Jackie Newman lasted a little over eight years. He met fellow performer Joanne Woodward while they were understudies on Picnic. After begging his first wife for a divorce, the icon and his new leading lady were married a week after the court’s decree was final. It was a relationship that lasted for the next 50 years. Newman often worked with his lady love, directing her in such films as Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie. Theirs was a partnership that bucked the Tinsel Town trend. Normally, two incredibly successful and important stars would have a hard time sharing the spotlight professionally, let alone personally. But Newman argued that Woodward kept him grounded, and she the same.
Looking back at his illustrious career, it’s clear that this was a man who understood his influence within popular cultural and the social dynamic. His choices often reflected his politics, and during the ’60s, he stayed close to his idealistic roots. By the ’70s, it was time to expand the oeuvre, to experiment as part of the post-modern movement. The ’80s was all about product, about sealing the legacy and retaining a bit of dignity. And up until his death a few days ago, the rest of his creative life was a balance between doing what he wanted and what he needed to in order to maintain his majesty. In between, he took on challenges that would undermine a mere mortal, his stature only growing as the years trailed by.
Sure, there was talk of a Newman/Redford reteam. There was even a 2004 interview where the two twinkled mischievously at the thought of making another movie together. There was also the change of heart, the actor announcing that Hudsucker would be his last film ever – before turning around and performing again. He was a foil to late night TV guru David Letterman, and was known – within limits – to poke fun at his own persona (as in Mel Brooks’ demented Silent Movie). But what’s certain about Paul Newman, and his lasting reputation, is the notion of true super stardom. He looked the part, played it perfectly, and never allowed fame to influence his abilities or beliefs. Newman never phoned it in, or traded his talent for a paycheck. Somehow, he knew his importance – beyond the good looks and classic features – to those in the audience. He never let them down, not in life, and not in death. Paul Newman was everyman’s idol. He was truly an icon for every generation, and deservedly so.