Remembering Paul Newman, Humanitarian and Actor

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Mark Kauffman / Time Life Pictures / Getty

Actor Paul Newman died Friday, Sept. 26, at 83, after a long battle with cancer

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From the start, he should have known that he was made for movie stardom. As a kid he was St. George fighting the dragon in a Cleveland Play House children's show. After the war, at Kenyon College, he played leads in 10 undergraduate productions, including The Taming of the Shrew and The Front Page. "I was probably one of the worst college actors in history," he recalled in the early '60s. "I had no idea what I was doing. I learned my lines by rote and simply said them, without spontaneity, without any idea of dealing with the forces around me onstage, without knowing what it meant to act and react." Yet after graduation he took a summer-stock job, playing the Gentleman Caller in Williams' The Glass Menagerie, and joined the Woodstock Players in Woodstock, Ill., where he met and married fellow actor Jacqueline Witte. They would have three children, a son and two daughters.

When Arthur died suddenly, Paul was called back to Shaker Heights to work in the store. In 1951 the family dissolved the business, and Paul was finally free to follow his star. He enrolled in the Yale Drama School, taking Jackie and, at the time, their only child, Scott, with him. "I wasn't driven to acting by any inner compulsion," he told Jack Skow for a 1982 TIME cover story. "I was running away from the sporting goods business."

Still, he had a sharp sense of finding mentors. He enrolled at the Actors Studio, whose teaching staff included Kazan and Martin Ritt, the director of six Newman films, including The Long, Hot Summer, Hud and Hombre. He made his Broadway debut in 1953 in Picnic, where he met Woodward. (They married five years later, after he and Jackie divorced.) He was ubiquitous on live-TV drama, playing all manner of heroes, from Plato to Nathan Hale, and one memorable villain: Billy the Kid, in Gore Vidal's demythologizing of the hero that would be the source of one of his best early movies, The Left Handed Gun.

For all his study and vigorous work, Newman offered something else to Hollywood: a slab of gorgeous beefcake. This is not a knock on the film industry. On the screen, much more than on the stage, beauty counts. The first duty of a movie actor is to keep people watching; and if they keep staring at you, they'll see more in you. Newman had It — in fact, he looked as if he had Brando's It — and Warner Bros. cast him as the lead (though he was billed fourth) in a Biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, about a silversmith chosen to craft Jesus' cup for the Last Supper. So chagrined was Newman by his performance that he took out an ad in the trade papers apologizing for it. He returned to New York, doing lots more TV (he had the George Gibbs role in a musical version of Our Town, with Sinatra as the Stage Manager) and getting the meaty Broadway role of a killer terrorizing a family in The Desperate Hours. More than a year would pass before he took the Graziano role in Somebody Up There Likes Me.

Looking today at Newman's early work, we see that he wasn't always convincing when he played characters whose IQs were 30 points below his. As Graziano, or as the star pitcher in the TV version of Bang the Drum Slowly (both in 1956), he struck attitudes rather than slipping into these athletes' skins. At 31, he was still callow in film terms. To prove his movie mettle it took another two years and another broken-down jock: Brick Pollitt, the crippled, impotent husband of Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie the Cat in Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Newman's acute expression of Brick's scotch-stoked bitterness earned him the first of his nine Academy Award nominations. Woodward had already won one, for The Three Faces of Eve, the year before, and would be a finalist three more times. Together, they are surely the married couple with the most Oscar nominations. (No fair counting Tracy and Hepburn.)

Lucky and Smart

"Luck is an art," Newman said in New York magazine. "Luck just marches by any number of people, and they're looking in any direction but where luck is. I guess I know how to look in the right direction." Maybe it was luck; more likely it was the realization by smart writers and directors that here was a guy who could play the cocksure cocksman at his most seductive and who had by now assumed total control of his audience. Newman found in the '60s the roles that would define his career: Fast Eddie Felson, the pool shark in The Hustler; Chance Wayne, who hustled older women in Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth; Lew Harper (Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer), the weary, sassy detective in Harper; the hardcase wiseass on a chain gang in Cool Hand Luke; and as Robert Redford's buddy, an outlaw named Butch Cassidy.

Newman's perfect role, though, the ideal blend of all that was insolent and irresistible in his movie persona, was in 1963's Hud, directed by Ritt from a Larry McMurtry novel and a sharp script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. The restless layabout son of a cattleman, Hud is the bad-mouth kid in the back of a schoolroom who still lives out his teenage fantasies, swilling beer and bedding all the ladies. His rule of chivalry: "The only question I ever ask any woman is, 'What time is your husband coming home?'" For Hud, selfishness is just self-preservation: "You don't look out for yourself, the only helping hand you'll ever get is when they lower the box." He struts without preening, because he's earned the lust of every woman in town, the resentment of every man. Hero? Antihero? More like dude, when that word meant something more specific than anyone addressed by anyone under 35.

By the end of the movie, Hud has driven his father (Melvyn Douglas) to an early grave, permanently disillusioned his kid brother (Brandon De Wilde) and alienated the one woman (Patricia Neal) who understood him. ("I'll remember you, honey," he tells her, more in surprise than regret. "You're the one that got away.") In the film's last moments, it's time for him to get his comeuppance, to be scoured by the chastising bleach of self-knowledge. But Hud walks into his house, gives the merest wave of dismissal to those who don't get him, pops open a beer, plants his boots on the kitchen table and just goes on being Hud.

The movie was a hit, and so was the character, much to Newman's distress. "I wanted Hud to have all the external graces," he said, "to be lean, hungry, a great brawler, a swordsman, a rascal in the most enjoyable sense — and rotten to the core. What the audience bought was all the external graces. The fact is, he was rotten. But he became a folk hero. We wanted him to be Richard III." Apparently, Newman still had something to learn about movie audiences: show them an ugly schemer with a hunchback and they'll call him a villain; show them a handsome rake whose misanthropy plays like Texas realism and they'll want to have a drink with him. After all, isn't he Paul Newman?

Newman never thought much of his film acting, at least until his later work. "You could see the machinery going," he told the New York Times' Dinitia Smith in 1998. "I had a terrible affliction: emotional Republicanism. I never knew how to work on loosening up the machine, so that when you call on something, it's there for you. How to make all those colors available? It's like learning how to play the violin or shoot pool." Yet he persisted through the '70s as a consummate movie star, in The Sting (another Redford buddy movie, this one winning an Oscar for Best Picture) and as the grizzled hockey player in Slap Shot.

In 1982, with The Verdict, in the role of an alkie Boston lawyer given one last case to blow, Newman found his mature stride. "It's a relief to have an unprotected character to play," he said at the time. "This guy's an open wound." And Newman was finally opening up to weakness and failure. As David Thomson wrote in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, the movie "shows what Newman is capable of once his aversion to intimacy can be broken down." He had another terrific role the year before, as a businessman defamed by journalist Sally Field in Absence of Malice, directed by the late Sydney Pollack. And he capped the decade with a reprise of Fast Eddie in a sequel, Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money — not one of his seminal performances, but sharp and steely, a spotless display of ageless star power. Maybe that's why it won him, at last, an Oscar.

Food and Family

Mr. Paul Newman and Ms. Joanne Woodward had three children, Elinor (Nell), Melissa and Clea. Newman had three kids with Jackie Witte: Scott, Susan and Stephanie. "In the early part of my parenthood," he told the English newspaper the Express two years ago, "I didn't pay the proper kind of attention. There were terrible, terrible misjudgments." Newman was estranged from his son Scott in 1978 when the boy died from an accidental overdose of Valium. That cued the actor to set up the Scott Newman Foundation, which sponsors antidrug films for children.

A more lucrative charity arose a few years later, when someone suggested that Newman start producing the preserves and popcorn he made for friends. Thus was born the Newman's Own franchise, which peddles 40 different food items: salad dressing, pretzels, lemonade, spaghetti sauce, Fig Newmans — you name it. ("My spaghetti sauce grosses more than my films," he said not long ago.) Newman also started the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, named after the hideout in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which gives disabled children a chance to have a good time. Newman created the camp after consulting with Yale University's chief of pediatrics, Dr. Howard Pearson, who calls it "the Taj Mahal of camps."

Perhaps his greatest production, surely the one with the longest run, was his half-century marriage to Woodward. "We have had long, really difficult times, but we have enough lust and respect," he told the New York Times in 1998. "We're lustily respectful, respectfully lustful." It couldn't have been fun for Woodward to give up her blooming career for motherhood while Paul was out making movies or racing cars. "It wasn't always easy to accept," she told the Times. "It's not a lot of fun being chased by photographers — in my case being knocked aside." Yet she testified to the staying power of humor in a marriage. "He's very good-looking and very sexy and all of those things," she said. "But all that goes out the window, finally, and what finally is left is, if you can make somebody laugh, then that's what it is."

For half his life, cars were Newman's passion as much as acting, politics, family or philanthropy. He got the bug while preparing for the 1969 movie Winning and was soon spending six months a year competing behind the wheel. "You don't do it to prove you can do it," he said of open-wheel driving. "You do it to win." He won a national amateur championship in 1976 and turned pro the following year, finishing fifth (as part of a three-driver team) in a Daytona endurance race. Later he was the first 70-year-old to win the GTS-1 ordeal at Daytona. He was nearly 76 when, in a practice run there, he smashed his Porsche into a tire barrier and damaged several ribs; weeks later he was back on the track. Woodward was supportive but wary of his punishing avocation; she once gave him a Rolex with the inscription, "Drive slowly."

Eight years ago, speaking to the Los Angeles Times' Paul Lieberman, Newman was pondering death, fretting about "the grace of the disappearance. You always wonder about how much guts you've actually got. Until you've faced it, you never really know." A few months before his death, he showed up, gaunt but game, at the Indianapolis Speedway, taking a metaphorical last lap at his favorite pastime. In June, he released a statement announcing that he was "doing nicely." It sounds to us as if, at his disappearance, old Blue Eyes was able to muster armfuls of grace. Not the catlike, lip-curled machismo of his prime film years but the wise, genially grudging acceptance of mortality seen in so many of his later characters.

Here, you think, was a stern, sexy, gentle man. That special luster is Newman's own. And you can't bottle it.

(See photos of Paul Newman's storied career.)

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