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By the following June he was in New York. He got a couple of small television parts and then, for $150 a week, a job understudying Leading Man Ralph Meeker in a new play, William Inge's Picnic. Later, when Meeker went on vacation, Newman took his place for a week in the sexually charged lead role. He asked Director Josh Logan, on the strength of his performance, whether he could take Meeker's role when the play went on the road. Said Logan: "I don't think so because you don't carry any sexual threat." Newman looks bemused. "I've been chewing on that one for 20 years."
He was 27, and things were going well for him. Before the opening of Picnic, he had been promoted to a supporting role and had got excellent notices. He was studying with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan at the prestigious Actors Studio (with, among others, Geraldine Page, Rod Steiger and James Dean). Then Warner Bros, offered him a long-term movie contract starting at $1,000 a week. Abruptly he found himself wearing what he called a "cocktail gown" and playing a Greek slave named Basil in a religious costume saga, The Silver Chalice. It was the sort of absurdity that Virginia Mayo used to appear in, and she was in it. Newman, who is self-conscious about his bony legs, was so abashed that, as he points out now with some glee, he refused to look at the camera. When what is referred to in Newman family lore as the Worst Picture Ever Made played in a weeklong run on television in Los Angeles some years ago, he took out a large ad in the Los Angeles Times: PAUL NEWMAN APOLOGIZES EVERY NIGHT THIS WEEK. He got hold of a print and showed it to friends in the screening room of his Westport home not long ago, supplying everyone with a metal pot and a large wooden spoon to beat on it with. "It was fun for about the first reel," he said, "and then the awfulness of the thing took over."
The Hustler, made in 1961 by Director Robert Rossen, was among the first of a handful of Newman films that have become American folklore. Newman recalls wandering into a disco a few years ago and shooting a few games of pool. A kid walked up to him and said, "Mr. Newman, I've seen The Hustler four times, and watching you shoot pool is one of the biggest disappointments of my life." The kid had just seen Davy Crockett shoot himself in the foot.
Fast Eddie, the pool shooter who told Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats, "I'm the best you've ever seen, Fats, I'm the best there is," is all speed and charm and thin-ice cockiness. Hud Bannon, the surly cowboy womanizer who is the turbulence at the center of Martin Ritt's 1963 film Hud, seems twice the size of Fast Eddie. He is a brawler with the looks of a fallen angel, and he sneers at emotion: "My mother loved me but she died." Hud is rotten. He is trying to have his father declared incompetent so he can sell his ranch to oilmen. But Newman gave him a crooked, loser-winner smile that caught at the heart, and although the script didn't really justify it, he was a scapegrace hero.
These miscreants are not just part of our culture now but almost part of our national character: the hero as romantic screwup, the loner crabbed by society and usually, despite his looks, not very lucky with