Paul Newman: Verdict on a Superstar

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That understates the case. In his head, and in as much of his life as he can control, he insists on not being "Paul Newman." In his first scene in The Sting, Newman is discovered lying drunk and unshaven, with his nose mashed against the baseboard of a crummy bathroom. Not many of Hollywood's firm-jawed preeners would have allowed the shot, but he has taken pains to look as gruesome as possible. It is an obvious mockery of the "sex symbol" blather that makes him writhe. He refuses to play out the celebrity part. He will not sign autographs because, says his Westport buddy Writer A.E. Hotchner (Papa Hemingway), "the majesty of the act is offensive to him." Hotchner goes on to say, "He is the most private man I've ever known. He has a moat and a drawbridge which he lets down only occasionally." Over the years he has amused himself," and twitted solemn Hollywood establishmentarians who feel that superstars should have Rolls-Royces, by driving a series of VWs hopped up with racing engines. He and Joanne made a point 21 years ago of exiling themselves to Westport, a woodsy exurb, which, although prosperous and arty, had no connection to show biz.

His most effective way of expunging "Paul Newman," however, was to become P.L. Newman (the "L." stands for Leonard), auto racer from April through October. He does not make movies during the summer months. As much as possible he does nothing but race sports cars, although this year he also campaigned hard for the nuclear-freeze movement. Quite unexpectedly, after doing no racing at all until his late 40s, he has become one of the best amateur race drivers in the country. Newman, say the records, has been twice national champion in his class (and with this success has dropped the anonymous "P.L." and now feels comfortable racing under his full name). This year he drove one of the fastest cars on the circuit, a $70,000, 170-m.p.h., turbo-charged Datsun 280ZX.

The scene: a road-racing course for sports cars set in wooded, rolling terrain an hour north of Atlanta. Noise, crowds, confusion, the racketing whine of unmuffled racing engines as drivers repeatedly blip their throttles in anticipation of the start. For a week now the Sports Car Club of America has been running its national championships here on the twisting 2½-mile Road Atlanta track. Paul has been here a week, and Joanne arrived a couple of days ago to join him. "We have a deal," he says. "I trade her a couple of ballets for a couple of races." In fact, they enjoy each other's company. At a catfish restaurant near the track they argue amiably about tenors. She: Placido Domingo. He: Luciano Pavarotti. Joanne, a fit-looking woman of 52, whose very short hair squares off a strong, self-contained face, says she actually likes to watch her husband race. "Paul likes to test himself," she says. "That's what makes Paul run. He's got a lot of courage, a highly underrated element in people's lives these days." Says Paul: "I enjoy the precision of racing, harnessing something as huge and powerful as a car and putting it as close to where you want it as you can. Besides, it's a kick in the ass."

Friends drop by the restaurant table to jaw comfortably about cars (Friend: "You could put a taller gear in the rear end."

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