A Tribute to the Life and Work of Paul Newman

I was lucky enough to meet both Paul and Joanne Woodward several years back at the opening of their new theatre at the Westport Playhouse, where I moderated an evening with them and their daughter Nell.
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Incredibly, younger folks may recognize him more from a bottle of salad dressing than from his awe-inspiring filmography. Some years ago, in partnership with one of his daughters, actor Paul Newman started a highly visible and successful line of food products, including said salad dressing (try the balsamic vinaigrette), brownies, popcorn, and my personal favorite - pink lemonade. He did this not because he wanted to see his face when he went to the grocery store, but because by using his name and likeness to launch a food business, he could donate the after-tax profits to charity.

By the way, his social conscience didn't just begin with the launch of "Newman's Own". In the early sixties, he and his equally talented, committed wife Joanne Woodward were outspoken supporters of the civil rights movement. They knew Dr. King, and were willing to stand up for what was right when it was not the easy or popular thing to do.

And in this cynical age., when the break-up of show business marriages is as routine as catching a cold in winter, the enduring Newman/Woodward union of over forty years gives us a measure of hope about the strength of our basic institutions.

I was lucky enough to meet them both several years back at the opening of their new theatre at the Westport Playhouse, where I moderated an evening with them and their daughter Nell around a screening of "The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man In the Moon Marigolds" (1972), an offbeat but affecting film that was the only time Newman would direct both his wife and daughter. The movie itself and the discussion which followed will remain in my memory always.

That night, my wife and I foolishly trusted the Merritt Parkway, and found ourselves crawling as we headed towards a dinner with one of my screen idols. Maddeningly, we were over half an hour late, but were warmly welcomed into their group. I remember distinctly that Paul was wearing both reading glasses and a black leather motorcycle jacket with patches, which would have looked incongruous on anyone else but him. I also remember him standing up and walking around the table, offering everyone a piece of carrot cake. Cleary he was not your typical star, nor your typical human being.

Paul Leonard Newman grew up in Ohio, and came east after college to attend Yale Drama School. He further developed his talent in New York at the fabled Actors' Studio, and pursued television roles. His first movie part, in 1954's "The Silver Chalice", so embarrassed him that he took out an ad in a Hollywood newspaper apologizing to audiences. He was already an original.

Just two years later he broke through to film stardom in Robert Wise's absorbing biopic profiling the rise of boxer Rocky Graziano, "Somebody Up There Likes Me"(1956), another top ten candidate for my Newman list, were it only on DVD.

Two years after that, he took on the role of Brick in Richard Brooks's adaptation of Tennesee Williams's play, "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" (1958). This powerful depiction of a dynastic southern family crumbling from within is distinguished by director/writer Brooks's sure hand, and a first-rate cast, including Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, and Judith Anderson. Newman's Brick is a cauldron of sullen anger dulled with alcohol, and watching him this time, I glimpsed the hallmark of a great actor: not just expert acting, but reacting, in such a way that all eyes stay on him, even with Liz Taylor sharing the frame and spouting most of the dialogue, clad in just a slip.

The ensuing decade saw some of Newman's best work, leading with Robert Rossen's "The Hustler" (1961), a gritty, atmospheric picture about the world of high stakes pool. "Fast Eddie" Felson may be a young virtuoso with a pool cue, but his maturity hasn't caught up with his skill. Eddie meets his match, and learns some hard lessons in pool and life, from Minnesota Fats, played to cool perfection by the late, great Jackie Gleason. George C. Scott also stands out as a ruthless promoter, and Piper Laurie does a sad, sensitive turn as a lonely woman on the fringes who falls under Eddie's spell. ( Years later, after countless Best Actor nominations-and one for Best Picture- 1968's "Rachel, Rachel", Newman would finally win his statuette for the 1986 sequel to this film, Martin Scorsese's "The Color Of Money").

In 1962, Newman would reunite with his "Cat" team, writer Tennessee Williams and director Richard Brooks, in the heart-rending "Sweet Bird Of Youth". Here Paul plays hustler Chance Wayne, who returns to his small Southern hometown with an aging, alcoholic Hollywood icon, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), whom he's seduced in hopes of a screen test. Chance longs to see his former sweetheart, Heavenly (Shirley Knight), but is thwarted by her father, corrupt politician "Boss" Finley (Ed Begley), and loutish son Tom Jr. (Rip Torn), who are determined to run Chance out of town. Newman is virile and intense as loner-loser Chance, while Oscar-winner Begley and Torn each turn in searing performances as Knight's vengeful male kin. The other true star of the film is Page, a real-life fading beauty whose boozy, down-and-out Alexandra epitomizes the kind of exaggerated egomania Williams set out to skewer.

Next came Martin Ritt's "Hud"(1963), concerning an unfulfilled, resentful modern cowboy, and his uneasy relationships with a distant, steely father ( Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas), a sexy but weathered housekeeper (Oscar winner Patricia Neal), and an impressionable nephew (Brandon de Wilde). Hud is an arrested adolescent in a man's body, and beyond the fact that all the acting is uniformly excellent, Newman's ability to inject pathos and magnetism into this thoroughly unsympathetic title character is particularly striking. "Hud" remains a stand-out on the actor's career.

Clearly Paul Newman was attracted to the dispossessed, in life and in film. "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) reflects a kind of pinnacle for him, a movie that may have grossed less than some of his later work, but stands today as one of the top modern film classics, a film which transformed Newman from movie star to folk hero. His Luke is two things at once: a loser in life whose drunkenness lands him on a chain gang, but also a steely individualist equipped with enormous personal courage and a righteously defiant spirit. Both George Kennedy and Strother Martin lend memorable support, with Kennedy netting an Oscar.

At the close of the sixties, Paul Newman and up-and-comer Robert Redford would make the first of two hugely popular collaborations with director George Roy Hill: the evergreen "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" (1969). So much more than a western, "Butch" romanticizes the true story of the infamous "Hole In The Wall" gang, creating the ultimate buddy picture, and (thanks to William Goldman's brilliant screenplay), a movie that's by turns lyrical, tragic, witty, and enormously human. The film would make Redford a star, but at age eleven, for me there was no contest: my hero was definitely Butch. (We just re-screened this title outdoors under the stars, and let me assure you, it doesn't get old.)

Four years later the Newman-Redford-Hill team struck gold again with an irresistible picture called "The Sting" (1973). Set in the Depression, a group of con men set out to swindle a crime king-pin who's knocked off one of their own. As ring-leader Henry Gondorf, Newman wisely builds on his wry, even jovial Butch character to continue softening his more intense younger persona. Redford again makes a terrific sidekick, and Robert Shaw is savagely despicable as the mark; we can't wait to see the "big con" perpetrated on him. "The Sting" went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Four years later, Newman would reunite with director Hill for "Slap Shot", about the aging, cynical Reggie Dunlop (Newman), player/coach of the Chiefs, a losing minor league hockey franchise. The team's fortunes revive only when Dunlop resolves to play dirty. The arrival of a trio of infantile Neanderthals from up north helps propel this new strategy to hilarious effect. But soon Reggie suffers a crisis of conscience: is this the way to play hockey? This wildly profane film is not only entertaining, but Newman's Reggie injects some real poignancy. He's a perennial rogue, but hardly a responsible adult, evidenced by a failed marriage to Francine (Jennifer Warren), for whom he still carries a torch. Veteran character actor Strother Martin makes the perfect weasel as smarmy team manager Joe McGrath, and Andrew Duncan is memorable as a radio announcer with the worst toupee on the planet.

The beginning of the eighties brought us Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" (1982). As Frank Galvin, a washed-up, alcoholic lawyer, Newman shows a rare vulnerability as a man struggling to redeem himself before it's too late. This won't come easily, as the case he lands appears impossible to win, given his own tenuous condition, and the array of legal forces amassed against him. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its very finest, and veteran player Jack Warden is superb as Galvin's only colleague and friend. This entry contains one of Newman's very finest performances.

Finally, on the verge of reaching seventy, Newman appeared in my tenth and final pick, Robert Benton's "Nobody's Fool" (1994). A showcase for a mature actor with plenty of pep left in him, "Fool" is an affectionate, slice of life piece set in upstate New York, about an ornery construction worker and handyman named Sully, who, through a series of events, comes to terms with his past life and shortcomings. In its humble, understated way, the movie celebrates the gifts of wisdom and perspective which hopefully come with age. And-of course, Newman is immensely appealing, as is Jessica Tandy in her final role.

We are immensely grateful for your time among us, Paul Newman. It's curiously frustrating that all we can do is thank you for all you've given us (and many others less fortunate), both through your films, but just as important, in the way you chose to live your life. There's no doubt that somebody up there will certainly like you.