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One of the Hollywood greats…
Recall Paul Newman, who has died aged 83, and you have an image of a
lithe, handsome, impossibly blue-eyed movie star. The man who gave us a
Butch Cassidy, the anti-heroes Luke and Hud, the sharp detective Lew Harper,
the tormented Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and most brilliantly of
all Fast Eddie in both The Hustler and The Color of Money. He
starred in some 50 movies (11 of them with his wife Joanne Woodward, whom he
also directed in some memorable work) and very few of them were outright
duds. There were eight Oscar nominations among countless other awards and
three of the coveted statuettes finally came his way.
All of the above is true, widely known and it is quite simply the highly
visible tip of the ice berg. Newman was a complex man: formidable player in
Hollywood, a sportsman, a producer-director, a political activist and a
It is arguable that this last real life role is the one he will best be
remembered by. He is credited with being the American who had ‘given away’
more money – in relation to his personal wealth – than any other in the past
century. Years ago he developed a series of personal recipes for sauces and
other food products and marketed them (originally from his home) as Newman’s
Own, giving all of the profits to his charitable foundation mainly helping
youngsters at home and abroad. By the end of the century this had exceeded
100 million dollars and as recently as 2007 he donated 10 million dollars to
found scholarships at his old college, Kenyon.
He was also a committed social and political activist. He supported various
Democratic candidates, notably Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He campaigned against
the war in Vietnam, donated a million dollars to keep the left wing magazine
The Nation afloat and supported conservationist and other causes. He
was one of the people behind the major documentary Martin Luther King called
King: A filmed record from Montgomery to Memphis. Many of his feature
films including WUSA and the anti-racist Hombre had explicitly
liberal messages. He was especially proud of being on Richard Nixon’s list
of ‘most hated’ Americans – ranking 19th.
Although as a director he never achieved the status of fellow icon Clint
Eastwood, he produced quite a few decent movies and directed six – all of
some quality including Rachel, Rachel, which was ahead of its time in
its sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian relationship. He co-founded First
Artists with Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen and Dustin
Hoffman, being the only one of the group to fulfill their arrangement to
star in or produce three movies each.
For relaxation he first raced motor cycles but, after an accident, moved to
motor racing, competing in many national and international competitions.
Aged 70 he became the oldest person to take part in the Daytona 24-hour
endurance race and then gave up the sport-other than as an observer and
commentator – much to the relief of Woodward who preferred him ‘behind the
wheel of a Volvo’.
Newman was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio and was the second son of a sports
store owner. His father was a Jew of German origin and his mother a Catholic
who emigrated from Hungary. She became a Christian Scientist when Paul was
aged five but he never subscribed to any religion, saying if asked that he
was Jewish, ‘simply because it seems more challenging.’ He got his first
‘acting’ experience aged seven as a court jester in a school production in a
part which suited him, since he enjoyed being the centre of attraction and
was a life long practical joker. His comfortable, unorthodox background and
exceptional looks proved a mixed blessing-he had a few skirmishes with the
law and was expelled from his first university (Athens).In 1943, aged 18, he
became a US navy radio operator, leaving the forces in 1946 and heading back
to his studies, this time at Kenyon from which he graduated in 1949. The
same year he married Jacqueline Witt, with whom he had three children. They
were divorced in 1957.
After graduation he moved to Yale Drama School, intending to be a drama
teacher, but was quickly spotted by a talent scout and after a brief stint
at the Actors’ Studio in New York began working in the emergent and
voracious medium of television. On stage he appeared in Picnic
(1953), where he first met Woodward. The following year he made a disastrous
Hollywood debut in the clunking The Silver Chalice – vowing never to
appear in period costume or ‘frocks’ again. He returned to New York, for
stage and TV work, including Bang the Drum Slowly on television and
The Desperate Hours on Broadway. He tested for the lead in
East of Eden but lost out to James Dean. However when the young actor
was killed a year later Newman took over the part of Rocky Graziano in
Somebody Up There Likes Me. A fortuitous title since the film set him on
the road to Hollywood stardom and he followed it with leads in The Long
Hot Summer (1958) and Exodus (1960). After the first of those
movies he married his co-star Joanne Woodward.
After the leaden Exodus, he made probably the best film of his
career, The Hustler (1961), receiving his first Oscar nomination for
his role as the pool shark. Directed by the left-winger Robert Rossen, who
was a victim of the McCarthy era, it gave Newman the sort of role that he
was to make his own. A combination of charm, deviousness and amorality. He
reprised the role in the inferior The Color of Money, directed by
Martin Scorsese, winning his only ‘best actor’ Oscar in 1986. His others
were for an oddly premature ‘lifetime achievement’ award in 1985 and the
prestigious Jean Herscholt Award for his philanthropic work in 1993.
Following The Hustler, Newman embarked on the busiest decade of his
career, averaging almost two features a year and working for important
directors including Sidney Lumet (The Verdict), Martin Ritt (Hombre)
and Alfred Hitchcock (The Torn Curtain). Other films of the period
included Cool Hand Luke, Outrage – based on Kurosawa’s
Rashomon – Pocket Money, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
and The Sting (1973), opposite his pal Robert Redford. In 1974 he
received top billing over an ‘all star’ cast in the blockbuster – disaster
movie The Towering Inferno. He had truly arrived, but was
increasingly dissatisfied with the films he worked in.
The next phase in his career showed a new independence and a willingness to
take on roles in less commercial projects, reflecting the decade and his
maturity. He no longer needed to court stardom and had long extricated
himself from any studio contract. He made his permanent home in Connecticut,
with a Manhattan penthouse and a base in Los Angeles for work reasons. It is
widely believed that his refusal to ‘live’ in Hollywood, combined with his
political views, was the reason for his being ignored on seven occasions
when it came to the Oscars. By an odd chance in 1986 when he did win best
actor he was not at the ceremony.
Through the 1970s into the late ‘80s he continued directing, taking over
Sometimes a Great Notion when the filming ran into trouble, followed by
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and in 1987 he
immortalized Woodward’s performance in The Glass Menagerie on screen.
He also wrote, produced, directed and starred in Harry and Son in
1984. This intensely personal work (his only screenplay credit) examined the
fraught relationship between a working class father and his sensitive son
(Robbie Benson). It owed much to his own relationship with his first child,
Scott, who had committed suicide in 1978.
His work through the 1980s showed a remarkable complexity with performances
in such movies as Absence of Malice (’81) and The Verdict the
In the latter he played a failing, alcoholic lawyer – a part for which his
director Sidney Lumet wryly commented, “Newman required only minimal
research.” Other social and political movies followed including Blaze
(as Governor Earl Long) and Fat Man and Little Boy (about the U.S.
development of its nuclear programme).
He also gravitated to documentaries, including Why Have l? (1991),
and others about the Actors’ Studio and director John Huston. He was mean
and nasty in the Coen Brothers satire on big business, The Hudsucker
He became increasingly choosy about his roles, having long relished
character parts since an early success in Fort Apache the Bronx, and
later personal selections included Nobody’s Fool, as a grandfather
unable to relate to his son but finding solace in his young grandson. His
grouchy, tender playing earned him yet another Oscar nomination. Later in
the decade he was to play a similar role as Kevin Costner’s father in
Message in a Bottle (1999) and was memorable as an alcoholic detective
in the quirky Twilight (1998). Perhaps the best of his later roles
was in Road to Perdition (2002), as a gang boss who commits a murder
witnessed by the young son of one of his henchmen (Tom Hanks). As he tries
to exterminate them both, the film is heavy real menace. It is acting of
real stature and a far cry from the engaging Newman of, say, Butch Cassidy.
Nudging 80, he retired from the big screen noting that “acting is pretty
much a closed book to me.” But his voice could be heard on shorts and even
cartoons connected with motor sport and he made occasional forays onto
television including Our Town (produced by Woodward) and his final
appearance in Empire Falls. He continued his philanthropic work and
was tempted back to the stage in the gentle two-hander Love Letters,
with his wife. They gave just seven performances and raised 350,000 dollars
towards a conservation project in their beloved Connecticut. His donation to
his college made a couple of years later created Kenyon’s most substantial
scholarships. It was just one legacy among many left by a fine actor and a
He is survived by his wife Joanne Woodward and by five daughters, two by his
first marriage and three from the second.
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