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October 2008 Archives

October 4, 2008

Paul Newman

I saw Paul Newman only once in the flesh, several years ago, at a National Press Club luncheon. He was sitting with Joanne Woodward two tables away from me, listening to a speech given by his close friend Gore Vidal. I only glimpsed Newman and heard none of his luncheon conversation, but the fact that he paid for his ticket and sat in the audience spoke volumes about him to me. One call to the National Press Club Speakers Committee, and he could have sat at the head table. Apparently he did not make that call.

That memory seems typical of a man who was always reluctant to pull rank as one of the world's most beloved movie stars, except when he could do so to help others. It may seem egomaniacal to plaster your face across millions of bottles of salad dressing and spaghetti sauce, until you realize that Newman took not one penny of profit for doing so, but gave all the profits--more than $150 million at the time of his death--to various charities.

One of the handsomest men who ever walked in front of a camera, Newman never overtly traded on his looks, but chose roles that would stretch his talents as an actor. He was not afraid to play characters that were ethically flawed (Fast Eddie in "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money") or even downright hateful (Hud, a name as hard and vicious as the character it signified). Of course, Newman could also charm the sun out of the sky, as he did in his great collaborations with Robert Redford, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." But even Butch and "The Sting's" Henry Gondorff were equivocal characters. Less extravagantly talented than his contemporary Marlon Brando, and never quite reaching the heights Brando did at his greatest, Newman nevertheless had a better and longer career than Brando, with a longer list of memorable roles and notably fewer embarrassments. Hard work and discipline pay off.

So what else can I say? Newman had one of the longest and happiest Hollywood marriages; he was a longtime, level-headed and eloquent advocate of any and all things that represented social and political enlightenment; and any man who takes up auto racing at 40 has to have guts of titanium. I will leave long encomiums to those who knew him best. I will only say that young actors today could do far, far worse than to emulate Paul Newman. As is always appropriate with actors, I also will quote Shakespeare--namely "Julius Caesar," Act 5, Scene 5:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!

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About October 2008

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