“There is a point where feelings go beyond words. I have lost a real friend. My life, and this country, is better for his being in it.” —Robert Redford
“The history of movies without Paul Newman? It's unthinkable. His presence, his beauty, his physical eloquence, the emotional complexity he could conjure up and transmit though his acting in so many movies—where would we be without him?” —Martin Scorsese
“I was blessed to have known him. The world is better because of him. Sometimes God makes perfect people and Paul Newman was one of them.” —Sally Field
“Paul Newman played many unforgettable roles. But the ones for which he was proudest never had top billing on the marquee. Devoted husband. Loving father. Adoring grandfather. Dedicated philanthropist. Always and to the end, Dad was incredibly grateful for his good fortune. In his own words: ‘It's been a privilege to be here.’ He will be profoundly missed by those whose lives he touched, but he leaves us with extraordinary inspiration to draw upon.” —statement from Newman’s three daughters, Elinor, Melissa, and Claire
Paul Newman made so many great films. I was trying to think of my top five favorites but it was too difficult. He was even fun to watch in lousy films. A few weeks ago, based on the recommendation of a commenter on a post I wrote about Thelma Ritter, I rented the 1963 film “A New Kind of Love” starring Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward. NOT a great film, by any stretch of the imagination. And I loved it! What’s not to love about a movie set in Paris where Paul Newman mistakenly believes that fashion designer Joanne Woodward is a high-priced call girl?
What incredible role models Paul and Joanne have been during their marriage that lasted FIFTY years. Newman got sick and tired of being asked what the secret to their success was, but he shared some wonderful insights:
“I’ve repeatedly said that for people with as little in common as Joanne and myself, we have an uncommonly good marriage. We are actors. We make pictures and that's about all we have in common. Maybe that's enough. Wives shouldn't feel obligated to accompany their husbands to a ball game, husbands do look a bit silly attending morning coffee breaks with the neighborhood wives when most men are out at work. Husbands and wives should have separate interests, cultivate different sets of friends and not impose on the other...You can't spend a lifetime breathing down each other’s necks.”
“I never ask my wife about my flaws. Instead I try to get her to ignore them and concentrate on my sense of humor. You don’t want any woman to look under the carpet, guys, because there’s lots of flaws underneath. Joanne believes my character in a film we did together, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’ comes closest to who I really am. I personally don’t think there’s one character who comes close…but I learned a long time ago not to disagree on things that I don't have a solid opinion about.”
The oddest but perhaps most flattering thing Newman said about Woodward, in replying to a reporter's question about adultery:
“Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?”
It’s hard for me to accept that the people in Paul Newman’s generation are now in their 80s and that so many of them are leaving us. I remember when I was younger we’d always be reading about the stars of the silent movie era passing on. Then, as an adult, it was the stars of the 30s and 40s. But now—the people who made films in the 50s and 60s? I can’t take it. What’s next—“Aging Screen Legend Scarlett Johansson Dies at Retirement Home?”
When someone of Paul Newman’s stature dies, there is so much written about the whole of their career. I always like to dip into the archives to their earliest days in the public eye and see how they were viewed before they were swept up into the fame machine.
Reading about Paul Newman when he was a very young man, the good news is that his personality seems the same as it was after achieving enormous success. But like many stars, Newman was almost done in by his first brush with big fame. After appearing in a few small roles on television, Newman got his first big break in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s “Picnic” in 1953. He wasn’t the male lead, the dangerous drifter played by William Holden in the film version, but he had a good part as the drifter’s rich college friend, Alan, who was also in love with the town beauty, Madge.
With his crazy good looks and the acting technique he developed at the Actors Studio, Newman was soon fielding offers from the Hollywood studios. They sent him script after script, and to his eternal regret, the one that he finally accepted was the religious epic, “The Silver Chalice.” This abomination, in which Newman played the artist who was given the task of designing the chalice that would house the Holy Grail, also starred Virginia Mayo, Pier Angeli, and Jack Palance. Newman got the full studio build-up. A 1954 L.A. times article breathlessly announced:
Warner Bros. Is evidently successfully combing Broadway for talent for top film assignments. Having already secured James Dean to play opposite Julie Harris in “East of Eden,” the studio has now acquired Paul Newman for the pivotal role of Basil in “The Silver Chalice.”
Following his arrival in Los Angeles, Hedda Hopper weighed in about the influx of young New York talent.
Got quite a shock when I walked into the Green Room at Warners for lunch. Hadn’t been there in quite a spell, so maybe I was expecting some of the glamour stars that graced the studio not too long ago—people like Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, Jim Cagney, Jane Wyman.
The place was jumping all right, but a new set of actors had taken over. It’s what I call the Dirty Shirttail School of Acting. Against a wall sat two boys, James Dean and Richard Davalos, one slouched down on his coccyx. They balanced forks on water glasses, got extra chairs on which to rest their feet, and gave the appearance of a couple of Roman soliders resting up from the wars, not getting up when a female entered the room.
Was about to tackle my lamb chops when in walked what looked like a sensible Marlon Brando. He was Paul Newman, who costars with Virginia Mayo in “the Silver Chalice.” I asked how he got to look so much like Marlon. “I’m a chronic sloucher,” he replied.
Then Miss Glamour herself, Virginia Mayo, joined us. Pointing to her costar she said, “He’s the best-looking thing in a toga you’ve ever seen—I call him ‘Skirts Newman.’”
“But he has no hair on his chest,” I commented. I wanted to know how the Cleveland-born Newman became an actor. “This,” he said, “is where you find out a person is abnormal. I gave up a secure life in the sporting goods business for acting.”
Newman’s first film was savaged by the critics. The New York Times reviewer called it cumbersome and creaking. “Paul Newman, a recruit from Broadway, bears a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando, but his contribution is hardly outstanding. As a youth who has been cheated of his rich inheritance by a covetous uncle, sold into slavery, and eventually chosen to create the Holy relic, he is given mainly to thoughtful posing and automatic speechmaking. And, despite the fact that he is desired by the extremely fetching Mayo and the wistful Angeli, he is rarely better than wooden in his reaction to these fairly spectacular damsels.” Another reviewer said “Warners’ new star—or what is hoped will be a new star—Paul Newman, shows promise of doing better things in a movie future. Tall, fair, handsome, undeniably suggesting a blond Brando, he is personable but suffers from the picture’s unwieldy cutting and clipped continuity.”
What's with all the allusions to Brando? I don't see the resemblance. Newman admitted years later that he was mistaken for the actor so many times when he first came to Hollywood that he signed "Best Wishes, Marlon Brando" hundreds of times in fans' autograph books so they wouldn't be disappointed. To his credit, no one despised “The Silver Chalice” more than Paul Newman himself. “That I survived the first film I did was extraordinarily good fortune. I mean, I had dogs chasing me down the street. I was wearing this tiny little Greek cocktail dress—with *my* legs! Good Lord, it was really bad. In fact, it was the worst film made in the 1950s. My first review said that ‘Mr. Newman delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam stop conductor announcing local stop.’” When “The Silver Chalice” had its first television showing in 1966, Newman took out a full-page ad in “Variety” begging people not to watch the film.
Smarting from being talked into such a stinker, Paul Newman took control of his career and hightailed it back to New York. He accepted the gritty part of an escaped convict terrorizing a family in “The Desperate Hours” on Broadway and was a sensation, playing against the pretty-boy image Warner Bros. was only too keen to exploit. The film version, made in 1955, starred a much older Humphrey Bogart in Newman’s role.
Newman then starred in a wonderful TV version of “Our Town” directed by Delbert Mann. I once took a class at UCLA in which Delbert Mann screened this poignant version of Thornton Wilder’s story starring Newman as George and the radiant Eva Marie Saint as Emily. Eva Marie, a friend of Kendall’s family, was at the screening, and talked about how much she loved working with Paul Newman, what a pure and generous actor he was.
Newman’s triumphant return to Hollywood was as Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” James Dean had been signed for the part but after his tragic death it went to his good friend Paul. Newman’s “Our Town” costar, Eva Marie Saint, was supposed to play Norma, but the part went instead to his “Silver Chalice” wife, Pier Angeli. He got great reviews for the film and he had the chance to reunite with Eva Marie Saint a few years later in Otto Preminger’s “Exodus.” Preminger said that one of the reasons he gave Newman the lead was that he wanted a Jew who didn’t look Jewish. Oy. (In case you're surprised to read that Newman was Jewish, his father was Jewish and his mother was Catholic but he considered himself Jewish "because it was more of a challenge.")
Newman also starred opposite our friend Barbara Rush in “The Young Philadelphians” in 1959 and I know that Barbara always had nothing but praise for her costar. This film, in which Newman played an up-and-coming Philadelphia lawyer facing ethical dilemmas as he tried to climb the social ladder, is great fun to watch, as evidenced by this ridiculous trailer (which unfortunately includes only a glimpse of our beloved Barbara):
Wow, that’s insane. But check out this understated, sizzling scene between Paul Newman and “Hud” housekeeper Patricia Neal:
Have you EVER seen a more sexual scene than that? And without anyone taking their clothes off! How about this painful scene from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?” Remember what a great actress Elizabeth Taylor was?
Great career. Great life. Amazing philanthropist. Tireless humanitarian. A class act to the end. Newman was a fierce Democrat. He once said that getting on Nixon’s enemy list was the single greatest honor of his life. After the homosexual aspects of his character in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” were toned down for the movie version by the skittish studio, Newman tried desperately to star in a film version of the novel “The Front Runner,” about the love affair between a male coach and his star runner. He was never able to get it off the ground. “I'm a supporter of gay rights,” he said. “And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being…by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.”
Newman’s feelings about his good looks were complex. Although regarded today as a brilliant actor, many people earlier in his career believed that his looks were a detriment. Lee Strasberg said that though Newman was as talented as Brando, he wasn’t taken as seriously because he was so handsome. Newman himself once said the one thing he didn’t want his epitaph to say was “Here lies Paul Newman who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.” The first time he remembered women going nuts for him was during the shooting of “Hud” in Texas. “Women were literally trying to climb through the transoms at the motel where I stayed. At first, it’s flattering to the ego. At first. Then you realize that they’re mixing me up with the roles I play—characters created by writers who have nothing to do with who I am.”
A few years ago, Newman said, “I’d like to be remembered as a guy who tried—who tried to be part of his times, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being. Someone who wasn’t complacent, who didn’t cop out.”
Mission accomplished, Paul.