Paul Newman, who passed away last Friday, will long be remembered not just for being a good actor but for the grace with which he lived his life. Blessed with strikingly handsome features he was more, much much more than just a pretty face. Women might have initially been attracted by his impossibly blue eyes and men may have admired him for his exploits on the racing circuit but they all continued to idolize him for his other attributes: his fundamental decency, his innate modesty, his refusal to take himself too seriously, his philanthrophy and his penchant for living life to the fullest. Pauline Kael, the NYT film reviewer, wrote of his performance in Cool hand Luke that ” There are some men who project such a traditional , heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them , seeks to protect them from harm or pain.” She was writing about his performance in a movie but that comment could very well be applied to his real life persona.
I was surprised to read that , early in his career, Paul Newman was often mistaken for Marlon Brando but I then realized that I was comparing them as they were in later life. Brando, a man of large appetites, became gross-looking , but Newman continued to look handsome even as he aged. He wore his good looks lightly , allowing his hair to turn first grey then white, but always had that twinkle in his baby blue eyes. There is an apocryphal story about a woman who glimpsed him in an ice cream shoppe in Westport and was completely entranced by him. Still befuddled, she walked out of the store and found herself standing on the sidewalk clutching her cell phone but without her ice cream cone. As she was wondering where she had put it, Newman emerged from the store , walked up to her and smiled ” It’s in your handbag.” Even if this is an urban legend, it’s a story we can very well imagine ,one which we we would like to be true.
Ironically, Newman’s good looks worked against him earlier in his acting career as movie critics discounted his acting skills , perhaps believing that his appeal was due more to his charm and looks rather than his skill as an actor. He, however, always considered himself a character actor and eagerly sought out meaty , often edgy, roles finally garnering an Oscar for the role of fast Eddie Felson in ” The Color of Money” (1987). His wife of more than 50 years, Joanne Woodward, was herself a consummate actress, winning an Oscar for her role of a woman with split personality in ” The Three Faces of Eve ” (1958). It is a testament to the quality of their marriage that Newman never felt threatened by his wife’s early success. Indeed, he was later to produce several films showcasing his wife’s talents, good roles for older women being few and far between.
Perhaps what gave Paul Newman and his wife the most pleasure was the success of their charitable efforts. In partnership with the writer A.E.Hotchner ,Newman, in 1981, began a food venture ,all the profits of which were donated to charity. The company was a success from the start making Newman’s Own Salad dressing, and alsopasta sauce, salsa, popcorn, lemonade and wine.To date it has raised more than $ 220 million for charitable causes such as summer camps for seriously ill children, cancer , drug awareness etc. Even when his son Scott tragically OD’d on Valium and alcohol, Newman dealt with his grief and started a foundation to educate people on the dangers of drugs. Through it all he had a realistic view of himself and retained his sense of humor. When the profits from Newman’s Own topped the $ 100 million mark, he said that he was overjoyed but also confessed to feeling a little embarassed beccause Newman’s Own Salad Dressing had outgrossed Newman’s Own films!
Newman nad Woodward were long time residents of Westport, CT and people there are full of stories of him, his unfailing good nature, his joie de vivre and how he always conducted himself as a regular guy rather than a famous Hollywood icon. No one had anything but good to say about him . “Likable”, ” good humored”, and “unassuming” were the words most often used to describe him.
He is gone now and we will not soon see another like him .