Paul Newman dies at 83

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 27, 2008
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

Paul Newman, the matinee idol, race-car driver, and philanthropist whose cool, rebellious charm made him one of his generation’s greatest movie stars and finest actors, died yesterday at his farmhouse near Westport, Conn., after a long battle with cancer, according to publicist Jeff Sanderson. He was surrounded by family and close friends. Mr. Newman was 83.

In May, Newman had decided against plans to direct a fall production of "Of Mice and Men," citing unspecified health issues. At that time he responded to rumors of his failing health by joking he was being treated for athlete's foot and hair loss.

It is impossible to overstate Mr. Newman’s importance to the popular culture of the 1950s through 1980s. One of the last actors to be groomed by the classic Hollywood studio system, he became one of the first stars of the counterculture years, putting his own iconoclastic stamp on the era’s movies and radically deepening the image of the all-American hero. With his racing career and the stunning success of the Newman’s Own food brand, he transformed notions of what movie stars can and should be able to do.

Over the course of 59 movies -- nine of his performances were Oscar-nominated, with his reprise of pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson in 1986's "The Color of Money" finally delivering a best actor statue --Newman established an irresistible persona: a sexually charged blue-eyed rascal who turns out to be less in control of the situation than he thought.

In the original "The Hustler" (1961), Fast Eddie is a poolroom hot-dog in over his head. The wastrel rancher's son in "Hud" (1963) is a charismatic but corrupt anti-hero. The chain-gang prisoner of "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) doesn't take the game seriously until too late. All three are portraits of rebellious American men wrecked by ambition, greed, and naivete.

And all three films made Mr. Newman bigger than ever -- he was particularly chagrined that Hud was embraced by audiences. That may explain the actor's laconic disdain for the business of stardom; over the course of his career he increasingly put distance between himself and Hollywood. Settling in his 1739 farmhouse in Westport in 1971, Mr. Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, his partner in one of the great Hollywood marriages,raised their three children (as well as three from Mr. Newman's earlier marriage to Jacqueline Witte) and became low-key local gentry.

He could have been mistaken for a country gentleman but for three things: his love of auto racing, a desire to raise money for charity by selling food, and a spate of film work in the 1980s that includes some of his best performances.He received a 1986 honorary Oscar, followed by the win for "The Color of Money" a year later. In 1994, he was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his establishment of the Hole in the Wall camp in Connecticut for children with terminal illnesses. (The program has since expanded to 12 camps on three continents.)

Paul Leonard Newman was born Jan. 26, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, to a Jewish father and a Hungarian Catholic mother. His early years were spent finding new ways to avoid living up to expectations: He was kicked out of Ohio University when he dented a dean’s car with a beer keg.

Enlisting in the Navy in 1943, Mr. Newman failed to get his pilot’s license – ironically, those famous blue eyes were color blind. Instead, he served out World War II as a radioman third class, then went to Kenyon College on the GI Bill and, as he recalled, “graduated magnum cum lager.”

It was there that he discovered the theater, acting and writing in student plays and writing musicals. By the late 1940s, he was appearing in Midwestern regional theater and had married Witte, a fellow actor.

A short stint at the Yale School of Drama led to New York City and the famed Actors Studio; the striking young actor was soon picking up work on live TV shows like “Tales of Tomorrow” and as Plato -- in a toga -- on "You Are There.”

In 1953, director Joshua Logan cast Mr. Newman in the Broadway production of William Inge’s “Picnic,” initially as an understudy and then as the hero’s best friend. The play’s success led to a Warner Brothers contract and the legendarily awful 1954 sword-and-sandal drama “The Silver Chalice,” a film so bad that when it had a multi-night run on California TV years later, its star took out a Los Angeles Times ad that read “Paul Newman Apologizes Every Night This Week - Channel 9.”

All was forgiven in 1956 with the release of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” in which Mr. Newman played boxer Rocky Graziano, a role originally intended for his friend James Dean. Two years later, a Tennessee Williams adaptation and a Method-acted western established Mr. Newman as a major star. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was Hollywood's biggest moneymaker of 1958,and the actor earned his first Oscar nomination as the impotent yet still sexy Brick Pollitt, opposite Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie the Cat. Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun," a portrait of Billy the Kid as a misfit teen rebel, served notice of Mr. Newman's artistic ambitions.

Those aspirations took a few years to gel, and there were a number of strained outings early on. With "The Hustler," though, his career began to acquire the aspect of legend, and Mr. Newman’s mid-'60s run remains an unparalleled instance of American heroism subjected to mocking scrutiny.The actor decided there was luck in titles beginning with the letter H, and he seemed right: after "Hustler" came "Hud," "Harper" (1966, a hip detective movie), and "Hombre" (1967, about racism in the old West).

Then came "Cool Hand Luke," with Mr. Newman eating 50 eggs on a dare and prompting Strother Martin as a Southern prison warden to drawl, "What we got here is a failure to communicate." On the contrary, Luke's insouciant resistance to authority communicated plenty to the growing counterculture, even if audiences missed the nuanced layers of self-loathing Mr. Newman brought to the character.

"The Hustler," "Hud," and "Cool Hand Luke" all resulted in Oscar nominations for best actor. Mr. Newman's directorial debut, the 1968 drama "Rachel, Rachel," resulted in something more satisfying: nominations for best picture and best actress, for Woodward's aching portrait of a lonely small-town schoolteacher. The actor returned to directing five more timesover the course of his career, four of them with his wife.

In 1969, he embarked on a partnership with more lasting pop culture impact. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" paired Mr. Newman with a younger actor named Robert Redford and treated historical Wild West characters with appealing irreverence. The film was a massive hit with audiences, as was the duo's re-teaming four years later in the 1973 Best Picture winner "The Sting," playing a pair of 1930s con men. At the dawn of the '70s, “Newman and Redford” stood for New Hollywood male star power at its most effortless.

Around this time, Mr. Newman began to let his progressive politics be known in words, deeds, and movies. The actor stumped for Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and he starred and co-produced the1970 film "WUSA," a caustic drama about a conservative radio station. In 1978, President Carter appointed the actor a US delegate to a UN conference on nuclear disarmament, and in later years Mr. Newman was co-owner and occasional contributor to the left-wing magazine The Nation.

"My single highest honor," he told Time magazine in 1982, "is that I was No. 19 on Nixon's enemies list. All the other actors were so jealous."

The late 1970s saw a rough patch in the filmography -- "The Towering Inferno" was the biggest hit, while the profane hockey comedy "Slap Shot" was probably the best movie -- but the 1980s saw some of Mr. Newman's finest work. He powerfully played a common man smeared by the media in

Sydney Pollack's 1981 "Absence of Malice," and his role as an alcoholic Boston attorney in Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" the following year stands as the actor's professional peak. He was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for the latter film; it remains the Oscar he should have won.

That said, auto races rather than film awards seemed to interest Mr. Newman more. Starring in the 1969 film "Winning" introduced the star to the professional circuit, which soon became a primary passion. He got his racing license in 1972 and built a highly successful second career.

In 1979, Mr. Newman came in second at Le Mans driving a red Porsche 935 twin turbo. In 1995, at the age of 70, he entered the Guinness World Record books for being the oldest driver to win the Rolex 24-hour race at Daytona.

The actor survived at least two crashes during his racing career, but the sport gave him something he didn’t find in movies. In 2006, when he provided the voice of Doc Hudson in the Pixar hit “Cars,” Mr. Newman told the London Daily Mail, "I couldn't say whether racing or acting has given me more pleasure but I will say that although I can't remember every line of every film I've ever shot, and some of my movies I can't remember at all, I can remember every lap of every race I've ever been in."

Then there was the stunning success of his charitable food business.It began as a lark: In 1980, Newman and a friend, the writer A.E. Hotchner, mixed a test vat of salad dressing, stirring it with a canoe paddle. With $40,000 seed money from the actor, Newman's Own dressing was on grocery shelves by 1982, with a drawing of the star and the label motto "Fine Foods Since February.''

As the business expanded to include popcorn, spaghetti sauce, lemonade, and, in the early 1990s, an organic line run by Newman's daughter Nell, Newman's Own became a bellwether in the conservative food industry: a small company that broke ground in "cause marketing" and corporate social responsibility. By 2006, Newman's Own had donated $220 million to various charities.

In addition, Mr. Newman founded the Scott Newman Center in 1980 in Torrance, Calif., to combat substance abuse through education. The organization is named for the actor's son, who died at 28 in 1978 from a drug overdose.

Mr. Newman was successful early enough to buy out his studio contract in 1959, an expensive decision that positioned him as one of the new breed of independent players challenging Hollywood’s crumbling power structure.

He returned to Broadway periodically (he was finally nominated for a Tony in 2003 as the Stage Manager in a revival of “Our Town”) and joined with fellow stars Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, and Steve McQueen infounding the independent production company First Artists in 1969.

And he grappled with the difficulties of being a famous sex symbol who wants to live in the real world. Mr. Newman once told a story of a woman at an ice cream parlor who was so flustered by his presence that she put her cone in her purse.

His later years saw some of his richest performances, as a small-town ne’er-do-well in 1994’s “Nobody’s Fool” – the kind of man Mr. Newman might have grown into if he hadn’t left Cleveland – and as an aging,illusion-free Hollywood detective in “Twilight” (1998).

In 1990, he appeared with his wife in the last of 11 films they made together, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” about an emotionally reserved couple over the years. Their own marriage was a union of two powerhouse talents –Woodward won her Oscar for “The Three Faces of Eve” in 1957, three decades before Mr. Newman won his – that took place largely and intentionally out of the spotlight.

The couple met at the Actors Studio in the 1950s and then again during the run of “Picnic.” Both were married to others and both tried to deny an attraction that finally proved too big to ignore. (Mr. Newman’s first wife filed for divorce but remained good friends with the actor over the years.)

Woodward’s elegant fire seemed the perfect counterpoint to her husband’s brash manliness. He could call her “the last of the great broads”in a 1992 interview, and she could sum up the history of their relationship, in an article the following year, by saying "There was a lot of lust. But it finally goes back to friendship.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Newman leaves five daughters, two from his first marriage. Burial plans are unknown, although Newman once expressed a desire to have his ashes strewn across the lake where he built the first Hole in the Wall Camp. “I always admired the fish,” he said.

Ty Burr can be reached at

Paul Newman in 'Cool Hand Luke' in 1968. (AP/Warner Bros. File) Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke" in 1968.
  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.