PAUL NEWMAN | 1925-2008

Blue-eyed idol put an indelible stamp on movies, philanthropy

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 28, 2008

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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 Friday 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.

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.

"There is a point where feelings go beyond words," Robert Redford, who played his sidekick in "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting," said yesterday. "I have lost a real friend. My life, and this country, is better for his being in it."

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 antihero. 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 could 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.

In May, Newman had decided against plans to direct a fall production of "Of Mice and Men," at Westport's Country Playhouse citing unspecified health issues.

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, 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 expanded to 12 camps on three continents.)

Paul Leonard Newman was born in a Cleveland suburb 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 after 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, and 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. 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 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."

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 early strained outings. 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).

And 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 to the growing counterculture, even if audiences missed the nuanced layers of self-loathing.

"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 schoolteacher. The actor returned to directing five more times, 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, Robert Redford, and treated historical Wild West characters with appealing irreverence. The film was a massive hit, 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 political views be known in words, deeds, and movies. The actor stumped for Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and starred in and co-produced the 1970 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."

Film director Bill Haney of Wayland recalled receiving checks for "thousands and thousands" of dollars from Newman, whom he had never met, to help fund a charity he created to help poor women in Latin America.

About two years ago, Haney said his phone rang and Newman was on the other end. Newman said he liked Haney's film "A Passion for the Wild" and wanted to know what he was working on next. Haney told him about his plans for the film, "The Price of Sugar," which chronicled worker abuses by sugar plantation owners in South America. Newman immediately offered to narrate it for free.

Haney said he warned Newman that "some people won't like us making the movie because powerful people don't like to be questioned."

Haney said Newman replied, "That's exactly why we have to question them."

Haney also recalled that after he finished the film and let Newman view it, Newman said, "I don't think you're tough enough on them," the plantation owners.

"He was powerful; he knew what he believed in," Haney said.

Newman also helped make having a social conscience fashionable in Hollywood, something that has become increasingly popular as more movie stars use their fame to promote a cause.

"Paul Newman is why it became fashionable," he said. "Everything he did became the gold standard."

"I think he comes from a generation of Americans who thought about what they could give to the country, not what they could get."

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 "Absence of Malice," (1981) 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 seemed to interest Mr. Newman more than awards. Starring in the 1969 film "Winning" introduced him 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."

Then there was the stunning success of his charitable food business. It began as a lark: In 1980, Newman and a friend, 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 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.

"We will miss our friend Paul Newman, but are lucky ourselves to have known such a remarkable person," Robert Forrester, vice chairman of Newman's Own Foundation, said in a statement.

In addition, Mr. Newman founded the Scott Newman Center in 1980 in Torrance, Calif., to combat substance abuse. 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 challenging Hollywood's crumbling power structure. He returned to Broadway periodically (nominated for a Tony in 2003 as the Stage Manager in a revival of "Our Town") and joined fellow stars Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, and Steve McQueen in founding the independent production company First Artists in 1969.

And he grappled with the difficulties of being famous. 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.

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 he 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.

The couple met at the Actors Studio in the 1950s and then again during the run of "Picnic." Both were married and 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 perfect counterpoint to his 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 three daughters from his marriage to Woodward, Elinor "Nell," Melissa, and Clea; two daughters from his first marriage, Susan and Stephanie; and a brother, Arthur.

Burial plans are unknown, although Newman 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 Globe staffer Megan Woolhouse contributed to this report and material from Associated Press was used.

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