I wish I was Paul Newman...
I wish I were Paul Newman. That’s right. I said that I wished that I were Paul Newman. Who doesn’t? Walking along W 44th a few days ago I stumbled into “The Actors Studio”…the method acting mecca made most famous by Lee Strasburg and founded on the principles of Constantin Stanislavski…the basics being, ”don’t act, just do,” and whose alumni include James Dean, Marlon Brando, and, of course, Paul Newman. I was impressed beyond measure and imagined a scruffy Newman, collar flipped to shield the wind, struggling to light a cigarette right there on those steps. Paul friggin’ Newman… Butch Cassidy, Riff, Hud Bannon, Luke Jackson, Reg Dunlop, Petrie, Fast Eddie Felson…Paul friggin’ Newman. It’s no stretch for a man to say that he wishes he were Paul Newman.
This is what Steve Levy says about Newman in his biography, “Paul Newman: A Life.” Any one of us could be so lucky…
For fifty years, on-screen and off, Newman vividly embodied certain tendencies in the American male character: active and roguish and earnest and sly and determined and vulnerable and brave and humble and reliable and compassionate and fair. He was a man of his time, and that time ranged from World War II to the contemporary era of digitally animated feature films. He was equally at home on Hollywood soundstages, in theatrical workshops, in the pits of racetracks, and especially on the blessedly raucous fields and in the log cabins and swimming holes of the camps he built and maintained for seriously ill children. The world was his for the claiming—and he claimed only the bit that he felt was reasonably due him, and he gave back more, by far, than he ever took.
He was ridiculously handsome and trim, with a face that belonged on an ancient coin, eyes that stunned and dazed even cynics, and an athlete's compact, lithe, and peppy body. Having fallen into acting as a profession, he would have been guaranteed at least minimal success by sheer virtue of his physical charms. If he'd had no talent or tenacity or intellect or drive, he might still have enjoyed fame and riches. Put him in a dinner jacket, and he could sit confidently at table with presidents or poets or kings. He looked the part—in fact, he looked any part, virtually, that he was asked to play.
But he was smart and cagey and suspicious of fortune too easily won, and he was scrupulous in distinguishing the things that came to him through luck from those he felt he'd earned. He opted to live as far as reasonable from Hollywood, preferred barn coats and blue jeans to tuxedos, and chose the company of troupers and mechanics and beer- swillers over that of celebrities and swells and hobnobbers every time. There was crust and vinegar to him, and he relished the opportunity that his position in life afforded him to startle big shots with his sometimes downmarket tastes and preferences. And vice versa: he loved to sprinkle unexpected stardust in the humblest of contexts, just when he was taken for an ordinary joe.
He was, as he always insisted, a private man whose profession gave him a public face. And he grappled with the incongruity of that for a long time. If he was a cautious and shy fellow raised to a painfully puritanical ethos, he would learn to espouse his inner wildness by adapting personae—in life and in art—that camouflaged his insecurity and reticence in the cloth of exuberance and levity. If he was treated as a freak because of the inescapable fact that he was born beautiful, he would learn to turn that beauty into a tool of subterfuge, creating characters whose allure hid complex and painful depths. If his looks would make him a star, he would redirect that stardom into a benefit for others, slapping his face on labels for food products and creating staggering wealth—then giving all the money away. If he was, regardless of his age, a sex symbol, he would work hard at being a good husband and father. If his personal wealth meant that he could take up motor sports at a high level, he would work as tenaciously at racing as he did at acting and earn acceptance in that world through sheer application and diligently acquired skill. If things came easily to him, he determined to share the benefit he accrued.
Few have lived fuller or richer lives than Paul Newman, and at the time of his death, the world seemed to take stock for the first time of all the Paul Newmans it had known: the actor, the driver, the public citizen, the entrepreneur, the philanthropist, the family man.
But as Newman always knew, it all began with luck—the genetics, upbringing, education, and career fortunes that uniquely enabled him to become a movie star. And it was as a movie star that he made his most obvious mark on the world.
In ways, he did it through the back door. Rarely appearing in obvious blockbusters, striving to reinvent himself by shedding his skin every few years, he compiled a cinematic résumé over five decades that was studded regularly with milestone films and performances: Somebody Up There Likes Me; The Long, Hot Summer; The Left Handed Gun; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Exodus; The Hustler; Paris Blues; Hud; Harper; Hombre; Cool Hand Luke; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; The Sting; The Towering Inferno; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Slap Shot; Fort Apache the Bronx; Absence of Malice; The Verdict; The Color of Money; Blaze; Mr. & Mrs. Bridge; The Hudsucker Proxy; Nobody's Fool; Road to Perdition; Empire Falls; Cars. This is more than just a litany of estimable (and in some cases commercially gigantic) film titles. It's the trajectory of an actor determined to squirm away from preconceptions and to sharpen his artistic abilities at the same time. It stands against the very few similar lists of films ever compiled, and it spans eras, styles, generations. He wasn't the greatest American actor, and he was not even the greatest actor of his own vintage.
But he was arguably the most American actor, the fellow whose roles and accumulated persona best captured the tenor of his times and his people. Newman arrived in movies with the Method actor invaders of the 1950s and rode out their splashy heyday, becoming a commercial superstar while insistently pushing forward the boundaries of his craft.
If you approached him initially only at the superficial level—the level of beauty, as it were—you might have mistaken him for Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis or Robert Wagner, handsome and capable, sure, but movie stars principally rather than craftsmen. Newman, though, had an internal discipline that demanded he make more of himself, and he earned, through sheer perseverance, a place alongside—and in ways, above—the Method gods Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. He was ultimately the one true superstar to emerge from the original Actors Studio generation, the most popular and enduring Stanislavskyan actor in American screen history, the only one who could sit comfortably alongside big- time Golden Era movie stars and newfangled subversive interlopers.
And he was able to bridge the space between those two brands of actors for decades. In a half- century of movies, the characteristic Newman role morphed from almost- too- pretty to dangerously sleek to deliberately wily to weathered and weary- wise. At his best he played against his looks—which may be why he is widely regarded as improving as an actor as he aged. And his instinct to cut against himself meant that he couldn't personify scions of wealth and privilege as well as he could ordinary men struggling with quotidian issues—particularly the struggles of fathers and sons who couldn't communicate adequately or, indeed, love each other enough. Even though he was a partner in a famed half- century marriage, he rarely played a romantic lead and, truly, never all that well. Rather, he played broken athletes, half- crazed outlaws, cocky scam artists, insouciant iconoclasts, and a long skein of rascally and unreliable private eyes, liquor salesmen, cops, spies, lawyers, loggers, and construction workers. Very occasionally—and perhaps only to satisfy a seemingly visceral need to avoid repeating himself—he played men of ramrod morality and authority whose positions as social leaders belied their failures as human beings; predictably, as with so many other types he essayed, he nailed them.
Taken as a whole, Newman's body of work nicely encapsulated the history of an in- between generation of American men who helped their fathers and uncles conquer the world in war and commerce but who could only watch—likely with some jealousy—as their younger siblings and their own children acted out on the native rebellious impulse to overturn everything. He fit in precisely with neither the Greatest Generation nor the Baby Boomers but represented instead a vital link in the American century—a band of men who were meant to inherit a system that was no longer reliably in place by the time their fathers willed it to them. Torn by the conflicting impulses to rule and rebel, his was arguably the pivotal generation of the twentieth century, and Newman, almost unconsciously, was its actor laureate.
Newman was proud of his profession, eternally grateful to his teachers and peers and colleagues and to the writers and directors who created the roles and the projects he appeared in. But like other men's men who take up acting, he could find himself embarrassed by the fussiness of his craft, and he had a need to assert himself in other, more physical areas of life in order to pass muster with himself. And so auto racing, as alien a pastime to the arts as could be imagined, became a second world for him. Picking it up in his mid- forties, he was seen at first as a dilettante. But his bulldog tenacity (and, too, his native athleticism and his uncommon financial means) took him to remarkable levels of accomplishment: four national amateur titles, two professional race victories, a second- place finish at the famed twenty- four hour race in Le Mans, and, at age seventy, a victory in his team's class in the 24 Hours of Daytona—making him the oldest person to win a sanctioned auto race ever, anywhere. As a team owner in even higher classes of competition, his success was greater still: 8 national titles and107 individual race victories—a massive haul.
And he was nearly as accomplished an entrepreneur as he was a race- car driver and owner. As a purveyor of food products, a business that he didn't enter until his mid- fifties, he created new standards for the elimination of preservatives and the use of fresh ingredients in salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, salsas, and snack foods. And when he expanded into organic foods, his became one of the nation's most recognized and trusted brands. Those businesses led to another area of achievement: philanthropy. Aside from the millions of dollars and thousands of hours he donated privately over the years, his Newman's Own Foundation, which gave away all posttax profits from the food businesses, doled out more than $250 million in its first twenty- five years of existence. And in the final years before his death, Newman bequeathed his share of the company—valued at nearly $120 million— for similar distribution.
It's a staggering list of achievements—the acting, the racing, the earnings, the giving away—and he could sometimes seem uneasy about it all and, especially, about the image that the rest of the world had of him as a result. The great sportswriter Jim Murray, who met him on a racetrack, opined, "He's probably the only guy in America who doesn't want to be Paul Newman." And William Goldman, who wrote Harper and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, remarked similarly, "I don't think Paul Newman really thinks he is Paul Newman in his head.
"In rare unguarded moments, he admitted as much. "The toughest role is playing Paul Newman," he told a reporter. "My own personality is so vapid and bland, I have to go steal the personalities of other people to be effective."
He wasn't blowing smoke. He was a man of great gifts, but he was genuinely humble, believing in work and family and luck and community and the greater good—and if a surfeit of that good slopped up onto his plate over the years, he would be sure to share it, and he would do so in the best humor he could. Somehow he had turned the gifts life and luck had granted him into things he could multiply and give back. Occasionally along the way he would misstep or be discourteous or make a wrong aesthetic choice or drive ill- advisedly or whatnot, but what he never did was hole up, retreat, give in, surrender, or fail to engage.
"What I would really like to put on my tombstone," he once said, "is that I was part of my time."
And he was.
Like I said, I wish I was Paul Newman.