Sep 27, 2008
Paul Newman was no ordinary Hollywood legend, though he bore all the
trappings of one. He had the movie star looks offset by his bright
sparkling blue eyes. He had the enormous fortune, amassed over six
decades at the top of his game. He had the Oscar, sitting on a shelf
with many other awards.
But Newman was always a man unto himself.
He shunned the pitfalls and traps of being a legend. Not for Newman any
high profile struggle with drugs or alcohol. Not for Newman, the fancy
Beverly Hills castle. Not for Newman the sight of an ageing wonder
dancing the night away with starlets a quarter of his age.
career studded with remarkable achievements, Newman's greatest work of
art might simply have been his ability to lead a fulfilled life outside
of the glamour of being an icon.
The star of films like Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting and The Colour of Money used
his wealth and fame to indulge his other passions. He was a successful
race car driver, once famously saying that the sport was the first
thing he had ever shown grace at. He later became the owner of a race
car team. He also created a food company, called Newman's Own, whose
popular sauces and salad dressings sold in their millions, with all the
profits going to charity. By the time he died, Newman's face stared out
from America's supermarket shelves just as much as it had once done
from its movie billboards.
An awareness of the richness of life
outside Hollywood was the key to Newman's success and fame and it
showed in his death. After a long struggle with cancer, he died at his
home in Westport, Connecticut, a small town on America's east coast,
many thousands of miles away from the Hollywood glamour that had made
his career but never made his life. He was 83 years old.
it was the grounded nature of his upbringing that gave him the strength
to keep to his own road through Hollywood's many alluring diversions.
He was born to the solid American middle class in 1925 in the rough and
tumble city of Cleveland, Ohio. His Jewish father owned a sporting
goods store and his mother, a Slovak catholic, raised the family at
Newman showed his first interest in acting as a child,
performing as a jester in a school production of Robin Hood. But, like
many of his generation, the second world war was destined to interrupt
his adult life. His colour blindness kept him from being a pilot, but
he trained as a radioman and gunner, flying from onboard America's
giant aircraft gunners against the might of Japan. In one famous
incident a fluke ear infection of his pilot kept him from flying on a
mission in which the rest of his entire detail was later killed. It was
an astonishing piece of fortune, but one not uncommon to the generation
of men who fought in the war.
Like many others Newman came back
from the conflict determined not to waste the rest of his life. He went
to New York, studying acting and making his debut on Broadway. He also
married his first wife, Jackie Witte, with whom he had a son and two
daughters. Though that marriage was destined not to last, he always
took a serious attitude towards relationships and brought up a large
and loving family. He married a second time, to the actress Joanne
Woodward, and spoke out in favour of monogamy, saying of infidelity:
"Why go out for hamburger, when you have steak at home?". It was an
attitude that is rarely found among Hollywood's elite.
neither were talents as rare as Newman's. He was an actors' actor,
deeply tuned into his craft. The list of his acting triumphs is immense
and spans different generations of Hollywood. He made huge popular
epics like Butch Cassidy, The Towering Inferno, Hud, Harper and The
Sting. He also made smaller, instant classics like Cool Hand Luke. He
won his Oscar, after many nominations, for his second appearance as
'Fast' Eddie Felson in the Colour of Money, the sequel to the The
But that was hardly the end for Newman. Often such an
Oscar is given to cap a lifetime's achievement. But Newman went on to
get nominated for a Tony for a Broadway revival of Our Town in 2003 and
an Emmy nomination for a TV taping of the same production. His last big
screen performance, as a mob boss in the Tom Hanks' film Road to
Perdition, was suited to his talents. It was a sprawling story, a
complex role and a huge box office and critical success.
Newman's life was never all about his acting. During the 1960s and
1970s, at the height of his fane, he embraced Martin Luther King and
the civil rights struggle. He went on sit-ins and marches. He became a
vocal (and early) supporter of anti-Vietnam war presidential candidate
Eugene McCarthy, helping kick start his campaign in New Hampshire. But
his true lifelong passion seems to have been race cars and the world of
After his official retirement from acting, he still
managed to provide the voice for a character in the Pixar animation
Cars and narrate a film about top Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt. He
consumated his love for cars via the film Winning, where he played a
driver. That experience inspired him to make his passion spill over
from make-believe to real life. From the mid-70s right into the 90s he
drove for a professional team, once competing in Le Mans. He also
co-founded a successful race car team himself. At the age of 70 he
became the oldest driver to compete as part of a winning team in a
professional sanctioned race.
It was a remarkable achievement
but one that seemed typical of a man who had always put a high value on
things outside the fact of being a movie star. Newman had always seen
his stunning looks as a strange sort of curse, deliberately going out
of his way to pick difficult roles, to achieve success as an actor not
just as a star. He also found celebrity puzzling and slightly scary
(so, unsurprisingly, did his wife).
He was so pursued by female
fans that he once took to wearing disguises, donning sunglasses and
even beards so he could go out in public. It was a tactic that rarely
worked. But in the end it did not matter. Newman succeeded in each
aspect of his life: as an actor, as a driver and as a philanthropist.
But most of all by simply living a life in full on his own terms.
Perhaps it is fitting that his best known roles - in Butch Cassidy,
Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler and the Sting - were as good-natured
outlaws. They were rebels with a smile going their own way. Newman's
Own may be the name of his charity food company, but it could also
serve as a motto for his life.
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