Summer Movie Festival: Paul Newman's Legacy

Hollywood icon Paul Newman left behind a string of films that established him as one of the movie industry's great leading men. TOTN movie buff Murray Horwitz continues our summer movie festival with a look at the film career of the late actor.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now it's time for another edition of our summer movie series. And this week, it's a special memorial edition. Paul Newman died since we last convened. A man whose devastating good looks and charisma might seem destined for stardom, but his first real hit almost wasn't. James Dean agreed to play middleweight champ Rocky Graziano, but after his sudden death, Newman stepped in to star in the 1956 biopic.

(Soundbite of move, "Somebody Up There Likes Me")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (Actor): (as Rocky Graziano) Enjoy it while it lasts, honey. I'm going to be losing this title someday. Sure. I'm going to be losing the punch in this right hand too. It's going to happen. But it don't make no difference because what I won, they can't take away from me in no ring. You know, I've been lucky. Somebody up there likes me.

Ms. PIER ANGELI (Actor): (as Norma Graziano) Somebody down here too.

CONAN: Aw, that's right. Down here, we all liked him. An actor at his best playing characters trying to become better guys, and even when they failed, we sure liked watching. What's your favorite Paul Newman film? 800-989-8255; e-mail: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Here to guide us through the Newman oeuvre is our TALK OF THE NATION's film buff Murray Horwitz. And nice to have you back, Murray.

MURRAY HORWITZ: It's great to be back, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: And even when he was playing a palooka, Paul Newman looked smart.

HORWITZ: Looks - well, he looked smart partly because he was smart. I thought you're going to say he looked like Paul Newman. And he was, let's just say, hands down, one of the most phenomenally gorgeous people of either gender that ever appeared on the screen.

CONAN: On the planet, I think, you could say.

HORWITZ: On the planet, it's true. Full disclosure here, we - if you went to Kenyon College, Paul Newman was a part of your life, and I did. Paul Newman went - graduated 1949, and he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. And if he had become an insurance agent and had not been Paul Newman, which is, of course, ridiculous to contemplate, and you were walking down Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and had run into him, you would've just gone, oh, my gosh, look at that guy.

CONAN: He looks taller on the screen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: But you're right in that he always gave off that intelligence, too, and that's something that not every actor, even if they're very intelligent, is able to do.

CONAN: Look, for example, at a movie called "Slap Shot," which is a really, you know, at some level, a really dumb sports movie. Just listen to this clip. The Hanson brothers are assigned to the team. Paul Newman, of course, plays the player-coach.

HORWITZ: Player-coach, right.

CONAN: And listen to this conversation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Slap Shot")

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Reggie Dunlop) Oh, you cheap son of a bitch. Are you crazy? Those guys are retards.

Mr. STROTHER MARTIN (Actor): (as Joe McGrath) I got a good deal on those boys. The scouts said they showed a lot of promise.

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Reggie Dunlop) They brought their (censored) toys with them.

Mr. MARTIN: (as Joe McGrath) I'd rather have them playing with their toys than playing with themselves.

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Reggie Dunlop) They're too dumb to play with themselves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He was - by the way, we could say it's a dumb sports movie. I like that movie for all its flaws.

CONAN: Oh, it's a great movie.

HORWITZ: And it always ends up in everybody's top 10 or top five sports movies of all-time.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Bob(ph). One of my favorites is "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean." Not a great work of art, but fun. Supposedly, it was one that Paul liked as well. As much as I enjoyed Newman's film, my favorite place to watch him was at the racetrack. And, of course, he was a great driver.

HORWITZ: He was a great driver. And I guess we should - well, a couple of answers to the e-mail. First is, I agree with you about "Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean." And there are a couple of, you know, let's say, seriously flawed motion pictures that Newman liked. Another one was Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians"…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: …where he gives this great portrayal, even if the movie's not first rate. And he - by the way, the actor John Considine, who was a friend of his, said that Newman liked that experience well. He loved the ensemble feel. And it's another secret about him to use another sports comparison. He was a little bit like the great center Bill Russell in that, he was a star, but he was a star because he understood it was a team game, and he loved an ensemble.

CONAN: Just to go through another obscure western, "The Left Handed Gun," where he plays Billy the Kid. And again, not a great piece of art but, boy, he's good in it.

HORWITZ: No, but a lot - he came along at a time when the studio system -exactly at the moment - the studio system had been broken up by the Supreme Court in 1954. And as a result, he had to be lucky and judicious in his choices of collaborators. And that's a movie that, you know, had a script, was based on a play by Gore Vidal. I'm trying to remember, was it Robert Wise who directed "Left Handed Gun?" (Unintelligible)

CONAN: I think it was Robert Wise, yeah.

HORWITZ: And so he had good collaborators and he was never uninteresting on the screen. Despite - I mean, it has nothing to do with his handsomeness. In fact, the handsomeness sometimes got in the way, but he was always interesting and always letting you know he was thinking.

CONAN: Let's go to Lisa. Lisa with us on the line now from San Antonio.

LISA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LISA: My favorite is "The Young Philadelphians."

CONAN: And why that picture in particular?

LISA: He's so righteous and he does comedic work so well in that movie, even without saying anything. He's got a great scene with a Chihuahua in the movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I have seen the movie. It's been a while. And he's a young man in that picture.

LISA: He is extremely young. You can't even see his blue eyes, but you just melt. I melt. I don't know about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Melting is - I'm much too reserved for that sort of thing, young lady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Murray?

Mr. HORWITZ: It's a 1959 film. It is right at the beginning of his career, and again, it shows his intelligence that you were mentioning, as well as his gorgeousness, as Lisa was mentioning. The blue eyes, by the way, are something he didn't really know about firsthand. He was color blind. And so he never knew about it. In fact, he was once asked…

CONAN: So he played with Elizabeth Taylor? He says, I love those gray eyes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: He was asked to write his own epitaph once and he said, Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lisa, thank you very much for the phone call.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting she mentioned that. He played all kinds of accents, all kinds of regionalities. Listen to one of his great summer roles in "The Long, Hot Summer," where, by the way, you can also send some of that chemistry that we were just hearing about from Lisa between Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Long, Hot Summer")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (as Ben Quick) I'll bet you was a mighty appealing little girl. I'll bet your hair hung in a tangle down your back. I'll bet you knew where to look for robins eggs and blackberries. I'll bet you had a doll with no head on it. There's a church bazaar coming up next week. Now, you wear a white dress and a ribbon in your hair and I'll waltz you around under the moon.

CONAN: Oh, boy. Somebody could write.

Mr. HORWITZ: Somebody - they don't make them like that anymore. And you're right about his judicious use of accents and character. He was a good character actor in a way.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HORWITZ: The other thing, that is the movie in which he met his second wife, Joanne Woodward, and that gives us the occasion to talk about something - you talked about the race car driver.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. HORWITZ: We need to talk about Newman the non-actor because he was as accomplished a human being as any big Hollywood star, number one box office attraction, had ever been. It's amazing. He was a political activist. He was - his sauces and snacks - you know, The Economist wrote his obituary and they said that his charity turned him into the most generous individual relative to his income in the 20th century history of the United States.

And you know, he marched with Dr. King. He was a delegate for Eugene McCarthy. He was a delegate to the United Nations. He was quite something.

CONAN: As long as we're on the Southern accents, let's go directly to Tennessee Williams. Here he is in the famous adaptation of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with Elizabeth Taylor.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof")

Ms. ELIZABETH TALYOR (Actor): (as Margaret Pollitt) Just - just write Love, Brick for heaven's sake.

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Brick Pollitt) No.

Ms. TAYLOR: (as Margaret Pollitt) You've got to.

Mr. NEWMAN (as Brick Pollitt) I don't have to do anything I don't want to. Now, you keep forgetting the conditions on which I agreed to stay on living with you.

Ms. TAYLOR (as Margaret Pollitt) I'm not living with you. We occupy the same cage, that's all.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, that's good stuff, good stuff. And Burl Ives as Big Daddy.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HORWITZ: He returned to Tennessee Williams. He - one of the things that we will probably won't hear today from our listeners is Newman as a director, but he was an extraordinary director. He directed about five pictures. Three of them were nominated for Oscars. One was "The Glass Menagerie," starring Joanne Woodward, and that was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. He was a terrific director. Didn't do much, but what was there was (unintelligible).

CONAN: Let's go to Anne. Anne with us from Jacksonville.

ANNE (Caller): Well, yeah. I was just going to vote for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I - that movie, I've seen it several times, and every time I watch it, the chemistry between them just gets to me. And at the end, that last line when he told her to lock the door and you know it's coming but you know, you're not going to see it - I still blush as if, I love it. And…

CONAN: There's a phrase we don't use much anymore, Anne - animal magnetism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNE: Yeah. It definitely applies between those two in that scene.

CONAN: Oh, that's - it's such a great picture. And I see it in color, you know? I see that picture in color.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: It's true.

ANNE: I actually saw it in color.

CONAN: Oh, I saw it in black - the Late, Late Show Part Two.

ANNE: And then, just on - in his later years, kind of a sentimental favorite of mine is "Nobody's Fool." I have to bring that one in…

Mr. HORWITZ: I am so glad you mentioned "Nobody's Fool" and I'm so glad you mentioned his later years. Because his later work really is extraor - it's fabulous. I think he's the only actor to be awarded, to have been awarded by the Academy an Oscar for lifetime achievement, which is kind of a runner-up prize because he never really won one. And then he won the Best Actor Oscar after that for "The Color of Money."

CONAN: Which was - we should have given it to you last time.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Well, anyway. There is, of course - the picture that I think a lot of people will remember is "Cool Hand Luke," the prison movie, another Southern accent. But this is a showcase for Newman. Here he is. We're gonna play two clips from this. But here he is first placing a bet.

(Soundbite of move, "Cool Hand Luke")

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Luke) I can eat 50 eggs.

Mr. GEORGE KENNEDY (Actor): (as Dragline) Nobody can eat 50 eggs.

J.D. CANNON (Actor): (as Society Red) You just said he could eat anything.

Mr. KENNEDY: (as Dragline) Ever eat 50 eggs?

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Luke) Nobody ever eat 50 eggs.

CONAN: And one of those voices, of course, the great George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his performance as Dragline and he later goes back to whisper and question Cool Hand Luke's bravado.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cool Hand Luke")

Mr. KENNEDY: (as Dragline) Couldn't you say 35 or 39?

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Luke) It seemed a nice round number.

Mr. KENNEDY: (as Dragline) Luke, that's money you're talking about. What's the matter with you?

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Luke) Yeah. Well, it be something to do.

CONAN: It gives me something to do.

Mr. HORWITZ: And then of course George Kennedy had said, My boy Luke says he can eat 50 eggs, he can eat 50 eggs.

CONAN: Yes, absolutely.

Mr. HORWITZ: Won't tell you what happens.

CONAN: Oh, that's such a great picture. We're talking with Murray Horwitz, of course, our movie maven here on TALK OF THE NATION. As you look at - let me - enough from me - let me read some emails.

(Soundbite of laughter).

Mr. HORWITZ: This is from Louise in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was 20 and went to the Road Atlanta Car Race with a friend. We were in the Cribari(ph) brothers' tent across from the Budweiser tent. They sent me over to Paul Newman's trailer with a bottle of Asti Spumante. He gave me a cold Budweiser and opened the wine. We sat and talked very ordinarily. I told him I was - what I was taking in school, and then asked, So Paul, what do you do? I race cars. He didn't miss a beat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And let's see. There's this other one I wanted to read. This is from - about 35 years ago - this from Ramin(ph). About 35 years ago I went to see "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." And in Tehran, Iran. I did not know anything about the movie.

I was 15 years old and I fell in love with the movie and the characters. In the weeks following that day I went back six more times to see that movie again. Even today, if I catch it on TV I will stop whatever I'm doing and watch the whole thing. This movie makes me feel like a 15-year-old again. Of course this - one of his partnerships with Robert Redford, and here he is in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

(Soundbite of movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid")

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Butch Cassidy) Maybe there's a way to make a profit on this? Bet on, Logan.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (As Sundance) I would, but who'd bet on you?

Mr. TED CASSIDY (Actor): (As Harvey Logan) Sundance. When we're done and he's dead, you're welcome to stay.

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Butch Cassidy) Listen, I don't mean to be a sore loser, but when it's done, if I'm dead, kill him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking about Paul Newman movies today on this Summer Movie Festival on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I can't tell you whether that's my favorite of the collaboration, or "The Sting." I love them both.

Mr. HORWITZ: "The Sting" is so good. They're both - and they were having a great time. And you could tell that they were having a great time while they were staying in character. I mean, it was just - there's a genre that we talk about as buddy movies, and these are sort of beyond buddy movies. They're just - there's something that those two guys had together that was just enormously attractive no matter if you're a man, a woman, young, old, these guys were great together.

CONAN: Let's see. We go next to Jerry. Jerry with us from Wausau in Wisconsin.

JERRY (Caller): Yes. My favorite movie is not of the best ones but is the "Hombre." And the reason I like that is that in January of '66, I moved down to teach at the University of Arizona in Tucson. And I lived in a big apartment building. It was new. And there was over-building in Tucson. And the movie crew came in and occupied the whole two top floors of this 18-storey building. That was from makeup people on - through the director to Newman and that.

And it turns out that I'm sitting in the men's sauna in the morning. And I was the only person to go down early in the morning and the door opens up and in walks buck naked, Paul Newman. So for the next four months while they made the movie, oh, about three to four times a week, it was just Paul and I down there, and it was interest - you know, I of course deferred to him.

If he wanted to chat, we would chat, otherwise he would just kind of say hello and read the paper type of thing. But when you were talking about his human side, one of the things that struck me is that Tucson was overbuilt. And our developer and manager, Ray Shift(ph), a great fellow, was up against it in a way, closed the receivership.

And Newman told me one day - he was very indignant - on that previous Saturday a tenant has had a birthday party for his son there and they had kids over and used the swimming pool…

CONAN: And Jerry, if you could wrap it up.

JERRY: Okay. Well, what happened is that, that, a tenant raised a fuss because one of the kids was Hispanic and he said he wasn't paying that kind of rent to swim with wetbacks. And Newman was indignant and he said, that damn nouveau riche Texan. He was very impressed by the fact that Shift, Ray Shift, the manager, said to the fellow, if you don't like living here and who you're swimming with, just go up and get your lease, bring it down and I'll tear it up. And Newman was extremely impressed by that.

CONAN: Okay.

JERRY: That's kind of my picture - I know it wasn't the greatest picture, but that's my picture of Paul Newman.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks for the story. We appreciate it. "What a Way to Go," writes Sheldon in North Little Rock, Arizona, a 1964 ensemble movie. I enjoyed it because in Paul Newman's comedic role, playing a painter, taxi driver in Paris - very good French accent by the way - he looked like he was truly enjoying himself onscreen. And I would have to say that, well, my favorite of all his roles, Fast Eddie.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hustler")

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie Felson) Anything can be great. I don't care. Bricklaying can be great, if a guy knows, if he knows what he's doing and why, and if he can make it come off. And when I'm going, I mean, when I'm really going, I feel like a - like a jockey must feel, sitting on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him, he's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he knows, just feels when to let it go and how much.

CONAN: And he should have won for that one. He did win later for "The Color of Money," the same part much later. But Murray, your favorite of all the Paul Newman's…

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, you know, there's so many. We didn't mention "Hud" and we didn't mention all of - we didn't mention "Torn Curtain." He worked with great directors. He worked with Hitchcock, Scorsese. But my favorite has got to be the latest - one of the latest, "Nobody's Fool."

CONAN: And let's listen to a clip from that.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nobody's Fool")

Ms. JESSICA TANDY (Actor): (as Beryl Peoples) Do you still bet on that horse race of yours?

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Sully Sullivan) What, the trifecta?

Ms. TANDY: (as Beryl) Yes. Has it ever come in?

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Sully) Not yet.

Ms. TANDY: (as Beryl) But you still bet on it.

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Sully) Well, sure. I mean, the odds have got to kick in sooner or later.

Ms. TANDY: (as Beryl) Fine. That's exactly the way I feel about you.

CONAN: Oh, well, the odds always kicked in on Paul Newman. Murray, as always, thanks very much.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, our favorite TALK OF THE NATION film buff. You can read a few words from Murray about fellow Kenyon College alum Paul Newman and see Newman's college yearbook photos at our blog - that's over at npr.org/blogofthenation. We're going to take a break in the series next week, but the week after that, we'll be back with another edition of the summer movie series.

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