Screen legend, philanthropist and race car enthusiast Paul Newman died Friday after battling cancer. The 83-year-old leaves behind five decades of film work and a legacy of charitable giving.
Newman navigated celebrity without scandal, he gave effortlessly to charity, and he even made getting old a graceful process. On screen, he hustled pool, solved crimes, argued cases and bucked the system with just a hint of impertinence. He took whatever anybody dished out and greeted it with a smile or even a laugh. He had a way of making everything look easy.
As Luke Jackson in Cool Hand Luke, Newman gave us his quintessential screen character — the complex and flawed individual who fought a personal rebellion. In a 2003 interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, Newman described being part of a new generation of actors in the '60s.
"I don't know that you actually know that you are a part of something new. You just know that you are part of something that's exciting, although I have to say that I had no idea what I was doing until maybe 10 years ago," Newman said. "Less is more, and I was working awful hard on a lot of the early stuff."
But the hard work paid off, and Newman had a career that successfully spanned more than five decades of stage, television and film work. Also spanning a half-century was his marriage to actress Joanne Woodward. In 1958, they made the first of 10 onscreen appearances together in The Long Hot Summer. Newman played Ben Quick, a brash young man intent on marrying the prim, well-to-do schoolteacher played by Woodward:
Ben: I can see that you don't like me, but you're gonna have me — it's gonna be you and me.
Clara: Not the longest day I live.
Ben: Yes, sir, they're gonna say, 'There goes that poor old Clara Varner whose father married her off to a dirt-scratching, shiftless, no-good farmer who just happened by.' Well, let them talk, but I'll tell you one thing, you're gonna wake up in the morning smiling.
Roles like Ben Quick established Newman as both a critically acclaimed actor and a Hollywood heartthrob. Newman, however, preferred to view himself as a character actor and felt that his good looks sometimes limited him to leading man roles. He relished playing unsavory characters like pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler.
The 1961 film ushered in a decade of vivid roles that cut through Hollywood conventions with bold energy. He could be a heel in Hud; a wisecracking anti-hero in Harper; or a rebel loner in Hombre and Cool Hand Luke.
Newman also excelled behind the camera, directing Woodward to acclaim in Rachel, Rachel. Newman was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar eight times and won in 1986 for The Color of Money. In that film, he reprised the role of Fast Eddie Felson, who finds himself rejuvenated by Tom Cruise's pool prodigy.
The Oscar was sweet and long overdue. But Newman never rested on his laurels. Instead, he sought challenges, many of them off screen. He believed in social and political activism, and proudly pointed to the fact that his outspokenness won him a spot on President Nixon's infamous "enemies list." He also had a passion for auto racing, as he explained in a 1997 interview with NPR.
"The actual act of strapping yourself in to a race car is sensational because you create a cocoon for yourself. The objective is very clear and clean. You don't have one critic saying, 'Yes, it's a good film,' and another critic saying it's a bad film — you're either there and cross the finish line first, or you're back some way. So the definition of good is very cleanly delineated."
In 1979, Newman finished second in the grueling Le Mans 24-hour race. But no matter what he accomplished off screen or how quietly he lived in Connecticut, Newman could never escape his Hollywood celebrity. He eventually gave in to what he called "shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good" by allowing his face to appear on a line of food products called Newman's Own. Newman made his food products almost as successful as his film career.
"Things kept escalating, and at the instant that I decided it would be a business, then I realized that we'd have to give all the money away," he said.
And he did — every penny of after-tax profits has gone to charity. Since 1982, donations from Newman's Own have exceeded $220 million.
In later years, Newman's film projects grew more infrequent, but his talent continued to mature, with roles in The Verdict and Nobody's Fool. In 1997, he told NPR that his approach to acting had changed.
"I think for a very long period I really tried to make myself go toward the character, and the last couple of years I tried to make the character come to me. And acting is really nothing but exploring, exploring certain facets of your own personality. I try to become somebody else."
In 2002, he returned to live theater after more than a three-decade absence to play the role of Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It wasn't his final performance, but it provides a fitting cap to a long and varied career, one full of accomplishments obtained gracefully and without fanfare:
Stage Manager: There are some things that we all know but we don't take them out and look at them. We all know that there is something that's eternal and it ain't houses and it ain't names, it ain't the earth, it ain't the stars. We all know in our bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.
Beth Accomando reports from member station KPBS.
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