Newman: A Fine Actor With Even Finer Eyes

Celebrating Paul Newman

Read NPR's Weekend Soapbox blog about a 1997 profile on Paul Newman at his office in Westport, Conn. The producer offers her remembrance.

Paul Newman, the charismatic star of The Sting, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, died of cancer Friday at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 83.

He was handsome, smart, sensitive and a fine actor, but for a lot of people, it really came down to those eyes: cobalt blue, piercing, intelligent — and most of all — readable by the camera.

Paul Newman could be still where other movie actors had to "indicate" their feelings, because if you looked into his eyes, you knew what he was thinking. They clouded when he was troubled, flashed with intensity when he got angry, and twinkled when he smiled, except when the smile was snarky, as it was when he played amoral Hud Bannon in the film Hud. Then his eyes turned steely.

Newman often told interviewers he originally took up acting not because he was driven by a passion for it, but to escape his father's sporting-goods business. He claimed to have been one of the worst college actors ever, learning his lines by rote, not giving a thought to context or how they fit into the play.

But after serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied at the Actors Studio in New York, got work in live television, and finally landed a role on Broadway in the drama Picnic. He played an ineffectual college kid in a small Kansas town otherwise populated by sex-starved women.

Hollywood came knocking soon after — unfortunately with a role he quickly regretted taking — that of a Greek sculptor making a cup for Christ in the overblown religious drama The Silver Chalice. He found it so embarrassing, he took out an ad in Variety magazine apologizing for his performance. And years later, when he showed it to friends as a practical joke, he first handed out whistles and pots for them to bang on.

But when he went back to Broadway, he quickly redeemed himself, playing a psychotic killer in The Desperate Hours. Later, he was the conflicted alcoholic heir to a Southern plantation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film of Tennessee Williams' play.

Playing Brick, alongside other troubled characters in '50s TV dramas, Newman stopped being just another handsome lug and found the type of character that proved his strong suit — not so much the conventional leading man his looks led you to expect, but an anti-hero whose flaws are what make him compelling.

He perfected the type in what he called his "lucky H" pictures — playing the pool shark in Hustler, the amoral cowboy in Hud, the cynical private-eye in Harper and the stoic outcast in Hombre. All of which was just a prelude to the bad boy with a soul he played in Cool Hand Luke, who never met an authority figure he wouldn't talk back to, from prison warden to God himself.

Something else was getting to Newman at about that time. Suitable roles seemed to be drying up both for him and for his wife Joanne Woodward, so he stepped behind the camera as director and producer, and solved both their problems.

Rachel, Rachel, in which Woodward played a lonely spinster awakening to life, earned her an Oscar nomination as best actress, and won Newman plaudits for the almost invisible, actor-friendly direction that he later referred to as "a sort of eavesdropping." He would direct his wife several other times and co-star with her, too, but better roles and other partnerships surfaced in the wake of Rachel, Rachel, like the one with Robert Redford as con men in The Sting and as outlaws on-the-run in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

There were some later roles he probably shouldn't have taken. In Towering Inferno, for instance, no one really blazed with glory. But he was never not good in lesser films. And when well-cast — as say, the honest businessman victimized by an irresponsible prosecutor and careless journalist in Absence of Malice — he kept proving that he could rivet audiences just by staring them down. That was never truer than when he played the alcoholic, washed-up, lawyer who just won't stop in The Verdict.

If that sentiment sounds heartfelt, let it be said that Newman was himself devoted to social justice. Having been extremely fortunate in life, he considered it his obligation to help the less fortunate. His Newman's Own brand of food products, which started as a joke in his basement, made him a big-time philanthropist, even as it allowed him to work the other side of the movie theater, providing not just the motion pictures, but the popcorn, too.

He was such a big supporter of liberal causes that he made it onto President Nixon's enemies list. (He called that the single biggest honor he'd ever received.) He got others, too — including 10 Oscar nominations.

But he noted that once you've seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it's hard to take yourself too seriously.

Newman announced last year that he was retiring from acting, something he'd also announced in 1995, only to come back to make four more movies, star on Broadway, and get nominated for an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy Award. So a lot of us kept fingers crossed that he'd be back again.

The announcement that Paul Newman has been taken by cancer means he won't — except of course, on film and in the memories of anyone who's ever seen him peering out into the theater's darkness with those piercing baby blues.

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Correction Sept. 29, 2008

In some versions of this story, we incorrectly said that Paul Newman played Brick Pollitt in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway. Newman was only in the film version.

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