Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Paul Newman: A Sportsman And A Hero

Paul Newman poses with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in the streets of Paris, Aug. 23, 1989. i i

Paul Newman poses with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, on the streets of Paris, Aug. 23, 1989. Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images
Paul Newman poses with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in the streets of Paris, Aug. 23, 1989.

Paul Newman poses with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, on the streets of Paris, Aug. 23, 1989.

Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

There's an old French expression: "An actress is more than a woman, and an actor is less than a man."

No one ever thought that of Paul Newman. In a way, men and women alike saw him more as a hero than an actor.

Certainly, it's hard to think of anyone else in show business who had as many sports connections as Newman did. He was the decathlete of Hollywood. You read the tributes to him, and people from various disparate sports all write about him so fondly, all crediting him with helping their sport.

Of course, Newman's connection to automobile racing was real, not celluloid. He was an authentically outstanding driver. He loved the sport so much.

Newman made a point of going back to Indianapolis this past May to see the trials for the 500, one last time. I guess it was his way of taking the checkered flag, holding it out the window and doing one more victory lap.

But as race people embraced him as their own, ice hockey people adored him for his performance in Slap Shot. That movie was such a boon to hockey, just as he made pool more glamorous, playing Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler and then in The Color of Money.

If Paul Newman was connected, it must be good.

Now, I happen to live in Westport, Conn., where he was absolutely beloved, as a citizen, as a neighbor. Oh my, how we've always loved to say that we lived in the same town as Paul Newman. What a cachet that's always been!

Of course, we're supposed to be sophisticated in Westport, so the rule was you didn't make a fuss when you saw him around. But, of course, everybody kept watching him out of the corner of their eyes.

One time, years ago, when he was still indisputably the handsomest man in the world, my wife ran across him in a bookstore. All the other women were pretending not to notice, bumping into the aisles.

Newman was with one of his daughters. At the checkout counter, he called over to her, "OK, honey, let's go."

And, my wife says, every woman in that store — including my wife, I'm sure — gave an involuntarily head feint toward the door. It was better than watching a vaudeville sketch.

The last time I saw him was a few months ago. There were already rumors that he was dying. He was never so large as he appeared on the screen — but now, even as he was still in good humor, he looked positively frail.

We were at a small concert and, just by chance, he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, sat right next to me and my wife.

When the lights dimmed, I happened to glance over, and I saw that, right away, he'd taken Joanne's hand. They'd only been married 50 years. He kept holding her hand all the way through, just like they were teenagers.

I reached over and took my wife's hand. There are not many things any of us could do so well as Paul Newman, but, I thought, if you could follow his lead in any way, then you'd be a fool not to.

Frank Deford joins us each week from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford