Newman: A Fine Actor With Even Finer Eyes 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. The screen legend died Friday at the age of 83.
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Newman: A Fine Actor With Even Finer Eyes

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Newman: A Fine Actor With Even Finer Eyes

Newman: A Fine Actor With Even Finer Eyes

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Now, the passing of a Hollywood titan, Paul Newman. The cool con man in "The Sting." The charismatic inmate in "Cool Hand Luke." The swaggering cowboy in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." He died last night at his home in Westport, Connecticut. He was 83.

Newman's interests went way beyond Hollywood, to the theater, car racing, a line of food products. He donated every penny of profit from the Newman's Own line to charity. NPR's Bob Mondello offers this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO: 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, those eyes turned to steely.

(Soundbite of movie "Hud")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Hud Bannon) And I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. And that's what I try to do, and sometimes, I lean to one to side of it; sometimes, I lean to the other.

MONDELLO: 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 a context or how they fit into the play. But after serving in the Navy during World War Two, he studied at the Actor's Studio in New York, got work in live television, and finally landed a role on Broadway in the drama "Picnic."

Hollywood came knocking soon after, unfortunately with a role he quickly regretted taking, that of a Greek sculpture 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 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" and a conflicted alcoholic in "Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" on screen opposite Elizabeth Taylor.

(Soundbite of movie "Cat on A Hot Tim Roof")

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Margaret Pollitt) I feel all the time like a cat on the hot tin roof.

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Brick Pollitt) Then, jump off the roof, Maggie. Jump off it. Cats jump off roofs, and they land uninjured. Do it, jump.

Mr. TAYLOR: (As Margaret Pollitt) Jump where? In the what?

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Brick Pollitt) Take a lover.

MONDELLO: Playing Brick in "Cat" and 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 "The Hustler," that a moral cowboy in "Hud," the cynical private eye in "Harper," and the stoic outcast in "Hombre," sll 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.

(Soundbite of movie "Cool Hand Luke")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Luke) It didn't look like you've got things fixed, so I can never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses, you made me like I am. And just where am I supposed to fit in? Oh man, I've got to tell you. I started out pretty strong and fast, but it's beginning to get to me.

MONDELLO: Something else was getting 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 plays 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 another partnership surfaced in the wake of "Rachel, Rachel," the partnership with Robert Redford as a con man in "The Sting" and as outlaws on the run in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

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

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD: (As The Sundance Kid) I'll jump first.

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Butch Cassidy) No.

Mr. REDFORD: (As The Sundance Kid) Then, you jump first.

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Butch Cassidy) No, I said.

Mr. REDFORD: (As The Sundance Kid) What's the matter with you?

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Butch Cassidy) I can't swim!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REDFORD: (As The Sundance Kid) Why? Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.

MONDELLO: 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 by just staring them down. That was never more true and when he played the alcoholic wash up lawyer in "The Verdict" who just won't stop.

(Soundbite of movie "The Verdict")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Frank Galvin) You know, so much of the time we're just lost. Say, please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what is true, and there is no justice. The rich win. The poor are powerless. You become tired of hearing people lie.

MONDELLO: 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 started as a joke in his basement, made him a big time philanthropist even as it allowed him 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 on to President Nixon's enemies' list. He called that the single biggest honor he'd ever received. He got others, of course, including 10 Oscar nominations, but he noted that once you have 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 today 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. I'm Bob Mondello.

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