This coming Friday will mark the sixth anniversary of the death of Paul Newman, a multi-talented 20th-century gem with a wonderful presence and a sparkling sense of humor. I can’t think about him without smiling.
A World War II navy veteran, race car driver, entrepreneurial gastronomer, philanthropist, political activist, father of six children, and devoted family man, Newman might be best known to today’s younger generations as the co-founder of the Newman’s Own line of food products.
He was a director, a producer (earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Rachel, Rachel in 1968), a stage actor, and a celluloid icon.
During his prime acting years, Newman was a noted heartthrob, but he was not ‘just another pretty face.’ He was a highly skilled and subtle performer who excelled at portraying complex characters and social outsiders. He was nominated for acting Oscars nine times, winning only once, for The Color of Money (1986).
As was arguably the case for film stars Cary Grant,
and Elizabeth Taylor,
Newman was underrated as an actor because of his stunning good looks.
A film enthusiast wishing to undertake a Paul Newman mini-course would find few duds among his 64 screen performances. One can hardly go wrong in choosing to view any of his major films. I would especially recommend:
As the crass and Machiavellian son of a straight-arrow rancher (Melvyn Douglas), Newman’s Hud Bannon stages a power struggle with his father while attempting to seduce his father’s world-weary housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal).
The Hustler (1961)
Two-bit pool hustler Eddie Felsen (Newman) finds himself in over his head when he tries to move up to the big leagues.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Caught robbing parking meters and sentenced to hard labor on a Florida chain gang, Korean War veteran Luke Jackson (Newman) refuses to allow prison authorities to break his spirit.
The Sting (1973)
In this nearly perfect and highly entertaining romp of a film, Newman’s washed-up grifter Henry Gondorff shepherds young con man Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) through a scheme to exact revenge on crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Ya follah?
Shortly after Newman’s death, I heard a wonderful story about him. Although the account may or may not be apocryphal, I find it plausible, in part because three of my acquaintances who happened to cross paths with Newman in the 1970s spoke enthusiastically of his personal warmth and courtesy. (For an entertaining discussion of other serendipitous encounters with celebrities, please see my blog post of 29 July 2014, “Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.”)
A middle-aged woman walked into a small-town New England ice cream parlor, planning to treat herself to a double-dip chocolate cone. She was surprised and flummoxed to see that the only other customer in the restaurant was Paul Newman. Stunned by the beauty and warmth of his legendary blue eyes, she blushed to the roots of her hair and found it difficult to think or speak. She pulled herself together, turned resolutely to the clerk, and placed her order. While waiting for her cone, she berated herself for her schoolgirl reaction to seeing the handsome star in person.
When her ice cream cone was ready, the woman handed a few bills to the clerk and accepted the change he offered in return. Still embarrassed by her lapse of self-control, the woman strode out of the store without a glance in Newman’s direction.
Upon reaching her car, she was shocked to find that, although she still gripped her change in her right hand, the double-dip ice cream cone was nowhere to be seen. Fearing she had left the cone in the store, the woman rushed back inside to find neither the clerk nor the ice cream cone at the counter.
Increasingly perplexed, she turned to look at Newman. With a friendly smile, he said, “It’s in your purse.”
Quote for Today
“After what happened to Luther, I don’t think I can get more than two, three hundred guys. ” – Henry Gondorff, The Sting (1973).