Paul Newman is dead.
He died of lung cancer at age 83, at his home in Connecticut. He is survived by his wife, five children, and two grandchildren.
He was one of the last of the great old stars, the ones who were larger than life. That’s a cliché now, but Paul Newman was the real thing.
He was a World War II veteran, a husband of 50 years to actress Joanne Woodward, a philanthropist, a political activist, an auto racer, and a businessman. But most of all, he was an actor.
Newman would’ve been too pretty if he hadn’t been so good at playing beautifully damaged men. Though his public persona was miles away from tormented contemporaries like James Dean or Marlon Brando, Newman had just as deep a well of emotion to draw from, and as much skill and training—he too studied at the Actor’s Studio under Lee Strasberg, and started his acting career on the stage.
I prefer to think of Newman as Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler,” his blue eyes striking even in black and white. An adrenaline junkie just one false move away from bottom, Fast Eddie was a pool shark with one goal in mind: to defeat Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats. The names were more than catchy: they were iconic. Newman casually cracking “Fat man,” teasing while bent over the table, the camera sliding lovingly up the pool cue to those sparkling eyes. He was fabulously cocky, sexy, perfectly heartbreaking. Just a bit too distant from the girl he loves, unable to let her all the way in.
He reprised the role of Fast Eddie later in life, in “The Color of Money,” directed by Martin Scorsese. His costar was a young Tom Cruise, but Cruise couldn’t match Newman’s depths. The advice he gave, “But I’ll tell you something, kiddo. You couldn’t find Big Time if you had a road map,” could have been advice to a generation of movie stars that came afterward.
Newman took home his only Oscar for that role.
The best actors can do more with stillness than scenes full of action, and Newman excelled at that. In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” while an explosive family argues and sings and jabbers around him, he commands the screen standing still with a glass in his hand. His eyes, flat and cold at some times, then flickering to life at the end of the film, once again give everything away. Tennessee Williams wrote a great play, but it was Newman, matched with the equally unearthly Liz Taylor, who brought it to millions.
Even in “Slap Shot,” the hilariously bad cult hockey film, Newman brings something extra, playing helmetless, grey-haired but still stunning. In his fifties, in ridiculous seventies plaid pants, he was sexier than the men half his age.
People will remember him for “Cool Hand Luke” and “Hud,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and
“The Sting,” classic guy movies where Newman was the quintessential American hero, that perfect embodiment of the bad boy all the girls want and all the boys want to be.
He was nominated for Best Actor seven times. In 2003, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his last screen performance, “Road to Perdition.” It seems like a crime now, looking back on his incredible career, that he didn’t win more of them.
“Heroes in the real world live 24 hours a day,” Burl Ives said to Newman as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In the real world, Newman donated over $220 million in proceeds from his Newman’s Own food products—all of the after-tax profits—to charities. Salad dressing and pasta sauce may not be as romantic as hustling pool, but it’s his philanthropy as much as his movie roles that have made Paul Newman iconic.
He stands out as unselfish in a world full of people only concerned with self-promotion. He was a rich man who gave away much more than he ever kept, a man who lent his image and the weight of his persona to campaigns from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (for which he landed on Richard Nixon’s famous Enemies List) to Ned Lamont in 2006 in the Connecticut primary against Joe Lieberman. He was briefly rumored to be a candidate himself until Lamont emerged.
Newman’s quiet, happy marriage of more than 50 years to Joanne Woodward was his second, but was always held up as a model and served as the final piece of the Newman persona, that noble American man.
In “The Hustler,” Bert, played by George C. Scott, accuses Fast Eddie of being a born loser. “Character,” he says, is what beat Eddie.
“Yeah, I sure got character now,” Eddie retorts when he comes back to win.
Well, Paul Newman always had character.