Remembering Paul Newman

In 2005 Paul Newman was up in Maine shooting a film called Empire Falls which became an HBO mini-series. In a radio interview with Terry Gross of NPR, Newman was asked if, given his experience in performing in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, and this film, did he relate to the small town experience. Gross pointed out that Newman was born and grew up in Shaker Heights – a Cleveland suburb. Newman replied that Shaker Heights was not a small town. Rather it was an affluent and prosperous suburb. So his background did not relate to the small town experience.

Gross: Your father owned a sporting goods store.
Newman: Yes.
Gross: Did you have to work in the store when you were growing up?
Newman: Oh yes. I started working in the store when I was about 10. On the weekends, my brother and I used to work in the stock room.
Gross: Did you resent having to do that?
Newman: Of course not. I also sold Fuller Brushes.
Gross: Door to door?
Newman: Door to door.
Gross: Were you a good salesman?
Newman: You betcha!

You betcha! Isn’t that so typical of Newman. With his smile, his athleticism, and those blue eyes, Paul Newman was the man who men wanted to emulate, and the man who women wanted to embrace. He was a movie star, and long ago, as an ordinary guy,  he sold brushes door to door as well as selling illegal liquor in Seattle. But he came East and studied at the Actors Studio in New York, and by the time he was gone, we all had loved most of his film work, so it isn’t a surprise that he was known all over the world. Nor is it a surprise that his business venture into foods, called Newman’s Own was a success too.

You can listen to the full interview here:

The interview was just three years before he would die. And his voice is not the same as I remembered from many of his films. But it is recognizable. After all, Newman is the kind of indelible actor, that one can never forget.

Newman died on September 27th, 2008, so it has been almost six years since he passed.

Yet I can close my eyes and see Newman and Robert Redford sitting in the railroad station. This was in The Sting, a classic film, which was made in 1973. Newman played Henry Gondorff, a con man. and Redford’s character was called Johnny Hooker, a grifter.

They were waiting for Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster played by Robert Shaw, to arrive at the station and board the Century Limited train back to Chicago.

Gondorff was going to plant a big time hook into Lonnegan by out-cheating him in a poker game on the train. And that was to set him up for a big con where they would take him for a half million.

Lonnegan and his goons walked by as Gondorff and Hooker watched.

Johnny Hooker: He’s not as tough as he thinks.
Henry Gondorff: Neither are we.

That was but one of the many memorable moments in that film. But the impact of those two lines connected us to Newman. He knew his limitations and as  Gondorff, despite his skills as a con man, beneath it all, he was a regular guy, just like the rest of us. One of my readers asked that I do a post on Paul Newman. So I am going to take a look at a few of my favorite Paul Newman movies. Hope you enjoy them. Check out this clip of the poker game from The Sting:

As Newman as Gondorff walked away with Lonnegan’s money, The Sting walked off with 7 Oscars including Best Picture. While Robert Redford received a nomination for Best Actor in The Sting, Newman was not nominated for his performance in this film.

In 1967 Paul Newman starred in Cool Hand Luke, a tale of a young man who struggled to find his way in a difficult world. He was a small time guy, and yet, in this film, he became a larger than life icon for his fellow inmates in the backwoods woods jail where he was incarcerated. Every day he surprised his fellow convicts with his audacity, his courage, his toughness, and his willingness to take on any challenge.

Like when Luke and the boys had themselves a poker game, and Luke won a hand with a great bluff:

Dragline: Nothin’. A handful of nothin’. You stupid mullet head. He beat you with nothin’. Just like today when he kept comin’ back at me – with nothin’.
Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.

He would ultimately grow to resent their idolization of him.

Luke: Oh come on. Stop beatin’ it. Get out there yourself. Stop feedin’ off me. Get out of here. I can’t breathe. Give me some air.

I recall the film The Verdict (1982). Newman played a Boston lawyer, Frank Galvin, who was down on his luck, a heavy drinker, and had client list that was small enough to not fill up a match book cover. A case comes his way – a case about a woman left in a permanent coma due to a mistake made by a surgeon or an anesthesiologist at a hospital run by the Archdiocese.

Galvin’s associate, Mickey Morrissey played by Jack Warden, is trying to talk Frank out of taking the case.

Mickey Morrissey: Do you know who the attorney for the Archdiocese is? Ed Concannon!
Frank Galvin: He’s a good man…
Mickey Morrissey: He’s a good man? Heh, heh, he’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! He’ll have people testifying they saw her waterskiing in Marblehead last summer. Now look, Frank, don’t fuck with this case!

But Frank took the case, and it went to trial. Galvin had to deal with Concannon, the Prince of Darkness, a judge who ruled against him at every turn, and the power and might of the archdiocese. But he persisted to the point that the Archdiocese offered a settlement of $210,00.

Paul Newman and Jack Warden

Paul Newman and Jack Warden

Galvin then had a dialogue with Bishop Brophy:

Frank Galvin: How did you settle on the amount?
Bishop Brophy: We thought it was just.
Frank Galvin: You thought it was just?
Bishop Brophy: Yes.
Frank Galvin: Because it struck me, um, how neatly ‘three’ went into this figure: 210,000. That means I would keep seventy.
Bishop Brophy: That was our insurance company’s recommendation.
Frank Galvin: Yes, that would be.
Bishop Brophy: Nothing we can do can make that woman well.
Frank Galvin: And no one will know the truth.
Bishop Brophy: What is the truth?
Frank Galvin: That that poor girl put her trust into the… into the hands of two men who took her life. She’s in a coma. Her life is gone. She has no home, no family. She’s tied to a machine. She has no friends. And the people who should care for her – her doctors… and you and me – have been bought off to look the other way. We’ve been paid to look the other way. I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it; I can’t take it. ‘Cause if I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a… rich ambulance chaser. I can’t do it. I can’t take it.

A powerful moment in a powerful film, a film that was as much about personal redemption as it was about winning a case.

Newman’s list of memorable films is special. From character pieces The Hustler, to Hud, to Harper, to Hombre.

From the drama bin – The Long Hot Summer to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or The Young Philadelphians to From The Terrace.

He starred in a film about Israel gaining its independence. That film, directed by Otto Preminger,  was called Exodus, playing the role of the young Israeli, Ari Ben-Canaan. We could say that Newman went from Israel to Fort Apache The Bronx. And from there, Newman did westerns too. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and of course the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

After a lengthy chase, Butch and Sundance find themselves between a rock and a hard place:

Butch Cassidy: They’ll never follow us.
Sundance Kid: How do you know?
Butch Cassidy: Would you jump if you didn’t have to?
Sundance Kid: I have to and I’m not gonna.

Newman played detectives, lawyers, bank robbers, and he knew something about how to handle a pool cue (The Hustler and The Color Money). He played an army general in Fat Man and Little Boy, a boxer in Some One Up There Likes Me, and the alienated youth in Hud. He played in a comedy about hockey called Slap Shot, and in 2002, Newman played a mob boss, circa 1931, in the film The Road to Perdition, whose son was played by Daniel Craig who would four years later land the role of James Bond.

For sure, actor Paul Newman has left behind a fabulous filmography for us to watch and admire again and again. In his prime, he was a star to the stars, and as he got older, the roles became smaller. The hero became the hero’s father, or even grandfather.

I’ll never forget a winter night in Manhattan, in the 80’s and I was walking north on Madison Avenue approaching 96th street. A couple of people came toward me. It was Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward. I offered a simple salute of a gesture. Hi Paul, Hi Joanne, and kept going. He said only Hi and didn’t stop either.

It was a brief moment in time, and I won’t forget it. Paul Newman was an actor that I had watched many, many times. About his life and times Newman said:

You can’t be as old as I am without waking up with a surprised look on your face every morning: ‘Holy Christ, whaddya know – I’m still around!’ It’s absolutely amazing that I survived all the booze and smoking and the cars and the career.

Finally, Paul Newman once said:

Once you’ve seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing. it’s hard to take yourself seriously.


6 thoughts on “Remembering Paul Newman

  1. Thank you for a memorable tribute to one of the world’s favorite actors. In retrospect, Newman was not just a blue-eyed box office phenomenon, he was a wonderful character actor.

    But what impresses me the most is the fact, that as good as his characters were (including Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff, Lew Harper, Frank Galvin, Mike Gallagher, Cool Hand Luke, and Fast Eddie Felson), his movies frequently combined uncharacteristic intelligence with heartfelt emotion.

    Newman was always about the character, but the character was always about something bigger than himself. Some idea that stuck in your mind. That you couldn’t easily shake off, the way today’s teflon movies slip slide away.

    I’m still looking for his heir. Over a long chunk of Hollywood’s golden era, not one of Newman’s characters failed to communicate.

    • Thanks Tom – be sure to check back on the weekend. I’ll have a group discussion on The Jersey Boys – the new Clint Eastwood film about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

    • Thanks Ismail.

      I didn’t know Newman did a voice for Carsm as I don’t generally see the animated films. But I can certainly agree with ‘great’ for Newman the actor.

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