This story was originally published in Esquire’s May 2000 issue. HE is the fierce-faced punk at the Actors Studio in New York City in the early fifties, perched backward on a folding chair, one leg up, glowering toward the front of the room.
The rest of the class sits back, listening, at apparent ease in their dark suits and dark ties, their skirts and blouses.
The tough guy’s wearing a white T-shirt tight enough to show the curve of his lats, his smoke cupped in one hand, his jaws clamped so hard that the muscles in his cheek quiver. No one in a room of sixty people could look more alone.
You’d never guess that the tough guy’s a Shaker Heights Jew, that his father and uncle founded the largest sporting-goods store between New York City and Chicago, that he has a degree from Kenyon and a year in the master’s program at the Yale School of
You’d guess that he’ll get laid: He’s rock-hard, ice-cool, gorgeous. But you’d never guess that he’ll ever amount to squat.
He has drunk, fought, and fucked his sorry way through two colleges. He has been tossed off the football team at one of them, and he has made the front page back home in Cleveland after duking it out with the cops.
He has survived three years of World War II in the Navy Air Corps — two as a radio gunner on a torpedo bomber in the South Pacific — and he has exhausted his GI Bill tuition benefits.
He has managed a golf range.
He has sold encyclopedias door-to-door.
He has been a bane and a grim disappointment to his father, who has died.
He has failed at the family business, which has now been sold.
He has a pregnant wife — his first wife, an actress he met doing summer stock in Wisconsin — a two-year-old son, a sixty-dollar-per-month apartment, and $250 in the bank.
The first time he goes up in front of the class to do a scene in workshop, the tough guy gets creamed. Basted. Slammed. Not that he doesn’t know a few things. He knows that James Dean, six years younger than he is, is out in Hollywood already. He knows that Brando, one year older — Marlon, the conquering hero, visits the Studio once in a while to hone his chops and pluck some city chicken — has already been anointed a god of stage and screen.
He knows that he’s not so quick a study, that he has neither their emotional equipment nor their savvy, that he can’t gnash and explode like Brando or melt down glistening like Dean. They are astonishing actors, those soft boys.
He knows that he was very good, very smooth, selling encyclopedias. He can do that. Or maybe he’ll finish at Yale Drama and teach.
He knows that he is out of other options.
He is a fuckup — this, too, he knows. He has made aimless failure look easy, which it’s not — not if you’re from Shaker Heights. It took a dogged lack of commitment and a tenacious aversion to hard work. It took a whole lot of beer and fuck-you. It took a tough guy.
And this — the sum of his feckless boyhood — this he can use. He will use it. He will use what he has. He has nothing left to lose or to hide, nothing and no one to hide from — himself least of all.
Doomed to failure? Okay, boys. Let’s fail as gracefully as we can.
The future? Fuck it.
This, it turns out, is his first gift to the craft, what he can reach for at the bottom of the trick bag of his soul, what’s left when everything else has turned to dry suds.
Look, Ma, look, Pa: I don’t give a fuck.
An epiphany of sorts, and a paradox, because, in fact, he gives a fuck. He does not want to be a lightweight, which is what he knows he has been so far. He remembers his father during the Depression, when the store was out of cash, taking the train to Chicago and returning with the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of sporting goods from Spalding and Wilson, because his father was a man of integrity and the companies knew they’d get their money. His father was not a lightweight. His father traded newspapering for the cold hell of retail to put a house around his family, to secure a future for them.
When his father died in 1950, at the age of fifty-seven, the son went back to Cleveland and took his place behind the counter, selling roller skates and baseball mitts and sleeping bags, and he felt a stone in his chest where his heart had been.
Behind the counter and in the account book, the tough guy found more shadows and ghosts than he could bear.
He didn’t last a year before deciding it would be better just to go, to go and keep going.
He’s going to be an actor.
He’s going to pay the price of seeming not to give a fuck — about the future, about success, about what anybody else thinks of him.
He’s going to live alone within himself, pretend to care deeply about nothing, to be past caring, especially about the things he cares deeply about.
He’s going to act, and act as if he’s not acting.
He’s going to be Hud. Cool Hand Luke. Fast Eddie. Butch.
He’s going to be a beautiful loser, a self-made orphan, adrift and misjudged, as scornful as he is scorned.
He’s going to be the adolescent fantasy of a man’s man, a cocky, gritty, hungry
motherfucker, tough inside and out, all smirk and sinew, opposed — not by choice but by the helpless purity of his nature — to the laws that govern everyone else.
He’ll get laid, all right, but he won’t win the girl. Hell, odds are he’ll be pushing up daisies by the time the credits roll, but he’ll have won his immortality. Anchored in no bedrock but his wild spirit, alive forever in a land beyond giving two shits what anyone else sees him as or wants him to become.
Ah, freedom. He has no other choice. No past — his father’s shade floats dark behind him, knowing that his pretty boy couldn’t cut the mustard. No future — he looks a lot like Brando, but without the inner mounting flame, and a little like Dean, but without the quenchless, sullen anguish. No wizard, just a tough guy hidden, alone behind the curtain.
He’s here now at the Studio: husband, father, fuckup. This is his last, best shot.
Now was all he had.
“I don’t know what I’ve learned,” Paul Newman growls in a voice smoked and cured by seventy-five years, many of them spent inhaling Marlboros, Scotch whisky, and highoctane exhaust.
Then comes the pause. Long pause. Loooooong pause. It’s a by-God-vintage- Actors-Studio pause, a quiet billowing like fog, a hush that gathers, waiting, falling like the dark. You can hear the tape recorder whirring.
He looks like Paul Newman. That sounds moronic, I know — he is Paul Newman, jag-off — but that’s still the first thing you notice. Fast Eddie and Hud, Butch and Luke.
No gut, no dewlaps, no fancy pants. Loafers, cords, and a crewneck sweater.
His wrinkles are creases now; vertical seams stitch his lips. He is an old man, yes … and yet unbent. He is lithe, well oiled, loose — a sleek old tom. He takes smallish steps, but with a quick, athletic grace. He may have been five feet eleven inches tall, as he used to claim — his height was once a matter of hot media dispute — but he’s no taller than five nine this evening. The pale wisps remaining on his pink, perfectly formed skull are sufficient to convey the impression of a full head of hair. The eyes, those eyes, are blue, yes, but a blue washed of depth. He seems tired, a little beat. Hell, he’s seventy-five, it’s after five: Maybe he’s just hungry.
What the fuck is that on the left side of his nose? A bolus, a mass, too large to be a pimple, purple and swollen with blood. It’s not huge, but it’s a presence, something you can’t avoid looking at.
He just sits there on the couch, hands clasped behind his neck, looking up at the ceiling. He’s in no hurry.
You want him to open and spill himself? He won’t. He doesn’t think of himself like that, as a subject. Long ago, he decided that his inner life would stay that way (“This is the great age of candor,” he told Playboy in 1983. “Fuck candor.”), that celebrity was another, lesser role, empty of meaning and not to be trusted, that the jabbering media and the panting women and slick men fawning and pawing and thrusting themselves upon him — hat fame itself — had come to him for stupid, superficial reasons. He does not gaze at the mirror and say, Holy shit, look at my beautiful eyes.
His right hand lifts his sweater and scratches absentmindedly; his belly looks flat, taut, tanned.
“Maybe that’s the problem: I don’t know what I’ve learned that’s going to make these golden years golden.”
He laughs, laughs to himself.
“It just seems like burnt umber.”
We’re in a large, overheated sitting room, part of an office suite that takes up the first-floor corner of an apartment building on upper Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Fortyfive years of framed movie posters fill the walls. I’m staring at the one touting The Long, Hot Summer, vintage 1958, starring Newman and Joanne Woodward — they married in ’58 — and big ol’ Orson Welles, dead now fifteen years.
Summer did all right — Newman was named Best Actor at Cannes for his work in it — but it wasn’t that year’s box-office sensation; that would’ve been Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for which Newman got the first of his eight Best Actor Oscar nominations.
And although Summer was a strange bit of business, a dark trio of Faulkner stories slapped silly by a Hollywood ending, it wasn’t the weirdest major-studio release of 1958, not by a long shot; for that, see The Left-Handed Gun, the story of Billy the Kid via Gore Vidal, all bruised psyche and blind, weeping vengeance, starring Paul Newman channeling James Dean.
By 1963, with twenty films and three Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Newman had become the most versatile and bankable movie star on planet Earth — and that was six years before Butch Cassidy vaulted him to hero status for yet another generation. One degree of Newman knits nearly a whole century of cinema: He has been directed by Hitchcock and Scorsese, acted with Fred Astaire and Tom Cruise, directed Henry Fonda and John Malkovich; for God’s sake, this guy lost Oscars to, among others, David Niven and Tom Hanks.
In a debased celebrity culture that rams cow shit down every goose’s craw and calls it pate, what does it mean to be a star? If Brad and Leo are icons, what does that make Paul Newman?
“Think of the torrent of sperm out there,” he says softly, so softly that I find myself bending toward him, “and that yours landed here. Stunning.”
“Long odds,” I say.
“Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley — if their sperm had landed in Papua, New Guinea, where would they be today? They would have a lock on the abacus industry, but that’s about as far as they could go.”
This is textbook Newman. He is an ancient mariner, a survivor of a generation of tough guys, a stranger to self-congratulation and self-parody, a man who busted his nuts and yet found it unnecessary to seek release and affirmation in moshing with hotel furniture, punching pencil-necked photographers, or dancing the Watusi when he hit the end zone. Rarer than a virgin in Vegas is a Paul Newman interview in which luck, whimsy, and serendipity don’t get the credit for his success.
“It is luck. It is … stunning. I didn’t think very much about the future. I never felt like a leading man, never felt it. You’ve gotta feel like a leading man in order to be a leading man, and I never had that kind of confidence.”
The first time he actually saw himself on a movie screen, in 1954, he was shitfaced drunk, a blessing. The Silver Chalice was the title, a costume drama, the kind of crap that is laughable kitsch even when done well, which this wasn’t. Jack Palance, playing the pagan magician, was lucky enough to be disguised by an evil goatee; Newman, wrapped in a mini toga, played the slave turned sculptor whose task was to craft the goblet Christ would use at the Last Supper.
At a movie house in Philly, slumped down with a case of brew, he watched himself, a cigar-store Indian in ancient Rome, turning slowly to deliver his first line of film dialogue.
“I hope these hands never again have to perform such a sad duty,” he said, his voice as flat and dead as dirt.
Surviving that dog took luck.
James Dean dying and bequeathing to Newman his first plum role, as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me — good luck, too, at least for Newman.
Meeting Woodward, not just a great actress but the daughter of a publishing executive, a Georgia peach who not only could live with Newman’s obliquity and rough edges but could also share her passion for literature, for politics — and who was willing to set aside the meat of her career to raise their kids: That was lucky, yes.
Butch Cassidy? Luck. Brando had the role, with Newman cast as the Sundance Kid. But Brando had no time for acting — he was too busy trying to solve what they used to call the Negro Question — so the producers switched Newman to Butch and tried to get Warren Beatty. Then Steve McQueen. They finally settled for Newman and Redford.
But he had something beyond the luck. It was Newman who refused when Warner Bros. suggested that he change his name to something that sounded less Jewish, who bought out his first and last studio contract in 1959 for half a million dollars he didn’t have and became one of the first movie stars of his time who would control his value and his work, who said goodbye to Hollywood and bought a home in Connecticut in 1962 and lives there still, who marched in Alabama in ’63 and campaigned for Gene McCarthy ’68, who spoke his beliefs in public and backed them with deeds and dollars at a time when most citizens sat mute — especially those dolls whose earnings were based on an image of insouciant glamour — and who refused to mail in the same tired, smirking, tough-guy, buddy-buddy shite in movie after movie, choosing instead to grow as an actor and as a man.
Behold the man. Listen to him. No complaints. A pretty good run. My lady. Bud in a pony bottle.
Pally, you can argue that Newman was not all that fine an actor — although the only men with as many Oscar nominations are named Nicholson, Olivier, and Tracy. You can belittle the car racing as a rich man’s hobby — as long as you give props to the dude for huevos grandes. Hell, you can keep the charity stuff out of it, too; he won’t mind.
Besides, that began twenty years before Newman’s Own, with the No Sutch Foundation in the 1960s. The name was a cloak and a joke, a guarantee that the checks he wrote would be cashed right away, but the money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, was real.
Then came the Scott Newman Foundation. Then the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for terminally ill children.
But even leaving all that aside — and stowing, too, the old-codger-facing-thehorizon, the living-legend hagiography — answer me this:
How can you not love the man?
He’s going back to Daytona to drive in the Rolex 24. He swore that he’d return at seventy-five. If he’s drawing air, he’ll be there. More than ever, now is all he has.
So, if the scripts he sees these days are few and far between, if the directors now come from MTV and NYU, if the writers are fresh from Harvard, and if the actors are from the San Diego Zoo, digitally enhanced planks of pine who piss and moan about the emotional agony, the soul torture, of playing a part in a fucking movie — if he never acts again, so what?
They were merely roles, anyway. He shot a decent stick at best; he never ate those fifty eggs; he didn’t die in Bolivia. He was a working actor, the kind who took his script and broke it down scene by scene and beat by beat, who worried about having enough rehearsal time, who’d show up on location a week or a month in advance of shooting to ground himself in the reality he hoped to capture. He was not a confident actor. He never could stand to watch the movies everyone else adored. He saw himself up there sweating to create, forcing things, working too hard: the Unnatural.
In 1961, when his Hustler costar George C. Scott told the gossips how unimpressed he was by Newman’s work, they went to Newman for a piss shot back. He agreed with Scott and kept working. A box-office hero with his pick of any script — and nearly every one asked him to puke up another Fast Eddie, another Hud, another Luke, another Butch — he took roles in films that no one wanted: a Mexican outlaw in The Outrage, a Western version of Rashomon; a disc jockey turned freedom fighter in WUSA; a union-busting logger in Sometimes a Great Notion.
He began to produce and direct his own films; the first, Rachel, Rachel, starring Woodward, earned a Best Picture nomination in 1968. It lost to Oliver!
In 1969, he formed First Artists Production Company with Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier; later, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman joined up. The idea was that they would produce quality films, films they cared about. The reality was that the lunatics couldn’t run the asylum, and he himself was bored, frustrated, sick of playing Paul Newman playing Paul Newman.
Who is Paul Newman?
“I don’t know,” he says, sipping the dregs of his coffee. “You can’t not absorb some of those character traits into your own personality. You try to separate those little fragments you’ve created. You don’t know. The only time you’ll know is when you’re on your deathbed, and then you’ll say, ‘Okay, now we’re down to ground zero.’ That’s when you separate what’s real and what isn’t real.