You can tell Paul Newman loves to tell the story, even though it’s a joke that turns him into a punch line. His mouth curves into a CinemaScope grin as he recalls an afternoon just a few years back when he was a celebrity guest at one of the many fundraising events that crowd his calendar. Midway through, he found himself the focus of a curious gaze cast by a youngster of 12 or thereabouts. The boy asked him who he was, and what he did for a living, so Newman responded.
The boy appeared skeptical.
Amused by the reaction, Newman asked his inquisitor if he ever had seen any of his movies. Like, maybe Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Or The Towering Inferno? The Sting? Something? Anything?
At length, the youngster allowed that he had indeed seen Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Pause. On television. Longer pause. Just a few days earlier.
Finally, after another brief interlude of deafening silence, the child looked Newman straight in the eye and remarked: “I guess they can really make you look younger on TV, huh?”
Newman roared with laughter. And then replied: “Yeah, I guess they can.”
Of course, he adds, it could have been worse: “At least he didn’t ask if I’m the guy who sells all the salad dressing.”
Truth to tell, Newman does indeed look a bit older, move a little slower, and sound a great deal raspier than he did during the 1960s, a period when — in movies as diverse as The Hustler, Hud, and, yes, Cool Hand Luke — he chronically confounded critics by proving a dreamy Hollywood hunk could actually impress as a serious actor.
His trademark blue eyes still twinkle with the same sense of mischief he brought to The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, his classic co-starring stints with good friend Robert Redford. And even when he’s playing a senior citizen, he’s still capable of smart-alecky swagger, as he vividly demonstrated in Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Twilight (1998), two uncommonly satisfying films written and directed by Oscar-winner Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart).
You could say that Paul Newman isn’t merely getting older, he’s also becoming even more of an icon. Which is a large part of the reason why director John Lasseter cast him as the voice of a sage father figure — Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet — in Cars, the recent smash-hit animated feature, newly released on home video, that may turn out to be the highest-grossing film of Newman’s career.
“We were sort of nervous about asking him to do a voice in the movie,” Lasseter admits, “because he’s such a great actor.” But the filmmaker knew of Newman’s great interest in auto racing — once an active competitor, Newman still holds the Guinness record for being the oldest winner in a NASCAR event — and figured, rightly, that the octogenarian superstar would enjoy the challenge of “becoming” a car. “As we worked with Paul,” Lasseter says, “well, he’s an amazing actor, but he was also very passionate about getting the racing right. He really appreciated the dedication I had to making sure the details were correct.
“He actually became one of my most valued sort of racing consultants. Every recording session we had with him, we would talk with him about racing. And the passion that he displayed when he talked about racing and the sport was so inspiring that it really helped evolve the character of Doc Hudson. In fact, if you see in the credits, I gave him a ‘racing consultant’ credit because he was so valuable to me.”
Some Oscar prognosticators already have forecast that Newman might become the first actor in history to receive an Oscar nomination for “voicing” an animated character. With equal measures of gruff candor and becoming modesty, Newman dismisses the buzz.
“The nice thing about animation,” Newman says, “is that you only really act with half yourself. All of that physical stuff that you work on as an actor, you just throw away. So this was, I would say, relatively easy.”
To hear Newman talk, acting in any movie, even a live-action movie, seldom requires much in the way of strenuous exertion. (Hear him talk a little more, and you quickly realize that he’s his own worst critic.) But don’t be fooled by his self-effacement: His collaborators often testify that his casual attitude is more apparent than real.
“He prepares for a picture meticulously,” says Robert Benton. “Then he does something else — and he does this part privately: He makes it look effortless. He’s like a great pianist who’s playing Schubert. There are some pianists who will play Schubert and let you know how hard they’re working and how much energy they’re expending. But then there are other pianists who let Schubert play, who make themselves transparent. And Paul’s got that quality.
“Really, he works harder than anybody I know, even though he pretends that he doesn’t. I’ve watched him work, and I see how thorough he is. I make it a point to get to the set before anybody in the morning. On our two pictures together, I have gotten there occasionally at the same time he does. But almost always, he’s gotten there about five minutes before me. And mind you, I’m there at the crack of dawn.”
In the eyes of co-stars, colleagues, and longtime fans, Paul Newman remains every inch a star. And yet Newman himself always has viewed his stardom as a means to an end, a useful tool to attract attention to what he views as more important concerns.
With Joanne Woodward, his wife and frequent artistic collaborator for nearly 50 years, he has long been an outspoken activist for various political campaigns and social causes. (When reminded that he once landed a prominent spot on Richard Nixon’s list of “White House enemies,” Newman chuckled, then wisecracked: “It was the highest single honor I’ve ever received.”) In 1980, he founded the anti-drug Scott Newman Center in response to the tragic death of his only son from substance abuse. Eight years later, he opened the first of his international chain of Hole in the Wall Camps for children with life-threatening diseases. To date, more than 100,000 children from 34 states and 31 countries have attended the camps free of charge.
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp — supported largely by income from sales of the popular Newman’s Own gourmet foodstuffs — is never far from the star’s mind, and always close to his heart. “I’ve always said that luck is the key factor in any of our lives,” Newman says. “It goes in our makeup, in where you were fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to be born.”
By establishing the Hole in the Wall camps, “I was just acknowledging how lucky I was, and how unlucky these children are,” he says. Diseases such as AIDS, cancer, and sickle-cell anemia “are doubly brutal on a child, because, A, he doesn’t understand, and B, he gets exempted and left out by his schoolmates for the most part. We figured that if there were just some place for them to lie back and raise a little hell and not be so different, it might give them some respite.”
But Newman had no idea what a life-changing experience the camps would be for the kids — “that after eight or 10 days, the parents would come to us and say, ‘This is not the same child that I sent here.’ It’s astonishing.
“And the camps are sprouting like mushrooms now. I just came back from Hungary, and there’s a youth camp that was built by the Communists, so it doesn’t have a lot of color or personality to it. But I spoke to the woman who takes care of it, and she says the kids are exactly the same. We also went to Italy, where there’s a camp starting in Milan, and that will be ready in about a year, I think. Altogether, we took care of 11,000 children last year.”
f course, when you hear the words Paul Newman and hole in the wall in rapid succession, and you fondly recall the classic seriocomic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you can’t help but ask Newman about the making of that beloved movie.
To his credit, Newman graciously refrains from sighing aloud or rolling his eyes when confronted with questions he’s heard hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. He allows that from the first time he read William Goldman’s script, he knew that it would be a film he would “look back at with some sense of pride.” And he thoroughly enjoyed teaming with Robert Redford to portray the most famous outlaws who ever rode with the original Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.
“See, for a thing like that to work,” Newman says, “you really need two charitable actors — actors who pretty much have the sense to give the other one the stage when it’s the other person’s turn. I think other good actors would have found a little bit different chemistry, but that may have worked just as well, too. Because George [director George Roy Hill] would have found a way to use that chemistry to the benefit of the film.”
Robert Redford isn’t quite so sure. In his view, it was Newman — by far the bigger and better-known star at the time — who ignited that necessary chemistry.
“Paul and I began a process of bonding during the first few days,” Redford says. “We found a common bond of humor and values off the set that could be carried into the work on the set. It stripped away, almost immediately, the age difference of, what, 13 or 14 years between us, and the professional notoriety difference between us. That was stripped away pretty quick. And it was Paul who did that. He just accepted that we were colleagues working together as actors. And that meant a lot to me.”
“What developed between us, we never questioned it. And we still don’t.” – Redford on Newman
Not so long ago, Newman announced that he was ready to retire from acting, that he would make, maybe, just one more film. But that was before he signed on for Cars. What, if anything, is next?
“I don’t seem to be living up to my timetable,” he replies with a laugh. “But I may have one more movie in me. I’m not sure what it’s going to be now. Redford and I are working on something, but it’s not by any means a slam-dunk. We’re working on the script right now.”
Not that Newman feels any great compulsion to keep padding his résumé. Far away from movie locations, he and Joanne Woodward live an extremely full life together, devoting time to their various philanthropic interests while keeping an eye trained on the sales of Newman’s Own products. (“This year,” he jokes, “I think we’ll even out-gross Cars.”) So what would it take to attract his interest? What kind of script would get him revved up to act again?
“Well, I don’t think I could play a marathoner right now. I think it would have to be either a wonderful character in a wonderful film, or a character that was acceptable in a film with some social content.”
In short, it will take a first-rate project to get this class act back before the cameras. And until one comes along, well, there’s lots of salad dressing yet to sell. And lots of children yet to comfort.
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