When Cruise calls Newman ”Gramps” and Newman tells him to change his diapers, not to feel a small jolt at the passage of time as marked by the evolution of Newman’s career

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IF YOU ARE MEET-ing Paul Newman for the first time, he will have on his sunglasses. As he gets to know you, he will peek over the rims occasionally. As he gets to trust you, he will let the sunglasses hang from his left ear. The next time you meet, he will take them off.

To the public, the actor’s cerulean eyes have become a symbol of his stardom. To Newman, they have become a symbol of his long struggle to be thought of as a craftsman. ”To work as hard as I’ve worked to accomplish anything and then have some yo-yo come up and say, ‘Take off those dark glasses and let’s have a look at those blue eyes’ is really discouraging.

”It’s as though someone said, ‘Open your mouth and let me see your gums,’ or ‘Open your blouse and let me see your chest.’ The thing I’ve never figured out is, how do you present eyes? Do you present them coyly? Do you present them boldly? Usually, I just say, ‘I would take off my sunglasses, madam, but my pants would fall down.’ ”

He wonders, looking in the mirror some mornings, can color be destiny? ”I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.’ ” HE IS ONE OF THE LAST great movie stars, a legend built up by the old Hollywood studio system at Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and sustained by his magnetism and talent.

The name is a cultural reference point on several levels – on his own, for enduring sex appeal and fame; with Robert Redford, for male friendship, and with Joanne Woodward, for marital longevity.

His public biography is familiar. Paul Leonard Newman was born 61 years ago in Cleveland, the son of a Jewish sporting goods store owner, and was raised in the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights. He has appeared in 47 films and directed five. He has been nominated for an Oscar six times, and last year was awarded an honorary one recognizing his career and ”his personal integrity and dedication to his craft.” He lives with Joanne Woodward, his wife of 28 years, in a 200-year-old carriage house in Westport, Conn. He is a champion race-car driver, the founder of a successful food business, a political activist and a philanthropist.

And yet, though he is one of the most famous people in America, he remains curiously elusive. He exists in the public mind as bits and pieces of his characters -Butch Cassidy’s charm, Ben Quick’s machismo, Cool Hand Luke’s defiance, Harper’s irony, Hud’s disdain.

Newman is an intensely private, even shy, man who does not like to talk about himself. Partly, this is because he hates answering the same questions over and over. (No, he did not start racing cars as a way of reclaiming his lost youth and no, he and Redford are not best friends, and yes, he’s still crazy about his wife.) And partly, it is his way of holding the movie-star legend at bay.

On rare occasions, however, when he is in a movie that he likes or when there is a cause that he believes in, Newman allows a glimpse inside his life. Now, he is in a movie he likes very much indeed. In ”The Color of Money,” a Disney Touchstone picture that opens next month, Newman picks up the trail of Fast Eddie Felson, the cocky pool shark he created in the 1961 classic ”The Hustler.”

The delight of a character like Eddie is that he’s had an additional 25 years of hustling,” Newman says, a low thrill in his voice. ”He’s so slick. He’s pulling so many things. There are scenes in this movie an actor would kill for.”

This time around, Tom Cruise is Vince Lauria, the young pool player who wants to be the best there is, and Newman is the Machiavellian manager who wants a piece of the action.

It turns out that Fast Eddie, who was supposed to have learned something about character at the end of ”The Hustler,” did not. ”He’s a guy,” says Martin Scorsese, the movie’s director, ”who needs more than one lesson.”

Gleaming with a cashmere coat and a white Cadillac and a diamond ring and a fancy line of patter, Fast Eddie sells liquor and manages a stable of young pool players in Chicago.

reminder that Newman, who created some of the screen’s most memorable young men on the make, is now creating some of the screen’s most memorable older characters. It is impossible, when Cruise calls Newman ”Gramps” and Newman tells him to change his diapers, not to feel a small jolt at the passage of time as marked by the evolution of Newman’s career. The film makes mocking note of that.

”C’mon, Fast Eddie,” Vince says as the two shoot pool. ”Let’s see some heavy legend action here.”

Not only is this ”legend” aging gracefully; he is embracing this new phase of his career with adolescent abandon. ”I was always a character actor,” he says. ”I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood.”

ARHIVE

By Maureen Dowd

PROC. BY MOVIES

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