Remembering Paul Newman: An American Classic

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I had hoped he would stay alive if only to spite the doomsayers. For nearly a year the press has been writing premature obits for Paul Newman. His cancer treatments tipped them off. Asked about his health, Newman's reply was always a terse, "I'm doing nicely." Now he isn't. Now, at 83, he's gone. I'm not going to say acting has lost one of its last legit icons. That's obvious. "He set the bar too high for the rest us," said George Clooney, "not just actors but all of us." The funny thing is Newman was always slightly embarrassed by his fame, by all the awards he received for his philanthropy, and especially by the body beautiful and blazing blue eyes that made him a star. That's why he took all the bullshit vanity out of his acting. A peak Newman performance — and I can think of dozens of them — radiated smarts, sexual cool, wry wit and a keen eye for the con just around the corner. Think of him as Fast Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's The Hustler, avidly going cue stick to cue stick with Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats around the combat zone of a pool table. Twenty-five years later, Newman would win his only Oscar for playing the older, wiser Eddie in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, telling new kid Tom Cruise, "You've got to be a student of human moves. See, all the greats that I know of, to a man, are students of human moves."

Newman was an honors student in human moves. The family and friends he left behind can tell you that. Start with his actress wife Joanne Woodward, who hated that he raced cars. And yet Newman conned her into putting up with it for 40 years. Newman was nothing if not persuasive. Ask his five surviving children, his neighbors in Westport, Connecticut, the kids with life-threatening diseases who benefited from the Hole-in-the-Wall camps he funded with profits from Newman's Own organic products. "I'm the only Oscar winner with his mug on a bottle of salad dressing," Newman told me once, laughing at the absurdity of it. Did everyone like Paul Newman? Hell, no. Obama man Newman was on a lot of right-wing enemies lists, starting with Nixon's. He wore the label like a badge of honor. The critic David Thomson was turned off by Newman's alleged "uneasy, self-regarding personality," and "a smirking good humor" that Thomson termed "more appropriate to glossy advertisements than to good movies." If, like me, you think that Newman was the leading litmus actor of his generation, the one who bridged the Greatest Generation to the boomers and beyond, there's no way you can't take his life personally and treasure it.

• 1973 Rolling Stone cover story: The Redoubtable Mr. Newman

• 1983 Rolling Stone cover story: Paul Newman Takes the Stand

I met him first in 1981, at a press party for a movie he did with director Sydney Pollack (also dead this year, also irreplaceable). The movie was Absence of Malice. Newman played a guy who wanted revenge on a reporter who libeled him. Now here he was surrounded by journalists and critics. "Hiya," Newman said, shaking my hand, his eyes faraway. I asked what was on his mind. "Getting out of here," he said, a small smile curving his lips up a fraction, followed by a big goofy laugh that just about fractured his cool. Newman was a private person, even frosty if he felt invaded. But, as I would learn, that cackle of a laugh was a good sign, it let you in. We talked about invasion of privacy (he wasn't pleased), new President Ronald Reagan (really not pleased), about racing (his passion), and movies (his other passion). I asked him if he tangled with Alfred Hitchcock while making The Torn Curtain. He said the Hitchcock movie he made was Exodus. I said it wasn't, insisting that Exodus was directed by Otto Preminger. Newman grinned. He was testing me. I liked him instantly, the same way I liked him onscreen. Newman was never in your face. He snuck up on you, kept you off balance.

Over the years, Newman would often express impatience with himself. Why the hell did he star in The Towering Inferno? He hated special effects epics. A human rights activist, Newman stayed pissed at himself for years for bowing to pressure and never acting in a film version of Patricia Nell Warren's 1974 novel The Front Runner, a gay love story between a track coach and a young athlete. Newman would bristle if I pushed him to talk seriously about acting for more than five minutes. But let me tell you, Newman had the worst taste in his own movies. He could tolerate himself best in roles that rendered him unrecognizable, such as the Mexican bandit in The Outrage, and the punch-drunk fighter in Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man. Two of the rare times, when the subject came to acting, that Newman was indisputably wrong. Those movies sucked.

I saw him last two years ago. He teased about being so old that the only thing he could play now was an animated jalopy for Pixar. He was referring to his voice role in John Laseiter's Cars as a 1951 Hudson Hornet, a car put out to pasture. "They quit on me," says Newman as the Hornet. "When I finally got put together, I went back expecting a big welcome. You know what they said? "You're history." Moved on to the next rookie standing in line. There was a lot left in me. I never got a chance to show 'em."

Newman, of course, always got the chance to show 'em. He took several laps in that '51 Hornet at a speedway in North Carolina. Hell, it was only last year that he won two races at Lime Rock. When he wanted to show 'em, he did. He was past retirement age and acting for such young turks as the Coen brothers in The Hudsucker Proxy, the living rebuke to the concept behind No Country for Old Men. The thirtyish Sam Mendes directed Newman as a mob boss in Road to Perdition, the 2002 film that won the actor his final Oscar nomination.

You only to need to hear the titles of Newman's most popular films to see him in your head, and to hear his voice "putting English" — as he liked to say — on his tangiest lines:

— coaxing his non-swimmer pal Robert Redford to jump off a cliff into a river in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "Why, you crazy — the fall'll probably kill you."

— singing "I don't care if it rains or freezes/long as I've got my plastic Jesus," as the chain-gang convict in Cool Hand Luke.

— being heartless in Hud, telling his stern, principled daddy: "Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln."

— playing bush league hockey and cursing like a fleet of sailors in Slap Shot.

— reteaming with Redford in The Sting, and making Henry Gondorff a con man for the ages. "Glad to meet you, kid," he tells Redford. "You're a real horse's ass."

These are the Newman movies everyone knows. But I'd like to pay tribute to this unique actor by saluting three roles that will always stick with me for reasons that have nothing to do with crapshoot of box office. I'm sure you have your own, here are mine, from Newman's youth, middle age and maturity, and all with that quality critic Pauline Kael called his "smiling deviltry."

The Long, Hot Summer. His first movie with Joanne Woodward, who married him in 1958 and stuck by him ever since. Based on a short story by William Faulkner, the movie features a scene in which Newman tells Woodward's Clara that he's going to get her in his bed no matter what: "AlI right then, run, lady, and you keep on running. Buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost — and then maybe, just maybe, you're gonna be safe from me." The scene has a timeless heat — how could it not with Newman and Woodward in the perfection of their youth? A decade later, Newman would direct his wife to her best screen performance in Rachel, Rachel, a film that maintains its grit and shining grace.

The Verdict. Arguably, Newman's finest performance. In Sidney Lumet's 1982 legal drama, Newman plays a failure, a Boston lawyer on the bottle and heading for the skids until a medical negligence case gives him a leg up on redemption. Not a false move invades Newman's portrayal. And it's a kick to hear him dig into juicy David Mamet dialogue, like his attack on a crooked judge: You couldn't hack it as a lawyer. You were a bag man for the boys downtown and you still are, I know about you." The fire is his eyes as he delivers those last four words — "I know about you" — is unforgettable. Lumet told me that he, Mamet and even Newman admitted at the time that they wanted, really wanted, to win Oscars for The Verdict. That they didn't remains a blot on the Academy.

Nobody's Fool. Newman was 70 when he received the eighth of his nine Oscar nominations for playing Sully, a small-town wiseass sneaking up on retirement. Director Robert Benton adapted Richard Russo's novel and gave Newman the perfect launching pad for a sly tour de force. Newman's carnal comeons to a barmaid are priceless ("I got my truck out back, whaddya say we get in the back, get naked and see where it goes from there?" ). Of course, she says OK. It's Paul Newman.

And so, how to say goodbye? I can't think of a better way than saying hello again to the Newman movies that most touched us. In one of his last appearances, as the Stage Manager in Our Town — he played the role on Broadway and TV — Newman tried to encapsulate life in the 20th century. "This is the way we were," he said. He didn't need the words. At the movies, Paul Newman had already done that for us.