Hot, Sexy and (Almost) 70
He’s played a rogue’s gallery of rascals throughout his 38-year movie career, but somehow, with Paul Newman in the role, they can’t help but become heroes. How does he do that?
Dec. 18, 1994
By Charles Champlin
Times’ arts editor emeritus
Above the mantelpiece of the huge field-stone fireplace in the converted barn on Paul Newman’s Connecticut acres hangs a grand and garish poster of Buffalo Bill on horseback. It was a set decoration in the showman’s office in Robert Altman’s film "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," in which Newman starred in 1976.
"Immediately after the film was over I hustled the picture out of there," Newman remarked a few days ago. "About four months later I got a note from Altman, saying he’d wanted the picture himself. I said, ‘Bob, that’s the only heroic guy I’ve ever been seen as, and I made up my mind I was gonna stick that thing up.’ "
It is true that while Newman has always borne a close resemblance to a Greek god, and at the age of 69 still does (showing almost no signs of wear and care), he has played an inordinate number of what one writer called "flawed rakes." ("I would take ownership of the phrase," Newman says admiringly.)
Newman certainly has been seen as good and perhaps heroic figures. His Rocky Graziano in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in 1956 established him indisputably as a movie star, but most of his good guy roles fade before the lingering luminescence of the rascal or worse he was in, for examples, "Hud," "Hombre," "The Hustler," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Sweet Bird of Youth, "Cool Hand Luke," the alcoholic, burnt-out lawyer who finds redemption in "The Verdict" and more recently the comically villainous business executive in the Coen brothers’ "The Hudsucker Proxy."
The paradox is that Newman, more than almost any actor of his long generation, somehow can’t help being attractive and sympathetic even when by all that is good and holy he shouldn’t be. In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," both he and Robert Redford were in the great tradition of lovable rogues, and when their law-breaking pasts caught up with them in a hail of Bolivian gunfire, there was no satisfying sense that justice had been properly done, only a glum regret that there wouldn’t be a sequel.
Newman once complained that in one of his nastiest roles, as the callously insensitive Hud, he tried to be as unsympathetic as he could, hoping the audience would leave, as he told an English interviewer, with "loathing and disgust; instead we created a folk hero."
In "Cool Hand Luke" in 1967, he was the epitome of the ’60s anti-hero, free-spirited and defiantly, fatally self-destructive. He was not by definition a tragic figure, yet he invested his prankster with a kind of tragic nobility that heightened the indictment of an oppressive justice system.
It is a glorious fall day in the Connecticut countryside, the sky cloudless, a brisk breeze stripping the last leaves from the trees. Newman does not much like interviews, except insofar as he can talk about Hollywood, movies generally, societal matters, practically anything except Paul Newman. This morning, he says, he is lethargic with anger over the election two days before. It is a "damn-both-your-houses" anger.
"Loyalty to party, loyalty to the whole community, they’ve been replaced by deification of the individual. That’s why Congress couldn’t get anything done. No one would get behind anybody else because everybody wanted authorship. I can only assume or hope that the Republicans will learn from this and be cohesive enough to get something done.
"There are two things that make me sweat: live television and government."
But to the business at hand, and Newman is now back again at the business of being a flawed rake in need of redemption in Robert Benton’s "Nobody’s Fool," set in small-town Upstate New York and based on a novel by Richard Russo.
The film is a kind of socially realistic fable, charming and offbeat, in which Newman plays a construction worker who has abandoned wife and now-grown son, boards with one of his grade-school teachers (Jessica Tandy in her last, fine role), drinks a tad too much, plays cards with his luckless lawyer, flirts a little (avoiding any threat of commitment) and is generally the charming wastrel he ever was. The film opens on Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles, for Oscar consideration, naturally, and will go wide in February.
He likes the film a lot, which is not invariably true of actors contemplating the vehicle in which they have worked. "It has a human dimension, which is getting to be rare in films these days," Newman said, sitting in the barn, which is a few yards down the yard from his house and contains a projection room and a small kitchen and is filled with family photographs and mementos of his racing activities.
The film "has patience, it has courage; it’s content to let things unfold in whatever human ways they unfold, without worrying about the clock in the cutting room," Newman says, pausing between words, trying, as is his custom, to say just what he means.
"The thrust of the film is the development of the characters. It’s about a guy becoming accessible. Where a guy’s going to go emotionally is less predictable than when you have a very strong plot line–a man’s gotta get the money by a certain time, that kind of thing."
Jessica Tandy was already ailing with cancer when she made "Nobody’s Fool." "She seemed fragile," he says sadly, "but she was a big presence. There was as always something patrician about her attitude, and she never gave any outward indication of whatever turmoil was going on. She was tranquilizing for all of us."
On the making of the film: "I keep thinking nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but it is. I remember when you had a stable of actors at a studio and you started with the first scene, and then you shot the second scene, and then you shot the third scene, and finally on the last day of shooting you shot the last scene.
"Now you shoot the last scene the week after you’ve started, and people get shuffled in and out because they’ve only got nine days and everything is out of sequence. And how the film comes together in some semblance of emotional buildup is something of a puzzle. You go on instinct a lot. You take the plan, the script, and eliminate the organization and maybe it works better that way."
The miracle of good film acting is that, even when it is done in sequence, as it almost never is any more, the performance is a mosaic of very small shards, most only a few seconds long. Yet if it works, the portrayal not only has a beginning, a middle and an end (ideally of rising interest and impact), it also has a naturalness and a seeming spontaneity that never suggests an actor has been acting.
Newman, trudging through the snow in the fictional North Bath, N.Y. (actually Beacon, N.Y., near the Hudson River), is indubitably Paul Newman, and a welcome sight, too; but he has become Sully Sullivan, a man with a troubled past and a problematic future which are all Sullivan’s. The actor’s identity, although not his presence, has disappeared within the creation. The process is what makes superstars, and Newman, who has been at it for 40 years, remains one of the handful.
He and his wife, Joanne Woodward, whom he met in 1953, had the great luck of coming on-stream as actors in a rich time for the theater and, even more excitingly, in the first years of live television, when everything seemed possible, or at least worth trying.
Newman, having been a radio gunner on a Navy torpedo bomber in World War II, had returned to graduate from Kenyon College and took another year realizing he had no heart for the family clothing business in Cleveland. He did summer stock in Illinois, attended the Yale Drama School and then tackled Broadwa
y, making a strong first impression in 1953 in William Inge’s "Picnic."
"There was such terrific writing being done: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albee, Inge. And live television was uncovered ground, unexplored territory," Newman remembers. "And however crude the shows were by today’s standards, that whole era of kitchen-sink drama, which replaced the Group Theater stuff, was just beginning to open up. Paddy Chayefsky was writing, a whole lot of great guys."
But, being live television, it meant there were no second chances. "I remember I was doing an Army drama and I had nine changes and no time to do any of them. I heard my cue and still didn’t have my pants zipped. I buttoned the top button and ran into the set. The officer was Jim Gregory, a wonderful actor, and he saw right away that my fly was unzipped and my shirt was sticking out. I said ‘Sir!’ and tried to hold my hands in front of my pants. He’d never saluted me, but he did now, so I had to salute him back, revealing my difficulties." Newman laughed. "Wicked."
He did a musical version of "Our Town," one of NBC’s first color transmissions, with Frank Sinatra as the stage manager and Eva Marie Saint as Newman’s co-star. "It’s a great piece of Americana, but I’ll tell you something: I’m not much of a singer, and they wanted me to harmonize and somewhere I lost the harmony and never found it again. But you couldn’t retape it; it was all there."
In 1971 the Newmans bought a 1739 farmhouse in exurban Connecticut as a summer house. They had lived in a variety of houses in California (22 in their years there, Newman estimates) and they have a New York apartment. But the Connecticut place, with a small but fishable river running behind it, pleased them increasingly. Newman dreaded the possibility of a glassy modern house being built on the greensward across the river and sought to buy some acreage from the woman who owned the estate. The owner said she would only sell the whole property, and several years later she was ready.
"You get two appraisals made and I’ll get two made and we’ll add ’em up and divide by four and I’ll write you a check," Newman said, and did. He had a footbridge built over the river, the Aspetuck, after a tussle with the township over how high the 100-year high-water mark was. It links the two properties, and the summer house is now the guest house. At the edge of the lawn of the guest house stands a large tombstone Newman gave the children one Christmas, carved with the names of all the deceased family pets, cats, dogs, horses and birds.
The salad dressing that was the beginning of the Newman’s Own charitable enterprise was first made in the barn, in what had once been the stables. "I’m not sure what the Food and Drug Administration would have said if they’d known that," Newman said, grinning.
Newman’s Own, launched in 1982 on an initial investment of $20,000 and administered by Ursula Hotchner, the wife of writer A. E. Hotchner, who co-founded the company with Newman, has through this summer donated $60 million in profits to something like 400 charitable causes here and abroad.
The product line, which has expanded beyond salad dressing to include popcorn and spaghetti sauces, recently expanded again with the formation of Newman’s Own Second Generation organic pretzels, made by a California subsidiary launched by Newman’s daughter Nell.
Newman’s Own is not only sending millions to good causes, it is also creating jobs. "We’ve got two plants here that make the spaghetti sauce, plus one in Europe, plus one in Australia," Newman says, "and we’ve got two bottlers for the salad dressing. You know our slogan: ‘Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good.’ "
Last summer at a fund-raiser for the first Hole in the Wall Gang summer camp for children with life-threatening diseases at Ashford, Conn., Newman himself played Sneezy in a very special version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Hotchner wrote the adaptation, which was narrated by Joan Rivers. "Melanie (Griffith) took the red-eye in from the coast to be in it," Newman says. She shared a dual Wicked Queen role with dancer Ann Reinking.
Critic Gene Shalit was Grumpy, Tony Randall was Happy and Hotchner himself played Bashful. David Letterman made a surprise appearance. "I was the only one in the cast who didn’t know he was going to be there," Newman says. "You could have driven a railroad car through my mouth. It was a lot of talent for a 225-seat house. We called it the longest run in Ashford history."
There are four more camps open or under construction, in New York State, Florida, France and Ireland. "But they’re not the major preoccupation of the company. We scatter the profits all over the 50 states."
To his regret, Newman has had to end his career as a race driver. "I’m just a little long in the tooth for it anymore," he says. An enthusiasm fired by his role in "Winning" in 1969, Newman found that competitive driving energized his whole life and made the spaces between films not only bearable but enjoyable. "I just like winning," he once told an English reporter. "I despise that primal urge in myself, but it’s really all there is." Woodward, however, who hated the Angst when he was off at the races, made him a pillow that reads, "Winning isn’t everything; it’s how you played the game."
He will continue to co-sponsor his racing team, however, in partnership with Chicago businessman Carl Haas. They imported British driver Nigel Mansell, who was the Indy car driver of the year in 1993.
"But we didn’t win a race, not a single race, this year," Newman says. Mansell decided to abandon Indy cars to go back to the Formula One cars that compete on the Grand Prix circuit. "Michael Andretti is coming to race with us, and Paul Tracy."
Newman, who has proved himself a first-rate director with "Rachel, Rachel," "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and "The Glass Menagerie," all starring his wife, has been developing another project he would like to direct. But, he says, it’s not easy.
"Getting something accomplished now seems to depend more on the concept of banking than it does on the concept of literature, or the screenplay. And that’s a tough kind of situation because you can’t gather yourself up and get momentum. You can’t say it’s done and let’s get on with it. They say wait a minute. You keep waiting for any number of people to say yes. This guy says yes, but that guy’s gotta say yes and this guy’s gotta say yes and that guy’s gotta say yes, and if anybody gets left out of the loop, including the guy who takes care of the weather reports, then it’s hard to put it together."
He worries about the difficulty of finding the human dimension in scripts and films. He is also uneasy about the violence.
" ‘Pulp Fiction’ is marvelously inventive and eccentric. But I don’t know what to do with the violence anymore. I mean, there’s a difference between the cartoon violence in ‘Slap Shot’ (the film about minor league hockey Newman did in 1977), for instance, which was violent but truly in a cartoon sense. But it’s one thing to make fun of guys who are slugging each other on the ice, and another thing to use comedy to ameliorate the brutality of a guy getting his head blown off.
"It’s certainly the theater of the senses now, as compared to the theater of the mind. They escalate the sensory impact of films now, the noise of them, the violence of them, the sensuality of them, and where will it end? In the Westerns of the ’30s, the sheriff shot the villain at the finish. Now he’s not even remotely right unless he has 88 corpses at the beginning of the picture, just to show that he has the proper intentions.
It’s a score card: Sheriff, 344 bad guys; bad guys, 12 good guys; a few offside penalties."
Newman is fascinated by the possibility of sequels. "You know, you get hold of a character you like and you say, ‘Why don’t we go back and take a look at what he’s doing 25 years later, as in ‘The Color of Money.’ "
Stewart Stern wrote "Rachel, Rachel," with Woodward as a spinster schoolteacher in a New England town, and it won four Oscar nominations, for best picture and for Stern, Woodward and Estelle Parsons.
"So Stewart and I tried to write this sequel. Stewart and his wife live in Seattle. Joanne and I went up to see them a while ago. He’s a docent at the zoo and he’s got his own gorilla. Did you ever try to feed a 400-pound gorilla with a spoon?"
Stern, Newman says, wrote two wonderful scenes for a sequel. In one, Woodward is taking a ballet class with several other middle-aged women. A friend comes to the door of the classroom and mimes to Woodward, "Your mother’s dead." (Mother was always a problem.) In the next scene, back at the house awaiting the undertaker, Woodward’s sister says, "You take care of the dog; I’ll take care of mother." Stewart and Newman even imagined a denouement in Africa. "Wonderful, wonderful idea," Newman says, "but we could just never finish it."
Maybe, Newman says wryly, "It’s in the nature of us old birds to complain about the generation that follows us. But you can’t have good theater without good audiences, just as you can’t have good literature or good pictures without good audiences, and I don’t know where the audiences are now.
"I think there are just two straight plays on Broadway. Many of the theaters are dark. But you’ve got all these wide-eyed kids coming out of Yale, Juilliard, Northwestern, and now the Actors Studio has a course at the New School. What the hell are they all going to do?"
Newman, like all serious and dedicated actors, lives to work at his craft. Enjoyable as the life of a country squire is and satisfying as the good works are that Newman’s Own makes possible, there is nothing like a good part, like Sully in "Nobody’s Fool."
"There’s a lot of humor in it," Newman says. "I hope it comes through."*