Ask almost any college student about Paul Newman, and the response is generally something about “that salad dressing guy.” Try to get the name of one of his films out of someone, and people will probably blurt out, “he’s like, the Sundance Guy right?” Closer, but that’s still an injustice to the amazing body of work that Newman left behind.
Something’s amiss. Something about his legacy feels like a punchline for too many people. Maybe it’s the retirement or the fading presence in recent years. Or maybe it’s the acceptance of “Newman’s Own” as a moniker, as opposed to the work of an honorable man. Either way, Newman needs to be remembered as something greater than an old man who made pasta sauce.
Over 80 credits on IMDB, a handful of charitable organizations, one-too-many food jokes and a very respectable automobile racing career later, Newman has left one of the most diverse and impressive legacies of any public figure, and it’s truly a loss to see such a gifted individual leave us.
Newman died this past Friday after a losing battle with cancer. Describing his impact is an ambitious task, but necessary. Paul Newman was more than an actor; he was ultimately an icon. Or to quote George Kennedy (“The Naked Gun”), Newman’s co-star in “Cool Hand Luke,” he was a “wild, beautiful thing.”
Here are the SparkNotes on a fine piece of work:
Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1925, Newman initially went to Ohio University, but was forced to leave after supposedly smashing a keg into the school president’s car. Soon after, Newman served in the Pacific Theater of World War II. He wanted to be a pilot, but was relegated to radio and gunning because he was colorblind.
During the war, Newman completed a degree at Kenyon College and later pursued drama at Yale University, followed by lessons from the famous Lee Strasberg at the “Actors Studio.” From there, acting would be the life-support that helped develop Paul Newman as a notable personality.
His acting style was simple and assured, always lending itself to affable, leading-man status. Yet Newman never quite fell into prototypical headliner status. He was just too cool, and too good at acting. Sure, the looks and the presence were always there, but there was something far more interesting about Newman.
Unlike the stoic John Waynes and Gary Coopers before him, Newman made you believe he had genuine thoughts and could emulate what his characters were feeling. He wasn’t just a written role, he was a fully fleshed out human being.
In “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” Newman earned his first Oscar nomination as the film’s lead alongside co-star Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a decent movie, but it was Newman’s character that rang true. He played Brick Pollitt, an ex-football player with a bad drinking habit. Newman embodied the man, rethinking what it meant to be a realistic and truly interesting lead actor.
Newman didn’t sink into traditional prestige roles. He created his own brand of acting and could succeed at pretty much anything. In “Cool Hand Luke,” he played the world’s most rascally and lovable convict. (Eating 50 hard-boiled eggs never seemed so memorable.) In “The Long, Hot Summer” and “Hud,” Newman smoldered as he showcased his sex appeal. And in films like “The Sting” and “Slap Shot,” he showed what a funny dude he could be.
He was a great actor, incapable of a poor showing. His filmography speaks to this: “The Verdict,” “Road to Perdition,” “Harper,” “Torn Curtain,” “Nobody’s Fool” and many others add to Newman’s super-powered resume.
Newman’s acting is secured in history. The multiple Oscars, truckloads of praise and, above all, his blue eyes will make sure he’s not forgotten. But it’s his philanthropy and humanity that people will likely respect. Few realize how much good Newman has done with the clout around his name. Never quite content with being a popular star, Newman gave a lot back.
To get it out of the way, his food-product line “Newman’s Own” was founded in 1982, and sells dressings, sauces, lemonade and popcorn, all from the man’s original recipes. All the company’s proceeds are donated to charity, and in recent years (according to Vanity Fair), Newman signed over all his investments to be donated.
In 1988, he co-founded the Hole in the Wall Camp, a summer camp and residential center for sick children. He sponsors the Newman’s Own First Amendment award, a $25,000 award for proponents of free speech. He donated millions to Kenyon college, Kosovo, democratic candidates and countless other causes. And after his son’s unfortunate drug-related death in the late 1970s, he invested in rehabilitation programs.
Newman was the original left-wing celebrity. But when he worked for specific causes, he did it with vigor and sincerity. Take a lesson, new Hollywood. He was a hardcore liberal and was 19th on Richard Nixon’s enemies list — a point of pride for Newman. He was also a talented driver, racing Datsuns as a Le Mans driver in 1979.
Get on YouTube and watch some footage — now. Be it the closing argument from “The Verdict” or his interviews with David Letterman, he was the great American man. This guy wasn’t just a good-looking masthead at the theater; he was a gifted and generous individual who was sincere in all his endeavors (unlike a certain blonde friend that played copycat to his causes).
Above all, he was Paul Newman, and hopefully we won’t forget that.