Each year when a stalwart of the entertainment industry makes his or her final curtain call, I find myself wishing Iâ€™d paid closer attention to their work and inevitably fill up my Netflix queue with old movies, or buy several tracks from iTunes I feel I should have owned all along. This happened with Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, as well as Sydney Pollack and Marlon Brando. This was not the case with Paul Newman, who passed away this past Friday at the age of 83. Newman was a mainstay in the Malchus household when I was growing up, and continued to be an artist and human being that I respected and admired for three decades. If I were to compile a list of my favorite films of all time, that list would include at least 10 starring Newman.
We didn’t go to the movie theater often when I was a kid; my first exposure to motion pictures came via the edited versions on the ABC Sunday night movie or whatever was showing on the weekend afternoons on the independent channels. It was through these television airings that I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), and the irreverent Slap Shot (1977). In the early ’80s my mother won a VCR, then a newfangled device. A whole world of cinema was available to me every time I entered the video store. My father was very open to letting me rent any gory horror movie I desired — on the condition that I watched one of his selections as well. Thus did I receive a film education, and come to know the likes of Bogart, Hitchcock and many of the brilliant artists who revolutionized Hollywood in the early ’70s. It was also through these shared screenings with my dad that I first saw Absence of Malice (1981), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) and Alfred Hitchcockâ€™s underappreciated Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966).
When I headed to college, I finally saw Cool Hand Luke (1967), and boy, did that film have an effect on me, just as it must have on the generation that first saw it in the ’60s. In it, Newmanâ€™s performance as the lost, system-bucking rebel Luke Jackson is so convincing, it becomes painful to watch it upon second and third viewings. Newman is so charismatic, so likable, soâ€¦ beautiful, that knowing the system will break him and ultimately defeat him is all the more devastating. Newman was able to do that with every role — whether he was playing a rebel, a genius, a down on his luck drunk, or a cantankerous old man, he had a quality about him that made you root for his characters (or at least, as in the case of 2002â€™s Road to Perdition, in which he was an crime boss who orders a hit on the family of a loyal soldier, understand the logic behind his heinous decision).
Newmanâ€™s eyes were the key. On screen, he lured us in with those startling blue eyes and kept us riveted. He made anything look interesting, whether it was race car driving, pool, or just thinking. He was always thinking on screen, showing us characters as they went through their thought process. This is quite remarkable when you consider it: an actor, playing a role and contemplating his next acting choice, portraying a character in the moment of a scene, who is also contemplating his next action. There are few actors, living or dead, with this kind of effortless, natural acting.
My favorite Newman role will always be Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumetâ€™s The Verdict (1982). Working from a tight David Mamet screenplay, Newman displayed every facet of his brilliance in his performance. In Frank Galvin, you see despair, anger, determination, sexuality, and ultimately redemption play out in Newmanâ€™s face: the way he carries himself, the manner in which he controls his voice, and yes, in those penetrating eyes. It was yet another performance of a lifetime in a career full of them. For that role, Newman was nominated (again) for the Academy Award. He lost. It would be a role he took four years later, reprising his role of Fast Eddie Felson (originated in 1961â€™s The Hustler) in the Martin Scorsese helmed The Color of Money, that would finally earn him that honor.
What the world will miss most about Paul Newman isnâ€™t his artistry as an actor and a director, both of stage and film, but it is his kindness and all-around stature as a good man. He founded the Hole in the Wall camps for children with serious illnesses, allowing thousands of children each year to have a chance to feel normal (â€œraise hell,â€ Newman said in an interview last year). You can’t place a price tag on the value of letting a child feel â€œnormal,â€ even if it is for just a short time.
Additionally, his Newmanâ€™s Own salad dressings, spaghetti sauces and other gourmet items raised $250 Million dollars last year alone. And Newman never received a dime from the proceeds: All money went to charity. But Newman wasnâ€™t just some philanthropist who threw millions at his charities. The man was heavily involved with this side of his life, including appearing each year at the camps to meet the children and their families and to interact with them. He was a man who saw an opportunity to use his name and his likeness to help children and to help better the world. He understood that itâ€™s not just a responsibility to give back to the community, but also a privilege.
One last note: While reading many of the fine tributes to Newman over the weekend, I was quickly reminded that his legacy even reached my childrenâ€™s generation. My son, Jacob, saw me reading about the 2006 Pixar film, Cars, for which Newman voiced the role of â€œDoc.â€ When I explained to him that the actor who played that curmudgeonly old car had died, Jacob simply said, â€œDoc is dead.â€
Actually Doc, along with Luke and Hud and Butch Cassidy, will live on forever. Sadly, however, Paul Newman is dead, and the world will never be the same.