The Cool Hand

Recently my mom and I watched The Verdict. On one of the DVD’s documentaries Paul Newman said that when you see excellence you should just bow your head and say “Thanks.” My mom and I could only think of how many people were now saying thanks for Newman’s life and career.

Paul Newman was always mom’s favorite movie star. I grew up hearing his name all the time and my family often watched his films. Of course it was tough to enjoy them while hearing mom talk about how gorgeous Newman was, or how his female co-star really didn’t deserve him. Besides, she would add, “No one should have him all to herself.”

When I got older I started to appreciate Newman on my own. After all, here is a man who came to Hollywood in the 1950s as a Method Actor compared to Marlon Brando and James Dean. Newman ended up eclipsing both of them. In the 1960s, with Dean long gone and Brando fading, Newman hit his stride. The antiheroes he played in such films as The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud and Cool Hand Luke fit perfectly with the turbulent times. Newman’s characters charmed and seduced, but never really fit in. They were the true outsiders, clashing with the establishment’s mores and values. Newman gave these men cockiness and attitude. The charm came pretty easily as Newman’s looks and smile lit up the screen and melted women’s hearts. But it was Newman’s fire that made these roles come alive. He always looked restless, impatient. At the same time, Newman showed little vanity. He was not afraid to plumb the depths of his character’s weaknesses or vulnerability. Witness Fast Eddie Felson after his thumbs are broken. Or see Cool Hand Luke, after his mother died, strumming a banjo and singing a tender melody.

As the 60s drew to a close, Newman grew into a superb comic actor, showing incredible timing and a light touch. His characters eased up and enjoyed life a little more. They showed true confidence rather than the unearned cockiness from before. Even though Newman and Robert Redford had never met before shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their rapport and perfect chemistry made them seem like best friends, which they later became in real life. Many film fans, including me, consider them one of the great screen teams even though they only worked together twice. In their other pairing, The Sting, Newman had a relatively small role. Still he shined in what Mom considers the funniest scene of all time (and I’d be hard pressed to disagree). Newman played a con man trying to rile his future mark, played by Robert Shaw. He crashes Shaw’s buttoned-down poker game acting like a boorish drunk. He then proceeds to offend, annoy and gradually enrage Shaw. Newman has fun with his part and the scene. So does the audience.

Newman knew how to have fun off-screen too as he immersed himself into the world of Indy car racing. This became an obsession for him, and he would claim he was most at home on the track. I remember mom fretting that something would happen to him and wondering why his wife would let him continue.

Mom was much happier with Newman’s other big venture, his philanthropic work. He started his food company, Newman’s Own, as a joke but it quickly took off. Newman has donated all the profits to charity, most notably the Hole in the Wall Gang camps that he established. There are many ways to help children with life threatening diseases such as supporting hospitals or research. While these are all critical, Newman again focused on fun. He realized that children with severe diseases often don’t get to play and do other fun things that most kids take for granted. The Hole in the Wall Gang camps fill that need. The children can enjoy themselves and just be kids. The charity work and the camps touched mom even more than any of Newman’s films. She would always hold Newman up as an example of someone who gave something back and tried to make the world a little better.

While Newman invested himself in his charities, food, and racing, his acting went in new directions. He cut back on his film work and become more selective.He worked with top-flight directors such as Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Robert Benton, and Sam Mendes. Now the cockiness of his 1960s characters was completely gone, and Newman excelled at playing damaged, worn-out men whose best days were behind them. On camera he did more with less, slowing down his movements and his dialogue. In The Verdict, The Color of Money, and Nobody’s Fool Newman conveyed more with his face and his inflections than many actors could with pages of dialogue. He delved deep into his character’s souls, and you could see their pain through his eyes. Few actors have ever aged as well as Newman.

Talking with mom about Paul Newman these past few years, I have realized that her admiration is not for Newman’s looks or even for his stellar body of work. It is that he made the most of his talent both on screen and off. It is how he took his gifts and used them to help others. While millions of people have seen his films, there are thousands of children who have never seen him onscreen but whose lives have changed because of what he did.

Newman probably would have been embarrassed to read that last paragraph, as he would with the many tributes offered these past few days. Often he would seem amused that people paid him so much attention. He would try to deflect much of that spotlight from himself to others. A former colleague of mine told me that many years ago she was at a reception honoring one of Newman’s daughters. She noticed an older man with sunglasses standing by himself in the corner and realized it was Newman. Not wanting to seem like a typical fan, she told him how nice it was that he was there to support his daughter. Newman replied that this was the reason he was there and he was glad she appreciated that.

Unfortunately, mom never got to meet Newman in person. The closest she came was seeing him in the Broadway revival of “Our Town.” She told me that Newman’s Playbill bio mentioned his wife and his family while poking fun at his fishing. But not one word on his movies. I guess he figured that everyone knew what he had done. Paul Newman never ran away from being a movie star, but he never let it define him. He stayed away from the tabloids and from Hollywood. While he would do the occasional interview he seemed much more at ease joking around on Letterman. Even though his Newman’s Own products have his picture on the front they are almost all tongue-in-cheek. Newman took his acting, his racing, and his charitable work seriously, but never himself. He was content with who he was and the life he had.

Paul Newman lived 83 years, but that is of little solace to mom. She said she was comforted knowing that he was out there, and now he is gone too soon. When she told me this I thought back to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The director, George Roy Hill, famously ended the film by freezing the frame on Butch and Sundance right before they are gunned down. Perhaps he figured that no one wanted to see them die. I’m sure mom wishes she could also stop time so that Newman would still be around. While that can’t happen, Newman’s movies are always available for us to see. More importantly, Newman made plans for Newman’s Own, his charitable foundation, and the Hole in the Wall Gang camps to continue after he was gone. So, in a way, Newman is like Butch – frozen in time, guns blazing, in all his glory. A cool man with an even cooler legacy.

Adam Spector
October 1, 2008

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