Paul Newman had been a star for more than two decades when he went on fantastic run. It might not be his best string of movies, but starting in 1977 with Slapshot and lasting through The Color of Money in 1986, Newman delivered some of his most impressive work in movies like Fort Apache, the Bronx; The Verdict; and Absence of Malice.
In her review of Slapshot, Pauline Kael wrote:
“Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.”
His last great performance came a few years later in Robert Benton’s adaptation of Richard Russo’s wonderful book, Nobody’s Fool.
That’s when our man Peter Richmond—whose terrific first YA novel, Always a Catch, was published a few weeks ago—caught up with him. This piece first appeared in the January 1995 issue of GQ and appears here with the author’s permission.
He answers the door in slippers, a polite and questioning half-smile set off by tortoiseshell bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. He offers toast in the kitchen of his prewar penthouse late on a Sunday morning when the New York autumn is chilled by October showers and the sky is as absent of color as the froth of hair on top of his head. He is slicing a stick of butter, very carefully, with a serrated knife, peering over his spectacles so as not to cut off his fingertips. He is talking about the weather.
“I love it,” he says. “I just think the cold is blissful”—a pause for an inside-joke smile—“in my antiquity.”
It would seem, at best, an uneasy fit: Paul Newman and his seventieth birthday, this month. But spend more time with him and it’s clear that the man and the age are a good and comfortable match.
Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Luke, all the cons in search of the angle—maybe they’d fight it, fighting the roll of the seasons. But Paul Newman—who now, finally, is none of these people—is clearly at home with his current circumstance: as no one but himself.
You knew him for the color of his eyes and the chiseled perfection of his torso, but in fact you knew nothing but the way Paul Newman looked. You have never been on familiar terms with Paul Newman the symbol, the symbol of whatever it was you wanted him to be: the defiant youth, perhaps, but without the darker currents of James Dean, or the outcast, but without the bluster of Brando, or, eventually and most memorably, the cad thief or villain eternally redeemed by a beatific smile.
But he is no symbol now. Paul Newman’s physical presence is no longer overwhelmingly compelling, a fact that leaves us—and him—with much more of the essence of the man. In his new movie, the story of nothing but the quiet emotions of an aging man, his looks are irrelevant, and he seems entirely suited to the role.
He does not pretend to have all of the answers. Questions remain. He asks them gently, in a low voice, using measured words and separated by long pauses, all of it punctuated by frequent glances at the rain patting the terrace outside the living-room windows.
“I am thoroughly and predictably concerned about what was my accomplishment and what was the accomplishment of my appearance, which I have no control over,” he says. “What was attributable to me? And what is the difference between a truly creative artist and an interpretive artist? I have not concluded anything about that, but it’s fair to ask the question.”
It’s not the usual rope-skip one expects from people of note who deign to cede a few minutes of their days to an interviewer. This is a deliberative conversation, and he tries to get as much meaning into as few words as possible. He’s never had any love for the interview process, but he is nonetheless polite enough to want to convey something substantial in a short time. Envision, if you can, a weight attached to every phrase.
“And everybody shakes their head and says ‘Oh, isn’t it too bad that he doesn’t enjoy…more of a sense of accomplishment,’ and so forth,” he continues. “But it’s not a false sense of modesty or self-deprecation. It’s really just looking at it and saying ‘Where did it come from? What do you owe it to?’”
So it should come as no surprise that the definitive question Paul Newman poses about his life is whether an entire career was forged on the pigment of his eyes.
“You’re constantly reminded,” he says. “There are places you go and they say ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to…you just want to…I dunno, um…thump them.”
He holds up his right hand—“A short chop right above the bridge of the nose”—and gives up a laugh.
“They could say, ‘Hey, its very nice to meet you’—that’s great. Or ‘Thanks for a bunch of great performances,’ and you can feed off that for a week and a half. But the other thing, which is always there, is a never-ending reminder.”
The eyes. He proposes that if we insist on putting his picture on GQ’s cover, we eschew the usual mug of shot and run one simply of his eye. His right eye. Close up. Just the eye.
“This bloodshot blue eye,” he says, and he laughs. And then he says, “Or take the engine out of a stock Ford. Have the hood up. I’ll just be sleeping in there.”
The last is not a non sequitar. It’s an allusion—a comic allusion—to an arena in which Paul Newman answered the question of how much of his success was due to talent and hard work. He was a champion race-car driver. He was good at driving; his looks didn’t matter. But that time is over now, too. Newman raced just once last year. The previous year, he’s raced in six events and crashed in five of them.
“Driver error,” he says now. “The teeth get longer. The hair gets thinner. The eyes and ears don’t sense danger as quickly as they did before. You can’t go fast, so you try and go faster.”
Madness lies that way, of course. And so on a Sunday morning when two years ago he might have been up on the track at Lime Rock, in Connecticut, he’s wending his way through The Times instead. His wife is in another part of the apartment, listening to opera. An aria winds out of the room and finds us. Newman falls silent; the conversation pauses.
But it is the most welcome of silences, too; fifteen stories above the Central Park reservoir, amid books and family photographs and very old paintings. It is so peaceful that time feels if it’s not even passing.
“Bette Davis said it best of all: ‘Getting old ain’t for sissies,’ “he said eventually. “I mean—suppose, to do it right, it ain’t for sissies.”
How do you do it right?
“Stay in the thick of it, I guess…I’ve been working on this thing on and off for seven years.”
I need a moment to make the connection: The “thing” is his current project—not Nobody’s Fool, the movie just out, but the next one—he assumes that I know what he’s talking about because it’s on his mind all of the time; it’s what binds his professional life now. It’s the script he’s been writing for the past year and a half. The film he’ll direct.
The writing is what drives him. It’s easier than getting in front of the camera, where the way he used to look has become an issue. “Which is part of why I’m directing this next film,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. But other people worry about it. And I’m at that point where…it just takes too much effort.”
They never seemed effortless, the men in Paul Newman’s catalogue. They were all highly complicated, not a flat-out, clear cut hero among them—pool hustler, grifter, alcoholic lawyer and now, in Nobody’s Fool, a man who abandoned his family because it was the easy thing to do. They were flawed and beautiful men in circuitous search of redemption, and Newman wore the characters effortlessly.
This was not luck or fortuitous casting. He did the foundation work for years, on the stage and in bad films, but so did any number of pretty young men. What Newman brought to the screen, what allowed him to blossom, was his ability to make Hud and Harper and Fast Eddie so familiar. So identifiable. Their troubles were always, somehow, real.
“I had some troubling years,” Newman says.
Newman did what many young men do. He drank; he fought. He should have known better, he says now. After combat duty in the Pacific, he put in four years at Kenyon College and a year at Yale Drama. He was kicked off the football team at Kenyon for taking part in a tavern rumble between college kids and townies—a particularly embarrassing episode, given that Newman hadn’t even been rounded up with the original arrestees; it was only when he showed up at the jail to give the quarterback his car keys that a cop saw the second-stringer’s scuffed knuckles and locked him up, too. Several years later, there was an arrest for leaving the scene of an accident in which no one had been hurt. “A mistake,” he admits. “Dumb.”
“I barely made it in my time,” he says. “And don’t forget that the acceleration of everything was much slower. We only had booze in our day—which was bad and ugly enough. We didn’t have crack.”
In the kitchen, two empty beer cans stand upside down, side by side, in the dish rack, rinsed for the recyclers—aligned in orderly fashion, in defiance of any hint of impropriety.
Did his drinking ever come close to derailing what he had going?
After a moment’s thought, he nods and nods and nods. The silence stretches on and on. Then he says, “Fortunately, that was back in the Stone Age.” Silence again. “So.”
It is neither the time nor the place to ask for elaboration. Not in Paul Newman’s living room. That is a given. The overriding theme of the hundreds of interviews Newman had granted is his discretion. He saves a special disdain for the public’s gutter curiosities. Several years ago, amid the flowering of tabloid journalism, Newman announced that he’d adopted a personal theme: Fuck Candor.
His father was the successful proprietor of a sporting-goods store in Cleveland, and when Newman speaks of him, it is with respect for nothing so much as Arthur S. Newman’s integrity: “In the Depression,” he says, leaning a little closer over his coffee, “[he] got $200,000 worth of consignment from Spalding and Rawlings because [his] reputation for paying, [his] honesty, was so impeccable.” Arthur Newman, his son says, was many things: ethical, moral, funny. And distant. Newman once spoke of his anger and frustration at never being able to earn his father’s approval.
He met and married his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in 1949, when they were members of an acting troupe in Illinois. Upon his father’s death, in 1950, Newman moved his wife and infant son back to Cleveland but couldn’t put his heart into selling sports goods. He turned the business over to his brother and took his family to New Haven, for his year at Yale; soon afterward, he was working in New York. But his ascent on the stage coincided with a muddying of emotional waters: He met Joanne Woodward in 1952, worked with her frequently and found himself being pulled toward her. Newman and Jacqueline had three children by the time they divorced. In 1958, he married Woodward, and they subsequently had three daughters of their own. His career took flight.
In 1978, Scott Newman, his 28-year-old son, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The family endowed a drug-education foundation in his name. Several years later, Newman started a Connecticut camp for seriously ill children, and now his charity work had become the stuff of legend. He has gone into the food business and has been wildly successful in it. It’s typical refutation by Newman the person of Newman the Hollywood icon: Matinee idol joins the merchant class.
“I worked in the [sporting goods] store every Saturday as a kid,” he says. “And now I’m hustling salad dressing. What is the circularity of things?”
But the answer doesn’t seem too difficult to divine. The success of his food endeavor made Newman a businessman of good refute—someone his father could admire—and by donating his considerable profits ($56 million, so far) to various charities, he has equaled his father’s reputation for integrity.
More: He derives genuine pleasure from watching something he created flourish. “I can understand the romance of it,” he says. “Where you create something. It’s kind of like writing, in a way…where you say [to your creation] ‘Just stay right there’ and it says ‘I got other plans,’ and it goes shooting off in other areas. And you say ‘Look at that little fucker go.’ “
Clearly, the greatest joy he derives from the business these days is in designing the labels—fanciful, nonsensical, joyous paeans to the simple goodness of good food, Whitmanesque in spirit: “Terrifico! Magnifico…share with guys on the streetcar…ah, me, immortal!”
He writes the copy himself. On the new Caesar salad-dressing bottle, the government has co-opted three-fifths of his label for the mandatory nutritional data, robbing him of the space needed for what he wanted to write—an apocryphal story of the time he played Caesar at a regional theater and how, after he was stabbed, an offstage phone rang and another actor ad-libbed “I hope it wasn’t for Caesar.” Instead, he settled for a sketch of the morally wounded emperor, a bloody dagger pointing to the ingredients, and Caesar saying “Don’t dilute us, Brutus.”
Newman laughs at that one. Then he pauses again. Half of the morning in pauses.
Writing—the next movie, the labels—is a sensible thing for a man grown distrustful of the camera to do. He has found, in the scripting of a very personal film, a new creative surge. “I could have given up on this thing,” he says, “a long time ago.”
Did people tell him to?
“Oh boy—writers and friends. But I really am pleased with it. The way it turned out. It has the same kind of emotional progression as Nobody’s Fool. But much more personal.”
Nobody’s Fool is personal, too. As written, the character of Sully—an underachieving, good-natured, down-on-his-luck handyman in a depressed, snow-locked upstate-New York town—allowed for a great deal of invention on Newman’s part. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression,” he admits. “[I] had to create the progression of where he was emotionally.”
In giving Sully a life, he gave the character some of his own life. And after a couple of intentionally over-the-top roles—Governor Earl Long in Blaze, a corporate shark in The Hudsucker Proxy—he may have finally come up with a way to quiet his own questions about how much of his success is the result of a craft he worked hard to perfect.
At first glance, Sully appears to be a man who finds a small nobility in living a life that requires nothing but getting through each day with his circle of small-town friends. But his story is tangled when, by chance, he meets the son he abandoned when the boy was a year old and the grandchildren he’s never met and has never particularly wanted to meet. Thereafter he is forced to examine his life: simple and reassuringly placid on the surface but rooted in irresponsibility and neglect. Sully decides to face the truth of what his negligence has sown. And to make amends.
“His bravery,” Newman says, “was that he was at that point in his life when he did not want to…deny it anymore. He no longer tries to keep his own…accessibility…away from himself. [He finally] accepts his sense of family. And the incredible magnetism of that.
“I don’t know whether the audience will get that,” he says. “They may get something else. I don’t know that they’ll get all of the things this film means to me…[the] secrets between me and the character. They are tiny discoveries. And they’re mine. I don’t know if they’ll be visible.”
It is an oblique soliloquy. The gist of it seems to be that in Sully, Paul Newman had finally found a man who has made the right decision: to face himself in his waning years.
I begin to observe that it sounds as if Sully is in microcosm what Newman himself…but that is as far as I get.
“Yeah,” he says, interrupting me. “Painfully close. As this next film will be.”
His wife has taken the dog for a walk. The radio is silent. The rain has stopped. The coffee is cold.
“The nice thing about the picture was that you didn’t have to discover where the money was—you had to discover where he was,” Newman says. “It’s an examination of the good in ordinary people. But maybe in order to be good [in movies] you have to kill 53 people. Used to be you only had to kill three or four. Now everything has escalated. The insistence on sexual, visceral gratification has become so intense…The human animal is an escalating beast.”
His expression makes it obvious that he is reluctant to be led into this old swamp, into routine condemnation of the modern age, but it would hardly be right to talk with Paul Newman without getting his take on the social pulse. He was a Connecticut delegate in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and a member of a U.S. delegation to a 1978 United Nations session on disarmament. He was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. But his activism has since been reined in. “The Sixties—I had to have my foot in everything then,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing now but through an intermediary. You know. The food company. Maybe that’s the way to go about it. You go right straight into the inferno, and when you get older, you pull back. You don’t really give up your responsibilities, but you find some less exhausting way.”
Still, when he’s led into conversation about the mores of our time, his hands tap a drumbeat on the arms of his antique wooden chair.
“It’s kind of like those little electric bumper cars where you drive around and see if you can hit the other guy. That’s exactly what the country is like now. You no longer have the sense of community. Of loyalty. It’s lost its sense of group. It has nothing to do with leadership. Everybody’s out there alone, getting his own whacks. Instead of deifying the community, they’ve deified the individual. Maybe that’s necessary in principle. In the Bill of Rights. But… ‘What’s good for the individual is good for the country’? It simply is not true. What is good for the community is good for the country. Once you put the individual on a pedestal, it’s at the expense of everything else.
“What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time,” he says. “And that I’m, satisfied with that. And that’s comforting. I did okay. It’s been good. It’s nice to finally…get it as you get into your mid-sixties. It’s better than not getting it at all. And I have seen a lot of people who go to their graves without ever…without ever getting in touch with what it is that’s the core of them. It’s very easy as an actor…you can just walk around as Hud all day long, have people marvel at your grace, your manliness, your quick-wittedness. [But] it all eats away at whatever is at the core of…your own humanity. At getting in touch with that, and being satisfied with it, and comfortable.”
Being satisfied. Being comfortable. Getting it. We’re talking about him now, right?
“Yeah,” he says.
A moment later, en route to the elevator, he amplifies. Only a bit. But enough.
“I don’t have to worry,” he says, “about being something for somebody.”
The other half of the thought doesn’t need to be spoken: Now it’s time to be him for him.
Which is why, finally, the smile at the end of the morning—back at the apartment door, in the foyer, the elevator summoned—is different from the one that greeted me. It’s not just on his lips. It’s in his eyes.
The difference is not in their color. Their color is just sort of pale-blue.
It’s the light behind them. Maybe the light I want to see behind them. The light I do see behind them. The particularly brilliant light of winter.
[Photo Credit: Toni L. Sandys]