Newman, Paul Arthur
NEWMAN, Paul Arthur
(b. 26 January 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio), Oscar-winning motion picture actor whose looks, charm, and disaffected persona helped define the 1960s existential antihero in a series of highly successful films.
Newman was the second of two sons of Arthur S. Newman, a German-descended Jew and part owner of a sporting-goods store, and Theresa Fetzer Newman, a Hungarian Catholic who became a Christian Scientist when Newman was five. By then the family had moved from Cleveland Heights to an eleven-room home in Shaker Heights, a prosperous suburb of Cleveland. Newman does not remember being close to either parent, nor was he raised to have any particular faith.
Newman had a comfortable, upper-middle-class childhood. He played pool, raced bikes, and enjoyed practical jokes. His mother encouraged him to play the part of a court jester in Robin Hood, a school play in which he sang a song written by his uncle. At Shaker Heights High School he was an uninspired student. He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete but was not big enough to make the junior varsity football team. Girls noticed the lad with the extraordinary good looks and ocean blue eyes, but he paid little attention to them. He made money by working in his father's store and by selling encyclopedias door to door. In September 1942 he enrolled at Ohio University and appeared as a boxer in a college production of The Milky Way.
Bored and restless, Newman left school. He enlisted in the navy in June 1943 and was sent to Yale University to train for the Navy Air Corps. Tests revealed that he was color-blind. In the service during World War II he served as radio operator on torpedo planes in the South Pacific, spending his time off "drinking and reading." He had grown and filled out during his years in the service but was "just as dumb as when I went in" when he was mustered out in 1946. Newman flunked out of business courses at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and was kicked off the football team after busting up a local bar with some friends. He was arrested three times on minor offenses. The drama school at Kenyon corralled his belligerent energy. Newman won leads in The Front Page, R.U.R., and Charlie's Aunt, even though he was "terrorized by the emotional requirement of being an actor." He found safety in writing, producing, and directing.
Newman did summer stock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, after his junior year at Kenyon, appearing at the Priscilla Beach Theater in All My Sons and Dear Brutus. After graduation from Kenyon in 1949 with a B.A. in English he worked summer stock for room and board in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, seeing it as "a paid vacation." His roles in John Loves Mary and The Glass Menagerie deepened his interest in acting and directing. That interest was extended to the company player Jacqueline Witte, who accompanied him into the Woodstock Players, outside Chicago. They married in December 1949. His work on Our Town, Mister Roberts, and Born Yesterday reflected a growing passion for the theater, but in April 1950 Newman returned to Cleveland because his father was gravely ill. Arthur Newman died in May, leaving Paul with the impression he had never earned his approval. It was, he later admitted, "one of the great agonies of my life."
Newman sold his father's business and moved his wife and infant son, born September 1950, to New Haven, Connecticut, where he enrolled in Yale's graduate school of drama. There he met the agent Bill Liebling, who urged the attractive young actor to go to New York City. Bit parts on live television followed. Walk-ons for The March of Time and Tales of Tomorrow were followed by speaking roles on The Web, The Mask, You Are There, and The Aldrich Family. Newman learned method acting at the Actors Studio in New York City, even though he found it difficult to "get in touch with" his feelings. At the end of 1952 he won the part of the second lead in William Inge's Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Picnic. The understudy for the female lead was twenty-two-year-old Joanne Woodward.
Newman's success on Broadway won him a contract with Warner Bros. His screen debut in the costume drama The Silver Chalice (1954) was an embarrassing failure. He returned to Broadway, appearing in The Desperate Hours and on live television in Our Town and The Battler. When Newman's friend the actor James Dean was killed in an automobile accident, his role as Rocky Graziano in MGM's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) went to Newman, giving him his first screen success.
The Newmans separated, and Jackie and the couple's three children, including daughters born in 1953 and 1955, stayed on Long Island as Newman made his way in Hollywood. A series of inferior films followed until his work with Woodward and the director Martin Ritt in The Long, Hot Summer (1958). Newman's portrayal of Ben Quick, a lean and mean Mississippi redneck with a reputation for barn burning, won him the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and foreshadowed the emergence of his antisocial persona in the 1960s. Newman and Woodward were married on 29 January 1958, shortly after Newman's divorce was finalized. Later that year his part as the invalid husband of Elizabeth Taylor in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) was nominated for an Oscar. Williams and the writers Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood became frequent guests in the tiny apartment the Newmans kept on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Newman began the 1960s in Israel, filming Exodus (1960) for Otto Preminger. Critics found his portrayal of a freedom fighter earnest but unsympathetic.
Newman's next role, as Fast Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's movie The Hustler (1961), captured the determination of a young drifter who lives to beat his pool-playing idol, Minnesota Fats, superbly played by Jackie Gleason. The cinematographer Gene Shufton won an Academy Award for converting a smoke-filled, claustrophobic set into the setting of a modern-day Greek tragedy. In the movie Newman is a gifted and flawed player. To become the best at his game he accepts money and protection from Bert Gordon, a sleazy promoter played to perfection by George C. Scott. Piper Laurie, a cripple who takes Felson in after he is badly beaten and has had his thumbs broken, completes the ensemble. Newman's Oscar-nominated performance had an "intensity," critics claimed, that allowed him "to look inside his character." What he discovers is Eddie's essential arrogance and vulnerability, qualities that make him a sympathetic outsider who lives according to his own code in a world that is determined to brutalize the talented nonconformist.
In Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) Newman's character is beaten up again, and this time has it coming to him. Chance Wayne is the ambitious beach bum Newman had successfully played three years earlier on Broadway. In the screen version he is a parasitic self-promoter who becomes the lover of a fading movie star to advance his own interests as an actor. In the Hollywood ending he becomes obstinately defenseless and is horribly disfigured in pursuit of a true love.
Newman had become one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Long free from his Warner Bros. contract, he could pick his own projects and supporting teams to execute them. Dissatisfied with the mawkish finish to his previous film, he had the screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank develop a character called Hud Bannon, from a novel by Larry McMurtry, who consciously "doesn't give a damn about anyone." Martin Ritt directed Hud, the story of an amoral, opportunistic rancher at war with his father and idolized by a nephew. It is Hud's view that "if you don't look out for yourself, the only helping hand you get is when they lower the box." Newman relished the part because Hud's callousness "reflected the dilemma of our time." In the role of Hud he represented the coldly indifferent people who "grow up at the tragic expense of other people." Audiences and critics were enthralled. Arthur Knight, writing in the Saturday Review, noted that Newman's Hud was "a charming monster," whose "scornful smile" was "a threat poised over every scene." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought Newman's performance was "tremendous" in its depiction of "a potent, voracious man, restless with all his crude ambitions and arrogant with his contempt" for all the old values his father seemed to represent. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for the New Republic, was certain that the film would "confirm Newman's place in the front rank of American film actors." The part won Newman his third nomination for an Academy Award.
The Newmans and their three daughters settled in a converted carriage house in Westport, Connecticut, where Newman became involved in Democratic Party politics and the civil rights movement. He later announced his opposition to the Vietnam War. He told interviewers he was no sex symbol but rather "an absolute square" who could not stand "dishonesty and idiocy." He was going public with his social concerns, he said, because "I'm not going to be disenfranchised just because I'm an actor."
Newman's role as the cynical private eye in the crime writer Ross MacDonald's Harper (1966), which costarred Lauren Bacall, drew inevitable comparisons to Humphrey Bogart's portrayals of the private eyes Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and revived Newman's career after a series of mediocre efforts. Harper tracks a missing millionaire into the tawdry Southern California twilight, exposing the underside of the 1960s, an urban landscape, as Life's critic Richard Schickel observed, where he finds "the conscienceless climate of modern America." Newman's next film, Torn Curtain (1966), his only teaming with Alfred Hitchcock, proved a plodding hodgepodge of cold war spy clichés that Newman plowed through grimly.
Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, released months apart in 1967, were critical and box-office triumphs that celebrated Newman's image as the decade's leading iconoclast. Each updated familiar material. In Hombre, Newman plays a self-sufficient man who reluctantly becomes a hero when stagecoach passengers are terrorized by bandits. The character, John Russell, is alienated from both white and Indian cultures, and the film, directed by Ritt and scripted by Ravetch and Frank, suggests that civilization as well as personal nobility are possible only when one overcomes disengagement and takes responsibility for others.
America's youth culture embraced the forty-two-yearold actor as one of their own with the release of Cool Hand Luke. Luke Jackson is sent to a Southern chain gang for a minor offense—unscrewing the tops of parking meters during a drunken spree. There he encounters opposition within the prison population and among its guards for his independent spirit. He refuses to give up when he is badly beaten by Dragline, a chain-gang leader, and this defenseless obstinacy endears him to the hearts of fellow inmates and the film's audience. The warden tries to beat the defiance out of Cool Hand, who delivers the film's classic line, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." His character's success in resisting the state and its utter inability to violate his fundamental humanity made Newman an icon to many 1960s moviegoers. The intractable and increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam was soon joined by a credibility gap that separated the nation's youth from an older generation that tended to defend war and racism. Their anger and disillusionment found expression in what the critic Judith Crist called Newman's depiction of "the triumphant anti-hero," which won him his fourth Oscar nomination.
Before the 1960s were over Newman successfully made his directorial debut, starred in one of Hollywood's all-time hits, and appeared in a picture that intensified his enthusiasm for racing. Rachel, Rachel (1968) starred Woodward as a spinster schoolteacher in a small New England town who is approaching middle age as an emotional recluse before she learns to open herself to experience. Woodward's performance and Newman's direction won awards from the New York Film Critics for capturing the texture and loneliness of everyday life in 1960s America. In Winning (1969) the two starred in an unremarkable movie about race car drivers that thrilled fans, and Newman began spending his time away from the cameras racing hot cars. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his highly successful teaming with Robert Redford, is a seriocomic period piece, complete with an Oscar-winning score written by Burt Bacharach. The film reinterprets the lives of two Western bad men for the tastes of 1960s audiences, who by this time expected Newman's characteristic irritation with those in authority. The film's freeze-frame ending catches the two men aggressively advancing, although hopelessly outnumbered, against their would-be captors. Its iconography of the individual bravely facing annihilation at the hands of an obdurate collective became Newman's constant theme in the thirty years of filmmaking that followed.
Newman never again achieved the level of fame and cultural status he had enjoyed in the 1960s, even though his subsequent work was not without success. The Sting (1973), a re-teaming with Redford, won seven Oscars and was a huge hit. The Towering Inferno (1974), costarring Steve McQueen, William Holden, and Fred Astaire, helped spark a cycle of all-star wide-screen spectacles. His work as a foul-mouthed minor league hockey coach in Slap Shot (1977) became an unexpected cult classic. Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) was an update on the urban crime drama. Acclaimed roles in consecutive films—Absence of Malice (1981) and The Verdict (1982)—won Newman his fifth and sixth Oscar nominations. The award eluded him until Newman reprised his role as Fast Eddie Felson in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986), opposite Tom Cruise. The previous year he had been awarded a rare honorary Oscar "in recognition of many and memorable compelling screen performances" and for his "personal integrity and dedication to his craft." But it was the Scorsese film that finally won him an Oscar for best performance.
In November 1978 Newman's son, Scott, died of a drug and alcohol overdose. Newman created the Scott Newman Foundation in his memory, specializing in the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. Newman lent his name and image to Newman's Own, a product line of foods ranging from salad dressing to popcorn. Millions of dollars in profits are directed toward the arts and toward charities helping children, including camps for kids with cancer. The Kennedy Center honored Newman and Woodward with lifetime achievement awards in 1992. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award in 1993. The man who had become a screen legend by playing men who went it alone and lived outside the system told interviewers "the greatest thrill of my career is to take what I have and spread it around a little bit."
Newman has been the subject of several biographies, among them four entitled Paul Newman—by Charles Hamblett (1975), J. C. Landry (1983), Elena Oumano (1989), and Lawrence J. Quick (1996); also see Lionel Godfrey, Paul Newman, Superstar: A Critical Biography (1979). Eric Lax, Paul Newman: A Biography (1996), is richly illustrated and contains interviews with Newman. Joe Morello and Edward Z. Epstein, Paul and Joanne: A Biography of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (1988) analyzes the relationship of Newman and Woodward and their careers in movie-making and on the stage. Two filmographies carefully chronicling his early work in Hollywood are Lawrence J. Quick, The Films of Paul Newman (1971), and Michael Kerbel, Paul Newman (1987). Stewart Stern, No Tricks in My Pocket (1989), is a behind-the-scenes look at Newman's work as a director. Two volumes of Newman's own writing on healthy eating are The Hole in the Wall Gang Cookbook (1998) and Newman's Own Cookbook (1985). Major articles on his life can be found in Current Biography (1959) and (1985).
Bruce J. Evensen