Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Paul Newman (born 1925) is one of the most distinguished twentieth-century American actors. Drama, however, is not Newman's sole passion; he is a professional race car driver, owns a food business that donates all proceeds to charity, and is an outspoken proponent of various liberal causes.
Paul Newman has been described as the quintessential American on-screen male. His sometimes gruff, sometimes duplicitous, nearly always captivating characterizations have earned him a place in the pantheon of celebrated and beloved American film stars. In a 1994 assessment of Newman's career, Newsweek writer David Ansen mused that "the great mystery of his stardom is how he has managed to play so many heels-driven, ambitious, solipsistic men-that the audience falls in love with."
Paul Leonard Newman was born to Arthur and Theresa Newman in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 26, 1925. He was raised in Shaker Heights, a well-to-do suburb, where the family enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. His father was a partner in a sporting goods store which Newman was expected to eventually take over. As a child, however, Newman was far more interested in extracurricular activities than in achieving good grades and acquiring a head for business. He loved sports and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. Around this time, he began acting. At the age of ten, he won the lead role in a production of St. George and the Dragon at the Cleveland Playhouse. Still, to Newman his flaws were numerous: "When I was a kid, I was not a good scholar, and I really wanted to be one, " Newman once said to Esquire. "I was not a good athlete, and I really wanted to be one; I was not a good conversationalist, and to this day I have difficulty talking."
An injury ended Newman's dream of a sports career. When he graduated from high school in 1943, in the midst of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Newman had hoped for the heroic role of a fighter pilot, but this dream also disappeared when it was determined that he was slightly colorblind. Newman instead served as a radioman in the South Pacific for three years. After his discharge, he returned to Ohio and enrolled at Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, which provided tuition assistance to returning veterans. Once more, Newman displayed a proclivity for everything but academics, running a lucrative beer and laundry business that was a hit with Kenyon students. He also began to contemplate a career on the stage at this point and devoted much of his energy to roles in Kenyon's drama department productions.
Newman graduated in 1949 and joined a summer stock company in Wisconsin, then an Illinois repertory theater. He also married fellow actress, Jacqueline Witte, that same year; the couple would have three children. When Newman's father passed away, he returned to the Cleveland area to take over the sporting goods store. It was a life and career path to which he was deeply averse. Fortunately for him, the store was sold and he took his wife and growing family to New Haven, Connecticut, where he was accepted at the prestigious Yale School of Drama.
At Yale, Newman honed his stage skills and sold encyclopedias on the side for cash. His talents landed him a place with the acclaimed New York drama workshop, the Actors Studio, where he studied with such luminaries of the craft as Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan in the early 1950s. Soon Newman found work in television plays, then a fresh and innovative union of the two arts that was attracting stellar writers, directors, and performers. His success in this medium led to Broadway work, and, in 1953, he was cast as the understudy for the lead in the play Picnic. Hungry for a chance to prove himself, Newman asked the director if he could play the part on the road, to which the director, Joshua Logan, refused. Newman, Logan said, did not possess the sexual charisma required for the character.
Crushed, Newman adopted a new attitude. He began working out, but more importantly, he began observing others and their behavior. It was also around this time that he met actress Joanne Woodward, and the chemistry between the two dissolved Newman's first marriage. Film seemed the next logical career move, but he was wary. He finally accepted the lead in the 1955 biblical drama The Silver Chalice. It was a disastrous move and almost ended his acting career in one fell swoop. Newman played a Greek slave who hammered the cup from which Jesus and the apostles allegedly drank at the Last Supper. "That I survived that picture is a testament to something, " Newman declared in an interview with New York writer Lynn Hirschberg. He wore a short toga through most of it. When a network bought The Silver Chalice and planned to broadcast it, Newman bought newspaper advertisements urging people not to watch.
Newman returned to New York and devoted his energies to more gratifying stage work. He was next cast alongside James Dean in a teleplay, but when Dean died in a car crash in September of 1955, Newman was asked to take the lead. He hesitated, but his role in the adaptation of a story by Ernest Hemingway revived his reputation and his faith in his abilities. Hollywood beckoned again, but this time with an offer to play the boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. The 1957 hit made the actor into an overnight sensation, and Warner Brothers signed Newman to seven-year contract.
Newman's next film, The Long Hot Summer, also starred his new wife, Woodward, in the tale of small town Southern politics and a malevolent drifter. The role would come to typify the characterization in which the tougher, now battle-scarred actor would excel and build his career upon. Other films included Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was also released in 1958 and earned him his first Academy Award (Oscar) nomination, and another biblical drama, Exodus. Still, Newman was unhappy with the Hollywood system and managed to be released from his contract through the help of his savvy agent. Now an independent actor not influenced by studio whims, he was able to take a role that offered a well-written dramatic challenge: the smooth talking pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler. The 1961 role brought Newman his second Academy Award nomination.
Similar roles followed, with similar results. For the 1963 drama Hud and the mournful prison picture Cool Hand Luke, one of 1967's biggest box-office successes, Newman again won nominations, but did not win the Oscar in either instance. Subsequent roles in period pieces, such as 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and 1973's The Sting, again teamed him with Robert Redford and did phenomenally well. Later in the decade, Newman's career took a slight downturn. His only admirable portrayal came as a vicious minor league hockey coach in the 1977 cult classic Slap Shot.
Personal tragedy also visited Newman. In 1978, his son from his first marriage, Scott, died of a drug and alcohol overdose. Newman would later fund a drug rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles in honor of his son. The veteran actor also began to take an active role in other issues of personal significance to him, most notably liberal politics. Though he had always been politically active, by marching in civil rights protests and publicly supporting Democratic presidential campaigns, Newman grew more outspoken. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as his delegate to nuclear disarmament talks at the United Nations, and Newman once took on fellow actor and noted Republican Charlton Heston in a television debate.
In 1995, Newman bought a controlling interest in The Nation, a liberal political journal, and even began writing for it occasionally. One essay spoke out against a prominent United States senator who had supported dictatorial regimes in Latin America, for example. Newman is also on the board of Cease Fire, a gun control group funded by prominent celebrities. He also sponsors an annual free speech award by the writers' organization PEN. "Your sense of yourself comes from what you're doing today, not what you did yesterday, " Newman told Hirschberg in the New York interview.
Newman continued to command respect with his film roles as well, especially with the 1981 drama Absence of Malice, for which he earned his fifth Oscar nomination. The role of a wretched alcoholic lawyer in 1982's The Verdict landed him his sixth. His Oscar losing streak became a joke among Newman and his circle of family and friends. "I had this wonderful scenario worked out in my head that somehow I would never win, " Newman confessed to Hirschberg, "and then, finally, in a terrible state of physical disrepair, I'd be nominated and I'd win and I'd be carried up by two paramedics on a stretcher…." When he was nominated for reprising his "Fast Eddie" role in the sequel to The Hustler, the 1986 Tom Cruise movie The Color of Money, he didn't even travel to Los Angeles for the ceremony. This time, he won.
Newman remains grounded on the East Coast, far away from the celebrity glamour of Hollywood. "Hollywood breeds insecurity, " Newman told New York's Hirschberg. "When I was a young actor, I delighted in the dailies, " referring to the unedited footage from the a movie shoot. "I used to bathe in the idea of watching that image on the screen. I'm uneasy about it now. I'm afraid I will be so critical that I will be immobilized for the next day's shooting." He and Woodward, with whom he has three daughters, live in a 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut and also keep a home on New York's Upper East Side. The actor is well-known personality on the automobile racing circuit, and owns an Indy car competitor with a partner. He is also a famed prankster feared by his film set colleagues. He once had a Porsche demolished, wrapped, and sneaked into Robert Redford's house. Film director Robert Altman was paid back for exploding nine feet of popcorn in Newman's dressing room on a film set with a series of attacks that included 200 live chickens installed in Altman's personal trailer.
Perhaps Newman's proudest achievement, however, is the food company he launched in the 1980s with his friend A. E. Hotchner, a writer. "Newman's Own" began with their bottling of a vinaigrette they concocted that had been a hit with friends. "Giving the profits away was a philosophy that evolved with the company, " Newman told Pam Janis for USA Weekend, noting that he was strongly urged by all involved to lend his name and visage to the label. "With that, it would be tacky not to give the money away." Over the next decade, Newman's Own expanded to over 40 different products, including salsa, lemonade, and the prank inducing popcorn. His daughter, Nell, and her devotion to organic foods helped launch a second line. All proceeds are donated to charitable organizations. By 1997 Newman's Own had given more than $80 million away to projects chosen by the actor and his wife, such as a school for children of migrant laborers and AIDS research.
Newman continues to choose outstanding film roles when he does enter into the Hollywood sphere. One such effort was the critically acclaimed 1994 drama Nobody's Fool. His character, wrote Ansen in Newsweek, "is a classic Newman type, the older relative of all the intransigent outsiders he played in the '50s and '60s." Ansen likened Newman's tragicomic Sully to the "rebellious rakes who cut themselves off from women, from family, from community to pursue their private dreams and demons…. Sully's selfish, self-involved and a loser. He's also, like all Newman antiheroes, enormously likeable." Newman admitted that Nobody's Fool and his role as Sully, who learns to connect when he establishes a shaky relationship with his grandson, tapped into some emotional defenses that were not altogether unfamiliar to him. "An actor who's successful develops a certain shield to protect that part of his life which isn't up for public examination, " he told Bonnie Churchill in the Christian Science Monitor. "It bleeds over into your private life."
Further Reading on Paul Newman
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 14, Gale, 1996.
Newsmakers, 1995 Cumulation, Gale, 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1994, p. 14; March 5, 1996, p. 8.
Good Housekeeping, May 1995, p. 147.
Newsweek, December 19, 1994, pp. 56-62.
New York, December 12, 1994, pp. 36-45.
Sunday Times (London), June 22, 1997.
USA Weekend, October 17-19, 1997.
Wall Street Journal, November 20, 1997, p. B1.