"Oh, he was like a Greek god when I first met him," Estelle Parsons said Saturday. She knew Newman when he was president of the Actors Studio in the 1980s. "You could not believe those beautiful blue eyes, and that face looked like something made by Michelangelo. But I think the amazing thing about him was that he was such a wonderful human being, so kind and thoughtful to his friends and colleagues.
Newman died Friday of cancer at the Westport home he shared with his wife, Joanne Woodward. He was 83.
Initially a stage actor trained at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Newman soon became a movie star in the era of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Ultimately he surpassed them both, as the great Brando failed to find the right roles and grew overweight, and Dean passed into legend in a fatal sports car crash after only three movies. Unlike Brando, Newman, returned to the theater after he rose to stardom — creating the role of Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams "Sweet Bird of Youth" and carrying a Westport Country Playhouse revival of Thornton Wilder¹s "Our Town" to Broadway in 2002. By coincidence, his taking on the role of the Stage Manager in a production that was later filmed for HBOcarried an echo of his early career in the so-called Golden Age of Television.
After his turn in "Our Town", Newman's career consisted largely of voice work -- as Doc Hudson in the animated 2006 "Cars", and as Dave Scott for television's 2005 "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon." He appeared as Max Roby in "Empire Falls" for HBO in 2002, again playing a character written by Richard Russo, who also wrote "Nobody's Fool." In 2003, he played Justice Earl Warren in two episodes of "Freedom: A History of Us." Then came the onset of the cancer, forcing him to give up acting.
"When we did 'Rachel, Rachel', we rehearsed it for three weeks as if it were a play and it made an enormous difference. I remember, in the film, I had to kiss Joann Woodward and I started to think about the character as a lesbian and all that back story. But he said: 'Just think of the moment, think of it as an impulsive thing' and that just opened the skies for me. I also learned a lesson from him: take every moment that comes along.
"I think he was profoundly aware of how lucky he was and what opportunities he had because of the way he looked and his talent," Parsons said.
Newman's self-mocking, whimsical humor can be seen in his biography in the Westport program for "Our Town": "Paul Newman is probably best known for his spectacularly successful food conglomerate. In addition to giving the profits to charity he also ran Frank Sinatra out of the spaghetti sauce business. On the downside, the spaghetti sauce is outgrossing his films. He did graduate from Kenyon College magna cum lager and in the process begat a laundry business which was the only student-run enterprise on Main Street. Yale University later awarded him an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters for unknown reasons. He has won four Sports Car of America National Championships and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest driver (70) to win a professionally sanctioned race (24 hours of Daytona, 1995). He is married to the best actress on the planet, was number 19 on Nixon's enemy list, and purely by accident has done 51 films and four Broadway plays. He is generally considered by professionals to be the worst fisherman on the east coast."
James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama, said Saturday that although Newman left the Yale School of Drama after a year to start his career, he managed to be supportive of that instutution over the years, contributing not only with dollars but with his time with students. He also recalled seeing Newman's performance at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2002 in "Our Town."
"It had this wonderful combination of star magnetism and humility. I was pinching myself because I was seeing Paul Newman on stage but he was not at all impressed with himself," Bundy said. "His example was not only of the highest aspirations of art but showed how an artist could also be a public citizen."
With his understated, sometimes ironic style, his comic-book hero looks and taut physique, Newman made icons of many of his movie parts.
A whole range of characters come to mind: Ben Quick ("The Long Hot Summer"), Brick Pollit ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), "Fast Eddy" Felson ("The Hustler" and "The Color of Money'), Ari Ben Canaan ("Exodus"), Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff ("The Sting").
He has played men created by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Ken Keysey, John O'Hara. When he took on a character from Evan S. Connell's book, as in "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge," he did not disappoint.
Rather he brought new dimensions to a fictional creation. He was also adept in playing real-life people, ranging from Rocky Graziano to Gen. Leslie R. Groves in "Fat Man and Little Boy." He played cowboys, from Billy the Kid to Hud, and adeptly took on athletes — boxing in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," hockey in "Slapshot," and pool, of course.
Oscar worthy roles
His skill with cues brought him two Oscar nominations, first for "The Hustler" in 1961, then for "The Color of Money," for which he finally won, in 1986. In between, he was in competition for best actor for "Hud" (1963), "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), "Absence of Malice" (1981) and "The Verdict" (1982). He was nominated again, for best supporting actor, for Robert Benton's "Nobody¹s Fool" (1994), Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition" (2003). "Rachel, Rachel," his directorial bow, won a best picture nomination, and a best actress nod for Woodward. He took home a Special Award for lifetime achievement in 1985, and a Humanitarian Award in 1993.
Not all of his efforts succeeded at the box office, but over his long career, Newman managed to work for some of the cinema's most distinguished directors: Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Alfred Hitchcock, George Roy Hill, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Joel Coen. And he was at home in any number of genres, including his detective series, "Harper." He even brought a measure of credibility to disaster epics such as the star-crammed "The Towering Inferno."