One of the finest – and most beautiful – actors of all time is the subject today. A very important person in my life is going through a tough time, and I’m dedicating this post to her. She adored Newman for his acting, his philanthropy and his looks – hoo boy, those looks.
Paul Leonard Newman was born on January 26, 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He seemed born to act; by age 10, he was performing in productions at the Cleveland Play House. After high school, he joined the US Navy, serving in the Pacific Theater in WWII. Upon returning home, he graduated from Kenyon College with a BA in drama and economics (presumably economics was the backup plan, but of course he never needed it). He spent a year at the Yale School of Drama before moving to New York City to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Newman made his Broadway debut in 1953, in a production of William Inge’s Picnic (this was also how he met second wife, Joanne Woodward). His big break in Hollywood came in 1956, with the role of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. In 1958, Newman fulfilled that early promise with two major movies – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned Newman his first Oscar nomination, and The Long, Hot Summer, for which he won the Best Actor prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
By 1960, Newman was a bonafide movie star, and the 60’s saw some of his greatest film successes – The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke were just a few of the highlights; all three performances earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (he lost, respectively, to Maximilian Schell, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger). He finished the 60’s with one of his most iconic films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Butch Cassidy was a perfect way to transition Newman to the 70’s, when he made movies that were generally less serious – crowd pleasers such as The Sting, The Towering Inferno and Slap Shot (a Gen X favorite). He received no Oscar nominations in the 70’s, but we sure were entertained.
Late in the 70’s, Newman’s personal life took a tragic turn. In the fall of 1978, Newman’s eldest child (and only son) Scott suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident and began taking painkillers. On November 20th, he took a fatal overdose of valium and alcohol. He was just 28 years old. Newman would later say that Scott’s death was his greatest failure. His pain over losing his son would imbue his later roles with a devastating realism. Newman’s performance in The Verdict, as washed-up, alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin, is one for the ages, and garnered Newman his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he absolutely should have won).
In 1986, realizing the injustice of Newman never having received a competitive Oscar, the Academy gave him the Honorary Award. But Newman had more to say about that. Later that year, he reprised his role as Fast Eddie Felson in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. He received his seventh nod for Best Actor, and finally went home with the big prize in 1987. Was it Newman’s best performance? Definitely not. But his Felson had a lived-in quality befitting a legend, and the Academy could no longer deny Newman his due.
By the 90’s, acting took a backseat to Newman’s philanthropic endeavors, and he made only five movies in a decade – Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (a personal fave of mine), The Hudsucker Proxy (Paul Newman + Coen brothers? Yes please!), Nobody’s Fool (which earned him his eighth and final Oscar nod for Best Actor), Twilight (a neo-noir with a fantastic cast but not much substance) and Message in a Bottle (the less said, the better, although Newman is far and away the best thing about the film).
Now in his seventies, Newman was acting less in the 2000’s, but was still making an impression. His final live action film role, in 2002’s Road to Perdition, earned him his ninth and final Oscar nomination (this time for Best Supporting Actor). He starred in a 2003 Broadway revival of Our Town, and received a Tony nomination (as well as Emmy and SAG nods for the made-for-television adaptation). He co-starred in the deservedly acclaimed HBO mini-series Empire Falls, and won the Emmy and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. His final feature film appearance, in Pixar’s Cars, was the perfect coda to Newman’s career; a race car driver in real life, Newman was the perfect choice to voice Doc Hudson, aka the Fabulous Hudson Hornet.
Newman died on September 26, 2008 from lung cancer. He left behind his beloved wife Joanne, a philanthropic empire (his Newman’s Own Foundation, which donates 100% of the net profits from the sale of food products such as salad dressings, salsas and popcorn, has donated more than half a billion dollars to charity since its inception in 1982) and an iconic filmography featuring some of the best performances ever committed to celluloid.