Academy Award-Winning Actor Paul Newman Dies at 83

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008 11:07 AM

Paul Newman, 83, the actor and sex symbol who surged to stardom by playing loners as well as criminal and moral outlaws -- anything to downplay his astonishing looks -- died of cancer Friday at his farmhouse near Westport, Conn.

Newman was an Academy Award-winning actor and acclaimed director, and he used his fame to propel his political activism, race car driving and philanthropy. He donated all the profits from his Newman's Own food company -- more than $250 million -- to charities and social welfare organizations.

Brooding and sinewy, with luminous blue eyes and a husky voice, Newman resembled a preppy Greek God in his earliest screen roles. He quickly rebelled against conventional casting that tried to turn him into a pretty-boy alternative to Marlon Brando and James Dean. He became known as an introspective and nonconformist performer -- a perfect anti-hero idol for the socially rebellious 1960s and 1970s.

In many of Newman's best films -- "The Hustler," "Hud," "Harper," "Cool Hand Luke," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting," "Slap Shot," "The Verdict," "Nobody's Fool" and "The Color of Money" (for which he won the Oscar) -- he played amoral rats, genial louts, self-destructive idealists, drunkards and has-beens. Some of his characters redeem themselves by being defeated or killed, and others just continue bumming along.

Newman hated to see his characters triumph on charm alone. No one, he said, would pay money to see such a beautiful man win the woman and save the day. Off-screen, he mocked his sex-symbol status and said that his personality was closest to the vulgar, second-rate hockey coach he played in "Slap Shot" (1977). His approach likely saved his career as he matured into a disciplined performer, one of the most enduring and polished of screen stars.

At a peak of his fame, he gambled on directing small-budget films that often showcased his second wife, actress Joanne Woodward. Their film "Rachel, Rachel" (1968), with Woodward as an aging, virginal schoolteacher, was an unexpected hit.

They had a famously durable marriage. Newman spoke about their relationship by noting how they decided to act in the comedy "A New Kind of Love" (1963).

He told Time magazine: "Joanne read it and said, 'Hey this could be fun to do together. Read it.' And I read it and said, 'Joanne, it's just a bunch of one-liners.'

"And she said, 'You [expletive], I've been carting your children around, taking care of them, taking care of you and your house.' And I said, 'That is what I said. It's a terrific script. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.' This is what is known as a reciprocal trade agreement."

Despite his powerhouse reputation, Newman had an uneven performance record as an actor. He starred in several critical and commercial duds, including his debut as a Greek slave in "The Silver Chalice" (1954), a role he called "the worst motion picture filmed during the fifties."

Nor was Newman at his best as a Mexican bandit in "The Outrage" (1964), a French anarchist opposite Sophia Loren in "Lady L" (1965) or a sci-fi wanderer in Robert Altman's "Quintet" (1979). He acted in a few disaster movies -- one set in a flaming skyscraper, the other about a volcano -- for the money. He also turned down promising parts if their shooting schedule interfered with his auto racing.

Persistently overlooked by the Academy Awards despite 10 total nominations, Newman won relatively late in his career: for best actor in "The Color of Money" (1986) as aging pool shark Fast Eddie Felson who is equal parts mentor to and manipulator of the character played by Tom Cruise. Newman had reprised the role of Fast Eddie Felson from "The Hustler" (1961).

Newman also received the 1986 honorary Oscar in part for "his personal integrity and dedication to his craft" and the 1994 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his philanthropic work.

Paul Leonard Newman was born Jan. 26, 1925, in Cleveland and raised in the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights. His father owned a sporting-goods store.

German Jewish on his father's side, Catholic on his mother's, Newman once said he considered himself Jewish "because it is more challenging."

During World War II, he served as a Navy radioman in the Pacific. He had been turned down as a pilot because he was partially color blind.

After the war, he studied economics at Kenyon College in Ohio but preferred to say he graduated "magna cum lager" because of his barroom antics. One bar escapade landed him on the front page of a Cleveland newspaper, mortifying his parents.

Thrown off the football team after another bar fight, he turned to acting to find a way to channel his rambunctiousness and performed in summer stock and repertory work after his college graduation in 1949. He also attended Yale University's drama school before his looks helped him win several roles on television and his breakthrough part on Broadway.

Director Joshua Logan cast him as a wealthy playboy in William Inge's "Picnic," the drama about sexual tensions that erupt in a Midwestern town when a charismatic stranger arrives. Logan told Newman he could not possibly play the stranger because he did not "carry any sexual threat at all."

The part went to Ralph Meeker, a loss that motivated Newman to begin exercising regularly. Newman spent considerable time with the play's female lead, Joanne Woodward. He divorced his first wife, actress Jacqueline Witte, in 1957, leaving her with custody of their three children. He and Woodward married in 1958, and they did 15 movies and television projects together. She survives him, along with their three daughters, two daughters from his first marriage and an older brother.

While in "Picnic," Newman joined the Actors Studio, where he learned "the Method," a style of acting that requires actors to plumb their own lives for motivation. He studied with Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt, both of whom would later direct him on stage or film.

Film studios kept calling Newman, and he resisted many of the initial offers because he considered their contracts stifling. "And then somebody, after a couple of Budweisers, said, 'You know, they knock and they knock, and at some point they stop knocking,' and that stuck in my head," he later told New York magazine. "I thought, 'When will they stop?' And the last knock was 'The Silver Chalice. ' "

Wearing a toga -- a "cocktail dress," as the actor called it -- and spouting ludicrous dialogue, he received humiliating reviews. When a Los Angeles station aired the movie years later, Newman took out a large newspaper ad apologizing for the film.

Back on Broadway in 1955, he earned enthusiastic reviews in "The Desperate Hours," playing a ruthless criminal who holds a family captive. That same year, he replaced James Dean, who died in a road accident, as a washed-out prize fighter in a television version of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Battler."

Seven years later, Newman sought out the same, but much-diminished role in the film "Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man" (1962).

"They screamed at me out there," he once said, referring to Hollywood advisers. "I was cheapening myself by playing a bit part, they said. I was a star and couldn't play a bit. . . . I wanted to do it again for myself. I wanted to sit down and look at the kinescope of the TV show, and then look at the movie and see what I've learned about acting over the years."

Meanwhile, Newman had built up a critical reputation of imbuing stock characters with an intelligent restraint that often was not associated with the more flagrant of the Method acting followers.

As examples, reviewers pointed to his work as boxer Rocky Graziano in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956) and an Army officer accused of enemy collaboration in "The Rack" (1956). He brought a vulnerability to roles that emphasized his physique, notably in "The Long, Hot Summer," based on stories by William Faulkner, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (both 1958), from the Tennessee Williams play.

Starring opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat," Newman played hard-drinking Brick, who refuses his wife's sexual advances because he is mourning the death of his gay friend, Skipper. The homosexual theme is played down in the film version, but Newman was well-aware of the subtext and tried to enliven the set with jokes about Brick's repression.

In one scene, he secretly pushed his wife's nightgown to his face out of deep longing for her. During rehearsal, he once said, "I suddenly tore off my pajama top and started to climb into my wife's nightgown, crying, 'Skipper! Skipper!' There were 20 people on that set, and do you know, not one of them laughed.

"To them, this was the Method in action and they stood in respectful silence. So, having bombed out on that mission, I mumbled something about, well, no, I guessed I wouldn't do it that way, after all."

Tired of mediocre studio assignments, Mr. Newman wanted to confront studio chief Jack Warner with an ultimatum. Newman's agent, the powerful Lew R. Wasserman, persuaded Newman of a better idea. Wasserman went to Warner and offered him $500,000 to buy out Newman's contract, saying the actor would "never amount to much."

It worked. Newman was free and paid his debt to Warner within two years. He returned to the stage, in Tennessee Williams's "Sweet Bird of Youth," directed by Kazan, and won terrific reviews as an ambitious gigolo.

He acted in the 1962 film version of the play as well as "The Hustler," the first in a series of roles that explored what he called the "corruptibility level" of people. He said that theme spoke to him as a socially conscious actor.

As Fast Eddie Felson, he played a soulless and self-centered rebel who competes against the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). For the role, Newman took lessons from the pool superstar Willie Mosconi but apparently had not learned well enough.

On the set, Gleason hustled him in a real life pool game. "I beat him three straight games in pool for a buck each," Newman said. "And then we played for two hundred dollars, and he beat me easy."

"Hud" (1963), based on Larry McMurtry's novel about a man with a "barbed-wire soul," as well as "Harper" (1966) and "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) made Newman the prime interpreter of selfish rebels.

"I tried to give Hud all the superficial external traces, including the right swing of the body," Newman once said. "I took out as many wrinkles as possible. I indicated that he boozed very well, was great with the broads, had a lot of guts, was extraordinarily competent at his job, but had a single tragic flaw: He didn't give a goddamn what happened to anyone else."Newman added that some reviewers faulted him for having "a face that doesn't look lived in." But Newman said the character's smoothness was exactly what made Hud dangerous.

His insight into character motivation was one of his finest traits. To play the self-destructive detective in "Harper," he said he "simply got drunk" as he read the script.

By the late 1960s, he began to feel like he was duplicating himself as an actor. He tried producing films in a short-lived partnership with Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier, but directing proved more his forte.

For his debut, he chose "Rachel, Rachel" and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for directing.

Reviewers praised his clean, lucid style and technical skill, and he directed Woodward again in movie or TV versions of several Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. She was a middle-aged widow raising two daughters in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972) and appeared in "The Shadow Box" (1980), a television drama about hospice patients.

From the start of his career, Newman limited his social time in Hollywood, telling an interviewer he did not want to fall into the trap of material success that came so easily in the film world. He made an effort to appear grungy, wearing jeans and running shoes as well as a beer-can opener as a necklace.

He shunned Hollywood for an 18th-century farmhouse in Westport, with an apple orchard and pool. Newman hated signing autographs or being asked to display his best-known physical feature, his blue eyes.

"I try not to be hurtful," he said. "I say something like, 'If I take off my glasses, my pants will fall down.' Or, if they're insistent, I say, 'Sure, Ill take off my dark glasses if you'll let me look at your gums.' Fair's fair."

Asked once about his looks, he said his children called him "Old Skinny Legs."

Newman's biographer, Eric Lax, wrote that the actor liked to confound the Hollywood elite by driving a Volkswagen in which he had installed a Porsche engine.

His cars became a joke with friends such as Robert Redford, who once gave Newman a Porsche as a present. The car, however, was a wreck -- dented from an accident and missing its engine. Redford paid a dump truck driver to deposit the car in Newman's driveway with a note attached: "Happy birthday."

Newman had the car compressed, then placed in a wooden box at the Redford estate with a nasty letter. He conceded that Redford won the gag by never acknowledging the box.Newman had discovered auto racing while acting in the race-track film "Winning" (1969). "I cannot be competitive about acting, because there's no way to compete as an actor. What are you competing against?" he once said. "In auto racing, you either win or lose. You go across the finish line and come in first or second or ninth -- or not at all."

In 1976, he won his first national amateur championship, and the next year began racing with professionals. In 1979, he and two co-drivers finished second in the Le Mans 24-hour road race. He continued participating in pro races in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching speeds of 220 mph.

Newman also made forays into politics, often providing sex appeal to liberal campaigns. He volunteered extensively in 1968 for Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.) and protested the Vietnam War at the U.S. Embassy in London.

Newman occasionally was ridiculed as out of his element. He was roundly criticized in 1978 as unqualified when President Jimmy Carter asked him to attend a U.N. General Assembly session on disarmament.

By the early 1980s, Newman made a decision to refocus his acting career after years of bloated disaster films and other undistinguished projects. Among the best films were the police story "Fort Apache, the Bronx" (1981) and the courtroom drama "The Verdict" (1982), in both of which he played deeply flawed heavy drinkers.

He was a stuffy old WASP in "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge" (1990); an aged ne'er-do-well in "Nobody's Fool" (1994); and a gangster chieftain in "Road to Perdition" (2002), a film that brought him his final Oscar nomination.

Articles have suggested that Newman's film choices were influenced by his troubled relationship with his father as well as Newman's estrangement from his son, Scott, a budding actor who died in 1978 of an overdose of alcohol and Valium.

In honor of Scott, a son from his first marriage, Newman organized in 1988 a camp in Connecticut for children with cancer and life-threatening illnesses. His most famous philanthropic venture began in the early 1980s when Newman and author A.E. Hotchner began a food business, Newman's Own, with products including salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, popcorn and cookies.

With profits from Newman's Own, he gave more than $250 million to charities and social welfare organizations. He joked that his salad dressings and pasta sauces earned more than his films.

Newman continued to act in recent years, notably as the stage manager in a 2002 Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," but he was certain acting was not his whole life.

He said that over the toilet bowl in his office bathroom he hung a letter from a fan -- of his tomato sauce. The letter ends: "My girlfriend mentioned that you were a movie star and I would be interested to know what you have made. If you act as well as you cook, your movies should be worth watching."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company