NEW YORK -- he marble floors outside Paul Newman's Fifth Avenue office look as slick and icy as a frozen pond. At the front entrance, a couple of doormen are pretty certain you're not supposed to be there. Pretty certain you're not supposed to be anywhere.

"What's your name again? I don't think he's here. Is he expecting you?"

He's not there, in fact. Cold feet. Then a botched rescheduling.

Four hours and a couple hundred phone calls later, Newman is slapping his palms together, acting the genial host. "Hey, you haven't had lunch yet, have you?" he says, practically shouting. "I'm going to fix you the greatest, sexiest salad you've ever eaten."

Two minutes in the door and already a commercial.

"Sit down," he says, offering a seat next to him on the sofa. "You're in for a real treat." Posters of his movies -- many of them from the nine films he's made with his wife of 33 years, Joanne Woodward -- punctuate the walls: "A New Kind of Love," "The Long Hot Summer," "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" On the other side of the room is a pool table covered with what looks like a Navajo weaving, something very Santa Fe. For an instant, the thought of shooting a game of nine ball with Fast Eddie flashes through your mind. A little hint is dropped. Nothing doing.

An assistant brings in the salads. And a big carafe of ... salad dressing. Newman's Own Salad Dressing. The private stock, without the logo of Newman that makes him look like Ryan O'Neal. Or, worse, Chevy Chase. For the record, it's not half bad. And how's the private stock different from the stuff in the stores? His answer is off the record. Something to do with the amount of olive oil.

He wants to know what's up. "Don't turn that thing on yet," he says, pointing to the tape recorder. Stretching out in his tan corduroys and sweat shirt, he starts firing questions, none of which has anything to do with acting or with "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," his new film with Woodward. What, he wants to know, is the mood in Washington? What kind of shape are the Democrats in? What's going to happen with the war?

There's an edginess to his questions, as if he's determined to keep from talking about himself. Slip a personal question in and he dodges it, moving on, dancing away. He says nothing interests him less than rehashing his own life. His memory of his own movies is vague at best. When pressed, only two or three titles out of a 30-year career and more than 50 movies spring to mind, the implication being that the rest aren't worth remembering. Ask him about why he started acting, or, for that matter, about most anything regarding his career or his life, and he replies, "Oh, surely you've heard that old story."

An hour later, he still hasn't allowed the tape recorder to be turned on.

The fact is, he's in a bad way. When he finally talks about his business, it's with the exasperated air of a man who's fed up, who's seen the glory days come and go, and who's struggling to find a reason to keep fighting the fight.

"There's an old saying that nostalgia ain't what it used to be," he murmurs onto the spinning tape in his whiskey growl, "but I'm not so sure that's true. A movie set is a pretty chilly place these days. It used to be that we shot film. Now we're just shooting the schedule, or some executive's bonus. Failure is so expensive that actually making the picture seems to be almost an afterthought."

The vibrancy and sense of moment has gone out of the business, he says. Maybe out of everything. At 66, there's exhaustion in his voice. Talking to him is a long slide into the abyss -- it's all darkness. Darkness about the movies. Darkness about the culture. Darkness about his own place in either.

It wasn't always thus. He remembers getting hooked on theater at Kenyon College in Ohio, graduating in 1949 at 2 o'clock and hopping a train for summer stock in Wisconsin at 3. He had been sort of a big deal on campus, acting, directing, even writing musicals. He also ran a laundry service -- "Newman's Own Laundry," he jokes -- that made him a mini-mogul. "I always had a talent for business," he says. "I just never pursued it."

He says he used to attract customers by tapping a 15-gallon keg of beer on Saturdays, but that the business had to be closed down when the police caught one of his drunken patrons fondling a horse in the street out front of the place. "With a boxing glove," he adds, tickled by the memory.

He remembers the thrill of first coming to New York. "It was a vibrant time for people to be involved," he says. "There was the tradition of the Group Theater, of the kitchen drama, naturalist theater, the whole influence of Freud and the whole coming out of the oratorical school of acting. The theater was bustling. Live television was just coming out. And people aspired to do good things on film. There was an audience for films of consequence. And it was fun."

He remembers when it was fun making movies too. When he stole Robert Altman's favorite gloves while they were shooting "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," fried 'em up and had 'em served to him for dinner. Or when he filled Altman's trailer with hundreds of chickens.

"Mario Andretti and I are tied together in a race team," Newman says, "and he's noticed it too. I said, 'Well, what was it like back in the beginning?' And he said, 'God, I remember taping Bobby Unser in a telephone booth so that he couldn't qualify his car.' He said, 'You know how badly I'd get sued today if I did that? I'd never get out of court.' Money's changed everything. There's no place for frying up somebody's gloves."

The Career Newman's career is a distinguished one, but he's practically allergic to viewing it that way. Though he studied at Yale, has been a regular fixture at the Actors Studio and prepares with what he's described as a "bulldog tenacity," he dismisses his accomplishments with a cruel sort of self-criticism, stating without equivocation that his success has been the byproduct of luck. "Didn't have much to do with me," he says. "Just being in the right place at the right time."

He says he never had a great compulsion to be an actor. "I'm basically an irresponsible person, and I wanted to find a way of life that allowed me to continue in my irresponsibility. If you're lucky enough to do that, there's a kind of genius in it. If you fail, of course, it's disastrous. I've been lucky, but now it looks like some kind of grand design."

His dream, he says, was to have been an athlete, but a junior-year bar brawl that landed him jail got him kicked off the football team, ending his college career. Plus, he says, he didn't have much of a talent for it. Didn't have much of a talent for anything, in fact, which is why he took up acting.

"It's the thing I did best," he says, "which isn't to say that I did it well or thought I did it well. I just couldn't do anything better."

With Newman, everything's an accident. Like being born with those famous bluest of blue eyes. Those colorful eyes that are, in fact, color-blind.

A story: A middle-aged woman went into an ice cream parlor to get a cone for herself and her little girl. Glancing to her left, she saw a man who looked remarkably like Paul Newman. Immediately, she became flustered, paid for the ice cream and, grabbing her daughter's hand, hurried out of the shop. A few steps out the door, though, she realized she'd lost her cone and had to go back. After she'd searched for several frantic seconds, the man approached her.

"Yes, madam," he said, "I am Paul Newman and your ice cream is in your purse."

Multiply this by ten thousand and you get a sense of what it's like to be Paul Newman.

"When people come up and say, 'Take off your glasses, I want to see your baby blue eyes,' you say, 'Oh {expletive}, is that what it's really been about? Is this where the struggle has led?' ... It's hard to take much solace in terms of what your contribution is if that's what your audience sees -- 'Take off your dark glasses!' "

"This industry is kind of like a lottery in a way," he explains. "It's hard to feel accomplished when so much of your success has nothing to do with talent but simply about the way you look. You draw a ticket and there's a lot of luck involved. ... Now whether you can sustain that luck requires more artfulness than I am willing to admit, but, still, in this industry so much power is derived from appearance, and that catapults us into the only kind of royalty that we have in this country."

He goes on.

"A friend of mine brought a girl to the house one time who was a model," he says, "and it was interesting to sit back and watch the way she carried herself. She said, 'Well, to be one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world is a burden, and it's something that I have to nourish and take care of.' And I thought, '{Expletive}, there wasn't a lot of work in that. That was just genetic. ... To take credit for something like that just seems highly inflated."

If Newman takes pride in any of his films, it's not because of his work, but because of the themes they communicated. He praises "Slap Shot" (1977), "because that was about hype," and "The Verdict" (1982), "which was about the possibility of redemption." "Hud" (1963) too was worthy, he adds grudgingly, "because it was about corruption of the heart." That backfired in a funny way, though, because he became a kind of folk hero by mistake. And "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," he says, "tells us something about how people violate promises."

Out of an entire career, that's all he can come up with. Beyond that, he has a hard time seeing the value of it -- that is, the intrinsic cultural value of being an actor. He's gotten fame and comfort and wealth from his work, but listening to him, it sounds as if he sees himself as a kind of scam artist, living off ill-gotten gains.

"I've helped to fill up people's leisure time," he says.

So the most he's provided is a kind of shallow diversion?

"That's about it. ... On occasion a film can be educational, but that's rare."

He's dead wrong. He's embarrassed himself on occasion, in movies such as his first, a toga classic from 1954 called "The Silver Chalice." But Newman is one of those rare performers whose brilliance as a star is matched by his gifts as an actor. He helped define '60s antiheroism with his performances as Fast Eddie Felson, Hud, Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke. Earlier on, he showed a twisted immediacy as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun" (1958), and a desperate opportunism as Chance Wayne in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (first on Broadway in 1959, and then on film in '62). Later, he played the sly con artist Henry Gondorff in "The Sting" (1973), became infatuated with auto-racing in "Winning" (1969), and made "Rachel, Rachel" (1968), the first of five films as a director.

There were a lot of bummer roles in bummer pictures, such as "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" (1968), "The Prize" (1963) and "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" (1958). Some empty walk-throughs, such as "The Towering Inferno" (1974), and some less than memorable pictures with talented filmmakers, such as John Huston's "The Mackintosh Man" (1973) and Robert Altman's excruciating "Quintet" (1979). For what it's worth, he's been nominated for an Oscar seven times, and won twice -- first with a career award in 1985, then for his performance in "The Color of Money" in 1986.

If it horrifies him to look back on his early work -- "Too much sweat, too much mechanism" -- his later performances, in such films as "Fort Apache, the Bronx" (1981), "Harry and Son" (1984), "Absence of Malice" (1982) and "Blaze" (1989), show a cool-hand assurance and economy. He seems merely to breathe his characters into life. Does he think he's any good? Not really. His whole career, he says, came from watching other people do what they did and copying it. As for his own talent, he says, "I don't think I ever knew what I was doing ... until maybe a couple of years ago."

The Contribution The thought occurs that perhaps all this self-deprecation is a form of false modesty, or simply a way of keeping the enormous trappings of fame in perspective. But the tone of it is more dire, more genuinely despairing. At this moment of his life, the impression Newman gives is that his work as an actor was never fulfilling in itself, but only as a means to an end.

Ask him if he enjoys building a character and he answers, "No, not really."

Ask him if he enjoys being in front of the cameras and he answers, "No. Joanne comes to life in front of the camera. She blossoms. But, no, not me. Once my work is done and the investigation is through, then being in front of the camera is merely the simple application of that. And the execution isn't all that exciting."

Dry. Dry as ash.

Almost as an afterthought, he suggests that if there's anything that satisfies him about his work, "it's the sense of collaboration, the sense of community, that it was not a solitary thing. That was the allure of the theater and of film. I wouldn't be a good novelist or a good painter. I need that impetus of feeding off other people before I can find my own way to express myself."

That's it?

"It's comforting to have some applause in your life, whether it comes from your neighbors or from the people you're working with. And I've been lucky to have that. And it's certainly allowed me the time and the opportunity to get involved in a lot of other areas that I couldn't have gotten involved in. The political arena. The business arena. The racing arena. All three of them have been very comforting."

A lot of attention has been focused on Newman's racing, with speculation about his motives ranging from masculine overcompensation to a death wish. His explanation is simpler. He'd always loved to drive fast, he says, and once he stepped into a real Formula 1 racer he was hooked. He's also said that "racing is the best way I know to get away from all the rubbish of Hollywood." At any rate, he's been far from dilettantish about it, investing real time and real money, and eventually winning the 1985 Sports Car Club of America National Championship.

This is the daredevil, beer-guzzling, locker-room-jock side of Newman. And there are traces of this Paul Newman too in the man who in 1982 started a food business called Newman's Own. It began as a sort of joke springing from the popularity of the homemade salad dressing the Newmans gave out as Christmas presents. Then came Newman's Own Spaghetti Sauce -- to be found in grocery stores between celebrity sauces by Frank Sinatra and Tommy Lasorda -- Newman's Own Popcorn and Newman's Own Salsa. Almost 10 years later, what began as a goof has grown into a $50 million industry, run by Newman and his friend, the writer A.E. Hotchner, who, it's said, spend most of their office time playing ping-pong and darts.

Perhaps the Newman sensibility is expressed in its purest, most undiluted form not on the screen but on the Rabelaisian, insanely tongue-in-cheek labels he scribbles for his products. Under the name of P. Loquesto Newman, he writes: "Sockarooni/Sock-it-to-'em Spaghetti Sauce all alone, by itself, just sitting there naked, will blow your socks off! Take yourself back to 1833 when Neopolitan adventurers in St. Louis concocted this specific sauce, ingesting same, gathering strength, courage, endurance and wit to wrassle 1000 pound bears. 150 years later I fortify myself with Sockarooni to wrassle my own private bear -- which is 'jist gittin' through the day.' " On another label he effuses: "Terrifico! Magnifico! Slurp! Carumba! Bottle the sauce! ... share with guys on streetcar ... ah, me, finally immortal!"

Newman takes great pride in his cooking. Over the toilet in his office bathroom is a letter that compliments his sauce and adds, in closing, "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."

He also takes great pride in the fact that all the profits from Newman's Own -- some $36 million overall and $8.5 million last year alone -- go to charities, among them the Scott Newman Center at the University of Southern California, a drug-education center in Pasadena dedicated to the memory of his son, who died in 1978 of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose, and a mock dude ranch called The Hole in the Wall Gang in Storrs, Conn., for seriously ill children.

"That's my real contribution," he says. "Salad dressing and spaghetti sauce and salsa. And it's something that came completely out of whimsy. Whimsy and invention and exploitation of my personality. That's the company slogan: 'Shameless Exploitation for the Public Good.' It's wonderful because it allows you to give something back for all the stuff you take out of the community."

Splattered What's clear is that Newman is moving around the furniture in his head. "I don't know," he says, changing chairs to ease a crick in his neck, "I'm just at a very restless point. I'm kind of splattered, I think ... the way the rest of the country is."

What's most important to him now? The business? Racing? Acting?

"Maybe none of the above," he says with a questioning shrug. By this point, his voice is all but inaudible. "I think I'm looking. It's just a time of contemplation."

It's suggested that he's wrong about his role as an artist -- that, as a storyteller and interpreter of human emotions, his contributions are essential to the culture, as essential, so long as his work has integrity, as those of politicians or scientists. But he's not buying it.

"In the simplest and the best sense," he says, "if the environment you live in seems to be functioning and the institutions are working and everything is going along in a fairly healthy manner, then the artist can simply function inside of that healthy community without any other obligation except to do his own work.

"But," he continues, "if you sense a kind of malaise in the community, that the culture is in extremis, then it's incumbent upon you to be part of the solution as a citizen. Not just an actor. You've got to be both. And inasmuch as you don't feel you're part of the solution, then you can't feel comfortable inside of your own skin."

For a moment he appears lost in his thoughts, then rouses himself. "I don't mean to be pretentious about this. It is something that I really am sniffing around with, and I may run into a dead end in terms of the examination of this."

He's thought about giving up acting before, and his feelings seem to be leaning that way again. Is it possible that he might give it up? That "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" might be his last movie?

"Yeah," he answers.

That's a distinct possibility?


Since he's worked for the past couple of hours to direct the conversation toward world affairs, the possibility of a career in politics is raised. Would he ever consider running for public office?

"God, I hope not," he answers. "That would be for all the wrong reasons too."

But what about shameless exploitation for the public good?

For the first time in an hour, he smiles.