Over a period of 40 years, Ventura-based writer Ivor Davis interviewed the late movie icon Paul Newman. Here, he offers snapshots of the legend, at different stages in Newman’s remarkable life.
In 1969, I went to interview Paul Newman for the first time in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the set of the movie he was shooting. By then, after movies like Somebody Up there Likes Me (1956), The Hustler (1961) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), Newman was a huge star – bigger than Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.
My assignment, however, was not to talk to Newman about his considerable body of work or his hit movies, but to get him to explain why every waking hour when he wasn’t shooting the film he was campaigning long and hard to persuade American voters that the man who ought to be the next President of the United States was Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
In the early evening, I met with the blue-eyed star, who was in his early 40s, and over a bottle of the best Irish whisky he explained coolly and logically why he and his entire family – even his kids – were spending every non-working hour hoping to get McCarthy into the White House.
By the time we finished, the whisky bottle was empty and I staggered off to bed. Next morning, I showed up on the film set with my head throbbing from a monumental hangover.
Newman grinned as he sipped from a can of Coors beer.
"How do you look so good," I asked him, "when I’m feeling like death warmed up?"
"I spent an hour in the sauna sweating it out," he replied.
Before I left the set, Newman took me aside and unselfishly suggested: "While you’re here you might want to talk to my young co-star. The guy is brilliant. He’s gonna be a big star."
The movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the co-star was a then relatively unknown actor named Robert Redford.
The year was 1973, and this time my Newman assignment took me to the Bonneville Salt Lake Flats in Utah. I was there to watch Newman pursue his greatest passion: racing fast cars.
Newman had become a fan of souped-up cars when he starred in the 1968 movie Winning. He and a team of ace professional drivers were in Salt Lake to try to break the world land speed record of 400 mph set by Donald Campbell in 1964. Campbell had died in 1967 in a crash as he attempted to break his own world record.
Warren Cowan, Newman’s long time publicist who died earlier this year, warned me; "This is not a movie set visit. Paul won’t do interviews. His total concentration is on racing and breaking records. He wants to separate his passionate hobby from his movies."
I went along anyway, and although I never spoke to Newman at that time, I learned a lot about him. This time he was not at all friendly. Interviews and photographs would distract from the task at hand, one he took deadly seriously.
We had a great set of pictures, but I noticed that although Newman obviously knew he was being photographed, he never once looked at the camera. He was totally into climbing behind the wheel. Unfortunately, the world record remained unbroken because of bad weather.
1980: We were in the mountains of Malibu and Paul Newman was making a movie. This time he was directing his wife Joanne Woodward in a poignant film, The Shadow Box, based on the hit play by Michael Cristofer. His daughter Susan Newman was a producer on the film, so it was very much a family affair.
The Newman on view this time was the dedicated filmmaker. He stayed behind the camera and during a lunch break sat down with me again to talk about his latest project and working with his wife.
I asked him how he and Joanne – two very different personalities – managed to make their marriage work in a business where couples have relationships as fragile as yesterday’s newspaper.
This year, as the Newmans celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary, I remembered what he told me over 20 years ago: "I don’t know what she puts in my food. I always say I’m diesel fuel and she’s high octane, but she’s a great dame and I sometimes wonder how she’s managed to tolerate me all these years. The late actor Roddy McDowall once asked her why she stayed with me so long, and Joanne told him it was because I made her laugh. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I should be offended. But now I realize laughter and joy has always been the glue in our relationship."
2002: Newman had come to Hollywood to talk about working with director Sam Mendes and Tom Hanks in "Road to Perdition." He played John Rooney, the patriarch of an Irish Mafia family in Depression-era Chicago.
He was by now an elder statesman of Hollywood. He had finally won his long-deserved Oscar reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson, opposite Tom Cruise in 1986 for The Color of Money.
Yet to most people he was better known for being on the cover of bottles of salad dressing and spaghetti than on movie posters.
His food line has earned and turned over more than $150 million to charities -particularly the Hole in the Wall Gang organization he founded as a joke with writer A.E. Hotchner. The funds help children with life threatening diseases.
His phenomenal charitable giving suggests at least one reason why Newman is one of a very small number of actors whose declining years have been full and satisfying.
Of his huge-selling sideline, he kidded, "The embarrassing thing is my salad dressing is out-grossing my movies."
Another reason, of course, is that as an actor he has worn very well. There have never been unnecessary histrionics. Though trained in the Method at Actors Studio, Newman’s is a low-key style of acting which has served him well as he has aged.
I asked how he had made acting look so easy.
"It comes with age and experience," he said. "I wasn’t always this old and I wasn’t always this casual. If you watch my early films – not The Silver Chalice, that was a huge stinker – you can see an actor working. You can catch a glimpse of my machinery. When I was younger, I did a lot of research for my characters. Now I make them become part of me."
Paul Newman was at his Westport Connecticut home, chatting shortly before his 80th birthday about his latest movie project. He sat with writer James Russo, who was now a friend. He had last worked with one of the author’s books on the 1994 movie Nobody’s Fool.
Newman had read Empire Falls, Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, loved the book and within hours had Russo on his team. He put in a call to HBO, and the deal was done to turn the book into a miniseries. The book deals with the skeletons in the cupboard of the folks who live in a small, declining New England mill town. Newman plays the manager of the town’s café, the Empire Grill.
He said he loved the richness of the book. "The novel was marvelously constructed, with surprising turnarounds at the end. And there was also a nice part for myself in it." And, of course, for wife Joanne. "In fact, she was part of the project from the very beginning," Newman said.
The Newman’s name alone on a film made it a class project. Empire‘s Australian director, Fred Schepisi, said that as soon as actors heard Paul and Joanne were involved, they knew it would be a prestigious project. And everyone came running: Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright Penn, Dennis Farina, Estelle Parsons, Kate Burton, Theresa Russell and Philip Seymour Hoffman made up the cast.
"The nice thing about it," Newman said, "was the wonderful ensemble of actors and a director that knew a way to work with everybody. And that’s critical for a piece like this."
For all his career, Newman has been a man who has never bothered about names above the titles and the kind of ego stuff that is part of the makeup of most big stars today. He delights in anything that cuts him down to size. In his office, he keeps a framed letter from a man in California who praises his Newman’s spaghetti sauce and notes, "My girlfriend mentioned that you were a movie star and I would be interested to know what films you’ve made. If you act as well as you cook, your movies might be worth watching."
At the time he looked trim, but he admitted that people don’t rush to see his movies anymore. "I’m pretty down-to-earth. I’m not Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp. I don’t open movies the way those guys do – but I can still get a decent table at a restaurant."
He said he had never been comfortable with being a celebrity.
"I’ve never enjoyed the attention that has often swirled around me. You can’t appreciate your anonymity until you’ve lost it. To be able to walk down the street without people staring at you is a luxury. Mind you, it happens less and less these days. Either people don’t know who I am anyway or they just don’t care."
When I asked how he was doing, following one of his car accidents in 2005, when the sports car he was driving in Daytona Beach, Fla., spun out of control and the engine caught fire, he didn’t want to dwell on the mishap.
fNewman, who held four championships in the Sports Car Club of America and escaped unhurt, said crisply, "I’m alive and well. Next question."