Saturday, September 27, 2008
Paul Newman R.I.P.
I don't know about you, but I was taken aback by the depth of my sorrow this morning when I heard that Paul Newman had died.
He was the coolest guy of our time - an unpretentious man who lived as far away as he could from Hollywood, stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, and was most comfortable hanging out with people who didn't have the slightest idea he was somebody famous, such as the cancer-stricken little kids at his Hole In The Wall Camp.
When I was growing up in L.A. during the late '50s and early '60s, he was a common sight zipping around town in his Porsche 550 Spyder - except it didn't look like one.
He removed the body and substituted one from a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle. On the outside, it looked just like a VW. But inside, it was still a racetrack-ready Porsche.
It gave him a huge kick to watch the stunned look on the faces of other drivers when he passed them on steep hills.
Newman wasn't the best actor of his generation. That distinction goes to Marlon Brando.
But he was something better: the actor who embodied his generation's fondest ideal of what American men are really like deep down - world-weary anti-heroes who end up doing the right thing in the last reel.
He was a part of a line that runs directly from Clark Gable through Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Newman, Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks.
Without exception, they tended to under-act. And their work still feels natural, even today.
Compare them to the parallel line of "best actors," which runs from Paul Muni through Spencer Tracy, Brando, Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn.
Except for Tracy, they tended to over-act. They wanted you to see what great actors they were. As a result, much of their work looks over-the-top to our 21st Century tastes.
Sure, you admire the virtuosity when you watch Brando or Nicholson melting down. But you're still thinking, "What terrific acting," not "Aw, the poor guy." You're watching the actor, not the character.
But in Newman's movies, whether he was Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler," Rocky Graziano in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," Ari Ben Canaan in "Exodus" or Butch Cassidy to Robert Redford's Sundance Kid, you always rooted for the character, not the actor who was playing him.
And his salad dressing wasn't bad, either.
Newman was a steadfast Democrat, long before liberalism became the flavor du jour in Hollywood. An avid supporter of the civil rights and anti-war movements, he claimed his proudest achievement was making Richard Nixon's "enemies list."
And he had a rare quality in Hollywood, then and now: humility.
After his first movie, "The Silver Chalice," was released, he took out a full-page ad in Variety apologizing for the movie and his performance in it.
Back in 1968, when he was campaigning for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, one of the officers in his police escort pointed to his partner and told Newman that the man had received word the night before that his son had been killed in Vietnam.
Saddened by the news, Newman offered the grieving father his condolences and added thoughtfully, "What do you think about some creep, some Hollywood peacenik, coming in here and telling you about the war?"
"I don't resent you," the father replied. "Even if a war takes your boy, that doesn't make it right."
Last month, Newman's doctors told him he had only a few days to live. So he checked himself out of the hospital and died at home, surrounded by his family.
But what do you want to bet that he filled out an absentee ballot for Obama and mailed it in before he died?