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Paul Newman was one of Hollywood’s most loved leading men, an iconic figure who gave audiences plenty to enjoy in a variety of roles, writes Geoff Gardner.

Paul Newman seemed to arrive in Hollywood ready made. He had appeared on Broadway in Picnic and the legend has it that he was an instant star. His extended CV however lists more than a dozen parts in various now forgotten TV series as a young jobbing actor before he got his Broadway break. He played in a dozen or so more over the next couple of years in live to air drama series like Philco Playhouse and Playwrights 56. His Hollywood debut was in The Silver Chalice (Victor Saville, 1955), a much derided movie that might have instantly ended the career of a lesser actor.

Newman was one of a number of extremely handsome young actors who came over to Hollywood from New York and Broadway in the mid-50s and his biggest early break was to get the part, originally slated for James Dean, in the boxing biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956). From 1958 onwards he was in a string of hits, many of which had the great additional virtue of being fine movies by major directors. He averaged a couple of movies a year and he did very good work, showing range and commitment in Arthur Penn’s revisionist western The Left Handed Gun in which he played Billy the Kid as a modern amoral juvenile delinquent, two Tennessee Williams’ adaptations by Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth), Otto Preminger’s Exodus and Leo McCarey’s under-rated comedy Rally Round the Flag Boys.

In 1958 he appeared in The Long Hot Summer the first of a number of films he made with the director Martin Ritt. Ritt seemed to be a perfect fit for an actor of Newman’s range and stature. He chose subjects that had an element of boldness but which did not require Newman to do accents or other character traits. Their films together included Paris Blues¸ a story of American musicians in self-exile in France, the memorable Hud ¸one of Newman’s few bad boy characters, The Outrage (a remake of Rashomon), and the Elmore Leonard western Hombre. They were all interesting and they kept Newman in the top rank but were hardly the stuff that gets you awards or lifetime recognition.

"critical acclaim and cult adulation"

The film which lifted Newman into the stratosphere of both critical acclaim and cult adulation was Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), now a perennial favourite among cinephiles especially among those seeking out modern noir in the underbelly of American life denoted by cheap scams, pool halls, two timing racketeers and women who have seen their best days and have taken refuge in the bottle. The Hustler became a life defining experience for those seeking out movies which found cracks in the American dream. Newman actually managed to look world-weary and beaten by the end of it, no mean feat for someone with such a classically handsome visage. Newman missed out on the Oscar for this role. It was probably too dirty and downbeat for the Academy members of the day. It was ironic that he finally won that award more than two decades later when he reprised the role in Martin Scorsese’s much less successful sequel The Color of Money (1987).

Newman’s other big claim to cult adulation came in Cool Hand Luke, a quirky drama set in a Deep South prison. His part as the cheeky inmate who never learns when to give up being a smart arse had more than a couple of lines that have gone into the modern argot. “What we have got here is a failure of communication” is rolled out these days in all sorts of circumstances.

The relentlessly regular work also produced more than a few high expectation duds most especially in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and Huston’s The Mackintosh Man. Both of them are espionage stories with absolutely no zing at all. His only really successful spy movie was Mark Robson’s The Prize, a rather good comedy thriller in which Newman sparked quite a bit of unusual erotic tension with the delectable German actress Elke Sommer. He was rather good in a part that called for parody and self-deprecation in Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

"much in demand actor"

He remained a much in demand actor well into his fifties and beyond. He played in two films for Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and The Indians and Quintet) and tried for a franchise part as Ross MacDonald’s private eye Lew Archer (summarily renamed Harper because apparently Newman thought the letter H was lucky for him) in both Harper and The Moving Target.

His biggest successes came in two of the three films he made for George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. They were big budget, bloated entertainments that took an age to tell their stories, largely because Hill seemed to determine to give the audience the benefit of the skills of his set and costume designers and the music composers. Still they were huge hits and consolidated both Newman and co-star Robert Redford at the peak of the star system of the day.

Two other later films stand out. His appearance as the alcoholic lawyer in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict remains as close as Newman ever came to a tour de force. It was one of the few times you felt that Newman got right inside a character and was living the part. The blue, blue eyes seemed watery and the cheekbones were just slightly sunken. Here was a man of principle worn down by failure. He was also first rate in what seems to be his last movie, Sam Mendes very under-rated Road to Perdition, as the epitome of aging evil. Two late films with Robert Benton, Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, are also very good

Newman had a secondary career as a producer, writer and a director. All but one of the films he directed featured his second wife Joanne Woodward whom he married in 1958. All told the filmography lists 82 appearances and a dozen films in which he had a role as director, producer or writer. It seems he was never one to sit around and his other activities included racing cars, developing a line of cooking products whose profits he gave to charity and getting heavily involved in a variety of political causes. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as a delegate to the UN Conference on Nuclear Disarmament.

"a long, happy and very fulfilled life."

Paul Newman loved acting and making films. He seems to have lived a long, happy and very fulfilled life. With his passing Hollywood loses a star who got to the top quickly and stayed there for close to forty years.

Published September 28, 2008

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Paul Newman

(Born Cleveland, Ohio 1925, Died California 2008)

Paul Newman on DVD - the following films are available on DVD in Australia:*

Absence of Malice (Sydney Pollack, 1981)

Buffalo Bill and the Indians (Robert Altman, 1976)

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

Cars (John Lasseter, 2006)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958)

Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

Empire Falls (Fred Schepisi, 2005)

Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960)

Harry and Son (Paul Newman, 1984)

Hombre (Martin Ritt, 1967)

Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)

The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1994)

The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

The Left-Handed Gun (Arthur Penn, 1958)

Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002)

Shadowmakers (Roland Joffe, 1989)

Slapshot (George Roy Hill, 1977)

Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks, 1962)

Twilight (Robert Benton, 1998)

The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)

The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)

What a Way to Go! (J Lee Thompson, 1964)

Winning (James Goldstone, 1969)

*List compiled with assistance from Sue Kang, JB Hi Fi, Bondi Junction

Paul Newman films ripe for release on DVD:
Harper (Jack Smight, 1966)

Mr and Mrs Bridge (James Ivory, 1990)

The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964)

Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)

Rally Round the Flag Boys (Leo McCarey, 191958)

Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956)

WUSA (Stuart Rosenberg, 1970)

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