David Ansen: Remembering Paul Newman, 1925-2008

When Paul Newman turned 70, I asked him about the pros and cons of aging. "What's difficult about getting old," he said, with that gravelly voice that set in in his 60s, "is remembering the way things used to be. There were such things as loyalty. The community hadn't disintegrated. The individual had not been deified at the expense of everything around him. I don't think that's just an old codger, you know, wishing for the old days. Goddam, they were better. There was a lot of ugliness, but there was a lot more grace." Newman, a modest man, would have been embarrassed to be told that he exemplified that grace, both on screen, where in his prime he played heels whom everyone fell in love with, and off, where his generosity, professionalism and decency were legendary.

Newman became a star playing Rocky Graziano in the 1956 black-and-white boxing saga "Somebody Up There Likes Me." But to get the full force of his matinee-idol presence, you had to see him—and those famous blue eyes—in color. The star of "The Long, Hot Summer," "Exodus," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Cool Hand Luke" was arguably the most beautiful man in an industry that revered beauty. Newman knew his stardom was built on that classic profile, that ripped, often-exposed torso, those eyes, and it tormented him. It wasn't who he wanted to be. He was a Method-trained character actor who longed to disappear inside his roles. Instead, his roles had a habit of disappearing inside the mythical creature named Paul Newman. "Paul Newman IS 'Hud'," ran the ad line for his classic 1963 Martin Ritt movie, and it was more true than the filmmakers intended. He was playing a selfish, womanizing Texas cad, the purported villain, but his charm and innate likability were so strong they threw the movie out of whack—and turned it into a big hit. Newman's specialty was the deeply flawed, morally tarnished American hero—Fast Eddie in "The Hustler," Chance Wayne in "Sweet Bird of Youth," the washed-up lawyer in "The Verdict," Sully in "Nobody's Fool"—who carried inside his sardonic heart the hint of redemption. In his most popular movies in the '60s and '70s—"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting"—he was a scamp, a con man, a rough-edged charmer. The devastating blue eyes had acquired a roguish twinkle.

The paradox of his career was that he became a great romantic icon playing characters who were usually incapable of love. With men he was a great buddy, partner in crime, leader of the pack. But you can count the love stories he made on the fingers of one hand. Unlike his friend and frequent costar Robert Redford, whose movies pivot on romance, Newman played antiheroes who were gun-shy, like Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," who spends an entire movie rejecting Elizabeth Taylor's advances, or Fast Eddie, whose lover kills herself. In spite of that, his hustler proved so popular that he reprised the role in the 1986 "The Color of Money," and won an Oscar. It's hard to think of another star so beloved by both men and women who had such a dismal on-screen amatory track record. His most successful long-term relationship was with us.

Newman didn't just talk about the good old days; he walked the walk. In an era of cheap celebrity and promiscuous self exposure, he kept his personal demons to himself and approached whatever he took up with the tenacity of the long distance runner. His marriage to Joanne Woodward lasted 50 years. When he began racing, he became a world-class driver. An unreconstructed liberal, he marched for civil rights, steadfastly supported Democratic candidates and put his money into The Nation, the left-wing weekly, when it was threatened with extinction. His charitable efforts are well known. He started his Newman's Own food-products line as a lark with his friend A. E. Hotchner, and built it into an altruistic empire.

Everyone who knew Newman well describes him as intensely private. He was also famous for his elaborate practical jokes: he once had a Porsche crushed, beribboned and deposited on Redford's driveway. "I think my sense of humor is the only thing that keeps me sane," he told me in 1994. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, yet there wasn't a shred of the diva in him. I suspect he never felt he deserved his fame and fortune, and he refused to throw his weight around. Melanie Griffith, who worked with him in "Nobody's Fool," described him as "the best gentleman I've ever met in 30 years of movies." Such grace will be sorely missed.