Paul Newman, RIP

By all rights it should be a happy day in my household this morning with the Brewers opening a one-game lead on the Mets in the NL Wild Card race, but I was bawling in my coffee when I found out that Paul Newman had passed away at age 83, the latest big-name celebrity death in a year all too full of them. A fantastic actor who did stellar work from the late 1950s to the early part of this millennium (much of it in the world of sports, a dedicated philanthropist who turned his fame and fortune towards worthy causes, a good lefty, and an icon whose incredible staying power made him a heartthrob across multiple generations — he was all of those things and more. We lost one of the great ones.

From Oregon Live:

For a half-century, on screen and off, the actor Paul Newman embodied certain tendencies in the American male character: active and roguish and earnest and sly and determined and vulnerable and brave and humble and reliable and compassionate and fair. He was a man of his time, a part of his time, and that time ranged from World War II to the contemporary era of digitally animated feature films.

…Although Newman was a World War II veteran who didn’t become a bona fide star until he was in his 30s, his choices in movie roles could make him seem like a younger man; the iconoclastic individuality of his anti-hero characters resonated with the social upstarts of the ’60s, who were the same age as his children. At the same time, he bore a cast of honor and manliness with him on screen that was so unquestionably real that he simultaneously retained the respect of older audiences. In a sense, he combined the rebelliousness associated with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean with the rock-solid decency exuded by such stars as Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Fittingly, he entered movies as one of the last Hollywood contract players and then became one of the first independent superstars, commanding more than $1 million per film as early as the mid-1960s.

Newman made nearly 60 films, originated three classic roles on Broadway, delivered memorable performances in some of live television’s finest dramas, served as president of the Actors Studio, won championships as a race car driver and racing team owner, started a food business on a whim and used it to raise nearly $400 million for assorted charities, founded an international chain of camps to offer free vacations and medical care to sick and deprived children, and participated in politics as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, as a delegate to a United Nations conference on nuclear proliferation and as part-owner of (and occasional guest columnist for) “The Nation” magazine.

From the AP obit:

With his strong, classically handsome face and piercing blue eyes, Newman was a heartthrob just as likely to play against his looks, becoming a favorite with critics for his convincing portrayals of rebels, tough guys and losers. “I was always a character actor,” he once said. “I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood.”

Newman had a soft spot for underdogs in real life, giving tens of millions to charities through his food company and setting up camps for severely ill children. Passionately opposed to the Vietnam War, and in favor of civil rights, he was so famously liberal that he ended up on President Nixon’s “enemies list,” one of the actor’s proudest achievements, he liked to say.

From Slate:

For his part, Newman put it all down to luck. In his 1992 introduction to our book about the camp [for seriously ill children], he tried to explain what impelled him to create the Hole in the Wall: “I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.” Married to Joanne Woodward, his second wife, for 50 years this winter, Newman always looked at her like something he’d pulled out of a Christmas stocking. He looked at his daughters that way, too. It was like, all these years later, he couldn’t quite believe he got to keep them.

…In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place.

The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Color of Money and The Road to Perdition are some of his essentials and my favorites. Slap Shot has a case as the best sports movie ever, or at least the best sports comedy; if you’ve never seen it, crack a cold one and prepare to laugh for two hours. Salon has a great highlight reel of his best moments.

My wife actually met Newman, briefly. When summering as a nanny in New York City between high school years, she once found herself sitting in front of Newman and Woodward at a Broadway show. Starstruck, she asked for an autograph after the show as the crowd filed out. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder momentarily. “I don’t sign autographs. But thank you so much for asking. It was nice to meet you.” He was so genuinely classy that his refusal actually increased his standing in her eyes.

He’ll be missed.

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