Saturday, September 27, 2008

One of the Good Guys: Paul Newman

It's a beautiful Saturday morning. I planned to go for a walk through downtown, while the pollution is low. But CNN just broke in with an update that has me sitting down to remember... Paul Newman.

That's strange in itself. Having to remember him, in the past tense. He and his many television, stage and film personae have been with us for so long, his auto-racing exploits have been so widely covered, and his legendary generosity has been such an influence that he's become a part of our lives. But now, Paul has lost his long battle with cancer.

When most of us remember him, we'll remember his roles. The usual suspects come to mind, but his acting career -- which started in 1952 -- has produced a huge range of characters. When he started out as a young television actor, he was a utility player, portraying everyone from a regular Joe at a boxing match to Nathan Hale and Plato.

In 1956, he starred as prize fighter Rocky (Graziano) in Somebody Up There Likes Me, but 1958 was The Year of Paul Newman. It's an age-old cliche, but it really applies here... Newman's career exploded onto the big screen with three influential movies, and four influential characters in a single year: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" / Brick Pollitt. "The Left Handed Gun" / Billy The Kid. "The Long, Hot Summer" / Ben Quick.

The list of roles Paul Newman played would be any actor's dream. Israeli activist Ari Ben Canaan, pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson, steamy Chance Wayne, the ruthless Hud Bannon, Nobel Prize winner Andrew Craig, rebellious inmate Cool Hand Luke, escape planner Pvt. Harry Frigg, and Indy car driver Frank Capua.

Then came another leap in his fame and stardom: Butch Cassidy, and the cult classic Judge Roy Bean. Newman was Joseph Rearden in The MacKintosh Man -- one of my sleeper picks. Then The Sting's Henry Gondorff, and the architect of the Towering Inferno, Doug Roberts, followed by a lighter Newman as Reggie 'Reg' Dunlop in Slap Shot.

I'm a science fiction fan, and one of my favorite Newman pictures is Robert Altman's often-overlooked modern ice age movie, Quintet, with Newman as Essex. The film has its flaws, but Newman delivers as always, and in the kind of world he's never been seen in before or since.

In 1981 came tough cop Murphy in Fort Apache the Bronx, followed by legal pic roles Michael Colin Gallagher and Frank Galvin in Absence of Malice and The Verdict. He cranked up his crotchety side as Harry Keach in Harry & Son.

Newman was nominated for Best Actor Oscars seven times and received a special honorary Academy Award in 1986. He topped that honorary award the following year, when he won a Best Actor Oscar for his much-anticipated and widely-praised reprise of Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

The final phase of his career included nuke builder Gen. Leslie R. Groves, Hudsucker industrialist Sidney J. Mussburger and Sully Sullivan in Nobody's Fool. Newman played father to a younger generation of leading man as Dodge Blake, dad of Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle. Roles in Road to Perdition as John Rooney and Cars as the voice of Doc Hudson showed that Newman still had his chops, late in his professional life.

What can you say about an incredible career like Paul Newman's... except to touch on the man's life outside of film. Rarely has a celebrity been as well known for their unassuming demeanor and quiet, far-reaching philanthropic efforts.

His 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward was a stand-out in the entertainment community. And his generosity is the stuff of legend. In 1994, Newman received the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Famous for his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang camp for seriously ill children, and for donating all proceeds from his Newman’s Own brand products to educational and charitable causes, Paul Newman was truly one of a kind in terms of giving.

Through all of his diverse characters and all of his real-life stories runs a single thread: integrity. Even when he was playing a bad guy, Paul Newman was definitely one of the good guys.

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