- Bruce J. Evensen
Newman, Paul (26 Jan. 1925–26 Sept. 2008), iconic Oscar-winning actor and philanthropist, was born Paul Leonard Newman in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the second son of Teresa Garth Fetzko Newman, a Slovak Roman Catholic, and Arthur Sigmund Newman, a German Jew, who owned a sporting goods and electronics store.
Newman found his father dismissive and his mother eruptive. He felt like “a decoration for her house.” (Extraordinary Life, xiii) Newman learned to hide his emotions. He thought of his life as a competition between the orphan—how he saw himself—and the ornament—how others saw him.
Newman was small for his age and a poor student. After graduating from Shaker Heights High School in June 1942, he attended Ohio University in Athens that fall. In January 1943, after his eighteenth birthday, Newman enlisted in the Navy. He enrolled in the V12 pilot training program but was disqualified because he was color blind. Instead, he served during World War II as a rear-seat radioman and gunner on Avenger torpedo bombers in the Pacific.
Newman was honorably discharged in April 1946 and that fall attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill. He appeared in a series of plays through the Drama Club at the college’s Hill Theater—The Front Page, Charley’s Aunt, R. U. R., The Taming of the Shrew, Heartbreak House, Ghosts, Antigone, and The Alchemist. During the summer of 1948 Newman appeared in summer stock plays—All My Sons and Dear Brutus—at the Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He enjoyed “creating emotions without being penalized for them.” (Extraordinary Life, p. 280)
In June 1949, Newman received his bachelor of science degree from Kenyon with an emphasis in economics and English. That summer he joined the Belfry Players in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, where he appeared with nineteen-year-old actress Jacqueline Emily Witte in John and Mary. Newman worked with the Woodstock, Illinois, Players that fall in Ethan Frome, Cyrano de Bergerac, Our Town, Icebound, and Dark of the Moon. On 27 December 1949 he and Witte married in Beloit, Wisconsin. Son Scott was born on 23 September the following year. Susan followed in 1953 and Stephanie in 1955.
When his father’s health failed, Paul and Jackie moved to Cleveland in the winter of 1950, and Paul helped out in the store. Arthur Newman Sr. died in May 1950. Paul received $2,000 as his share from the sale of the store. In the fall of 1951, Newman moved his family to New Haven and enrolled in Yale’s Master of Fine Arts program. Newman appeared in Phaedra and Beethoven before quitting the program and moving to New York City in 1952. There, he pursued work in infant television and on Broadway and took classes at the Actors Studio with fellow students Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Newman’s good looks and personal presence won him small parts in TV’s dramatic anthologies—You Are There, The Web, and Danger for CBS; The March of Time, Tales of Tomorrow, and The Mask on ABC; Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Philco Television Playhouse on NBC. His continuing role on NBC’s The Aldrich Family paid Newman $50 a week and won him the second lead in Picnic, a smash hit that opened on Broadway in February 1953 and ran fourteen months. In April 1954, Newman signed a five-year, $1,000 a week contract with Warner Brothers, who hustled him into a widescreen potboiler The Silver Chalice (1954).
Newman exercised his option to return to Broadway in the leading role of fugitive Glenn Griffin in The Desperate Hours. His contemptibility in the part got strong reviews. Newman’s starring role on 18 October 1955 as a punched-out boxer in television’s The Battler on NBC led to his starring role as middleweight champ Rocky Graziano in his second film Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Boxoffice reported Newman’s “remarkable portrayal will give his screen career a tremendous boost.” (3 July 1956)
On 26 September 1956, Newman’s performance in Bang the Drum Slowly on CBS’s U. S. Steel Hour was well received. It was followed by his third film, a “beautifully detailed performance” in The Rack (New York Times, 6 Nov. 1956) of an Army captain on trial for treason. The roles solidified his stature as a promising newcomer.
Newman and Witte divorced on 28 January 1958. The following day Newman married actress Joanne Woodward in Las Vegas. They had met as cast members in Picnic. They would have three daughters—Elinor, nicknamed Nell, born in 1959; Melissa, called Lissy, born in 1961; and Claire, known as Clea, born in 1965. Avoiding Hollywood, they moved their family in 1963 to a reconverted colonial farmhouse on two and a half acres of wooded land near Westport, Connecticut.
Newman won the Best Actor Award from the Cannes Film Festival for his role as drifter Ben Quick in the Southern melodrama, The Long Hot Summer (1958), co-starring Woodward. Newman’s role as the emotionally crippled Brick Politt, opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), made him a major Hollywood star and won him his first Oscar nomination.
In August 1959, Newman bought out his contract with Warner Brothers to pursue his own projects. His Broadway success in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), directed by Elia Kazan, ran 42 weeks. It was followed by a three-hour widescreen blockbuster Exodus (1960). However, Newman’s real emergence came in much smaller films, where he channeled his era’s social rebellion. His anti-heroes included the swaggering and then brutalized “Fast Eddie” Felson in Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961); the evil no-account Hud (1963); the shady private detective Harper (1966); the silent cynicism of John Russell in the revisionist Western Hombre (1967); and the defiant chain gang prisoner in Cool Hand Luke (1967). These successes pushed his per picture fee to 1 million dollars as well as a percentage of the gross.
From 1963 until 1986, Newman was a top ten box office star during fourteen of those years, including number one in 1969 and 1970 on the strength of the $100 million dollar success of the whimsical Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), co-starring Robert Redford. Their re-teaming in The Sting (1973) earned $160 million more, based on nearly 100 million tickets sold. The Towering Inferno (1974), his all-star disaster picture, earned $200 million.
Newman observed he “tried to become someone else” in his early films, but later “made the character come to me.” (Los Angeles Times, 28 Sept. 2008) He thought of himself as an actor, not a movie star, who knew his limits and tested his boundaries. The best of these more mature performances include Newman’s disillusioned cop John Murphy in Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981); the wrongfully accused Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981); and the alcoholic ambulance chaser Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982). The last two roles were nominated for Oscars. In 1985, Newman received an Honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement in film acting.
The following year, after seven previous Oscar acting nominations, Newman won an Academy Award for reprising his role of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese. The film was a $52 milion hit, which critics claimed showed Newman’s “enormous power, a concentration and focus of his essence as an actor.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 17 Oct. 1986)
Newman also received an Oscar nomination for directing Woodward in Rachel, Rachel (1968), the first of six films he would direct, five involving Woodward. The New York Times considered it “the best written, most seriously acted American movie in a long time.” (27 Aug. 1968) Newman and Woodward received Golden Globes and New York Critics Awards for their work. As a sensitive and earnest director, Newman aimed at giving actors the confidence to experiment in their roles without the fear of failure.
Newman’s support for liberal causes, including his endorsement of anti-war activist Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968, put him on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List.” Newman joked that nothing in his career had been a bigger accomplishment than that.
Newman’s philanthropic work grew out of a personal tragedy. His eldest son Scott died in 1978 from an accidental drug overdose. Newman launched the Scott Newman Center in Torrance, California, to emphasize educational outreach in preventing drug abuse. Newman’s most satisfying work was establishing summer camps for severely ill children. The first of these “Hole in the Wall” kids camps opened in 1986. The Serious Fun Children’s Network was organized two years later and expanded to thirty camps worldwide, serving 44,000 children by the time of Newman’s death.
In September 1982, Newman started commercially selling his homemade salad dressings, which had been a hit with family and friends. Fifteen years after its founding, Newman’s Own expanded to pasta sauce, salsas, marinades, lemonade, popcorn, pretzels, and pizzas, generating nearly $90 million in profits that were donated to hundreds of charities and social welfare organizations worldwide. The company marketed more than 100 products, pioneering the use of organic ingredients that contributed to a consumer shift toward all-natural products.
In 1994, Newman received the Jean Hersholt Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his humanitarian efforts. That year his performance in Nobody’s Fool as “Sully” Sullivan, an ornery construction worker who has done little with his life, demonstrated Newman’s seamless transition into character parts. This was followed in 2002 by Road to Perdition, Newman’s last substantial film role, in which he portrayed Great Depression–era mob boss and father figure John Rooney. He received a Tony nomination the following year when he returned to the stage as the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Newman won his first Emmy for the role of Max Roby, a lovable recalcitrant, in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. It was a fitting tribute from a medium that had helped birth his career fifty years before.
Newman died at his home near Westport, Connecticut, from lung cancer. He had been a lifelong heavy smoker before stopping in 1986. At the time of Newman’s death, his charitable contributions exceeded half a billion dollars.
Between 1986 and 1991, Newman worked on his memoir, supplemented by interviews with friends and family. The project was set aside and, after his death, it was feared lost. In 2019, the transcripts of those interviews were recovered and, in July 2022, CNN Films and HBO Max collaborated on a six-part series The Last Movie Stars, chronicling the lives of Newman and Woodward.
In October 2022, the transcripts were edited and published by Knopf as The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir, revealing Newman’s distance from a father he could not please and a domineering mother. It also showed his relentless insecurity as an actor and his guilt after abandoning his first wife and their children. Newman considered his auto racing group, which produced 107 race victories between 1983 and 2011, an elaborate exercise in escape. He knew his functioning alcoholism was a wasteful form of self-indulgence.
These were the cinematic seeds of the alienation and vulnerability that marked Newman’s screen persona. He was an outsider with whom millions identified. Through acts of charity, he valued and empowered other outsiders—particularly children at risk—and he wanted that, and not his stardom, to be his lasting legacy.
Newman’s memoir The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (2002) is the best insight into Newman’s complex character. Biographies include Michael Kerbel, Paul Newman (1974);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Elena Oumano, Paul Newman (1989);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Eric Law, Paul Newman: A Biography (1996);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Lawrence J. Quirk, Paul Newman (1996);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Daniel O’Brien, Paul Newman (2004);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Shawn Levy, Paul Newman: A Life (2009).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat See also, Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein, Paul and Joanne: A Biography of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (1988),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and A. E. Hotchner’s In Pursuit of the Common Good (2003)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Paul and Me (2010). Major appreciations appear on 28 Sept. 2008 in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post; Hollywood Reporter on 29 Sept. 2008; and Variety on 6 Oct. 2008.
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- Dean, James (1931-1955), actor
- Graziano, Rocky (1919-1990), champion middleweight boxer and entertainer
- Kazan, Elia (07 September 1909–28 September 2003), film director
- Lumet, Sidney (1924-2011)
- McCarthy, Eugene (1916-2005), politician
- Nixon, Richard Milhous (09 January 1913–22 April 1994), thirty-seventh president of the United States
- Rossen, Robert (1908-1966), motion picture director, screenwriter, and producer
- Taylor, Elizabeth (27 Feb. 1932–23 Mar. 2011), actress, philanthropist, and AIDS activist
- Wilder, Thornton (1897-1975), novelist and playwright
- Williams, Tennessee (1911-1983), playwright, poet, and writer of fiction