Somebody Up There Likes Me
Paul Newman, 1925-2008
Extolling the newly departed is an expected part of the life cycle. Eulogies often gloss over major personality flaws and exaggerate good deeds. That’s the way the game is played. But Paul Newman really was one of a kind, in the best sense of the phrase. For that reason, I'm adding my voice to the chorus, celebrating Newman’s special blend of genius, generosity and humor. I salute the man whose offstage behavior outshone his formidable talent.
Newman had legendary good look, piercing blue eyes, and a likeable film persona. But, perhaps surprisingly, for the first twenty-something years of his life, he focused on what he was not – neither big enough nor strong enough to play the team sports he loved. After a stint in the Navy, he was excited to play second-string football at Kenyon College. His enthusiasm lasted until his off-field antics got him dropped from the team. He fell back on acting, which he had dabbled in since elementary school.
No matter how strong or famous we are, we never become immune to parental influence, either positive or negative. Newman spent years trying to overcome the disapproval of his father, a former journalist. Apparently, his father, a sporting goods storeowner no longer plying his trade, hoped for more from his son. Luckily, Newman had a poetry-loving uncle and a mother who shared her love of the arts with her son. The yin and yang of this family dynamic made acting simultaneously enticing and a bone of contention. His phenomenal success was tempered by Newman’s regret that his father didn’t live long enough to see it.
Early in his career, he acted in Picnic with Director Josh Logan. He was actually interested in the lead, but Logan claimed that he was too wimpy for the part. Later, ironically, he would have to work hard to move beyond the Romantic Lead pigeonhole. His big chance came in 1959 when he portrayed prizefighter Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. The role was intended for James Dean, who had been killed the year before in a car accident. From then on, Newman played a series of unconventional roles, especially after he bought out his contract at Warner Bros. and worked through his own production companies. He was often cast as a rascal, but a lovable one, making him hard to resist. He went on to act in, produce, and direct dozens of projects in a career spanning more than five decades.
Newman was an extremely resilient fellow who, with every twist of his career, landed squarely on his feet. He was highly motivated and a hard worker. Filming Winning, he was drawn to the speed and excitement of car racing. He was able to do most of his own driving in the film. Newman’s love affair with fast cars continued unabated, as he raced competitively into his seventies and even his eighties. His ability matched his enthusiasm. He won numerous races and took second place at LeMans in 1979. Champion driver Mario Andretti said that, had Newman begun earlier, he could have been as good at racing as he was at acting.
Newman eschewed the Hollywood lifestyle, preferring to relocate to New York/Connecticut with his wife, Joanne Woodward, to raise their three daughters. He was, unabashedly, a liberal activist. He was against the war in Viet Nam, and supported Gene McCarthy for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968. Being #19 on Nixon’s infamous enemies list was a badge of honor for Newman.
The fabulously successful line of natural food products, Newman’s Own, got its start 25 years ago. Filling Newman’s bathtub with the raw ingredients, he and a friend prepared an oversized batch of salad dressing to give away as Christmas gifts. That tasty recipe morphed into an incredibly profitable business. Over the years, all of the after-tax profits – $250 million so far – have been distributed to more than 1,000 educational and charitable groups. Newman’s favorite was the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps for seriously ill children. He hoped that his work in this area would serve as his legacy.
Here is my favorite Paul Newman story. Marie has been a friend of our family since way before I was born. She has three adult daughters; the youngest, Nancy, is my age. We attended summer camp together. Jane, the eldest, is married to a bigwig at Yale. Many years ago, Marie was visiting Jane and her family in Connecticut. Jane’s mother-in-law invited Marie and another friend out for lunch. Afterwards, they wended their way to a local eatery, popular for its terrific ice cream. They went in, deliberated, and finally made their selections. In the meantime, Paul Newman came in and ordered a cone. The ladies struggled to keep their cool. It wasn’t easy; even in his later years, Newman was a knockout. Satisfied with their efforts to remain nonchalant, they exited the store, licking their cones. More precisely, only two of them were eating. The third looked around in consternation when she realized that she didn’t have the cone she was sure she had just bought. As the three discussed the cone’s mysterious disappearance, Newman exited the store and overheard their conversation. He tapped the woman sans cone on the shoulder and gently said “I saw you put it in your purse.”
Newman wielded his tremendous generosity quietly but effectively. He didn’t take himself too seriously and that was part of his immense charm. He was well aware of how Lady Luck had smiled upon him, and he was anxious to return the favor by helping others not so fortunate. The company motto “shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good” mirrors that Newman special blend of idealism and humor. Here’s to a mensch of major proportions. May his example be contagious!