Paul Newman, the legendary movie star and irreverent cultural icon who created a model philanthropy fueled by profits from a salad dressing that became nearly as famous as he was, has died. He was 83.
Newman died Friday at his home near Westport, Conn., after a long battle with cancer.
Stunningly handsome, Newman maintained his superstar status while keeping his distance from its corrupting influences through nearly 100 Broadway, television and movie roles. As an actor and director, he evolved into Hollywood’s elder statesman, admired off screen for his quiet generosity, unconventional business sense, race car daring, political activism and enduring marriage to actress Joanne Woodward.
Annoyed by the public’s fascination with his resemblance to a Roman statue and his Windex-blue eyes, Newman often chose offbeat character roles. In the 1960s, he helped define the American anti-hero and became identified with the charming misfits, cads and con men in film classics such as “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“It’s a great loss, in so many ways,” Martin Scorsese, who directed Newman in “The Color of Money,” said in a statement Saturday. “The history of movies without Paul Newman? It’s unthinkable. … His powerful eloquence, his consummate sense of craft, so consummate that you didn’t see any sense of effort up there on the screen, set a new standard.”
Robert Redford, Newman’s “Sundance” co-star, said in a statement, “There is a point where feelings go beyond words. I have lost a real friend. My life – and this country – is better for his being in it.”
Newman’s poker-game look in “The Sting” – cunning, watchful, removed, amused, confident, alert – summed up his power as a person and actor, said Stewart Stern, a screenwriter and longtime friend.
“You never see the whole deck, there’s always some card somewhere he may or may not play,” Stern said. “Maybe he doesn’t even have it.”
Newman and Woodward appeared together in 11 films, including “The Long, Hot Summer,” “From the Terrace” and “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” Newman also directed her in four other movies, including the highly respected “Rachel, Rachel,” about a schoolteacher whose fears keep her trapped in a small town.
Stern, author of that film’s screenplay, said he sometimes observed Newman watching his wife do something that moved him. “It was the most exposed face of love I’ve ever looked at,” he said.
Newman claimed his success came less from natural talent than from hard work, luck and the tenacity of a terrier.
“Acting,” he once said, “is really nothing but exploring certain facets of your own personality trying to become someone else.” In early films, he said, he tried to make himself fit the character but later aimed “to make the character come to me.”
The actor was most proud, friends say, of his later, Oscar-nominated roles in “Absence of Malice,” “The Verdict” and “Nobody’s Fool,” in which he dug deeply into the complex emotions of ordinary men struggling for dignity, justice or a sense of connection. In 2003, he was nominated for an Oscar for his last feature film appearance, as a conflicted mob boss in “Road to Perdition.” Two years later, at 80, he won an Emmy for playing a meddlesome father in “Empire Falls.”
“He’s a majestic figure in the world of acting,” said director Arthur Penn, who worked with him in his early career. “He did everything and did it well.”
Part of a generation of edgy, naturalistic New York actors who changed Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s, Newman was often compared with fellow Method actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Film critic David Ansen once observed that if the trim actor lacked the others’ physical or psychic presence, he was more approachable, even when he played a heel.
“Newman,” Ansen wrote, “is our great middleweight movie star.”
Nominated eight times for Academy Awards in the best-actor category, Newman won only once, for “The Color of Money” (1986), in which he reprised the role of “Fast” Eddie Felson that he originated in 1961’s “The Hustler.” He also took home honorary Oscars in 1985 for career achievement and in 1993 for his humanitarian efforts. In later years, however, he boycotted awards shows despite continuing Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominations. He claimed he no longer owned a tuxedo.
In real life, Newman was “the quintessence of class, courtly without being old-fashioned,” said Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation, a liberal magazine in which Newman invested and wrote occasional columns. Private and complex, Newman was also a beer-loving, mischievous prankster and an idealist who took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam.
He was thrilled, friends said, when he heard that he had made President Nixon’s enemies list.
Married since 1958 to Woodward, his second wife, Newman cultivated a distinctly un-Hollywood lifestyle, shuttling between a homey New York apartment and a renovated farmhouse in woodsy Westport, from which he pursued passions including cooking and auto racing.
Highly competitive, Newman was drawn to the track, he told reporters, because in racing, unlike acting, the definition of “good” is not a murky matter of opinion. Although he began to race at 47, he was ranked among the sport’s top 25 percent of drivers, his team placing second in the prestigious Le Mans endurance contest in 1979. At 70, he became the oldest driver to place in a professionally sanctioned auto race when his team took third in the 24-hour race at Daytona, Fla.
Still racing into his 80s, Newman escaped uninjured from a car fire in 2005 and entered another race a month later.
Since the 1980s, Newman had devoted more time to Newman’s Own, a food products company he founded as a lark that grew into one of the nation’s largest charitable organizations. The company, which produces all-natural salad dressing, popcorn, sauces and lemonade, has turned over more than $250 million in after-tax profits to hundreds of groups, including his own Hole in the Wall Gang camps (named after the outlaw gang in “Butch Cassidy”).
In addition to his wife, Newman is survived by daughters Susan, Stephanie, Nell, Melissa and Clea; two grandchildren; and his brother Arthur.