“I really believe I’ve known two saints in my life, maybe three,” said writer-director Robert Benton via telephone from his office on Monday, three days after the death of his longtime friend Paul Newman. “William Sloane Coffin, who used to be head of Riverside Church and was a chaplin at Yale when the civil rights movement was won. And the other was Paul Newman. He was, I think, one the best human beings I’ve ever known … one of the most decent, the most honorable. He was extraordinary.” He laughed. “Of course, he would be appalled if he could hear me calling him a saint. It would have ended our friendship.” And what would he have been comfortable being called? “I don’t know. Just Newman, I guess. But certainly not a saint.”
The two men met in the early ’70s when Mr. Benton was still writing partners with David Newman (with whom he co-wrote the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde). He was alone in the office when he received a phone call, from a man identifying himself as Paul Newman. “I said, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ There was a pause and he said, ‘No, this is Paul Newman.’” The actor had a project he wanted Mr. Benton and David Newman to adapt for him to direct (“Paul was a very good director”) called The Tin Lizzie Troop, which they wound up working on together for a year and a half. The film was never made, but a friendship was forged.
“This was before Newman’s Own, and we’d go out to his house in Connecticut to work. Paul would be sitting there in the barn working and then would be like, ‘Hey, what are we going to have for lunch?’ He’d try to teach us how to make the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches,” Mr. Benton said. “He’d cook in this little kitchen, and he would very carefully explain the greatest way to make whatever it was we were having for lunch.”
Two decades later, the men worked together again, when Mr. Benton directed Newman in Nobody’s Fool, which earned the actor his ninth Oscar nomination. “When I read the [Richard Russo] novel, I was about 30 pages in when I realized the only person I could think of in the role was Paul Newman. I wrote it with him in mind, and I knew him well enough that I started to write him and that character together.” But, Mr. Benton said, “I don’t know that I ever directed him; I cast him. And then I kept my mouth shut.”
During the shooting of the 1994 film, Mr. Benton watched in astonishment as Newman would write out checks for millions of dollars through Newman’s Own for charitable organizations. “He was incredibly generous not only with his money, but with his time,” he said. Once during filming, there was a problem blocking out the following day’s scene and a “discussion” arose. “Paul wasn’t even a part of it—it had nothing to do with him. It was his anniversary that day, and his family was waiting outside. But he would not leave until he brokered a settlement. Because he was so good and so honorable, every single human being on that set listened to him.”
“DUSTIN HOFFMAN USED to say that there are things you can act and things you can’t,” Mr. Benton said. “You can’t act behavior. You can’t act being sexy—you can leer or lick your lips, but that’s not being sexy. Sexiness is something that’s inherent within you. Well, you can’t act wit. And Paul had the most extraordinary wit. I don’t mean the kind of wit that’s involved in telling jokes. I mean wit in how he saw life. He was talking once about [1963’s] Hud. It was the first really dark character he ever played, and he was excited. A real son of a bitch. He thought, ‘They’re going to hate me in this movie,’ and was so happy about it. And then it turned out when the movie came out that everybody loved him. He couldn’t understand why. But there was this wit that made you like him even though he did terrible things. There was something about his spirit that Paul couldn’t tamp down.”
Mr. Benton directed Newman again in 1998’s Twilight, and over the last few years they had continuously talked about working together again, particularly on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which they could never get the rights to. “It would have been the perfect thing for him,” Mr. Benton said. “It would have been great.”
The past few days have been blue. “I think you won’t see another person in the film business who has felt that outpouring of affection and respect. The phone has not stopped ringing.”