Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t know Paul Newman. But I spent a few weeks with him in 1983, when I went down to Florida to watch him direct a father-and-son picture he had also co-written and produced, Harry and Son, with himself, Robby Benson, Wilford Brimley, a young lop-smiled actress named Ellen Barkin and Joanne Woodward. Movie sets, as you might know, are excruciatingly boring places where time moves slowly, really underwater, and the director asks for the same thing over and over until whatever he or she wants revealed shows up.
Paul Newman’s set was a happy set. The weather was good, the actors were kind to each other and every day at 3, three or four giant Hefty bags of popcorn made by the director showed up. The movie seemed small while Newman was directing it—not big, like Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, or Martin Ritt’s Hud, or the dappled George Roy Hill bookends of Butch Cassidy and The Sting, or Sidney Lumet’s great Boston courtroom drama, The Verdict. And it stayed that way on the screen, but the scenes Newman directed with his wife had (and continue to have) a depth and romantic warmth that broke a kind of sunlight over the rest of the film. My memory of the director and his wife—with his taut, focused affection and her internal discipline, goodwill and generous warmth—was watching an undemonstrative, unbroken marital choreography of intimacy and regard. Newman implausibly died at the end of the movie, but you’ve never seen an expiree so tanned and vital. It seemed impossible that his corpse wouldn’t come back in the last reel and whip all the other actors in a speed-round of tennis.
After the shooting weeks, I went to see him race his cars in Georgia: a movie actor doing his best to escape the fetid weight of fame, enduring a hovering reporter from Life, which even in its diminished state was still a name he had to put up with. He was completely consumed with his racing team. One afternoon I met him at his motel, in Athens, to drive him into Atlanta to meet his wife. He came out of his motor court door looking like the usual trillion bucks and had big racing sunglasses on. It must have been around 5; he said he was late for dinner with Joanne. I told him we’d get there faster if he drove; I have to admit, I wanted to see what my budget-priced rental car would feel like being handled by Paul Newman.
It shuddered and kicked into motion: the stodgy 1983 rental—like the Pixar vehicle he gave voice to as Doc Hudson in Cars—suddenly perked up, smiled and seemed to remember it had more of a romantic, internally combusted purpose in life than being driven by pishers like me. Newman took charge and gunned it on the Interstate into Atlanta, driving the Plymouth rather seriously. He talked about his kids, the movie, Pier Angeli—the sad beauty he had acted with in his first stinker, The Silver Chalice, and his breakthrough picture, Somebody Up There Likes Me—and most of all his wife. We roared into the parking garage of the Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, a glass-walled 73-story signature-of-the-New-South hotel where Mrs. Newman was apparently in the top turret, Penelope waiting for
We hurtled up to the vast store level of the mall. He was determined to buy a present for his wife, and it must have been 6:02, because we heard the click-click-click of New South mall shopkeepers locking their doors. Newman went to the glass door of the Peachtree Plaza jewelry store and banged on it while the hard-nosed lady manager stood on the other side of the door and shook her head, no. Then slowly, deliberately, unsheathing the weapon of last resort, he lifted the sunglasses and let them drop so that they dangled from one ear. The lady shopkeeper stood frozen as the blues stared at her through the security glass.
The door unbolted.
Paul Newman never made a case for himself beyond his mortal decency, which made him the sanest of stars. Eventually he turned into Paul Newman the crusty superstar, who showed up on David Letterman’s first Late Night program on CBS in 1993 and demanded, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” before sprinting to the street. The last time I saw him was up in Westport, Conn., at the musty old narrow summer stock theater where he played the Stage Manager in Our Town, much more a member of the Westport community than Hollywood legend. It was a deeply democratic performance, the Stage Manager less as omniscient codger than as another slightly addled human.
Almost at the end of the play, standing in the dark in his collar and vest, he got to answer Emily’s big question as she surveys her former life from beyond: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
“No—” the Stage Manager says, “Saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
Paul Newman came close on both.