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People Top 5
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- March 19, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 11
Paul Newman at 59
Fans Sometimes Make Him Feel 'Like a Piece of Meat,' But He's Working—And Racing—Harder Than Ever
The phone rings, and the star of stars politely takes a message for his cleaning lady ("Betty is at the dentist..."). He is equally considerate of the workmen who are adding a sauna to the apartment, which Newman and Joanne Woodward have occupied for just two months. With their five daughters on their own, the Newmans wanted a New York place big enough to make their home three or four days a week. (They commute from their Westport, Conn. estate in Newman's VW Rabbit.) But the apartment's most extravagant feature—a 500-square-foot terrace—is the domain of a one-year-old wirehaired terrier named Harry. "We only looked at places with verandas," explains Paul, "so 'Har' would have a private place to poop."
Now Newman is in the dining room, serving his soup and crackers. "If Joanne finds I'm not giving people place mats," he says, running to get a set, "I won't be allowed back." He introduces Stewart Stern, with whom he is writing a sequel to Rachel, Rachel (Newman directed the original in 1968). "You caught us just at the right time," says Paul. "We were glaring at each other across the table. This writing is a damn chess game."
Newman takes a call from Mario Andretti, his cohort on the auto-racing circuit ("So you sat in the new car? How does it feel?"). Finally he turns to the subject at hand. "One of the reasons I don't like giving interviews," he says, "is because after you've answered the same questions 134 times, it's hard to come up with new answers. And that makes me feel dull."
Just then Woodward, who has been directing an actor's workshop, comes in, wearing a mink coat over a T-shirt and sweatpants. With the timing of a seasoned actress she walks across the room, strokes Newman's head and pronounces, "But you are dull."
She may be the only American who would dare to say that, even in jest. At 59, Newman seems more like a fine wine than the Budweisers he is forever clutching: He gets more interesting with age. With 50 pictures under his belt Newman has more laurels than most to rest on. But he has no plans to give up racing—a sport that keeps him busy almost every day from April through October—and he is cramming more work than ever into the remaining five months of the year. His latest picture, Harry & Son, is a case in point. He wrote the screenplay with chum Ron Buck, an L.A. lawyer and restaurateur, directed and coproduced the film, and plays the lead. Directing himself, Newman observes, "was hard work."
It's not clear it was worth it. So far the reviews have been disastrous; the New York Times, calling Harry "a decently intentioned but rather drab mess of a movie," was kinder than most. Newman insists he never reads reviews: "If they're good, you get a fat head, and if they're bad, you're depressed for three weeks." But he does know a cold shoulder from a warm embrace. The day Harry opened, Newman swung into action, making last-minute plans to appear on two out of three network morning programs. Says Buck, "When he gets angry, he goes to war. I'm glad he's not taking this lying down."
If the film is close to Newman's heart, it may be because it is the story of a father and son (Robby Benson) who are painfully unable to accept each other's ways. Paul admits, "There is a lot in it I could identify with as a parent." His own son, Scott, died of an accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose in 1978. Newman has said their relationship was bad for years before Scott's death: "I had lost the ability to help him...we both backed away."
Buck cautions that the structure of the script was his—and says that during the more than three years he and Paul worked on the screenplay, "the name Scott Newman never came up." Still, Buck says, "How could Paul not think of him? He had to be drawing on that experience. He never said so, but he had to have those feelings." In one of the movie's climactic scenes, Newman's character realizes for the first time that his son can overpower him. Remembers Buck, "Paul told me years ago, 'The kid's bigger than me. And I can't tell him what to do anymore.' "
The picture also brings back memories of Paul's relationship with his own father—a Jewish sporting-goods store owner who expected Paul to go into the family business. One of Newman's biggest regrets is that his father died in 1950, before Paul had progressed beyond college plays. There had been "consternation," Newman says, about his decision to become an actor.
Intensely private, Paul will say little else about his father, Arthur Newman. Nor will he talk about Scott ("That's not in the public domain") or his five daughters (two from his first marriage, to actress Jacqueline Witte). Indeed, seconds after the subject of Paul's kids first comes up, Woodward asks him, "Are you discussing your children?" "Yes," he says. "You know," she admonishes, "they don't like to see their names in print." "I feel," says Paul sheepishly, "like hanging my head in the soup."
Newman admits, though, that he was less than a perfect father to Susan, 31, Stephanie, 29, Nell, 24, Lissy, 22, and Clea, 18: "When they were growing up, I wasn't there much." And when he was there, Paul remembers, "I was very inconsistent with them. I was all over the place, too loving one minute, too distant the next. One day they were flying on the Concorde, and the next day they were expected to do their own laundry. It was very hard for them to get a balance," he says, adding, "Maybe I could have behaved consistently with the kids if I had felt consistently good about myself."
The bottom line, he says, is "You've got to sit down with your lady and say, 'How do we want to raise these children?' Joanne and I never did that." The question has become moot. Now that the Newmans are busy feathering their empty nest (the girls, according to Joanne, are welcome to sleep on a foldout couch), their marriage seems stronger than ever. Evenings are almost always spent together, often at movies or plays or at dinner with such friends as director George Roy Hill and Manhattan neighbor Robert Redford. Joanne has a part in Harry, and they are planning continued collaboration when they find worthwhile projects. That, Paul laments, is hard to do, which is one reason he was willing to take on the rough Harry screenplay and see it through some 20 rewrites. The other reason, admits Paul, is that "I thought it was stageworthy, but a lot of people didn't. That pissed me off, and I find I work very well when I'm pissed off."
It's a good thing. When the script was completed, Paul had no intention of starring. "I would have loved to have had Gene Hackman," he says. But he quickly found he wouldn't be able to get financing unless he put his blue eyes where his mouth was.
On the set Newman managed to seem consistently carefree. Every afternoon at 4, he personally popped half a dozen bags of popcorn for the crew. Paul says, "It's incredible how cranky those guys would get if they didn't get their popcorn exactly at 4 o'clock."
Still, Newman wasn't completely happy directing himself. "There are places where I caught myself on film watching the other actors instead of playing the character. I think we got it all out in the editing. But I don't think I'll ever do that again."
What he will do again is drive cars at up to 200 miles per hour. Next month he'll start his 15th season of auto racing, despite announcing every year that he's retiring. "I guess those reports have to be discounted. I'd like to assume the role of elder statesman, taking walks in the woods and going fishing, but here I am, forever strapping myself into these machines."
Last time Paul said he was quitting, Joanne decided to believe him. He says, "She jumped for joy when she thought she wouldn't have to go to the track every weekend. So when I changed my mind, she said, 'Do what you want, but I've finished my obligations.' It's a comfortable compromise."
They'll be together soon enough. At season's end, Paul hopes to begin directing Joanne in the Rachel sequel, perhaps in Central Africa. Meanwhile he's campaigning for Walter Mondale (he calls Ronald Reagan "a tragedy") and will spend most of March in L.A. supervising the work of the antidrug Scott Newman Foundation, which he says will make a number of documentary films for children. The message of the films, says Paul, will be "How to say no."
He is also in the salad-dressing business. "It started as a joke," he says, but last year he earned close to $1 million from "Newman's Own" vinaigrette. His profits have all gone to charity, along with money—according to one friend, $500,000 a year—he would have given away anyhow. "I've never seen him happier," says the friend, "than when he's deciding whom he will help out."
Newman "doesn't like pretension," says Buck, who has known him more than 15 years. "His credo is 'less is more.' He really works hard at keeping some sanity in his life. That he remains human at all is unbelievable, considering the kind of adulation he gets." According to Buck, after Newman checked out of one San Francisco hotel, the staff raided the room looking for souvenirs. "They even took the dental floss out of the trash can. I don't think many people could handle that as well as Paul."
Still, Newman finds his life confusing. For one thing, "To be a good actor," he says, "you have to be a child. But who wants to take a lot of credit for being a child when you're nearly 60?" For another, "There's a hangover from characters sometimes. There are things that stick. Since Slap Shot [his 1977 hockey picture], my language is right out of the locker room. And ever since I played Rocky Graziano [in 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me], I spit on the street. I think you can be fined for that in New York, can't you?"
Newman is also ambivalent about his fans. "Someone will come up and say, 'Mr. Newman, thank you for some wonderful evenings in the theater,' and you'll feel terrific. And then some lady says, 'Take off your dark glasses, I want to see your blue eyes.' There's nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat. It's like saying to a woman, 'Open your blouse, I want to see your tits.' "
He does desire at least one form of attention. Last year he flew to L.A. for the Oscars (he was nominated for The Verdict)—only to be disappointed for the sixth time. He has a theory: He will finally win his statuette when he's 89, and it will be an honorary award, not the real thing. But Paul Newman will be there. "They'll carry me out on a stretcher," he says, eyes twinkling, "and I'll reach my wizened hand out from the coverlet and grab it."
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