That's No Gift Horse Joanne Woodward Is Looking in the Face: She's Paying Plenty

updated 11/30/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Joanne Woodward, it was a proud moment. Her 16-year-old daughter, Clea Newman, was competing in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. Out of thousands of junior show riders across the country, Clea had made it to the finals of the national championship for the third year in a row. She was halfway through the difficult 13-jump course when her chestnut gelding, What's Up Doc?, stumbled over a three-and-a-half-foot fence. The 1,000-pound Thoroughbred fell heavily and rolled over on Clea. "I thought, 'God, she's dead,' " Woodward recalls. Frantic, the actress and her husband, Paul Newman, ran toward the ring. He reached their daughter first. By then the plucky teenager was already picking herself up. Miraculously, she suffered only a bruised hip and shoulder.

Woodward did not recover quite so easily. That afternoon she was scheduled to give a matinee performance on Broadway in the title role of George Bernard Shaw's Candida. "I lay down in my dressing room and the accident kept replaying in my head," she recalls. The cast urged Joanne to let her understudy go on. "I have never missed a performance," Woodward announced, "and I am not about to."

Clea's mishap was a frightening moment, but horse lovers know these things happen, and Woodward is a new but enthusiastic convert to that breed. Several months ago the 51-year-old actress launched a career as owner of a stable which has one of the largest indoor rings in the East. She aims to make it a showplace. Woodward will not, of course, abandon acting, but she is seeking new dimensions. It has been 17 years since she last appeared on Broadway—with Paul in a comedy, Baby Wants a Kiss. Her current vehicle, Candida, was criticized by the reviewers though Joanne herself was lauded for doing her "crisp-spoken, intelligent best." Without doubt, her presence is helping extend the play's run into January.

"I'm a risk-taker," says Woodward. "I like to test myself." She is doing so in both her latest endeavors. She started riding in earnest only last year. An earlier attempt had been an embarrassing failure. When she and Newman were courting in the 1950s, they hired horses at a Hollywood livery stable. Out on the trail, Joanne's mount stopped, lay down and rolled her off. "Paul just laughed," she recalls. "But I had never felt such a sense of rejection."

It took a bet from Clea, who knew her mother was scared of horses, to get Woodward riding again. She put herself in the hands of a California trainer, Jean Torrey, who also taught Brooke Shields. At first Woodward rode with great caution. "She was terrified," says Torrey. "But there is one thing I've learned about film people. They take direction well." Joanne now owns a huge, 17-hand Thoroughbred hunter called Mama's Boy and has progressed to jumping, though 2'9" is her limit so far. She even entered a Santa Barbara horse show last year. "I won six ribbons," she reports. "No first, but a second in a pleasure class—you know, where you ride around and look comfortable." At dinner afterward, the notion of buying a stable came up. It was one of those "wouldn't-it-be-fun" discussions. Six months later Woodward was the proud possessor of the then ramshackle Far West Farms in North Salem, N.Y., about 20 miles from the Newmans' home in Westport, Conn. "All my five girls have ridden, and I want to help give the experience to others," Woodward explains. With 52 acres, stalls for 56 horses (she takes in boarders) and a mammoth show ring, Far West is a formidable undertaking. Woodward has unleashed an army of workmen to refurbish it, but will not divulge how much money has gone into "the bottomless pit," as Paul puts it. So far she has hosted two shows there, but she vows the layout won't be for competition only. "There should be a place," Woodward explains, "where people can simply ride."

Her new ventures come at a time when the Georgia-born actress (who read and reread Gone With the Wind as a child) has finally acquired confidence in herself—and her marriage. "I used to be neurotic," she admits. "I didn't like myself very much. But somewhere in my mid-40s my neuroses stopped seeming so important. I developed a sense of humor." The humor helps when women flock around her husband. "I used to be jealous," she says. "Paul didn't worry about it too much, though; he must have thought I was being silly."

The Woodward-Newman marriage is one of the solidest in show business. Paul sometimes surprises her with backstage visits; he has also been known to send dirty limericks, as well as flowers. On the evening she opened in Candida he was at an auto race in Las Vegas, but he made sure a bottle of Dry Sack sherry, Joanne's favorite, was on their bed that night. The note with it read, "Just in case."

As a family, the Newmans are close-knit. Besides Clea, Paul and Joanne have two other daughters, Nell, 22, a Manhattan acting student, and Melissa, 20, who works at her mother's stable. Joanne also plays loving stepmother to Paul's children by his first marriage. Susan, 28, is an actress, and Stephanie, 26, owns a stable in Michigan. The family's darkest moment came in 1978, when Newman's only son, Scott, an actor and stunt man, died of an alcohol-and-drug overdose. "Scott is my greatest sorrow," says Woodward. "It's far too painful to talk about."

Woodward is surprisingly self-deprecating about her achievements as a parent. "I was not a very good mother," she says. "I was always running out to do a movie or something. If I had to do it over, I would either have a career or children. I wouldn't do both unless I could work in my home. I spent 20 years feeling guilty, which is not a very nice emotion. Paul was never there either. He probably feels guilty, too."

Nowadays Woodward indulges her strong domestic streak. She is happily decorating a new Manhattan apartment, which has a spectacular view of Central Park. The family homestead in Connecticut is decorated with antique English furniture, American primitives, pictures of wirehaired terriers (Joanne has owned five), hobby horses and a bronze statuette of Mikhail Baryshnikov, which reflects Woodward's enduring interest in dance. Her Oscar (for 1957's Three Faces of Eve) is in the bookcase, and on the mantel is a bell jar containing the bride and groom that stood atop the Newmans' 1958 wedding cake. On the property are a glassed-in tree house and a sauna from which Paul is given to leaping, Scandinavian style, into the ice-cold Aspetuck River behind the house. "It's a macho experience, I guess," Woodward says.

For all her activities, Joanne has even more in mind. She is hoping to act in a repertory series on Broadway. Her partner in planning the venture is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael (The Shadow Box) Cristofer, who directed Candida. Meanwhile Woodward has directed a PBS movie, airing in January, of Shirley Jackson's Come Along With Me, starring Estelle Parsons and Sylvia Sidney. "I'm a great admirer of Truffaut," Joanne says. "I'd like to be an auteur. But I'd also like to ride more and speak French fluently. And I'd like to get some chickens. We used to have them and I miss them. They're cuddly." She even talks about politics: "I'd love to run for office, but it requires such knowledge. At my late age, how do I acquire that?" Even more to the point, how would she find the time? That doesn't worry her. Like her childhood heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, Woodward believes, "Tomorrow is another day."

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