To a younger generation, Paul Newman wasn't Butch Cassidy or Cool Hand Luke or Fast Eddie Felson. He was a witty guy who ran a food company that made popcorn, salsa and spaghetti sauce.
Newman and his friend, the writer A.E. Hotchner, went from bottling homemade salad dressing as Christmas gifts to creating a successful company, Newman's Own, that became known as much for the food products and cartoons of Newman on the label as for its philanthropic goals. Even if Newman had not left an impressive body of work as an actor and director, his success as an entrepreneur would have ensured fame.
The company, based in Westport, has donated more than $200 million in profits to charities in the United States and in other parts of the world since 1982. The actor was a hands-on director of the company, whether the task was taste-testing new products or presiding over the finals of a Newman's Own recipe contest.
"He really loved good food, so he was really involved in the business," said Kirsten McKamy, who worked for Newman's Own for eight years. "He wasn't just a figurehead; he came up with ideas."
He also was willing to listen to ideas. When daughter Nell Newman wanted her father to add organic foods to the Newman's Own family, she prepared an organic Thanksgiving dinner. Newman's Own Organics, a label for pretzels, cookies, fair-trade coffee and even pet foods, became a division of the company in 1993. As children do, Newman's Own Organics struck out on its own as a separate company in 2001, but profits still are donated to charity. "In the end, every bit of work we did went for charity," McKamy said.
Paul Newman's involvement in the food business didn't end with supermarket products. In 2006, the actor and chef Michel Nischan opened The Dressing Room A Homegrown Restaurant next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
"He always wanted to do a restaurant," said Nischan, citing Newman's and Hotchner's book, "Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good," in which the business partners say that they originally wanted to open a restaurant called Newman's Own. "When the theater was finishing its refurbishing, with him and Joanne [Woodward] spearheading the capital campaign, Paul saw the dilapidated restaurant next door and said let's do it."
Newman wasn't involved in the day-to-day operation of the restaurant, Nischan said, but instead, looked at the big picture. "He had a lot to do with conceptualizing and making the restaurant move forward."
The chef marveled at Newman's accomplishments not only in the arts but also in the fields of food, business, philanthropy and auto racing. "It's almost unfathomable that one human can have that much reach," he said. "But the interesting thing is, when you take all that away, he's just a normal guy. He loves things like having a ham salad, riding a bicycle, ordering eggs over the counter at a diner. He loves the notion of Americana and America, in the sense of that Norman Rockwell time."
Nischan, who spoke with great respect for the actor, said he was thankful for the opportunity to be witness to Newman's ability to dream of new ideas, to articulate those ideas and to his sense of humor.
Speaking about Newman a few months before his death, McKamy also remembered the actor's wit. Her boss was a man with a "very dry sense of humor" and who thought before he spoke. "He is a man of few words, but the words he comes out with are perfectly chosen."
"I felt it came full circle to go to work with him," said McKamy who grew up in Westport and, as a child, played with Newman's youngest daughter, Clea. "I think he's one of the great humans of this earth, [who] lived his life with such integrity, [who] worked with such integrity."
Contact Linda Giuca at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun