Paul Newman: The Actor

Courant Staff Writers

Paul Newman had the face of a movie star but he never let his looks get in his way.

During an acting career that spanned six decades, Newman, who died Friday at 83, brought to life some of the most vivid characters in American cinema and avoided the traps that tripped other leading men.

"He was such a handsome man that it would have been easy for him to get stuck in a narrow range," says Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. "You can have a definition assigned to you. He didn't let his looks limit him. That was what his longevity was about."

Newman gained fame after playing a series of intense characters in the late 1950s and early 1960s but his acting gifts were most obvious later in his career during "The Verdict" and "Nobody's Fool."

"In some ways, he was the Greta Garbo of male stars," Basinger says. "We say that we relate to movie stars because we feel understand them, know what they're thinking and feeling but Paul Newman is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. He had this air of quietly contained power. He didn't let you inside and that's what holds you to him. There is something unknown about him. He kept his mystery. He kept his secret."

Newman studied acting at Yale University and then at the Actor's Studio in New York under Lee Strasberg.

His first notable performance came in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," the story of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano.

The portrayal earned him comparisons to Marlon Brando, another student of Strasberg.

Newman explained to host James Lipton during an episode of "Inside The Actor's Studio" that Graziano told him Brando had been in the gym studying the middleweight champion before "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"Marlon and I were working off the same guy," Newman said.

After earning praise for "The Long, Hot Summer" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Newman moved beyond the Brando comparisons when he played pool shark Eddie Felson in "The Hustler" in 1961 and the title character in "Hud" in 1963.

These were not mere star turns, with Newman trading on his rugged features and liquid blue eyes, but roles that required a subtlety that would become his trademark.

"Paul Newman is a big name. He doesn't lose his identity in these roles," Basinger said. "But you could think of him as Hud or Fast Eddie or [Cool Hand] Luke and those are three distinctly different characters."

Basinger, whose latest book is "The Star Machine" — an examination of the star-making studio system, says that Newman managed to survive when that movie-making machinery collapsed in the late '50s and '60s.

"He represents the last of the studio-developed great stars," she says. "He kept going on his own terms and defined himself by and for himself and make it work."

Newman emerged as "the outlaw figure: the man who fights the system and the establishment."

Newman was famously indifferent to his early work.

He said it was all "too big," but his portrayal of Felson and, even more so, Hud, signaled a willingness to play flawed men without apology.

"He allowed a nasty streak to be shown," Basinger said. "Most movie stars, even when they play a negative role, usually find a way to let you know that they are only acting. He never did that."

Newman showcased his versatility during the next decade, pairing with Robert Redford for hits such as " Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," but also anchoring the slapstick hockey cult classic "Slapshot."

As Newman aged his acting eye sharpened. He saw parallels between his performance as alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin and his earlier work as Hud.

Newman told Lipton he preferred "The Verdict" because he wasn't reaching for the emotion.

And consider his work as Donald Sullivan in 1994's "Nobody's Fool," which could be used as a master's class in understated acting.

Sully is an aging laborer with a bum knee and few prospects who is suddenly thrust back into the life of his estranged son and his grandson.

The movie follows him as he limps through his lonely life in a wintry small town in upstate New York.

Newman is on screen in nearly every scene but it doesn't seem that way. Roger Ebert used the word "humility" to describe the performance and there is no way to improve that observation.

Newman's brilliance can be seen in the moments before he speaks.

During one scene, Sully's friend and nemesis Carl Roebuck, played ably by Bruce Willis, admonishes Sully for being 60 years old and still having a crush on Roebuck's wife.

"I would hope that by the time I'm your age, I'm a little smarter than that," he says.

Sully has an answer and it's a good one but Newman doesn't rush.

"Can't hurt to hope," he says and then pauses. "You sure are off to a slow start."

In those few seconds, one can see Sully consider the humor and truth of his friend's observation as well as what it implies about his own life.

We can see him thinking back on an earlier exchange with his landlady, played by Jessica Tandy, who asked if he ever regretted not doing more with his life.

"Not often," he says. "Now and then."

Newman's later work reflects the same intelligence he showed in his youth.

He refused to be typed as a handsome young man because it meant his only future would be to play a handsome old man.

"His career could have been much less interesting and much shorter," Basinger said. "Movie stars are smart or not smart like the rest of us and his career reflects the intelligent choices he made."

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