Newman's own face is a charm for author


Washington -- Richard Russo has long enjoyed the perks of the respected literary writer -- good reviews, generous blurbs from better-known writers, the occasional book tour.

But it's hard to beat the marketing campaign for the paperback edition of Mr. Russo's third novel, "Nobody's Fool." The concept? Paul Newman's face on the cover. Mr. Newman plays Sully, the fool who belongs to no one, in the movie version of Mr. Russo's book. The film was No. 4 at the box office last weekend, and there is talk that Mr. Newman's performance may mean another Oscar nomination for the actor, who turns 70 today.

"It's amazing what putting Paul Newman's face on a book will do for your sales," Mr. Russo says, settling onto a lime-green chair in a Washington hotel lobby. "In fact, it works so well that I left a message on Paul Newman's machine, at his office, telling him we're going to put his face on all my books. In return, he can put my face on his taco sauce."

Taco sauce? The writer's round, delighted countenance would make any food look promising, but a good-luck tonic might be more appropriate. For Mr. Russo, 45, has had the unusual good fortune to see his novel, "Nobody's Fool," turned into a movie, a movie by the same name he can whole-heartedly endorse, a movie that is bringing new readers to his work.

This is a true trifecta, as hard to hit as the triple Dan "Sully" Sullivan, Paul Newman's character, plays every day in "Nobody's Fool." In the first week of the film's general release, sales of the book have already doubled, according to the publisher.

Now the hope is that "Nobody's Fool" will be catapulted onto the best-seller lists, like "Like Water For Chocolate." Better yet, it could find millions of readers, a la "Forrest Gump" -- a modest success in the original hardcover, a phenomenon in paperback.

One thing is certain: Life is not a box of chocolates for Sully. A laborer with a bum knee, he makes his living from construction work done "off the books." Now 60, he must confront the fact that much of his life has been off the books as well. "We wear the chains we forge in life," he says at one point, surprising his landlady -- and former teacher -- with the apt allusion to "A Christmas Carol." But when Miss Beryl asks if he knows who said this, Sully replies: "You did. All through the eighth grade."

"Nobody's Fool" is a dark novel, much darker than the film. Mr. Russo says he has a less optimistic view of the world than director and screenwriter Robert Benton -- a view that includes deadly cash register drawers and doped-up Dobermans. Yet Mr. Russo's rueful meditation on luck has brought him nothing but good fortune.

Many novels are called to Hollywood; few are chosen. In 1986, rights to Mr. Russo's first novel, "Mohawk," a paperback original, were purchased by a small production company. Each year, for almost a decade, the company renewed the option, sending a check.

"Like a Christmas bonus," says Mr. Russo, who supports himself through his writing but also teaches a creative writing course at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

His second book, "The Risk Pool," a largely autobiographical work set again in his fictional corner of upstate New York, was optioned by director Penny Marshall.

"No one was hotter," he says. "Then she went off to make 'A League of Their Own.' "

More checks, no movies. Mr. Russo consoled himself by deciding this may be the best of all possible worlds.

"They paid you, but they didn't make 'Bonfire of the Vanities,' " he says, referring to the disastrous movie version of Tom Wolfe's book. "That's not a bad deal, being paid not to make 'Bonfire of the Vanities.' "

Then, about two years ago, he turned in the manuscript for

"Nobody's Fool." Hollywood was interested, although Mr. Russo assumed it was the same dog-in-the-manger interest he had experienced before. This time, producer Scott Rudin purchased the film rights.

Despite Mr. Rudin's experience with a wide range of projects, from "The Firm" to the "Addams Family" movies, Mr. Russo believed he would never see his third novel leave option limbo.

Then a series of telephone calls began -- "Each more astonishing than the last," he recalls.

First, there was the announcement that Robert Benton ("Bonnie and Clyde" screenwriter, "Places in the Heart" director) was to write and direct. Paul Newman was to play Sully. Jessica Tandy was his landlady, Miss Beryl. Bruce Willis had signed on for the small but pivotal role of Sully's boss. Melanie Griffith was the boss' wife.

All good signs. Then again, Robert Benton had assembled a similarly intriguing cast for his adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate," which did not inspire a lot of talk about Academy Awards. Come to think of it, that movie also had Bruce Willis in a featured role -- the same Bruce Willis who figured so prominently in "Bonfire of the Vanities."

Well, as Mr. Russo writes in "Nobody's Fool": "Luck, so the conventional wisdom went, ran in cycles." In this case, everyone involved with the film seemed to be cycling high. "Nobody's Fool" even had the serendipity to open just before Mr. Newman's birthday, generating a rash of magazine covers.

While not all critics have been charmed by the film version, Mr. Russo is delighted with it. Although a sprawling book of almost 600 pages, it lost only a few characters and one major subplot.

Huge chunks of dialogue have been lifted verbatim, also gratifying to the writer. He especially likes the way Mr. Benton's opening shots establish the locations central to "Nobody's Fool" -- Hattie's diner, the corner bar, the seen-better-times streets of North Bath.

In his professorial garb -- khakis, a pullover and tweed jacket -- Mr. Russo looks like someone born to the academic life. He has a doctorate in American literature and a master of fine arts in creative writing.

But he worked his way through college on construction jobs not unlike those Sully undertakes in "Nobody's Fool." He writes with absolute authority about Sheetrock, flooring and disability law. Sully's face is never described, yet his knee, swollen and inflamed after a bad fall, is etched into the reader's mind.

No, it's as a teacher that Mr. Russo feels like something of an impostor, standing in front of a classroom. "I still have the feeling that someone's going to blow the whistle on me. 'Hey you, in the tweed coat. Beat it! Give that coat to the guy next to you!'"

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