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Film actor, humanitarian was a Renaissance man

The Baltimore Sun

Paul Newman the actor, director, race car driver, political activist and philanthropist has died - and a buoyant strain of the American spirit has gone with him. He was 83 when he succumbed to cancer at his home near Westport, Conn., on Friday.

For all his adult years, he imbued each of his arenas with unique, muscular vivacity. Mr. Newman wore the mantle of his superstardom lightly. Honored as an actor and a humanitarian, respected for putting forth liberal views without condescending to opponents, he was a Renaissance man and a stand-up guy.

With Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting , Mr. Newman became part of our national pop fantasy life. From So mebody Up There Likes Me to Nobody's Fool, he never stopped being an actor other actors looked up to.

Kids who've never seen any of his movies except Cars (where he was the voice of Doc Hudson) recognize him from the picture on the "Newman's Own" label that started out with salad dressing and branched out to spaghetti sauce and beyond, ultimately garnering $250 million in profits that he gave to charity. When they get old enough to watch documentaries about the key political movements of the 1950s and 1960s, from civil rights to the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, they'll see Mr. Newman in the thick of things.

Appreciating Mr. Newman's art will always be an American rite of passage, because no other actor reached maturity in front of the camera with as much breadth and verve - and stayed there. Among the great American actors, he was the happy warrior. Like Marlon Brando and James Dean, Mr. Newman could play, to perfection, misfits, louts, outlaws, troubled souls and rebels. Even when his characters met tragic ends they could leave fans energized and optimistic.

He got emotionally spent audiences to applaud and cheer at the close of his milestone performance as the title character of The Hustler, when his pool shark wins back his pride in the pool hall and declares to his satanic ex-manager Bert (George C. Scott), "[If your boys] just bust me up, I'll put all those pieces back together, and so help me, so help me God, Bert ... I'm gonna come back here and I'm gonna kill you." Mr. Newman could pull you through the travails of men who suffered anguish and loss and make you believe they could still hold their destiny in their own two hands.

Ron Shelton, who directed Mr. Newman in Blaze, said yesterday that as one of the enduring movie stars, "You can put him up on Mount Rushmore, next to Gable, Grant and Bogart." As both an actor and an American movie personality he was unique. He came up as a Method actor and persisted in chewing over his roles endlessly - "he loved the process of discovery," Mr. Shelton said.

But as his career went on, he eschewed halting, scratching Method mannerisms for an inspired, even lyrical straightforwardness. His discussions centered on mining the possibilities of characters as stringent as Hud or as buoyant as Butch Cassidy, not just on how they related to him personally.

Veteran writer-director Robert Towne hit a similar note yesterday, saying, "He had an utter lack of narcissism. He was never comfortable as part of that generation of brilliantly self-absorbed actors. He was kind of old-fashioned, very direct."

He minted as many iconic images as any old-time star. Mr. Newman scooting down a city street with his hands in his pockets and his hair tousled was a classic image of what-the-hell urban bravado. Mr. Newman savoring a beer in cowboy duds became the epitome of a wised-up rural "show me" attitude.

No other performer was simultaneously as handsome and as talented as Mr. Newman. Mr. Towne remembered seeing Mr. Newman for the first time at a Hollywood tennis party in the 1950s: "He was so ridiculously good-looking that it was hard to take your eyes off him."

That makes it all the more remarkable that he was equally popular with women and with men who often disdain "pretty boys." Mr. Newman's soul-piercing blue eyes became his signature feature; the whole package made him a movie deity. It was no accident that Hollywood first put him into a disastrous Biblical movie called The Silver Chalice, as a Greek artisan who designs the chalice that holds the cup from the Last Supper.

Mr. Newman had the classical profile and even the tight, curly hair of a Greco-Roman god. Yet as director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), recently told The Baltimore Sun, men who took their dates to a Newman movie thought, "I'm so far from that guy, I'm not going to worry about that."

He also had an all-encompassing democratic rapport that crossed social boundaries. He was "more comfortable with his long- necked Budweiser hanging out with the Teamsters than he was with the publicists," Shelton said. "You can't fake that, you know."

He was born in comfortable Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 26, 1925, to a Jewish father who was a successful sporting-goods store owner and a Catholic-turned-Christian Scientist mother who encouraged his interest in the theater.

His early life included two years in the Navy Air Corps during World War II, a stint selling encyclopedias and study at Kenyon College, where he joined the football team and took up acting seriously.

Upon graduation, he worked in summer stock in Williams Bay, Wis., where he met his first wife, Jacqueline Witte. He also joined the Woodstock Players in Woodstock, Ill. When his father died, Mr. Newman took a year off to the run the sporting-goods store. But he couldn't keep himself from what he used to call the one thing he knew he was good at.

In 1951, after 18 months at the store, he left to study at the Yale School of Drama. Without finishing his degree, he left New Haven for New York in the summer of 1952, and soon landed on Broadway in William Inge's Picnic. On that production he met Joanne Woodward, whom he married a half-dozen years later in a union that became legendary not just for its staying power but also for its happiness.

Mr. Newman would go on to star in hits such as Joseph Hayes' Desperate Hours and Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. He scored equally choice jobs on television, including an adaptation of the Hemingway story The Battler and the original TV dramatization of Bang the Drum Slowly .

He made his strongest impact as a performer on the big screen. The movie that gave him the necessary push was Somebody Up There Likes Me, based on the life of boxer Rocky Graziano.

"After movies like Champion and Body and Soul, I can't tell you how refreshing it was to see a joyful boxing film," Towne said. The role allowed Mr. Newman to release his exuberant physicality and tap his deep sympathy for blue-collar life. He didn't move to consolidate his stardom; he took chances. He played Billy the Kid as a wild innocent in Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun, a film that became known for the expressiveness and originality of its violence. He forged a working friendship with a once-blacklisted director, Martin Ritt, on that filmmaker's first smash, The Long Hot Summer.

As the drifter who comes into a family-run town and connects with the patriarch's virginal daughter (Ms. Woodward), Mr. Newman nailed what film critic Pauline Kael called "one of the those arrogant-on-the-outside vulnerable-on-the-inside roles that Newman could do better than any other movie actor."

By the time Mr. Newman played Brick in the movie version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic's authority on stage and movie acting, hailed Mr. Newman as his own man, not some Brando and Dean imitator. He wrote that his performance was "genuinely creative - the kind of acting in which buried smoldering is made manifest," praising Mr. Newman for his ability to bring out "the thought processes between lines."

He would cement his screen persona in a series of groundbreaking movies in the 1960s. Robert Rossen's black and white marvel of action and character, The Hustler, helped Mr. Newman mint the roguish image that he would refine and vary in later hits like Hud and Cool Hand Luke. In The Hustler, Mr. Newman creates a portrait of the artist as a pool player. This drama of corruption and regeneration depicts what great art demands: qualities of character like patience and honesty as well as talent and originality. After that, Mr. Newman was on a roll.

In Ritt's Hud he embraced the character of a charismatic contemporary cowboy with such gusto that audiences loved him despite his callousness and materialism, simply because he had more life and snap to him than anyone else in his Texas town. In Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke he played a decorated World War II veteran and peacetime ne'er-do-well who can't conform to save his life. Mr. Newman's contained charisma and paradoxical modesty were perfect for the role of a natural martyr-rebel who was also an incorrigible joker.

No matter what you thought of the comic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the caper film The Sting, he and Robert Redford brought peerless warmth and invention to the roles of picaresque buddies. Audiences loved the way they tossed chunks of the movie to each other as lightly and deftly in these mammoth productions as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do now on nightly TV.

His portrait of a tormented lawyer in The Verdict shocked and delighted critics and moviemakers because of the contrast it drew with his usual geniality. By then he had become that rarest of movie performers, one whose face is always alive to the camera, one who seems to slip into his parts as naturally as he would slip into new clothes.

Even as his face and body seemed to resist the ravages of time, he played older characters with wholehearted honesty. In Blaze as well as Nobody's Fool, he showed that characters who are unreconstructed rapscallions can age heroically.

He is beloved for his characters on the screen and his character off-screen. Upon learning of his death, many fans felt shock as well as sorrow. As Mr. Shelton said, "I thought he'd live to be, I don't know, 1,500."

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