Paul Newman, one of the classiest men in Hollywood, died today at the age of 83 after a battle with cancer.
He was one of only five actors ever nominated for an Oscar in five different decades, finally winning the best actor award for which he was nominated seven times for his reprise of “Fast” Eddie Felson in “The Color of Money,” Martin Scorsese’s overlit, over-directed 1986 sequel to “The Hustler.” The belated Oscar may have been a make-up award for Newman’s performance in the original 1961 production, when he played Fast Eddie as a morally feral lone wolf.
“When I’m goin’, I mean, when I’m really goin’, I feel like a jockey must feel,” Eddie says. “He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him…and he knows…just feels…when to let it go and how much….It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right.”
hat Newman also made two of Hollywood’s most successful buddy pictures should come as no surprise. Whether the likability of the criminals, cads and con men he often played was the residue of the method acting he learned at the Actors Studio in New York, or the effortless projection of his own personality, audiences recognized something distinctly human. And they adored him for it.
He was Hollywood’s top box office star in 1969 and ’70. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” remains the highest-grossing Western of all time, and “The Sting” made Newman and Robert Redford nearly as popular as Astaire and Rogers. Buddy pictures quickly became a genre unto themselves, although the crucial ingredient all other screen pairings lacked was the one actor audiences actually seemed to consider their buddy: Paul Newman.
And yet Newman just as often played loners, outsiders and heels. In an admiring review of the 1977 comedy “Slap Shot,” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of Newman’s skein of charming rogues, “Even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard — only a callow, selfish one, like Hud….His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.”
He lacked the range, or the temerity, to attempt the classics like fellow method man Marlon Brando, but Newman had a good instinct for where the sweet spot of his talent lay. He was part of the generation of stars that succeeded Hollywood contract legends such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant, though he actually missed his first turn as a matinee idol following a screen test for the 1955 film “East of Eden.”
Newman was married for 50 years to Joanne Woodward. When asked how his marriage lasted despite all the temptations in Hollywood, Newman responded with a classic line – “Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?”