Scholars’ Spotlight: Paul Newman

Early Life

Paul Newman was born in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights on January 25, 1925. Although Newman’s father Arthur Sr. was Jewish, his mother Theresa was a Christian Scientist. Newman himself had no religious affiliation and was essentially Agnostic (though he was ordained as a minister of the United Life Church to officiate weddings).

Both of his parents’ ancestry was from Eastern Europe with his mother being an immigrant from Slovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and his father’s parents hailing from Hungary. The Newmans owned a sporting goods store in town where Paul and his older brother Arthur Jr. would help out when not in school.

While in the first grade, Newman got his first taste of acting when he earned the role of the court jester in a school production of Robin Hood. Even then, the acting bug hit him hard, and just a few years later at the age of 10, he was cast in a Cleveland Play House production of Saint George and the Dragon.

“Acting isn’t really a creative profession. It’s an interpretative one.”

– Paul Newman

In 1943, upon graduating from Shaker Heights High School, Newman headed to Athens, Ohio where he attended Ohio University briefly. Rumors about Newman’s exit continue to this day. Expulsion gossip includes Newman rolling a beer keg down the campus’ Jeff Hill and hitting the Dean’s car.

There’s also a variation where he stole a tray from a dining hall and used it to drunkenly sled down this same slope. Newman himself dispelled these stories stating that he left to join the Navy V-12 pilot training program. He did not complete this due to his colorblindness being a disqualifying condition.

Military Career

After getting dropped by V-12, Newman was shipped off to boot camp.  After he completed this training he focused his energy on learning how to work as a radioman and gunner. During World War II, Newman served as a rear-seat radioman and gunner in torpedo bombers.

In 1944, Newman was assigned to Pacific-based replacement torpedo squadrons which trained replacement pilots and combat air crewmen. He also served as a turret gunner in an Avenger torpedo bomber.  In 1945, Newman was sent to the Essex class aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill, shortly before the Battle of Okinawa. His life was spared when his pilot developed an ear infection and could not fly bomber missions.

All of the gunners that Newman had served with were killed in action by a kamikaze attack in the ensuing battle. Newman’s decorations for his service included the American Area Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. He parted ways with the Navy in 1945.

Acting and Education

After leaving the Navy, Newman resumed his collegiate career at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949. After graduating he worked as an actor with the Belfry Players in Wisconsin and the Woodstock Players in Illinois. Newman married Jacke Witte around this time. The couple would go on to have three children together, divorcing in 1958.

In 1951, Newman briefly attended Yale to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in the Department of Drama. He left after the first year of the three-year program to study under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York City.

Newman’s acting career began in earnest in 1952. His first role was for the television series Tales of Tomorrow that year. The following year he would make his Broadway debut in the original production of William Inge’s Picnic.

James Dean and Hollywood

Newman’s first Hollywood movie, The Silver Chalice was released in 1954 and was a box office bomb. Newman called the historical drama “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s.” When the movie was broadcast on TV in 1966, Newman took out a newspaper ad apologizing for his performance and asking people not to watch the movie. This plea backfired and the movie earned spectacular ratings.

Also in 1954, Newman appeared in a screen test with James Dean for the movie East of Eden (1955). The role Newman was up for was Aron Trask, the brother of Dean’s Cal Trask. Newman lost out on the role to Richard Davalos.

When Dean died the following year Newman replaced him in a television adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Battler. This led to Newman replacing Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which became the actors breakout role.

Hollywood Success and Remarriage

1958 was a big year for Newman both personally and professionally. He starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor, which would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. He also appeared in The Long, Hot Summer with Joanne Woodward. Newman and Woodward had met previously in 1953, in New York City. She was an understudy on Picnic at the time.

While making the Long, Hot Summer in 1957, they began an affair, which ended his first marriage. Newman and Woodward would marry in early 1958. The couple eschewed living in Los Angeles; instead settling in Manhattan for a time. They ultimately would move to Westport, Connecticut. The couple had three children of their own and would remain married for 50 years, until Newman’s death in 2008.

“There are places you go, and they say, ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to… you just want to… I dunno, um… thump them.”

– Paul Newman

The 1960s and Steve McQueen

Newman’s career continued to flourish into the next decade. He made a string of classics including The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Torn Curtain (1966), and of course, Cool Hand Luke (1967). The now iconic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was also released in 1969.

Newman and Steve McQueen battled at the box office for the majority of the decade. The pair were neck and neck for bragging rights as the highest-paid movie star. McQueen and Newman almost made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid together. However, a dispute about which actor would receive top billing prevented McQueen from signing on as the Sundance Kid.

The rivalry McQueen felt with Newman also occurred in the world of racing as both actors were involved in the sport. They even shared the same racing trainer Dick Barbour, of Barbour Motorsports. The racing rivalry McQueen had with Newman was largely one-sided as Newman essentially just did his best, not worrying about what McQueen or anybody else said or did.

Newman and McQueen weren’t always rivals. In 1969, the pair joined Sidney Poitier and Barbara Streisand to create the First Artists production company using United Artists (founded by legendary stars Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, among others) as a template. Newman and McQueen would share the screen on one movie, The Towering Inferno (1974).

In addition to acting, racing, and being a businessman, Newman was also politically active. The actor attended the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. In 1968 he campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, which included a trip back to Athens, Ohio, and the OU campus, 20-plus years after he parted ways with the university.

The 1970s and 1980s

Newman’s career continued to be successful throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the films he appeared in included The Sting (1973), Slap Shot (1977), and The Verdict (1982). He was recognized with an Honorary Oscar in 1986, and he won the real thing the following year for Best Actor in The Color of Money (1986), Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler. Over his career, Newman would be nominated a total of nine times as an actor, winning only once.

Newman’s racing career began in earnest in 1972 when he raced at the Thompson International Speedway, under the name “P.L. Newman”. He competed often in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events for the rest of the 1970s, winning four national championships. In 1979, he raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing in second place.

“I’ll never forget my first experience of being in a race car. The first thing that attracted me was the speed. That and the faint possibility that I might get good at it one day. It offered me the chance to be graceful, it just grabbed hold of me. I used to just slink off from doing pictures to try and get my (racing) license.”

– Paul Newman

In 1978, Newman’s son from his first marriage, Scott, tragically died of a drug overdose. Because of this tragedy, Newman started the Scott Newman Center for drug abuse prevention, in memory of his son.

Newman’s political advocacy continued during this time. In 1970, he attended the first Earth Day event in New York City. In 1976 he traveled to Washington DC to speak out against Big Oil in favor of divestiture of these companies. This would effectively break them up into smaller entities. He was also a proponent of nuclear disarmament, endorsing Walter Mondale for President in 1984.

In 1982, Newman founded “Newman’s Own,” a line of food products with writer A. E. Hotchner with the proceeds being donated to charity. He co-wrote a memoir about the subject with Hotchner, Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good. In 1988, Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. This was a residential summer camp for seriously ill children located in Ashford, Connecticut.

Final Years

Newman continued to act until 2007 when he announced his retirement. Some of his most famous roles during this time included The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Road to Perdition (2002), and the Pixar animated movie Cars (2006).

In these later years, Newman continued to work for and support charitable causes. Some of the examples of this work include the donation of $250,000 to Catholic Relief Services to aid refugees from Kosovo in 1999. He also created a $10 million dollar scholarship fund to his Alma Mater of Kenyon College in 2007.

An avid racer even in his later years, Newman continued to race even after he passed 80 years of age. He stated he would retire only when he embarrassed himself. The actor won at Lime Rock at the age of 81, which was also the number he raced under. His last professional race came in 2007 at Watkins Glen International.

“You can’t be as old as I am without waking up with a surprised look on your face every morning: ‘Holy Christ, whaddya know – I’m still around!’ It’s absolutely amazing that I survived all the booze and smoking and the cars and the career.”

– Paul Newman

On September 26, 2008, Paul Newman died from lung cancer. A few months after his death he was posthumously inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame for car racing at the national convention in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 21, 2009. Nine years after his death his voice was used in the movie Cars 3 (2017). This was his last credited role.

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