Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

A great actor and a greater human being has passed away. Condolences to Joanne Woodward, his daughters, and his many friends.

Here's Paul Newman's imdb page. From The Washington Post, here's his obituary, an appreciation by Stephen Hunter, a list of his 10 Oscar-nominated performances, and an article on his arrangements to continue his charities. Here's The New York Times obituary, an appraisal, a remembrance from a friend, and a short humorous piece making fun of that Fox News lawsuit against Al Franken. The Los Angeles Times has the official obituary from his publicist and a retrospective. NPR has a remembrance and links a number of older pieces, including a short anecdote about Paul Newman's "potty humor." Meanwhile, here's the pages for Newman's Own (organic food before it was fashionable) and for the original Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Dahlia Lithwick has a lovely piece about working there (her Slate colleagues also have some good pieces linked on the same page). David Letterman had a nice, funny remembrance, and Newman's close friend Robert Redford made some remarks. I'm sure more will follow.

Newman really belonged to an earlier generation than mine, but who didn't like Paul Newman? When I was a kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was always on TV, and we watched it more times than I can count (William Goldman never gets tired about talking about that film). The Sting ran a decent amount, too. My dad was quite a fan of The Hustler. As I grew older, I finally got to see why everyone raved about Cool Hand Luke, and I raved about Nobody's Fool to everyone the year it came out. Newman's so good in The Road to Perdition and, well, everything, it's easy to take him for granted. There a few classic Newman films I still haven't seen, actually, but I certainly saw enough to prize how damn good he was. The Verdict is a marvel. Roy Edroso has a great short piece about two of his favorite Newman performances (that match mine, actually), and how Newman "played the trick of submerging his charm early on and letting it creep out as the character made progress." Many remembrances note his charisma and good looks, but also how he played against them. He could handle both subtlety and power, and it made for some vibrant performances.

As much as I'll always admire Newman the actor, I've really been struck for the past decade or so by his model philanthropy. Both he and Redford have built quite the legacies, and I always appreciate it when successful people give back. Newman's Own has donated a staggering 250 million to charity. Meanwhile, there are the Hole in the Wall camps, which provide an amazing camp experience for kids with serious illnesses. Unlike Dahlia Lithwick, I didn't work there, but I was privileged enough to visit the original camp twice. One of the part-time staffers at our school in Connecticut worked at the Hole in the Wall camp in the summer, and arranged for a tour of the camp for faculty and staff who were interested one Sunday morning. Tours very intentionally are limited for when the camp isn't in session to maintain the kids' privacy. But the place is extraordinary. All the staff who were present were proud and excited to work there. A new theater was being built when I visited, and that building and the dining hall had a palpable, positive energy radiating from the walls. The medical ward is designed as a large Butch and Sundance bunkhouse, and decorated with a colorful, friendly, western motif. The arts and crafts rooms have stacks and stacks of buttons, beads and other materials, mostly stored in cleaned out Newman's Own jars. The camp reminded me the most of the Eugene O'Neill Center, because they share a similar vibe – even when both places are mostly empty, there's a resonance present, perhaps from all the positive creative energy, photos, paintings and tapestries. We were told that at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the last session of the summer was reserved for siblings of kids with illnesses, since they can get lost in the shuffle. For the kids who attend, everything's paid for. They all want to come back, which the camps try to accommodate, but they give priority to kids who haven't attended before. Newman spent a fair amount of time at the Connecticut camp. Read through all the pieces linked above, and it becomes clear that Newman was very competitive and a prankster, but also extremely modest and generous. (A book on Art Direction I own has an anecdote about a movie production dinner decades back where Newman graciously stopped by to chat with the wives of the art department and told them how important the work their husbands did was. There seem to a lot of stories like that.) Newman used his celebrity for good causes, but really enjoyed not being seen as a movie star, and clearly just loved kids. (Some celebrities volunteered at the camps and worked fairly incognito as well.) In any case, I enjoyed visiting the camp so much, I inquired about seeing it one last time before I moved (and chatted with a visiting clown about Commedia dell'arte techniques, actually). It would have been fun talking film and acting with Newman, but I think it'd be hard not to talk about the camps. Some projects are simply lasting, unqualified goods, and there's something really profound and special about the Hole in the Wall camps. One of the pieces linked above says that Newman went with a western motif partially so kids going through chemo could hide their baldness beneath cowboy hats. That's very thoughtful, but I'm not sure it was necessary after a while. Let's close with Dahlia Lithwick, who sums it up the best:

Today there are 11 camps modeled on the Hole in the Wall all around the world, and seven more in the works, including a camp in Hungary and one opening next year in the Middle East. Each summer of the four I spent at Newman's flagship Connecticut camp was a living lesson in how one man can change everything. Terrified parents would deliver their wan, weary kid at the start of the session with warnings and cautions and lists of things not to be attempted. They'd return 10 days later to find the same kid, tanned and bruisey, halfway up a tree or cannon-balling into the deep end of the pool. Their wigs or prosthetic arms—props of years spent trying to fit in—were forgotten in the duffel under the bed. Shame, stigma, fear, worry, all vaporized by a few days of being ordinary. In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place.

Hollywood legend holds that Paul Newman is and will always be larger-than-life, and it's true. Nominated for 10 Oscars, he won one. He was Fast Eddie, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy. And then there were Those Eyes. But anyone who ever met Paul Newman will probably tell you that he was, in life, a pretty regular-sized guy: A guy with five beautiful daughters and a wonder of a wife, and a rambling country house in Connecticut where he screened movies out in the barn. He was a guy who went out of his way to ensure that everyone else—the thousands of campers, counselors, and volunteers at his camps, the friends he involved in his charities, and the millions of Americans who bought his popcorn—could feel like they were the real star.


Comrade Kevin said...

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was one of my parents favorite movies, so we watched it constantly when I was a kid.

Comrade Kevin said...

parents' left off the apostrophe.