From acting to racing and charity work, Newman lifed a diverse life
Paul Newman lived long enough, and lived well enough, to confuse anybody who'd try for a final summation. He was a cross-generational film star, his movies the last 50 years inspired by 10 Oscar-nominated parts. Everything from Hud to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler to Cool Hand Luke. But, he was also a salad dressing magnate, starting up a popcorn and spaghetti company as a joke, all profits of Newman's Own going to charity. By 2007, the foundation had given out $175 million and dressed a lot of salads.
But here at Sports Illustrated, we have a special affection for a man who decided, at the peak of his acting career, that a devotion to play was important as well. Without quitting his day job -- sometimes making it his day job -- Newman managed to become a full-on open-wheel racer and team owner, and kept at it for nearly 40 years until his death, of cancer, Friday night. Newman's twinkling blue eyes and restless energy might have belied the fact, but he was 83 when he died.
Newman was well into his Hollywood career, with movies like The Long Hot Summer and Butch, his famous pairing with Robert Redford, when in 1969 he stumbled upon the Winning role, a racing pic. Not that he gave up on Hollywood, no matter how bored with acting he might have been. He turned in The Sting with Redford again played everything from a drunken lawyer in The Verdict, to a court critic in Absence of Malice. Both of which got Oscar nominations. But his fascination for racing seemed to be overtaking him.
And he proved to be no hobbyist. Although Hollywood actors are not unknown in the pits, it often seems little more than trackside posturing. The grease is quick to come off. But with Newman, he seemed truly taken. His team placed fifth at Daytona in 1977 and took second at Le Mans in 1979. "Racing is the best way I know to get away from all the rubbish of Hollywood," he once said.
Newman was a reluctant player, anyway, preferring Connecticut over California and, above all, preferring his wife of 50 years, actress Joanne Woodward, over anybody. Not that he could totally enforce normalcy. His activism earned him a spot on Richard Nixon's enemies list, of which he was extremely proud. But tragically,in 1978, his son Scott died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium. That event triggered a foundation to finance the production of anti-drug films.
Nor, rubbish or not, did he ever completely turn his back on Hollywood. And he attracted new audiences, with new screen partners. He finally got his Oscar win with a role alongside Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, a reprise of his 1961 film, The Hustler. He was also paired with the Tom Hanks in The Road to Perdition, another Oscar nomination. And he wasn't afraid to stretch as he aged, playing against his once-youthful type as the curmudgeon in Empire Falls (though an entirely different generation may know him for his voice-over in the animated Cars).
It made for an astonishing career, in its depth and breadth, but did not amount to a complete life, apparently. His work with Newman's Own (its slogan: Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good) took more and more of his time, and so did his racing career. He was not just an owner, after all, but an actual driver. He won seven national SCCA amateur races and a pair of Trans-Am races and finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He was in the cockpit in 1995 when his team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a 24-hour endurance race. At 70, he was the oldest driver to win the event.
He never truly stopped, though he did slow down some. By the time he turned 80, he was still turning laps in races, but not as quickly as wanted. "I'm running out of steam," he admitted at one point, but insisted he intended to remain involved "as long as I'm competitive." It's interesting that, by the time he made that comment, he had retired from acting.
Of course Newman's legacy remains his films and his philanthropy. The body of work, and the good it allowed him to do, will serve his name well for many years to come. Those movies truly were classics and the popcorn was good enough. But you also have to cock your visor to acknowledge a man unafraid to test a few limits, explore comfort zones, to rub a small sports car against a bale of hay. To have a little fun.