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Paul Newman's Luck

He says he owes his good fortune to great genes, but Paul Newman has overcome a distant dad, too much booze, and the death of his son to remain a superstar at, yes, 80

With obvious relish, he can't resist telling a bedroom tale."Joanne fell out of bed the other night and broke her collarbone. As she lay on the ground, I said to her, 'I'm not going to listen to any more complaining about my racing!' " He'll quit driving competitively, he adds, "when I embarrass myself."

Despite their occasional differences of opinion, the Newman-Woodward marriage has lasted, Paul says, because of "great impatience tempered by patience. When you have been together this long, sometimes you drive each other nuts, but underneath that is some core of affection and respect."

Of all his endeavors, Newman takes the greatest pride in the huge success of Newman's Own, the salad dressing-popcorn-spaghetti sauce empire he established with his friend, writer A. E. Hotchner, in 1982. The company now boasts 80 products, and Newman has donated $175 million in profits to charity. It embarrasses him to see his face on the bottles, but it has been worth it to finance the Hole In The Wall Gang summer camps for children with life-threatening diseases. Every year celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg perform at an annual fundraiser at the Connecticut camp. Somewhere in the archives are tapes of Newman vamping it up in drag with big artificial breasts and pigtails, more outrageous than his film fans could ever imagine the way-cool star. "The kids get a chance to reawaken their childhoods and raise a little hell," he says. "I hope that the camps last longer than the legacy of my films."

That's why he's agreed to appear today on The Jane Pauley Show—to discuss the Hole In The Wall Gang camps with some of the kids who are eager to share their experiences. On camera, Newman is reserved and polite, with a dry wit and an unhurried sense of timing. He describes how Newman's Own was born of his own finicky tastes. At restaurants he used to take his salad into the bathroom, wash off the dressing, and ask for olive oil, red-wine vinegar, and mustard to make his own. He personally makes sure that all the products are made with fresh ingredients, that they taste good—"I have a sensitive palate"—and that they're marketed with a sense of humor. "Once you've seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it's hard to take yourself seriously," he says.

Pauley tells Newman that he's a great man—a remark that causes him to look down at the floor uncomfortably. As is his habit, he dismisses praise for his accomplishments and good works by chalking them up to "Newman's luck"; his oft-stated conviction is that his many blessings emanate from his genetic good fortune. "Genes allow us to have good inductive reasoning, to look a certain way and grow a certain way, to have strong bones. I think that 98 percent of that is luck, and to take any credit for that is difficult and hard to support."

Offstage later, the interns and NBC staffers in the green room tell Newman the show was a big hit. "I always feel like such a monosyllabic slug," he says. As he boards the elevator, he's joined by a young disabled girl in a motorized chair and her mother. The mom looks startled when she looks up and realizes who is standing next to her. She appears to muster her courage, then says, her voice quavering with emotion, "I have to take this opportunity to thank you. You have no idea how great the camps are, not only for the kids but the families."

Newman smiles kindly. "You bet," he says softly.

As small as the moment is, it's weighted with feeling. Newman is a man of few words, and he chooses them carefully. "Coming from the Midwest, he embodies an American quality of the last half of the 20th century," says Robert Benton. "Paul is a very morally strong, decisive man. He does not equivocate."

He has worked to strengthen the ties that bind, and these days holds his daughters close. "He's a better listener now, even though he's partially deaf," laughs Nell, who runs the organic division of Newman's Own, when asked how her father has changed with age. "He's now forced to listen."

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