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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

Anyone who ever lived fast and died young might have slowed down had they known what 80 can look like. Observe, for instance, the startlingly handsome gentleman standing quietly in the corner of an NBC-studio green room in Manhattan. He is minding his own business, oblivious to the female interns, assistants, and producers fluttering like moths around him. Unimpressed with himself, he sips coffee from a paper cup and avoids the glazed donuts no one else can resist. The legendary actor is silver-haired now, with a discreet hearing aid, but he still has the famous bright-blue eyes, smooth skin, and a well-defined single chin. His five-foot-nine frame is fit and firm beneath at weedy pullover, button-down shirt, and chocolate-brown slacks: a daily gym routine has helped him retain the trim abs men half his age can't remember ever having. If 50 is the new 30 for some women, 80—at least in the incarnation of Paul Leonard Newman—is the new 60. No, wait; make that 55.

Perversely, the sexiest-octogenarian-alive image is one that Newman delights in shredding to bits. Case in point: the elegant man waiting patiently to be interviewed by Jane Pauley bears no likeness to the scuzzy old man in a grimy gray sweatshirt who could be seen skulking around Skowhegan, Maine, two summers ago. Back then, Newman took pride in the fact that local residents failed to recognize him on location shooting HBO's adaptation of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls. "He thinned his hair and rubbed food on his clothes and kept putting irritants in his eyes to make them look rheumy and red," recalls Fred Schepisi, who directed an ensemble cast that includes Ed Harris, Robin Wright Penn, Theresa Russell, Estelle Parsons, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, and Joanne Woodward, Newman's real-life leading lady for the past 47 years. "One day he came up to me and said, 'Look, I have a busted vein in my eye! I hope it lasts!' Another time he was happy he had a pimple: 'This is good!' "Schepisi laughs. "Playing Max gave Paul a chance to be flamboyant."

The story, set in a decaying mill town, revolves around Miles Roby (Harris), the proprietor of the Empire Falls diner; his father, Max, is an opportunistic rake. "The larceny of that character is so sweet," says Newman, who hired himself to play Max when he bought the rights to produce the film."It's nice to look absolutely wretched. I grew a beard—and I don't have the most forceful beard you've ever seen."

So attached was he to the facial hair, in fact, that he was loathe to part with it—despite some not-so-subtle encouragement from his wife. When the filming was finished, Joanne asked her husband, "Are you gonna get rid of that thing?"

"Nah," he replied.

"Well," shot back Joanne, who plays the town's evil matriarch in the miniseries, "why don't you just shave off the homeless part?"

It was Woodward's steel-trap intelligence that drew Newman to her in the first place. A Yale drama-school dropout who studied at the Actors Studio in New York alongside James Dean and Marlon Brando, the then-aspiring actor met his future wife in 1953 when they were working on a Broadway production of Picnic. (He had a part; she was an understudy.) The two bonded over their love of theater and literature. Newman eventually divorced his first wife, the former Jackie Witte, with whom he had a son and two daughters, and married Woodward in Las Vegas in January 1958. As a wedding gift, he added to her collection of sherry glasses a silver cup inscribed, "So you wound up with Apollo/If he's sometimes hard to swallow/Use this."

'One of my great regrets is that my father never got to see me be successful. He died when he was 57 years old, and he saw me as a ne’er-do-well.'

That same year they costarred in The Long, Hot Summer, and Woodward won an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. Newman, never shy about acting with his shirt off, quickly became the quintessence of masculine magnetism in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting.

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