Ethan Hawke’s new six-part documentary calls them The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max, July 21). Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were certainly the height of Hollywood royalty, with award-winning careers, a 50-year marriage and more than a dozen films in which they were featured together. Here are seven things we learned — and love — about the couple.
1. They were grownups when they met
When Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward first met, in 1953, in a production of Picnic on Broadway, he was already married with a family. They wouldn’t work together again until they played opposite one another in the film The Long, Hot Summer in 1957. They married early the following year and soon moved their family well outside the Hollywood bubble to Connecticut.
2. She was the bigger star of the two at first
Woodward won the intra-marriage Oscar derby, earning the Academy Award in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve — she had sewn her own dress especially for the ceremony. He was nominated seven times (and lost) before he finally picked up a competitive Oscar more than 30 years later for 1986’s The Color of Money, in which he reprised his role from 1961’s The Hustler. When the prize finally came, he was not in attendance to accept it.
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3. And his celebrity came in the wake of tragedy
The biggest boost to Newman’s early career may have been the premature death of fellow Method actor James Dean. They often auditioned for the same roles, which Dean usually won. But after Dean was killed in a 1955 car crash, Newman was asked to take his role as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, whose release the following year led to a string of triumphs in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hud and The Hustler.
4. They managed two big careers while valuing family
As Newman’s star rose, she retreated to raise the growing family, though she picked up some juicy roles (and some Emmys) in several TV productions over the years. One was for portraying a woman with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1985 film Do You Remember Love. Woodward herself was diagnosed with the disease in 2007.
5. They had a real marriage with ups and downs
Once in an interview, Newman shot down rumors of any marital infidelity by saying, “I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?” Rather than being reassured, Woodward was furious about being compared to meat, saying: “Every time I hear that line, I want to burst.” While they were often depicted as the perfect couple — a rarity among Hollywood stars — there were some struggles over their half century together.
6. They kept up their own hobbies (but worked together a lot)
Newman famously took up race car driving; Woodward would knit while being interviewed on TV. But they costarred in 16 films together; he directed her in four others. Their last time on the big screen together was the 1990 James Ivory film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, about a traditional couple living in Kansas City in the 1930s and ’40s, though they both appeared in the 2005 HBO miniseries Empire Falls. Newman died in 2008, at 83.
7. Philanthropy was a shared passion
Philanthropy played a large role in their lives, especially after losing a son to a drug overdose in 1978. Though some poked fun at the food company that he started as a lark, it has raised millions of dollars to help fund his worldwide Hole in the Wall camps for children with critical diseases, named after a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid locale. Today, younger generations might know his face only from labels of popcorn, salad dressing and tomato sauce for Newman’s Own.
Roger Catlin, the longtime Hartford Courant TV critic, writes about arts and pop culture for The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, TV Guide, AARP, Salon and TV Worth Watching.