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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.

"He's a great-looking man, but he's always been utterly unpretentious and sane," says his friend Warren Beatty. "It's hard to think of a bad word to say about him…. It's interesting. Maybe I don't know him well enough." He's kidding, of course. Beatty was only 23 and a newcomer in Hollywood when he attended Newman's 35th birthday party in the penthouse of the Chateau Marmont. "It was when Paul and Joanne were an item, before they were married," he recalls. "They were just sensible, intelligent, nice people. I'm making them sound boring, but they weren't."

With their careers taking off, the couple made an effort to stay grounded, settling away from Hollywood in a 1760 stone colonial with a barn converted into a guesthouse in the bucolic environs of Westport, Connecticut. It was there they raised their three daughters, Nell, Melissa, and Clea.

But Newman's life has not been the fairy tale some people imagine. He admits that in his younger years he indulged in enough scotch and cigarettes to nearly kill him. (Today he drinks only Budweiser.) Then, in 1978, he lost his son, Scott, to an overdose of drugs and alcohol at a time when father and son were estranged. "In the early part of my parenthood, I didn't pay the proper kind of attention," he says. "There were terrible, terrible misjudgments."

His own father was strict and emotionally distant. Arthur Newman owned a prosperous sporting-goods store in Cleveland and raised his family in affluent Shaker Heights. Second son Paul was smaller, less athletic, and less studious than his older brother, Art Jr. At Kenyon College, he immersed himself in acting after being thrown off the football team for drunken brawling, and he likes to say he graduated "magna cum lager" with a degree in speech. One gets the feeling that Newman has been trying ever since to compensate for his misspent youth, when "I couldn't find a reason to respect myself." The remorse he feels about his relationship with his dad helps explain why he has repeatedly been drawn to father-son relationships in his work. "One of my great regrets in life is that my father never had a chance to see me be successful," Newman says. "He died when he was 57 years old, and he saw me as a ne'er-do-well."

As the years have passed, Newman's great gift to his audience has been to share unflinchingly the sorrows and frayed edges of his twilight years. He could easily have coasted into old age as a leading man emeritus. Instead, he has deepened his craft with vivid performances that keep getting him Oscar nominations (for The Verdict, Nobody's Fool, Road to Perdition) and his only best-actor Oscar, for reprising his role as The Hustler's Eddie Felson in 1986 for Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. In the summer of 2003, Newman returned to Broadway after a 38-year hiatus and earned a Tony nomination for his role as the stage manager in a hit revival of Our Town.

Acting does not define his life, however. Indeed, the older he gets, themore multifaceted his life seems to become as he divides himself among hisroles as husband and father, activist, racecar driver, and entrepreneur."I keep trying to retire from everything, and I discover I've retiredfrom absolutely nothing," he says.

"Paul is an absolutely vital human being who spends his life pushing the envelope," says Robert Benton, who directed him in Nobody's Fool. "Fortunately, that comes with discipline and responsibility and conscience. He lives boldly."

Too boldly, at times, for his wife. Newman has redirected some of his passion into a second career as an amateur racecar driver and the owner of Newman/Haas Racing, a team on the Champ car circuit (a type of Formula 1 racing). Woodward, who has appeared opposite her husband in 11 films and been directed by him in five, including Rachel, Rachel, for which she received an Oscar nomination, rues the day she costarred with him in the Indy-500 flick Winning (1969) and watched him fall in love with the roar of a V-8 engine and the stink of exhaust in the pits. "I was never good at sports," he says, "and I dance like an elephant. Racing was the first time I found grace." He holds a place in the Guinness World Records as the oldest driver to win a professionally sanctioned race.

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."

He also adores his role as Pop-Pop to his two grandsons, the children of his fourth daughter, Melissa. The family lives just a couple hundred yards from the Newman-Woodward homestead. "We've shrunk the umbilical cord to about 400 feet," says Newman. "It's hard with Joanne working"—he's proud of his wife's great success as the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse—"but we are lucky in that we see much more of them than most grandparents."

There it is again, the luck thing. "My health is good, my knees are good"—he does a couple of deep knee bends to prove it—"and I've got a good lady," Newman says. "So I have nothing to complain about." He pauses, considering whether to amend this thought. "At my age, I ought to be able to complain about something."

In January he invited his whole clan and close friends to Westport to mark his 80th birthday at a classical concert by the Emerson String Quartet, which he had booked two years in advance. The evening's printed program bore this quotation: "Happiness is good health and a bad memory." The after-party in the Newmans' guesthouse was warm and affectionate, although the self-effacing birthday boy could have lived without the laudatory toasts. Nell chose to celebrate her father's long life by reading this passage from Walt Whitman:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people…and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Nell smiles. "Sounds like Pop, doesn't it?"

Veteran Hollywood writer Nancy Griffin is West Coast editor for the magazine.