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Basic Biittner: Cool Hand Icon

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A truly gifted, loved and remarkable man left us recently. Paul Newman was many things to many people throughout his 83 years on this Earth. He was first and foremost one of the last true movie "stars" in Hollywood, though by all accounts he abhorred that image of himself. He was actually married to an actress, Joanne Woodward, and their marriage defied other "Hollywood marriages," lasting 50 years. Despite his movie star status, Newman was often described in such terms as "down-to-Earth," and he established several other 'careers' over the past 30-plus years. He had a passion for racing cars and became a successful driver and owner. One of his last movie "appearances" was as the voice of a Hudson Hornet automobile in Disney-Pixar Animation's hit film, "Cars."

Newman also liked fooling around with cooking and he and his friend and neighbor, author A.E. Hotchner, developed a product line of foods, "Newman's Own," including popcorn and salad dressings. They have sold hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of their Newman's Own products, and the profits have always gone to a variety of charities, most notably Newman's "Hole in the Wall Gang," a charity benefiting terminally ill children.

In addition to being able to establish and maintain a long-term marriage and business, Newman was also the kind of guy who maintained several close friendships over a period of decades. Included among these friendships were ones with writer Hotcher; Westport, Conn. neighbor Martha Stewart and actor/director/environmentalist/political activist Robert Redford.

Redford and Newman, of course, made two classic films together, then spent more than 30 years trying to come up with another film project that would be able to meet or exceed their early efforts, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." Not surprisingly, they never did, and they were wise enough to not make "just any film," even though it probably would have been another box office success.

Despite the passage of nearly 40 years since its release, "Butch Cassidy" remains my all-time favorite movie. - the writing of William Goldman and the wonderful comic exchanges between Newman and Redford remain timeless.

Despite his successful interests away from the movie business, Paul Newman will forever be remembered for his movies, and that's probably as it should be. The man displayed considerable talent at his chosen craft, as evidenced by ten Academy Award nominations for either Best Actor (9) or Best Supporting Actor (1), including a win for the 1986 film "The Color of Money," in which he reprised a character -- 'Fast' Eddie Felson - whom he had been previously portrayed as a younger man in 1961's "The Hustler," a performance which also brought him an Oscar nomination.

My other favorite Newman performances include "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," "Hud." "The Prize," "Cool Hand Luke," "The Sting," "Slap Shot," "The Verdict, and "The Hudsucker Proxy."

Though many of the characters he portrayed were so-called "anti-heroes," Newman's last Academy Award nominated performance - for 2002's "The Road to Perdition -" brought us his only real portrayal of a truly nasty, unlikable character.

Newman is one of only five actors to have been nominated for an Oscar in five different decades - joining Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine in that elite group.

The word "icon," which the dictionary defines as "someone widely and uncritically admired, especially somebody symbolizing a movement or field of activity" is frequently overused these days. In the case of Paul Newman, I think the term fits.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner