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Newman, Paul 3

Newman was different, which made him great

From the Oct. 3 2008, Deseret News

Hud is gone. Cool Hand Luke. Harper. Hombre. Butch Cassidy.

Fast Eddie ("The Hustler," "The Color of Money"), Henry Gondorff ("The Sting"), Frank Galvin ("The Verdict") ... and so many more.

Few movie stars sustain five-decade careers like the one Paul Newman had. He was an icon of what we might call the second Golden Wave of the movies. And, as has been well-chronicled elsewhere, a respected and generous entrepreneur.

Newman came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s — at the end of the studio era, when so many earlier iconic stars were hitting middle age and such young turks as Brando, McQueen, Clift, Heston, Poitier and Dean were on the rise.

But Newman was different. He was so good-looking, with those piercing blue eyes, that we found ourselves drawn to him no matter how anti his anti-hero characters were. And the 1960s' "I couldn't care less about anything" leading man was his stock in trade.

When he started his climb, I was pretty young — too young to appreciate "Somebody Up There Likes Me" or "The Long, Hot Summer" or "The Left Handed Gun" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or "Exodus" in their initial runs.

But when I was 14 and saw "The Hustler," I knew this was a guy to reckon with. My reaction was no different from other movie fans around the world. That was the movie that pushed Newman to superstar status. And he never came down.

Watching Newman play Fast Eddie Felson — a cocky, small-time hustler who is put in his place on the pool-playing circuit by Jackie Gleason but is ultimately undone by his own lack of a moral center — made me wonder why I liked him so much as this less-than-pleasant guy. It's a notion that was really tested two years later when Newman starred as "Hud," a modern western in which he played the title character, an unredeemable cad.

But, of course, he could also be a charming rogue as the L.A. private eye "Harper" (repeated in "The Drowning Pool") or an object of racism in "Hombre" or the ultimate nonconformist in "Cool Hand Luke" or the dopey cowboy that was "Butch Cassidy" or the burned-out con man of "The Sting."

After a few stumbles, Newman's career was rejuvenated in the early 1980s with "Absence of Malice" — and especially "The Verdict," which is one of his finest roles, as an alcoholic lawyer who gets a medical malpractice case because he's on the skids and the opposition thinks he'll blow it. Instead, he finds redemption.

He had become an even better actor in his 50s and many fine roles followed, including his Oscar-winner, "The Color of Money" (playing an older Fast Eddie).

I interviewed Newman a few times in the '80s and always found him thoughtful and deliberate, charming and gracious. And with a great sense of humor, as when he described being accosted by female fans:

"There is nothing that is designed to make somebody feel more like a piece of meat than some chick coming up and saying, 'Take off your dark glasses 'cause we want to take a look at your baby blues.' ... I said to one lady, 'Sure, I'll take the dark glasses off, if you'll let me inspect your gums."'

Thankfully, most of his best work is on DVD, so remember him with a Newman marathon this weekend. You won't be sorry.